Brunei Darussalam: Calming Down After The Earlier Excitement


AVM Horton

After the excitement of the royal wedding and the revival of the Legislative Council in September, as well as booming international hydrocarbon prices, the sultanate settled down to a more routine fourth quarter.

The international price of oil, soaring above the level of US$50 per barrel in October 2004, had dipped below US$40 in early December, before recovering somewhat. On 6 October, the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company (BSPC) announced an oil strike two miles offshore in the Seria North Flank zone. There are perhaps twenty similar structures in the neighbourhood; so, should this initial success be replicated, Shell could be left anticipating total recoverable oil of up to one hundred million barrels. In late September, two petrochemical projects involving international consortia were announced at the industrial site which is being developed at Sungai Liang in Belait District: one of these proposals involved the investment of US$600 million for an ammonia/urea factory, whilst the other was for a methanol plant.

The disciplines of the Fasting Month (October-November) were followed by joys of the Hari Raya festival (the approximate Islamic equivalent of Christmas), when the royal family played host during three days to nearly ninety-seven thousand visitors to the Istana Nurul Iman (compared to only seventy-four thousand at the same time last year). The annual pilgrimage season to Mecca was due to follow in late December-early January; more than one thousand Bruneians were planning to participate (GBOW ON, 6.12.2004; 14.12.2004). HM the Sultan and HRH the Pengiran Perdana Wazir had actually been in Arabia performing the umrah when news broke of the demise of President Arafat. The two NBD royal brothers attended the funeral in Cairo. According to the Borneo Bulletin the deceased 'will be fondly remembered by Bruneians as the leader and hero of the Palestinians and their struggle for an independent state. Many Bruneians had the chance to meet him when he made a short trip to Bandar Seri Begawan twenty years ago' (BBO, 12.11.2004, citing Radio-Televisyen Brunei).

One notable absentee from the Hari Raya celebrations was HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the former Minister of Finance (1986-97) who continued as Chairman of the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) until July 1998. According to a detailed (but not entirely accurate) report published in the London Sunday Times on 21 November, there has been a recrudescence of the royal feud in the sultanate. After a long absence, Prince Jefri had re-appeared in public in NBD in late 2003; he was present at the National Day celebrations in February 2004 (BBO, 24.2.2004), at the wedding of Prince Abdul Wadood Bolkiah (his nephew) and Dayangku Aminah in April (BBSO, 18.4.2004 and BBO, 19.4.2004), and at the departure of HM the Sultan on a State Visit to Pakistan in mid-May (BBO, 19.5.2004), but he was not among His Majesty's entourage during the trip to Ukraine in June and did not attend the monarch's birthday parties in July. Therefore, the dispute appears to have reached crisis point some time around May-June. In October it was reported that the BIA was suing Prince Jefri in BSB to enforce the out-of-court settlement of 12 May 2000; a hearing behind closed doors was expected to commence in NBD on 29 November. (Nothing further had been reported as at 17 December). Legal actions are also said to be pending in the USA. Among other things, the parties are contesting ownership of the Palace Hotel in New York and the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles. Prince Jefri has appointed a prominent firm of US lawyers to present his case. According to The Sunday Times His Royal Highness had 'had enough of being made a scapegoat' and 'intended to clear his name'. The article also suggests that the recent revival of the Legislative Council might have been the result of pressure from Washington 'which has been encouraging the fostering of democracy in Asian Muslim countries as a means of combating terrorism'. The date for the promised elections has still not been set. Meanwhile, a senior member of the royal family, YAM Pengiran Maharaja Lela Sahibul Kahar Mohd Yusof (1948-2004), died on 13 December. He was 'brother' to Her Majesty the Raja Isteri; 'husband' to the sultan's sister (HRH Princess Norain); and 'brother-in-law' to Prince Jefri, who was not reported to have attended at the funeral (BBO 15.12.2004).

If conflict was creating instability at the top level of society, there was a persistence of problems lower down the social ladder. Concern was being expressed about smoking, drug-taking, domestic violence, and child abuse. On 4 June 2004, the sultanate signed an international convention on tobacco control. All government premises in the country had been declared 'no-smoking zones' ten years earlier and the rule would now be enforced much more rigorously than had been customary hitherto. Work was being done on a 'Tobacco Control Order'. The Ministry of Health also launched a national campaign in June, 'Thirty Days Without Cigarettes', designed to promote awareness of the dangers of smoking. A report in November claimed that smoking was the main cause of death in the sultanate.

Drug abuse was also on the rise. Methamphetamine ('ice'), known locally as syabu, was first detected in NBD in 1993. By 1996 it had gained in popularity and it remains the most prevalent drug of choice. The quantity confiscated in the first nine months of 2004 had already exceeded the total amount seized in both 2002 and 2003 (BBO, 10.11.2004). This is despite the fact that possession of more than fifty grammes of syabu for the purpose of trafficking carries the death penalty. On 30 November even a member of a law enforcement agency in an outlying district had to be arrested on narcotics charges.

In January 2004, public attention had been drawn to the problem of domestic violence, whilst in November, the Attorney General's Chamber 'put forth plans to enforce a domestic violence act'. The statistics given appear to be contradictory (the worst scenario would be the 102 reported cases of 'wife abuse' in 2003) and it is not at all clear whether matters are deteriorating or getting better. The Women's Council had provided counselling to victims and had helped them to initiate income-generating projects; but this venture had proved unsustainable because of lack of support and skilled manpower. Other difficulties affecting women included 'the plight of sole housewives due to divorce or death, husbands failing to provide expenses to their current or ex-wives, inability to find shelter, difficulties that arise when a woman is married to a foreigner, prostitution, self-dependent housewives, and non-Bruneian converts marrying local Bruneians' (BBO, 26.11.2004). Another social issue was child abuse, but here again the statistics are confusing. According to one set of figures, 'twenty-eight cases of violations against family members' had been recorded 'from 1998' (BBO, 27.11.2004).

It is possible, in any case, that these worries about 'social problems' merely reflect the high standards of behaviour expected in the sultanate. And, on a more positive note, according to UNESCO, NBD has the highest adult literacy rate in East Asia at 93.9 per cent, with a 'Gender Parity Index' of 0.95 per cent (BBO, 9.11.2004).

It might be mentioned, finally, that in mid-September 2004 the existence of a dormant political party was revealed. The Parti Kesedaran Rakyat (PAKAR) - literally People's Consciousness Party (with pakar meaning 'expert' or 'specialist') - founded on 9 May 2000, was threatened with de-registration because of alleged failure 'to submit required information to the Registrar of Societies'. The said 'required information' included the names and addresses of the leadership, the names of registered party members, and minutes of any congresses and annual general meetings. The Vice-President of PAKAR, one Haji Zaide Damit, stated that PAKAR fully supported MIB and was 'not an opposition party'; he 'appealed to all members to contact him so that they could determine the party's future' (BBO, 15.9.2004). Such a meeting was duly held in the wake of the revival of the Legislative Council (BBO, 23.10.2004); but nothing further has been reported subsequently.

Source material: This article draws upon news sources such as Borneo Bulletin online (BBO), Borneo Bulletin Sunday online (BBSO); Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website: Online News (GBOW ON), Pelita Brunei, and Sunday Times (London).

WATCHPOINT: The reported social problems and the measures taken to combat them provide a window on trends at the grassroots level.


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