Brunei and the Sultan, on a stopover
edited: Thursday, July 24, 2008
By Chris M Dowding
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2008
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Impressions of Brunei, the small country on the island of Borneo near Singapore, which is run by the Sultan, once known as the world's richest man
The entire journey from Australia to England takes about 24 hours of flight. As far as I know, all of the airlines stop at least once to refuel and transfer passengers. You can stay on the plane and do the entire 24 hours in one step, or stop for a night or two to recuperate. Kerryn and I recently stopped in Brunei for two days.
Brunei is a small country located on the island of Borneo, just east of Singapore. 95% of the country’s export revenue comes from its crude oil and natural gas reserves. The head of government is His Majesty, the 29th Sultan of Brunei, who has been the country’s leader since his father abdicated in 1967. The country is unusual for the region - its population is only about 350,000. The majority of the population is Muslim, including the Sultan himself.
I have to admit that I felt some trepidation about visiting Brunei: the Western media hasn’t been kind to Muslims in recent years. However, I know that the media tends to focus on the negative news, so I wanted to see a Muslim nation for myself. The articles I’d read about the Sultan made me sceptical, but curious. The Brunei-based writers spoke of a savvy, visionary and illustrious leader who was loved by his people. It sounded like propaganda to me. I became alarmed when we arrived in Brunei’s capital, where we saw full-building images of the Sultan. But my nervousness was ill-founded. People smiled and wished me a good day as we walked the streets. Even the policemen were friendly and helpful. In terms of culture, I only noticed a couple of differences to home. Muslim women wore shawls over their hair, but women of other religions weren’t expected to, except when they wanted to visit a mosque. The other thing I noticed was the absence of bars, bottle shops and nightclubs, which (on the positive side) means that Brunei doesn’t have any problems with teen alcohol abuse.
‘Is fuel subsidised here?’ I asked a taxi driver.
‘Oh yes – diesel costs 30 [Brunei] cents a litre (about 23 cents Australian). Petrol costs 50 cents a litre.’
‘That is so cheap! Diesel is $1.70 a litre at home, and petrol is $1.50,’ I replied.
(Unsurprisingly, Brunei traffic is a bit of a problem, with most people favouring cars over the purple coloured buses that provide public transport.)
Our driver chuckled, ‘You pay tax at home?’
‘Yes, too much. Everyone in the world thinks they pay too much tax, I suppose’
‘We pay no [income] tax here. Health care is free. Education is free. All provided by the Sultan.’
By chance, we happened to be in Brunei on the weekend that held a parade for the Sultan’s birthday. Thousands of people came out to wave flags and meet the Sultan, who was about to drive past to join the parade.
‘Where are you from?’ asked an onlooker who appeared Chinese.
‘Australia,’ I replied.
‘How long you here?’
‘Er, two days,’ I said.
‘Then you are very lucky to see this,’ he said. ‘For me, it is every year, so no longer as exciting.’
‘It’s amazing you can get this close to him. And that so many people want to see him. I don’t think this many Australians would come to see our Prime Minister.’
‘No, you probably couldn’t get near him [Australia’s PM]. He would have so much security. Do you know, if you come back during the month of Ramadan, the Sultan opens his palace and you can meet him! He will have conversation with you and shake your hand.’
‘He sounds very approachable.’
It was starting to make sense. The Sultan made himself accessible to his people. The country had pretty good infrastructure – motorways, hospitals and schools – and no-one had paid a jot of tax for it. But I believe the Sultan’s greatest feat has been his treatment of the population living in the water villages (known as the Kampong Ayer) around the capital. These villages look like shanty towns built on stilts over the water. The stilts of many homes are leaning, and some of the roofs are rusting badly. People have lived in the water villages for hundreds of years. It is a way of life for them. Kerryn and I took a boat ride around the villages and I quizzed the driver as he negotiated his way under flimsy walkway bridges. ‘Do the children have schools to go to?’
‘Yes yes, but not today [Sunday]. Tomorrow. There’s a school,’ he pointed to a well constructed building on piers. ‘Little school only – for little – ah,’ he said, indicating the height of a primary school child with his hand.
‘Over there – big school, for big ones [high school]. Tomorrow at seven [the starting hour for education]. You understand?’ he added.
‘You speak Malay?’ he asked.
‘No, sorry,’ I shook my head.
‘I only speak little English,’ he said apologetically. He was doing a far better job of conversing with me in English than I could in Malay. I only knew one word – Salamet Pagi - ‘Good morning’. This wasn’t much use, as it was the afternoon.
‘Do any of the houses ever burn down?’ I asked. He looked at me uncomprehendingly.
‘Is there ever big fire?’ I tried.
‘Water?’ he asked, pointing at the river.
‘No, er,’ I tried to emulate the cracking roar of a fire, and gestured upwards with my hands to indicate smoke.
‘Yes. Men come, spread water over house with .’ He pointed out a building in the distance. I could see it was a fire station, with two trucks and a fire fighting launch boat.
‘Look, look,’ he pointed at some children playing on the porch of one house.
‘Hello!’ they shouted and waved when they saw us, with big smiles on their faces.
‘Hello!’ I yelled back, waving.
Interestingly, there were satellite dishes on many of the houses or a TV antenna. Often I could see both. Fresh water pipes were bolted to the side of the walkways linking each house to the next. And there was a hospital built on the land just behind one of the largest groups of homes. Timber boats with pointed prows and extraordinarily large outboard motors (subsidised petrol again) sped past in both directions, with the drivers waving and smiling at us.
It seemed to me that the people living here were happy and industrious. The Sultan had made an astute decision to accept their lifestyle. He’d taken the services to them, rather than forcing them to live differently. He’d given them education, health, police and fire services, all built over the water. So many other governments (my own, particularly) have relocated their minority peoples and tried to make them live a Western lifestyle, usually without success. Kudos to the Sultan. But with all the adoration from his people, I wonder how he’ll cope when he decides to step aside and let his son take on the role?
Brunei is worth a visit. The city centre may not hold the excitements and attractions that are usually provided for tourists, but I think observing the people makes up for it. Yes, the paint on some buildings is a little faded and the carpets within could do with an update. But it is well-serviced for Westerners. The food available in restaurants is excellent and cheap ($25 AUD for an Indian meal for two, which would have cost more than $50 in Australia). And the country is on the edge of Borneo, one of the last true wilderness areas in the world, with unique species like the proboscis monkey. Give it a try, next time you’re taking a stopover.