Posted on January 20 2016
I’ll bet there isn’t one person in a hundred who knows what island Brunei is on. Go ahead, ask ’em. Brunei sits along the northern coast of one of the world’s biggest islands, Borneo. Borneo is host to three, or parts of three, countries. Indonesia takes up most of it in the south, and calls its part Kalimantan. Of course, Indonesia’s territory is over 3,200 miles wide, running both east and west of Borneo, comprising thousands of islands. The northwest and northern coast of Borneo belong to Malaysia, a country whose other half is on the Malay Peninsula 370 miles to the west. Carving out just a tiny bite of the north coast, entirely surrounded by Malaysian territory, is Brunei. It takes up just a bit more than 2,000 square miles of Borneo. By way of comparison, Santa Barbara County is about 2,700 square miles, so as countries go, it’s pretty small. Like Malaysia, it’s also a two-part country, one chunk bigger than the other and separated by about five miles of Malaysian territory.
Officially known as Brunei Darussalam, the government is a constitutional sultanate with a national philosophy called the Malay Islamic Monarchy, not surprising for a country that is almost 80% Muslim. Brunei once was somewhat powerful in its neighborhood. In the 15th through 17th centuries, it held sway over the coast of northwest Borneo and the southern Philippines. Squabbles over royal power lines weakened the ruling hierarchy and the arrival of dominant Europeans and pirates brought the power structure down. Brunei was taken over by the British in 1888 and remained under their rule for almost a hundred years. In 1984 they got their independence, and thanks to extensive oil and gas deposits it is a wealthy country, with one of the world’s highest GNI per capita rates. Its relative proximity to energy-hungry Asian powerhouses like China means it has a ready market for its fossil fuel industry. Brunei’s deposits are expected to last another 30 years so there is time for the country to diversify, though the value of oil and gas has fallen and may further fade as cleaner energy sources gain strength. For now though, despite waning growth, the wealth of the government is able to provide welfare programs that provide free education, healthcare, and other benefits to keep the standard of living up for most of Brunei’s 429,000 citizens, almost half of whom live in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.
Brunei’s other wealth is in its forest. Three-fifths of the country is in uncut rainforest while a smaller portion consists of second growth. The timber has market value but the country might be wise to promote rainforest eco-tourism and use its trees as offsets in the carbon market. Surely that would be appreciated by some of the local wildlife which includes proboscis and other monkeys, gibbons and other primates, pangolins, sun bears, hornbills and a collection of tropical reptiles.
One of Brunei’s particular talents is metalworking, as reflected in the historical cannons and gongs produced centuries ago. Illustrated with images of animals and other artwork, gongs continue to be a central part of cultural performances, festivals, weddings, and other ceremonies. If artwork and music doesn’t impress, how about the lifestyles of the rich and famous? The Sultan of Brunei, known to his friends as His Majesty Paduka Seri Beginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, has money beyond your wildest dreams. The sultan and his brother, Prince Jefri, have made a name for themselves with their extravagant spending. Ornate palaces, car collections numbering in the thousands (including some 500 Rolls Royces), a fleet of airplanes, lavish gifts, and on and on. Add to this their excessively bacchanalian tastes, and things start to look a little sordid. This in a country that is working to implement strict Sharia law–but the rules are of course different for those who make the rules. Maybe they’re just making the most of the good times while they last, and at least they do share some of the largesse with the country’s citizens.
So little Brunei has an outsized reputation for big living, and while it’s not the regional power it was when Ferdinand Magellan stopped by on his world tour back in 1521, for the time being it’s still a tiny nation with a big bank account.