Brunei, a nation-state of emergency, luxury and fantasy

by AFP/Karl Malakunas , Mar 1, 2004 | Destinations: Brunei / Bandar Seri Begawan

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Feb 29, 2004 - It seems extraordinary bordering on the bizarre that one of the wealthiest and most peaceful nations in Asia can promote itself as a haven of political stability while enduring its 42nd year under a state of emergency. But then most things in Brunei, an Islamic sultanate of just 350,000 people blessed with deep oil and gas reserves on Southeast Asia's Borneo island, leave visitors feeling as if they have entered a fantasy world. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has used the nation's fossil fuels to fund a life of near unimaginable luxury for himself and his extended family since taking power from his father 37 years ago.

Bolkiah, 57, is one of the world's richest men, lives in a palace with more than 1,700 rooms and reportedly has a private collection of more than 150 Rolls Royces. Brunei's mosques are among the most impressive and expensive in Asia, with 24-carat gold-plated minarets, Italian marble columns and diamonds encrusted into the welcoming signs on some of the gates. The excesses of the royal family made world headlines in the 1990s when the sultan reined in one of his younger brothers, Prince Jefri, after he blew more than 15 billion US dollars through reckless investments and a famous globe-trotting, playboy lifestyle.

But aside from losing his ministerial portfolio, Jefri received little more than a wrap on the knuckles and, after a short period of exile away from the public's eye, is back appearing at national ceremonies and events. "He's part of the family. Of course, he's been forgiven," a government official told AFP when asked about Jefri.

But Brunei's ruling family has also undoubtedly passed on much wealth to its citizens, who rank among the most educated, wealthy and healthy people in Asia. Bruneian women have a life expectancy rate of nearly 78 and men 75, national literacy levels are above 92 percent and per capita gross domestic product is a comfortable 21,800 Brunei dollars (12,500 US dollars). "We do have poverty in Brunei (but) in the Brunei context. It may be middle class in other countries, I don't know," Education Minister Abdul Aziz told foreign reporters who were in Brunei recently on a state-sponsored visit. The relative comfort and wealth Bruneians enjoy comes from policies such as no income tax, free education and health care, cheap housing, old age pensions and a relatively pollution-free environment.

A multi-million-dollar amusement park that costs just 15 Brunei dollars (8.90 US dollars) to get in and offers state-of-the-art rides such as a double corkscrew roller coaster gives a more glitzy account of the nation's riches. But while many Bruneians can afford to share the sultan's fetish for fine cars, statistics and policies that point towards an economic utopia can be misleading. Unemployment is on the rise, national wealth is shrinking as the global energy sector becomes increasingly competitive and government leaders worry that Brunei's workforce is too complacent to face the challenges of globalisation.

And although the government exudes supreme confidence publicly that its citizens have no wish for civil liberties such as democracy and a free press, the state of emergency laws suggest otherwise. Bolkiah's father invoked the state of emergency in 1962 when British forces helped him quell a rebellion by an opposition group angry at being denied seats it had won in the newly established parliament. The state of emergency suspended many of the rights forged in its 1959 constitution, such as a having a partially elected parliament, with Brunei struggling then like other countries in the region against communism.

But Brunei long ago shed itself of any external threat, as everyone from local businessmen looking to woo foreign investors right up to Bolkiah repeatedly stress. "All citizens of the world seek peace, which we possess now," Bolkiah said in his National Day speech on February 22.

"All citizens of the world covet prosperity, which we here are enjoying. All citizens of the world want to be free from suffering due to chaos or instability, a suffering from which we here are free."

When asked why the state of emergency is still in place amid such peaceful, prosperous times, government officials rarely give a direct response. "We don't feel it here. Sometimes we don't even talk about it. Life is so normal," Education Minister Aziz, one of the government's four most senior figures, said.

"With my prejudice, I feel we have more freedom of speech than in some countries. Life goes on as usual. We have gatherings, we have concerts, we celebrate Valentine's Day, New Year with no restrictions. "Bruneians don't seem to be attracted to such political life. Life is such that almost everyone is taken care of."

A government official close to the Sultan, who did not want to be named, echoed Aziz's statement. But when pressed as to why state of emergency powers such as curfews and bans on groups of people meeting were needed if the government did not use them anymore, the official responded: "Maybe as a precautionary measure". "In case there are things such as terrorism or things that affect our stability," he said.

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