Experts say Brunei's harsh penal code could be an attempt by the Sultan to shore up his reputation after a lifetime of lavish living and a bid to attract global investors from the Islamic world
Calls to prayer pierce a hot sky, pregnant with thunder, on a Friday afternoon in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan, and hundreds of men pour into the golden-domed Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque.
Since this tiny, independent sultanate on the northern shore of Borneo enacted its new Islamic penal code on May 1, failure to observe these prayers have become punishable with fines or even jail. Other crimes, such as adultery, alcohol consumption and homosexuality, will be punished with flogging, amputation and stoning to death, with those sanctions being phased in over the next two years.
International criticism of these new edicts has been harsh, with the U.S. ambassador designate to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations saying they would be “inconsistent with international obligations” on human rights. Amnesty International called them a return to “the Dark Ages.” Meanwhile, a much publicized boycott campaign against a luxury hotel chain owned by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, has received celebrity support from Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres and Richard Branson.
As this Friday’s sermon begins, the imam urges Bruneians to stand united in the face of criticism. “We must show unwavering obedience to the leader of our country,” he cries, his voice echoing over the square. The message is pertinent, because the strict application of the Shari‘a penal code, a form of jurisprudence known as hudud, is a reflection of more social unease than the sultanate has known in a while.
Known as the “abode of peace,” Brunei has seen little to no overt opposition to the Sultan’s autocratic rule, or to the fact that he has governed under emergency powers since a brief revolt in 1962.
“The Sultan has embodied the nationalism of the country and has ruled without terror or fear,” says Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. “There is love for the Sultan.”
At the same time, Welsh says the new laws “bring uncertainty — it is difficult for Muslims to openly criticize the laws as many interpret this as attacking the faith, but there are signs of quiet concern.”
Those signs have been especially evident on Twitter and Facebook, where a flurry of posts have slammed the new edicts. In response, the Sultan insinuated that those insulting the regime could be the first to be punished under the new penal code (even though he didn’t make clear how an 8th century law would be applied to Facebook).
Many have expressed concern for the status of women under hudud, which, in other countries, has seen the criminalization of unmarried women who get pregnant — even if they’ve been raped. Nurkhalisah Ahmad, who runs an art gallery in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, says she was apprehensive when the laws were first announced, but feels that people should wait to see how they’re implemented before making a judgment.
“I know the laws seem like ‘Whoa, crazy stuff,’ but no one here is really willing to stone a person or do these tragic things,” she maintains. Even to a cosmopolitan, returned expat like her (“I love Europe and all the freedoms you have there”), Shari‘a and hudud are important expressions of identity. “I’m not religious myself, [but] we are an Islamic country, and I think there are many people who just want to be true to that.”
Christians, who make up around 10% of the sultanate’s 400,000 population, have much to lose under hudud — but even here there is a reluctance to criticize the Sultan or the laws outright. Society has gradually become more restrictive for non-Muslims since independence was gained from the U.K. in 1984, with Christians and Buddhists no longer allowed to celebrate their holidays openly, and evangelism strictly forbidden. Pastor Stephen Chin at St. Andrews Anglican Church says he can’t even talk about his faith in a normal conversation.
“I have to be very careful,” Chin says, between singing hymns with his youth group. “I guess some people would say I’ve been persecuted for this. I’ve been spat on, slapped and mocked for my faith.”
When Shari‘a is fully implemented, Chin fears that the situation for Christians will become even more restrictive. “I think most people think this new law is ridiculous, it feels like a step back,” he says. But, he stresses, “I love my country and I love my king,” pleading only for the Muslim majority to “show grace to those who don’t understand or live by those rules.”
Experts grant that the 67-year-old Sultan has become increasingly religious with age, but say the hudud laws may be a convenient way to remodel his less-than-holy penchant for lavish expense. While gaining popularity for the generous welfare system he’s set up for Bruneians, the Sultan has also notoriously used the country’s massive oil revenue to maintain his 1,788-room palace and collection of thousands of luxury cars, and to support his family’s lavish lifestyle. His jet-setting brother Jefri has allegedly blown billions on fast living.
Welsh says Bruneians have been upset by the scandals, a problem compounded by an economy that has started to contract. “Hudud is a step to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime for the succession in the face of a system less able to accommodate a growing middle class within the bureaucracy,” she says.
Elliot Brennan, a nonresident research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, says the hudud laws are also a response to a younger demographic, with less access to well-paid jobs. “Younger generations have had it easy for most of their life and are restless,” he says. “Bored youth have in recent years increasingly engaged in antisocial behavior — graffiti, drug use and petty crimes.”
Brennan insists that the introduction of hudud could make Brunei more attractive for foreign Islamic investment. This could promote the country’s role in the growing Islamic banking and financial markets, recently valued at over $1.35 trillion. “Business leaders in the country have spoken at length about the potential of the Islamic banking sector,” he says. “At conferences in 2012 and 2013, many in the financial sector called for greater interaction with the Islamic economy.”
However, local and international reaction has not been in line with the Sultan’s expectations. “The Sultan hoped to tap into the country’s conservatism and strengthen his government’s position,” says Welsh. “The fact is the opposite has happened, and now the government faces unprecedented limelight that will create strain. It is a new era in Brunei, with hudud marking greater challenges for the government.”
Brunei could find support among Muslim-majority neighbors. Malaysian cleric and politician Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat has reportedly been a great influence on the Sultan. In 1993, he passed a bill to enact hudud in the state of Kelantan, but the bill never received national approval to be implemented. Currently, however, Nik Aziz’s Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, also known as PAS, is trying to introduce a bill to the parliament, in order to finally allow Kelantan to implement the penal code.
“Brunei’s introduction of hudud has catalyzed its Muslim-majority neighbors to be more assertive in pursuing the same laws,” says Yang Razali Kassim, senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “To be sure, Malaysia has actually been ahead of the curve when it comes to grappling with the push for hudud, especially by the Islamist opposition.”
One of the sticking points in Malaysia is the question over how hudud would be implemented, and how it would affect the country’s non-Muslims. For Bruneians, apprehensive or not, those are questions to which they will soon have answers.