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The people of Brunei saw something highly unusual on their TV sets at the end of the Asia Pacific summit in November. Their leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the man who has ruled Brunei since 1967, was asked a hard question in public.
In fact, it was apparently the first press conference the Sultan had faced in his entire rule.
One of APEC’s intriguing effects is the way it forces Asian leaders to embrace new agendas. Suharto for example ran Indonesia as a corrupt elite franchise, but in APEC he embraced free trade. Brunei’s Sultan is the 29th in his line, and heads the Malay Muslim Monarchy.
When Suharto chaired APEC at Bogor in 1994, his role as chairman meant the Indonesian President had to front a unique press conference and deflect a question from an American journalist about East Timor. For the Sultan, the hardest question was about the disastrous business activities of his brother, Prince Jefri, who has lost an estimated US$15 billion in strange business dealings.
The Monarch says his people don’t need a vote because they have a voice – if any problems arise, they use that voice to ask the Sultan for a remedy. But as chair of APEC, the Sultan proclaimed the need to bridge the Internet ‘digital divide’ between developed and developing states, and endorsed the benefits of trade liberalisation and globalisation: ‘With our differing level of economic development, and our vast cultural diversity, we all agree that APEC is in the unique position to seize this historic opportunity to send a strong signal to the rest of the world that globalisation can and must benefit us all.’ The Sultan’s press conference started gently. The first two questions were ‘set-ups’ about APEC’s achievements and Brunei’s potential. The Sultan was able to read out scripted answers to them in English. But then the conference entered the realms of the unscripted and the Sultan began muttering answers in Malay, which were relayed to the room in English by an aide. A couple of questions from foreign media about the new WTO round and world oil prices elicited bland answers, blandly interpreted.
Then came the question from Business Week magazine which galvanised the attention of Brunei’s citizens watching the live broadcast.
Question: ‘The APEC summit discussions have covered, among other things, debt restructuring in the region. In order to set an example for other APEC member economies, would you care to explain how Brunei Darussalam has restructured the debts of the Amedeo group and the progress you have made in liquidating the assets of the Amedeo group?’ Answer: ‘His Majesty says the problems related to the collapse of Amedeo are being sorted out through the legal process, and some settlement has been reached. But there is still more to be done. And this is, as was said, being done through the legal process. The matter is the subject of discussion. And what we are more concerned about is how to progress into the future while trying to solve problems arising from the matter you have just raised.’ This answer, equally bland, was nevertheless more than Brunei has previously been told publicly by its Sultan about the failure of Prince Jefri’s Amedeo Holdings, which collapsed in 1998. Prince Jefri resigned as Finance Minister in 1997. He was relieved of his post as the head of Brunei Investment Agency in 1998.
Jefri’s habit of flying in beautiful young ladies from around the world has been contained. During APEC, the compound of 40 mansions where Jefri maintained his bimbos was used to accommodate visiting Foreign and Trade Ministers. In October, Jefri joined the Sultan in a polo match. It was seen as a signal that the war in the royal ranks over Jefri’s profligacy is being mended. The royal rift has meant that the Borneo Bulletin (owned by another brother, the Foreign Minister, Prince Mohammed?) has reached the limit of its relative freedom to report many of the details of how Jefri drained the country’s reserves of billions. Prince Jefri now apparently has to subsist on an allowance of US$500,000 a month.
WATCHPOINT: Is Brunei an asset or a liability for APEC?
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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.
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