The official name is Negara Brunei Darussalam- the Abode of Peace – and of money also I think, because it is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, thanks to its natural gas and oil. Then, because oil generates so much money, Brunei has not yet turned its pristine rainforests into lumber or palm oil plantations. Today, with an aim to preserve the country’s forests, Brunei restricts logging and they do not export any wood.
We dock at Muara, the only deep water port in the country situated on the South China Sea . The official language is Malay, but everyone speaks English. It is ten times the size of Singapore, but has a population of only 420,000. The country is made up of 65% Malay, 10% Chinese, 15% Indigenous and about 10% foreigners. The country is surrounded, and physically separated into two parts, by Malaysia.
It is a Monarchy or Sultanate, and perhaps the closest any country has ever come to being a total welfare state. The government pays for almost everything – healthcare, education and many other living expenses. Schooling is free and teachers get free accommodation. After 18 years of age, you can get on a list to become a home owner. (I am not sure, but this may only apply to males.) The cost of a two bedroom, kitchen & living room home/condo is about $65-70 thousand Brunei dollars – $1.28 BND = $1US. It is repayable at a low monthly rate with no interest. Any wonder the people are happy and friendly with a ready smile.
My tour took me on the river to the water village where people live in dwellings on wooden stilts. (Some newer ones are concrete) Compared to the water village we visited way back in Africa, these places were almost like the Ritz! We were invited into one of the ‘better’ homes for tea and local sweets. The food was different, but very good. Some of the people would not eat or drink anything. I thought about being quarantined after Manila, and then said, what the heck and tried everything. I squeezed a custard type sweet from a tube of bamboo strips and ate sticky rice from a banana leaf. A madeline-type cookie and something I didn’t recognize. The people who live on the water have done so for over 1300 years. The government wanted these people to move, but they refused. The government gave in, but as a home falls apart or burns down, they are not allowed to restore it and must move to the land.
We also visited the Royal Regalia Museum where they have exhibits of luxurious items from the Sultan including His Majesty’s royal gold emblazoned chariot – it takes 46 men to pull HM through the streets, ceremonial swords and gifts from foreign dignitaries who attended his lavish coronation. They also had a model of his private jumbo jet, but didn’t show his gold Rolls Royce. Don would have loved that!
And of course, the Masjid Ali Saifuddien Mosque. So beautiful and the Sultan goes there unannounced in normal clothing and sits amongst his people and chats about how they are doing and if there are any problems.. The only thing is he and he alone can use the escalator that takes him into the mosque. So I guess they know he is there. There was a good feel in this tiny nation and I enjoyed my visit here.
His Majesty, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibn Al-Marhum Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien – whew – and school kids have to memorize this!! – was born 15 July 1946 and is the 29th Sultan of Brunei. He is the ruler of the country, and is also the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Finance Minister. He has one wife now, but has had up to three over the years, and has 12 children – five boys and seven girls. All of the children, live with him, in spite of having different mothers. He is ranked amongst the wealthiest individuals in the world and is the wealthiest monarch. After Queen Elizabeth II, he is the longest reigning monarch.
Brunei gained its independence from the UK in 1984, and elected not to join the Federation of Malaysia. The reasons were the Sultan wanted to maintain control, and that meant control over the gas and oil industry. It has turned out to be a good decision for Brunei because they don’t share the wealth with anyone. The IMF ranks Brunei 5th in the world by Gross Domestic Product, and it is one of two countries ( Libya being the other) with a public debt of 0% of the GDP. Brunei is ranked the fifth richest nation out of 182 by Forbes.
Brunei must rely on imports for nearly all its manufactured goods and most of its food. In an effort to ensure the country’s economic stability, the government has since the late 20th century striven to diversify the economy by developing other sectors, such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and financial services. China is investing in the country, and is about to open a bank there. This is no different from many other countries on this trip where China is inserting itself.
Muslim or Sharia law is in effect and it refers to not only religious but secular aspects as well. It has stiff penalties for lawbreaking. Being gay is illegal and having sexual relations with a girl under 14 years of age is considered rape and punishable by 30 years in prison and caning. (Should be the law in every country in my opinion). Brunei is a “dry country” and alcohol and cigarettes are banned in Brunei. Our tour guide said non-muslims can buy liquor, but it is limited and you must get a permit. It reminded me of Ontario’s liquor stores back in the 60s!