Earlier this month I spent four days in Brunei to research a nature-focussed article I’d been commissioned to write. Despite (or because of) my very short exposure to Brunei, its social structures and its people I left the country with many unanswered questions.
I entered Brunei with media accreditation and as a result I was hosted very generously by the state tourism office, so my interactions with the Bruneians I met have to be viewed with this in mind.
Brunei is about as far from a democracy as it’s possible to be. The Sultan is in absolute charge of the country – he appoints the senior members of his government and can remove them at will. The Sultan is himself the Prime Minister and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. According to the Constitution of Brunei, “His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity”.
The citizens of Brunei do not have a vote beyond electing their own village heads (elections for these administrative posts typically attract low turnouts). Yet there is no visible evidence of any movement or will to bring democracy to this tiny nation. By and large the Sultan has done what several of the absolute rulers in the Middle East have failed to do – by sharing out a proportion of his oil revenues he has kept people in his country content to the extent that they haven’t upset the status quo.
Around 60% of the Brunei workforce are employed by the state. With a high proportion of women in civil service the vast majority of households have at least one person working in some form of government work. Working for the government in Brunei brings very generous benefits that include housing allowances, cash bonuses and even the occasional foreign trip thrown in. Add to that the widely-held perception that working hours and conditions are hardly onerous and it’s no surprise that employment by the state is highly prized. Of those that don’t work for the government many are applying time after time for openings as and when they arise.
Even for those that work in the private sector in Brunei the government is often the principal or the only customer, meaning that a thriving public sector is in everyone’s interests.
What price democracy?
Listening to local people heaping undiluted praise upon the Sultan had me thinking. Suppose what I’m hearing is the real picture and people in Brunei are truly content with the regime? I’m naturally inclined to be sceptical of any place where no-one has anything bad to say about the way their country works. There was a balance that was missing from the opinions shared with me and I can speculate endlessly about the reasons for this.
Would the opinions I heard in Brunei have been any different if I’d travelled there as an anonymous tourist? Would they have been the same if I’d ventured to the remote corners of the country?
It got me thinking about the freedoms the western world professes and whether the citizens of Brunei view their own society as any less free than ours. Would an alternative regime for example, even if it offered people the chance to vote for their leader, give them the same financial security they currently enjoy? If you are a citizen of Brunei and you don’t have a particular desire to drink alcohol, look at pornographic websites, stay out late at night or organise large public gatherings, would you exchange your secure, stable, relatively comfortable life for an uncertain one that included the right to elect your leader? Would the events of the past two years in Egypt, Libya and Syria influence the way you viewed any push towards democracy and the freedoms associated with it?
To quote the words of an ex-pat I met who worked in the country for several years, is it true that the majority of people of Brunei are happy being thrown enough fish that they don’t feel the need to go out and fish for themselves?
Brunei left me with many questions but few answers and I was relieved that the purpose of my visit was to visit the country’s main natural attraction and look for its indigenous wildlife. I’ll take animals ahead of politicians any day.