Golden mosques and Arabic signs greet visitors stepping into the tiny nation of Brunei
Brunei has become the focus of global attention for its decision to impose harsh Islamic punishments for offences such as adultery and sodomy – but in the country itself there is silence, as the BBC’s Jonathan Head reports.
At first glance you could be in Singapore. The roads are smooth and well maintained, the city carefully landscaped with plenty of trees and space for pedestrians.
Bandar Seri Bagawan – the capital city of Brunei – is safe, orderly and very quiet.
It is the conspicuous domes of the mosques, some dazzlingly gilded, the large signs in Arabic script and the prominent pictures showing the bearded figure of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah that tell you this is Brunei.
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The country is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world. The sultan has complete executive power, unconstrained by politicians or parliament.
He is concurrently Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, Finance Minister and the head of Islam in Brunei. His word is law.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has complete power in Brunei
Moving closer to religion
A British colony and then protectorate until 1984, at independence the sultan proclaimed the concept of a Malay Muslim monarchy.
This is instilled now in Bruneians as the national philosophy, and described by the government as “a blend of Malay language, culture and Malay customs, the teaching of Islamic laws and values and the monarchy system, which must be esteemed and practiced by all”.
No room for dissent there, even though not all Bruneians are ethnic Malays and at 80% of the population the country has proportionally fewer Muslims than pluralistic Indonesia.
Brunei was a British colony until its independence in 1984
Since independence the sultan has pushed Brunei towards an ever-stricter observance of Islamic precepts.
Dominik Mueller is an expert on Islam in South East Asia at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, and one of the very few academics to have studied Brunei closely.
“The sultan has increasingly turned to religion over the past three decades, especially since his first pilgrimage to Mecca in 1987. He has repeatedly stressed the obligation from Allah to introduce the Sharia penal code, and the blessings this would bring, in this world and the afterlife,” he told the BBC.
“This mirrors the State Mufti’s narrative. The influence of the Islamic bureaucracy cannot be overstated. Its leaders have long told the monarch and the public that Brunei must completely enforce God’s law, as they interpret it.”
The sultan has pushed Brunei towards an ever-stricter observance of Islamic precepts
Mr Mueller added that while the sultan “may have become personally convinced by this, he may also see the political need to ensure the continued support of the Islamic establishment, while heading off potential Islamic opposition that might question the monarchy’s legitimacy.”
Brunei has allowed no opposition and almost no independent civil society to exist since independence. It is still ruled under a state of emergency declared in 1962, which tightly restricts freedom of assembly and expression.
Media cannot report freely and those deemed to have infringed official limits can be shut down, as happened to the Brunei Times in 2016. There are several laws, notably the sweeping Sedition Law, which can be used against government critics.
That makes it difficult for visiting journalists. People are naturally hospitable and helpful. But we were unable to persuade anyone to speak on the record about the new Sharia penal code.
Most were too nervous even to meet a BBC team, however discreetly. The government did not respond to several requests for comment.
‘Life is as normal as normal gets’
One group of devout Muslims we met, in the beautiful Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, said only those in authority – as they put it – were allowed to speak about such matters.
We did chat on social media with a gay woman we will call Sarah. And we met a gay man, who wants to be called Dean, outside Brunei, and spoke to several other people, some of them gay.
One gay Bruneian says little has changed after implementation of strict new laws
None of them believes the harshest punishments in the new penal code, like stoning to death, will actually be enforced.
And the sultan, apparently in response to the international uproar and calls from Hollywood celebrities to boycott Brunei-owned hotels, has now issued a statement stating that the de-facto moratorium in place on executions will apply to anyone sentenced to death under Sharia.
But Bruneians are divided over what the new code means for the LGBT community.
Dean says that provided you keep a low profile there are no problems being gay in Brunei.
“We have not been denied basic human rights”, he told me. “We have not been denied the opportunity to work and study. To walk in public. Unlike what a lot of reports suggest, life is as normal as normal gets.”
But Sarah worries about rising homophobia encouraged by the new laws, despite the promise now not to carry out death sentences
Oil has been the major factor behind Brunei’s prosperity
“The Sultan’s speech is law and now it is effective that there will be no death penalty, even if it is still written in the law. However, it still does not change the existing homophobic tone that the law sets,” she says.
“It is apparent through the comments from Bruneians that people are still very opposed to homosexuality. Does this change anything? I feel like it doesn’t really. The law never applied to gay women, but I still wouldn’t feel safe with people knowing my sexuality.”
Vice across the river
A conversation with two young professionals in the capital Bandar Seri Bagawan turned to Brunei’s future, with the oil and gas that have funded its extraordinary prosperity due to run out over the next two decades.
Low oil prices have forced the government to run huge budget deficits in recent years.
Economic growth has been flat, and youth unemployment is the highest in South East Asia, as the traditional source of jobs in the government sector dries up.
Is the sultan’s embrace of stricter Islam perhaps a search for new legitimacy in preparation for when the generous, no-tax welfare state he has offered Bruneians until now is no longer affordable?
Just across the river is the town of Limbang
No-one knows. The government has a programme it calls Vision 2035 which is supposed to help Brunei diversify and wean itself off its heavy dependence on hydrocarbons.
But progress has so far been very limited. “The government decides. We have no say in our country’s future”, the young professionals said.
From midday on Friday in Bandar Seri Bagawan the usually quiet streets are even more deserted, as people go to one of the many mosques in the city. Muslim Bruneians are required by law to go. Offices and shops are closed.
On Saturday night, the border-crossings into neighbouring Malaysian territory get crowded, with Bruneians waiting to cross to be able to enjoy vices like drinking, smoking and music that are not available at home. It is just an hour-and-a-half to the small riverside town of Limbang in Malaysian Borneo.
Bruneians can be found across karaoke bars in Limbang
The hotels and karaoke bars fill up and most of the cars have Bruneian number plates.
In one bar we met a group of Bruneian men, all non-Muslims, enjoying a night out.
Did the Sharia penal code bother them, I asked? Not really. So long as we are free to come here, and we have our comfortable lives in Brunei, they said, why worry?