Although Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei was forced on May 6 by international outrage to back away from strict Islamic law that included stoning to death for gay sex, adultery and rape, the fact is that he hasn’t backed away very far.
Hassanal declared full implementation of Sharia law on April 3, complete with hudud or Islamic punishments as a deathbed promise to his father, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddien III, who died in 1986 at age 72 after abdicating in 1967. Hassanal ascended the throne at 21.
From 1906, the British Administration had progressively introduced British common law for its Brunei protectorate, structuring a functioning civil service, and organized the oil-rich enclave’s defense. The system of British Resident – adviser to the Sultan in-Council – inhibited adoption of crude, eighth Century Arabic tribal practices. However, Hassanal has now locked Brunei society into exactly that.
When the United Nations, US, UK, EU and Hollywood celebrities condemned the barbaric, medieval Hudud punishments, Hassanal clarified belatedly that the intent was to inspire piety, not stone offenders to death. But the hudud provisions remain on the statutes. Hassanal declared a moratorium, not a reversal.
The only other absolute monarchy practicing this kind of tribal barbarism is Saudi Arabia. What didn’t escape local and global attention for the sheer hypocrisy of the Sharia shock is how the Saudi and Brunei rulers exempt themselves.
These chaps happen also to be the most egregious offenders of the Sharia moral codes. Institutionalized religious terror keeps internal dissent in check, as God is the ultimate authority on whose behalf the rulers act. The feudal rulers are acutely aware that Islam does not recognize hereditary right to rule, or racial exceptionalism. So they appoint themselves the guardians of Islam in their territories.
For the Saudis, the pilgrimage sites are in the territory they hold. Saudi Arabia generously funds global Islamic training for preachers, building of mosques and religious schools. Funds also flow into some terror outfits listed by Western security agencies, causing enormous headaches for the moderate rulers of majority Muslim countries across Southeast Asia as well as the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, with its 10.7 million Muslims.
In the Sultanates of Brunei and Malaya, rulers leverage their hereditary positions to oversee Islamic practice – which they self-servingly conflate with protecting the Malay race. Islamic sects which oppose feudal rulership are banned. The much-touted Islamic Caliphate ambition of ISIS is a nightmare for the Saudis and Brunei.
As he faces his own tryst with eternity at 72 – the age at which his father died -- Hassanal Bolkiah is in a hurry to make amends. He has been in lengthy consultation with the State Mufti (religious leader) in recent years. The Religious Affairs Department banned public displays of Christmas celebrations in 2016.
Chinese New Year lion dances are confined to three days indoors at Chinese associations, schools and private residences. Songs or decorations of Christmas or Lunar New Year are disallowed in shopping malls and hotels.
The Sultan is said to hope all his past transgressions will be forgiven, and that he will gain merit by full implementation of Sharia. Brunei society is assured of Islamic righteousness as Hassanal’s legacy and repentance.
The Sultan, his siblings and extended family for decades flaunted their oil wealth in profligate ways which beggar belief. More than 2,000 prestige car brands rot in garages for lack of maintenance, of which 600 Rolls Royce Royals are coated with 24-karat gold. Only the most expensive Ferraris and Lamborghinis are allowed in this metal graveyard.
The Sultan’s 1,788 room mansion, with 2 million sq. ft of floor space, is the world’s most wasteful private accommodation. Apart from gold-plated toilet fittings, the cellars boasted superlative rare French wines. High-class call-girls were routinely airlifted from Hollywood and London to cavort with and entertain the Sultan and his guests. Debauchery and hedonism filled the space between official duties and leisure.
While Hassanal no longer plays at home, his younger brother Prince Jefri still lives it up in London with a luxury gin-palace on the sea and all the women his money can hire. Jefri’s luxury yacht TITS carries two lifeboats: Nipple 1 & Nipple 2. The Sultan sued his brother for siphoning-off US$15 billion from the Brunei Investment Agency through the UK private bank Coutts. Coutts also services Queen Elizabeth’s investments. The Jefri case was, predictably, settled out of court.
Sharia law stipulates that the punishment for theft is amputation. The retribution for Jefri’s play would probably be off the charts in the Sharia arithmetic, which is otherwise quite precise.
Part of the sultan’s bid to make merit in front of Allah concerns Brunei’s Temburong district, an enclave facing the bay to the north, enveloped around its rump and sides by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It takes a 30km drive, skirting the bay, from the Brunei capital Bandar Sri Begawan to Temburong.
This isolation has had consequences, not least of which, is the non-Malay native ethnic population concentration, due to the porous border with Sarawak.
Despite active Islamic conversion incentives by the Religious Affairs Department, there are reports of converted native Muslims reverting to Christianity. Christian missionary activity in Temburong, flusters the religious authorities.
To unite Temburong district with the mainland, a 13-km marine viaduct is being built across Brunei Bay. That is expected to be completed by end 2019, allowing a direct drive of 40 minutes. This reunification, along with Sharia law, will be Hassanal’s legacy. He may, like his father, abdicate, but remain adviser to the next Sultan.
Citizens have noted that Prince Abdul Mateen (28), Hassanal’s second son by his second wife, seems to be getting a more prominent public profile and is very much in the Sultan’s good graces. Prince Mateen, at 5ft 8in., has the regal bearing closest to the Sultan of all his four sons from three official wives.
Like Hassanal, Mateen was an officer cadet at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. In addition, he holds a BA in International Politics from King’s College London, and an MA in International Studies & Diplomacy from SOAS at London University. Last year, he qualified as a helicopter pilot from the flying school at RAF Shawbury. His dad, also a helicopter pilot, pinned on his wings at the passing out ceremony. Mateen is also a keen polo player.
But Abdul Mateen is only sixth in line of succession of the royal lineage. Crown prince Al-Muhtadee Billah is senior minister in the prime minister’s office, a general in the armed forces, and deputy inspector-general of police. He deputizes for Hassanal Bolkiah in his absence.
But Billah lacks charisma, command and intellectual heft. He passed Islamic Studies that were specifically tailored to meet his needs. He is painfully awkward in public speeches.
The Sultan faces his last challenge in deciding the next Sultan for Brunei. Will he follow protocol or exercise royal discretion? Al-Muhtadee Billah will readily fit into Sharia Brunei. Abdul Mateen may be better able to lead Brunei away from dependence on oil, as reserves shrink.
The author has deep familiarity with Brunei but prefers to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.