Brunei – A huge leap backwards?

Brunei is on the northwest edge of Borneo Island which is also part of Indonesia and Malaysia in the South China Sea. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product per capita at purchasing power parity. The IMF estimated in 2011 that Brunei was one of two countries with a public debt at 0% of the national GDP.



In October Tuesday 22nd  2013 many people and especially Human Right Watch were closely looking and listening to the announcement of Hassanal Bolkiah Sultan and Prime Minister of Brunei. He will ruling his oil-rich Islamic country according to Sharia laws which includes death by stoning for adultery, the amputations of limbs for theft, flogging for alcohol consumption and abortion, and other punishments. But in the case of Brunei it is more a kind of re-implementation of Sharia law. The Sultanate implemented it in the 17th century but foreign powers forced them to abandon it. 1 In most cases non-Muslims will not be exempt.  The start of the implementation will be at the beginning of April 2014. By then Brunei will be the only country in the Asia Pacific region to implement strict Sharia-based penal codes on a nationwide scale. At least 20 percent of the population in Brunei is not Muslim and would also fall under the new code and are included in the Sharia law to a certain extend which is not legitimate, due to the fact that those people don’t identify themselves with the Islam and don’t  want to follow Islamic rules and traditions. Furthermore such an implementation is an old and unmodern way of thinking, if you compare it with the Western/Christian world, where the 10 commandments are not used for punishemtn and are not linked to the law; out of a western perception. Is it step backwards or more a steps to protect the Islamic culture within Brunei?  2

But why did the Sultan want to change it all of a sudden? This question is not that easy to answer since there many different opinions about it which are going from the older the Sultan become the stricter are his believes or that the Minister of religious Affairs is playing an important role and influenced the Sultan.

Standing Islamic rules in Brunei have traditionally been more sternly enforced than in Malaysia and Indonesia and were imposed largely through the family courts. Its rules include a ban on alcohol and evangelism by other religions.

Due to the crime and safety report of 2012 which stated that the current crime in Brunei Darussalam is medium, and crimes against expatriates are relatively uncommon. Most crimes that took place were normally non-violent and crimes of opportunity. So crimes are classified as ‘rare’. 3

Actually there are no reasons for such a radical change of law. So, why does the Prime Minister came up with the idea of the implementation of Sharia law? The reason must lie in the strong belief of Islamic religion.

He characterized the move as “part of the great history of our nation” in its 30th year of independence, one that would set the standard for other Islamic countries. 4

Last month the Minister of religious Affairs took an 18-member delegation to Saudi Arabia on a five-day visit to study how the kingdom implements its sharia system, and over recent weeks government officials have been holding workshops for different sectors of society, explaining what they can expect.

“Brunei is showing its feudal characteristics as an 18th-century state rather than an important member of a regional Southeast Asian economic and social consensus in the 21st century” 5

Part of the content of the ‘new code’ besides stoning to death for adultery, flogging for violations such as abortion alcohol consumption, and homosexuality is theft which will be punished by amputation of the right hand, if the property stolen exceeds a specified minimum value, and on the evidence of two credible witnesses apart from the victim.

Moreover, insulting, mocking or denying the teachings of the Qur’an or the hadith (traditions of Mohammed) are offenses carrying punishments including 40 strokes of the cane and imprisonment of up to 30 years.

Furthermore, selling food, drink or tobacco for immediate consumption in a public place during times of Islamic fasting carries a prison term of up to one year and/or a $4,000 fine.

The wearing of “indecent” clothing in public is also forbidden and punishable, but the sharia law/code does not say what punishments are stipulated.

Committing an act of “indecent behavior” (“An act is deemed indecent if it tarnishes the image of Islam, corrupts moral standards, causes negative influence or upsets eyewitnesses.”) in public carries imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of $2,000, or both. Deemed even more serious is the act of encouraging or organizing such behavior in others. That carries a two-year jail term and/or $8,000 fine.

The sultan seems also very serious about the implementation due to the fact that he now does not allow any critics about the implementation of the Sharia law from his own citizen. He also warned dissenters “no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery” and hinted that they could be charged with slander. 6

As pro arguments for the re-implementation of Sharia law in Brunei you can say that the Sultan tries to protect his country by western influences. Perhaps these laws are an indicator to keep and even strengthen the Islamic culture and traditions in Brunei.

As contra arguments you can state that the re-implementation of Sharia law in Brunei is an old and also unmodern step for changes in a country out of the western perception which is based on democratic principles and where theft is punished by jail or punishments where you have to pay a fine instead of losing your right hand. Also foreign investors, which the country needs for further development, can be deterred to invest in Brunei. I do know that Brunei is not democratic at all and even far away to become one, but it is a member of ASEAN. In ASEAN Charter Article 1 Purposes point 7 and Article 2 are democratic values mentioned “to strengthen democracy” and “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedom”. But by the implementation of Sharia law it would be even a huge step backwards from democratic principles, due to the fact that non-Muslims will be negatively affected, since they are included in the re-implementation. Moreover the different kinds of punishments such as stoning to death or amputation can be seen as disregard of Human Rights. 7

At the 1st April 2014, more than 83,000 people in Brunei will robbed by their human rights and could be forced to live their lives after the Sharia law, and have to adjust to the Islam believes and traditions. With the re-implementation of Sharia law relations to other ASEAN member states can be influenced in a negative way, since Brunei is stepping back from certain points of ASEAN charter. In addition to that, foreign investors, which Brunei needs due to the fact that they running out of oil in the coming two decades, could be deterred by the re-implementation. According to these facts which will arise in the very near future I would say that this re-implementation of the Sharia law in Brunei will be a huge leap backwards into the past out of the western viewpoint.

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