Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 9 News List

A wealthy, peaceful Brunei faces uncertainty

It is the healthiest, wealthiest and most-educated nation in Asia, but the sultanate is in a state of emergency


It seems extraordinary bordering on the bizarre that one of the wealthiest and most peaceful nations in Asia can promote itself as a haven of political stability while enduring its 42nd year under a state of emergency.

But then most things in Brunei, an Islamic sultanate of just 350,000 people blessed with deep oil and gas reserves on Southeast Asia's Borneo island, leave visitors feeling as if they have entered a fantasy world.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has used the nation's fossil fuels to fund a life of near unimaginable luxury for himself and his extended family since taking power from his father 37 years ago.

Bolkiah, 57, is one of the world's richest men, lives in a palace with more than 1,700 rooms and reportedly has a private collection of more than 150 Rolls Royces.

Brunei's mosques are among the most impressive and expensive in Asia, with 24-carat gold-plated minarets, Italian marble columns and diamonds encrusted into the welcoming signs on some of the gates.

The excesses of the royal family made world headlines in the 1990s when the sultan reined in one of his younger brothers, Prince Jefri, after he blew more than US$15 billion through reckless investments and a famous globe-trotting, playboy lifestyle.

But aside from losing his ministerial portfolio, Jefri received little more than a wrap on the knuckles and, after a short period of exile away from the public's eye, is back appearing at national ceremonies and events.

"He's part of the family. Of course, he's been forgiven," a government official told reporters when asked about Jefri.

But Brunei's ruling family has also undoubtedly passed on much wealth to its citizens, who rank among the most educated, wealthy and healthy people in Asia.

Bruneian women have a life expectancy rate of nearly 78 and men 75, national literacy levels are above 92 percent and per capita GDP is a comfortable 21,800 Brunei dollars (US$12,500).

"We do have poverty in Brunei [but] in the Brunei context. It may be middle class in other countries, I don't know," Education Minister Abdul Aziz told foreign reporters who were in Brunei recently on a state-sponsored visit.

The relative comfort and wealth Bruneians enjoy comes from policies such as no income tax, free education and health care, cheap housing, old age pensions and a relatively pollution-free environment.

A multi-million-dollar amusement park that costs just B$15 (US$8.90) to get in and offers state-of-the-art rides such as a double corkscrew roller coaster gives a more glitzy account of the nation's riches.

But while many Bruneians can afford to share the sultan's fetish for fine cars, statistics and policies that point towards an economic utopia can be misleading.

Unemployment is on the rise, national wealth is shrinking as the global energy sector becomes increasingly competitive and government leaders worry that Brunei's workforce is too complacent to face the challenges of globalization.

And although the government exudes supreme confidence publicly that its citizens have no wish for civil liberties such as democracy and a free press, the state of emergency laws suggest otherwise.

Bolkiah's father invoked the state of emergency in 1962 when British forces helped him quell a rebellion by an opposition group angry at being denied seats it had won in the newly established parliament.

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