Brunei’a official ideology is that of the country being Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay, Islamic Monarchy). The capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, seems to epitomise these characteristics. Brunei is an absolute monarchy. His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam is the head of state, prime minister, minister of defence, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs and trade.
The sultan may say after the King Louis XIV “L’etat, c’est moi”, being accountable to no-one but God. There is no clear separation between his personal finances and those of the state. His personal wealth has been estimated at $20 billion. Brunei’s entire budget for the 2016-17 financial year is B$5.6 billion ($4.1 billion).
Falling revenue from oil and gas resulted in a deficit of B$2.5 billion in the first nine months of 2016-2017. Brunei is said to have oil and gas reserves for another 24 years. It’s a typical rentier state, relying on non-renewable resources and whose future is uncertain as government revenue is derived in 90 per cent from gas and oil exports. Brunei is still very rich, in fact, it is the world’s fourth richest country, at $79,508 GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita (International Monetary Fund, 2015). However, it will almost certainly become progressively poorer if no serious effort is made to diversify its economy. Brunei has close ties with Singapore – its currency is interchangeable with the Singaporean dollar – but it will not become another Singapore because of its cultural and political peculiarities.
The sultan, who has reigned and ruled since 1967, urges his subjects to intensify their devotion to Islam as a solution to their country’s problems. Islam in South-East Asia is mixed with the local cultural customs (adat) but Brunei, in the pursuit of religious purity, seems to be on the path towards Arabisation. The country has a dual legal system, with the common law coexisting with the sharia law. The latter was introduced by the sultan in 2014. It remains to be seen how strict the application of the sharia law will be in practice.
Brunei’s puritanical tendencies are manifested in many aspects of the country’s social life (for example, compulsory attendance at Friday prayers at a mosque for Muslims, a ban on alcohol consumption or the use of the Arabic alphabet as the country’s official script). Linguistically, Brunei is Malay, English and Arabic.
The official name of the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam. Darussalam which means “abode of peace” in Arabic, serves as a reminder that Brunei is part of ummah or the community of all Muslims. Implicitly, the appellation of Dar as-Salam suggests that non-Muslim countries belong to the Dar al-Harb ( the house of war) or the Dar al-Kufr (the realm of unbelievers).
All these distinctions have no bearing on the attitude of Bruneians to tourists who feel safe and welcomed. The ban on alcohol makes Bandar Seri Begawan a quiet place indeed. The town seems to be quiet for other reasons, too. Its centre is occupied by government buildings while people live in outer areas or in water villages on both sides of the Brunei River. The town itself has a population of around 50,000 of which 30,000 live in water villages.
Brunei is supposed to be fabulously rich but many people in Bandar Seri Begawan live in abject poverty, especially in river villages.
Infrastructure is underdeveloped. Public transport is almost non-existent while it is impossible to find a taxi. As in Indonesia and Malaysia, one has to walk carefully in order to avoid falling in a hole in a pavement or into open drains.
When compared with other capital cities, the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan seems to be empty of people and cars. There are no traffic jams and very few pedestrians even in the very centre of the town.
A foreign visitor will leave Bandar Seri Begawan utterly confused. Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries on earth but a large proportion of indigenous inhabitants of its capital city, not to mention immigrant workers, live in poverty.
Bruneians are devout Muslims yet they are very friendly and accommodating towards visitors who do not share their faith or are indeed faithless. The country is both modern and conservative, Malay and Arab-like, with people devoted to religion but also to consumption, and ruled by a monarch who tells his subjects to be humble and yet he himself lives in the world’s largest residential palace.
A departing visitor will be reminded what country (s)he has just visited by seeing a luxury car in a glass box next to a mosque at the entrance to the airport.