Brunei: A sultanate of ironies

A solemn Muslim prayer plays as the plane prepares for departure in the Terminal 1 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. All around us, Muslim passengers bow their head as they pray for the safety of our 2-hour flight.

“This is a foreshadowing of what we’ll see in the country,” I thought to myself as the plane took off.

Two hours after, my friends and I found ourselves in a long line in front of the immigration counter. The newly renovated airport was chilling cold despite the summer heat outside. When my turn came, the immigration officer wearing her hijab and in her late 30s scanned through the pages of my passport.

“Is it your first time here? For work or for a holiday?” she asks smiling. I told her it’s my first time and that I’m visiting my local friends with my Filipino friends.

She happily stamps my passport and remarks, “Welcome to Brunei!”

The Masjid Jame 'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the current sultan in 1994. It's golden domes are a centrepiece of Brunei's Islamic heritage.
The Masjid Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the current sultan in 1994. It’s golden domes are a centrepiece of Brunei’s Islamic heritage.

This is Negara Brunei Darussalam, the last Islamic absolute monarchy in Southeast Asia and one of the last ones in the world, and one of the 3 countries occupying the bountiful island of Borneo. Brunei, of the golden domed mosques and wide right hand side roads, is a country famed for its rich oil reserves and the lavish lifestyle of its royals.

I’ve always been intrigued by this small country, especially when I met my Bruneian friends in Bali and Sarawak in 2012. This trip, in a sense, is the fulfilment of a promise I’ve been trying to carry out for the past 3 years.

Brunei is a mystery and – for some who’ve seen it – a spectacle in Southeast Asia. It’s the second smallest country in the region yet it has the second highest GDP. Its economy tries to constantly be at par with Singapore yet, infrastructure-wise, you’ll see no high rise buildings in the country.

Will they stone LGBTs to death?

“No one really follows the law,” says my friend, tucking her hair in her hijab, “no one’s really been stoned to death.”

Brunei, in 2014, has been the subject of Western criticism since the Sultan implemented the Sharia Law in May that year. The new penal code became infamous especially because of its provision that LGBTs and those committing homosexual acts will be stoned to death. Them, along with rapists and those committing adultery.

Worse, even foreigners can be penalized by such laws.

“The international community thinks we live very strict lives inside Brunei. But since the new law was passed, nothing’s really changed. We still live normally,” another friend added.

There are rumors that some royals and government officials are themselves LGBTs but such rumors in a country like Brunei, where the government controls the media, will never be confirmed. Some Bruneians take these rumors as facts while some cringe at throwing insults to the royal family.

Halal and non-halal parties

“In Brunei, there are two kinds of parties – the halal one and the non-halal one,” says another Bruneian friend of Chinese descent.

While the younger members of the population are more liberal, the older ones still live very conservative lives. Stares still follow Malay girls (or those who look like they’re Malays) not wearing their hijabs in public.

“When we want to get drunk, we go to the border to drink in Malaysia. That, or we import alcohol, rent a room in a hotel and hold a secret party,” my Chinese friend adds.

Foreigners have to fill up a liquor form so they can bring in their alcohol and cigarettes.
Foreigners have to fill up a liquor form so they can bring in their alcohol and cigarettes.

Tourists and non-Muslim Bruneians are allowed to bring up to 12 bottles/ cans of beer and 2 liters of hard liquor into the country for free. Cigarettes have import taxes but tourists can pretty much get away without paying anything if they only bring in one pack.

My Filipino friends and I brought 6 cans of beer each and a bottle of Vodka during our short visit to Brunei. We could not drink these in public so we had our own “non-halal” party in one of our hotel rooms. I asked my Chinese friend if he wanted to join, and having drunk his last bottle of beer months ago, he readily obliged.

This is how our non-halal party went (and how, according to my friends, most non halal parties go): no loud music playing, no wild dancing, only flowing alcohol and conversations about culture and the Bruneian government – a stark contrast to the bright party vibe in nearby Manila, Bangkok, and Singapore.

The Hijab

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is named after the 30th sultan of Brunei.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is named after the 30th sultan of Brunei. It dominates the skyline of Bandar Seri Begawan, as no building is permitted to stand higher than this mosque.

“What is the typical marrying age for Bruneians?” I ask my friend who works for the government.

He laughs. He says it’s about our age – after graduation and finding work – when Brunieans are expected to marry.

“They say you’re selfish,” my friend adds while driving 150kph in the highway, “when you’re already working and you don’t marry because you’re only keeping your money for yourself.”

How do you know when a girl is ready to marry?

The hijab, aside from being a symbol of respect for women in the Muslim world, is also a symbol of maturity in Brunei.

“Some girls don’t wear their hijabs in high school and elementary. But once they reach their college years, everyone starts wearing one. It’s like saying that they’re done with being kids and are now ready to start their families,” my friend says.

Marriage is a financial bond in Brunei. Men are expected to cover the expenses of the week-long celebration. This, aside from offering a sizeable amount to the girl’s family before getting her hand in marriage.

“Our government actually allows marriage loans so men can ask their girlfriends’ hands in marriage even if they don’t have enough savings yet,” said my friend. 

‘We’ll never be royals’

As an absolute monarchy, the Sultan and the royals are in control in almost every aspect of Bruneian life. The highest position a local can hope to occupy is to be one of the ministers of the Sultan.

The Coronation and Silver Jubilee chariot of the sultan displayed in the Royal Regalia Museum in Bandar Seri Begawan.
The Coronation and Silver Jubilee chariot of the sultan displayed in the Royal Regalia Museum in Bandar Seri Begawan.

The royals are the epitomes of irony in the country. While they adapted the strict Shariah law, most of them live luxurious (and others even, promiscuous) lives. While alcohol and partying is banned in the country, some of the younger royals are famous for throwing affluent parties abroad.

The most infamous royal, perhaps, is Prince Jefri, the sultan’s younger brother who had been known for misusing billions of dollars of the country’s funds. He had been the subject of many investigations but in 2009, the prince reportedly allowed back in Brunei. The sultan and his family, after all, technically owns the country.

As we drive pass Gadong area, we see the mansions where the royals live. Some of the houses are far from the luxurious palaces that some people might imagine but they are still bigger compared to the regular Brunei housing.

“You should have visited a week later,” says one of my friends. “One of the princes is getting married. It’s going to be a grand celebration.”

Kampong Ayer, also known as the "Venice of the East."
Kampong Ayer, also known as the “Venice of the East.”

The royal wedding was much anticipated in Brunei. Almost every street had photos of the engaged couple. The week-long festivity will be commemorated with fireworks, grand parades, visiting diplomats, and feasts. During this season, Bruneians aren’t allowed to leave the country “to celebrate with the royals.”

This is one of the freedoms Bruneians have to forego in a country where the Sultan controls most aspects of daily life.

‘Not complaining’

A government housing project.
A government housing project.

Most citizens, however, are not complaining. How can they complain when professionals are not taxed in their work? When students get free education – and those who excel are sent by the government for a discovery year in top universities abroad?

Why will Bruneians complain when the government gives free housing (that are bigger than those in exclusive subdivisions in Manila) to anyone who asks? How can they complain when even their cars are subsidized?

“It’s not really a problem, all those rules. The Sultan is good to us and he gives the people what they need,” said my friend who was sent by the government to a school in London.

The mosques in Brunei are the best I’ve seen in the region, a symbol of the sultan’s elegance and the people’s devotion to the religion. Every village also has its own beautiful mosque – everything is provided for for a sincere practice of Islam.

The many conversations we’ve had with our Bruneian friends made us compare the ways of life in the Philippines and in Brunei. Would we rather live in a country with so many restrictions but with everything provided for or a country with “so much freedom” but very little benefits for hard work?

The Serasa Ferry Terminal is located in the country's industrial area.
The Serasa Ferry Terminal is located in the country’s industrial area.

After 2 days in Brunei, we were dropped off by our friend at Serasa Ferry Terminal to go to Kota Kinabalu. On the way to the terminal, we pass by the country’s renowned oil fields and see the industrial side of Brunei which is so different from the simplicity of life in the sleepy capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.

We get our Brunei exit stamps and board the ferry to Labuan island, Malaysia. I take one last look at the ferry terminal of Brunei, astonished at the alluring way of life in the country I just visited.

I look at my luggage and realized that I didn’t finish all the beer I brought.

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