Last year, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolikah, made headlines when he announced that he would impose sharia law (in three phases) in his Southeast Asian sultanate. The proclamation drew criticism from countless human rights advocates, who labeled the move “draconian” and “medieval.” Celebrities such as Jay Leno, John Legend, and Richard Branson (to name a few) openly protested the decision, with many calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Sultan. Despite the opprobrium, the Sultan confidently declared the move a “great success.
Since then, the first phase of sharia law, which include fines and prison sentences for “crimes” such as pregnancies outside of wedlock, propagating religions other than Islam, and not attending mandatory Friday prayers, has been rolled out. Brunei is currently in the process of implementing the second phase, which will introduce harsh punishments such as floggings and cutting off hands for property offenses.
The third and final phase, which will be implemented later this year or in 2016, will introduce executions, including stoning, for offenses like adultery, abortion, homosexuality/sodomy, and even blasphemy. Bolikah has defended his decision, saying that it was “not for fun, but to obey Allah’s command as written in the Quran.” Unfortunately, the leader of Brunei evidently has not thought through the long-term implications that imposing sharia law will have on his country.
In 2008, the Sultan issued Wawasan Brunei 2035, a long-term plan to transmogrify his nation into a type of “Islamic-Singapore,” where the “accomplishments of Brunei’s well-educated and highly skilled people” will be recognized. Having spent years as a Human Capital Consultant in Southeast Asia, I am convinced that because parts of sharia law will also apply to non-Muslims (who account for roughly 33 percent of Brunei’s population), many intelligent Bruneians will not wish to stay in Brunei and help the Sultan’s plan come to fruition.
Moreover, it is not realistic to think that all of Brunei’s Muslim citizens even want to live under sharia law. Indeed, many of the nation’s brightest Muslim citizens may also abscond from Brunei and work abroad. Many countries in Southeast Asia already struggle with a brain drain, including Brunei, and the implementation of sharia will not help this tiny nation the size of Delaware to attract and retain a highly skilled, well-educated workforce.
The 2035 plan strives for Brunei to have a “dynamic, sustainable economy.” Sure, revenues from Brunei’s oil and gas sector have steadily poured in for years, but what will become of this nation when all of its natural resources have been depleted? The oil and gas sector is responsible for two-thirds of Brunei’s GDP, 98 percent of its exports, as well as 93 percent of government revenues. The country has yet to put in place the policies and initiatives to ensure it will enjoy a dynamic economy beyond 2035.
Economically, Brunei has little going for it aside from its oil and gas sector. The country’s tourism industry was the only Southeast Asian nation to not experience any growth during the span of 2002-2013, and implementing sharia law will surely not help this already ossified industry. Non-Muslim and Muslim tourists alike will likely opt to spend their vacations traveling to other tourist destinations in the region, such as Malaysia or Indonesia where a more tolerant form of Islam is practiced.
Brunei has a Muslim population of around 220,000, which compares with Indonesia (220 million) and Malaysia (18 million). The latter two countries established themselves as Islamic banking centers years ago; Brunei is unlikely to become a hub for Islamic banking and finance. To make matters worse for Brunei, several members of the U.S. Congress are currently endeavoring to remove it as a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
When the Sultan stated that the decision was not for fun, he should have also said that it was not meant to help the country’s 2035 plan. The introduction of sharia is hardly a reflection of the Sultan’s own piety, as his lavish and licentious lifestyle, most recently documented by 60 Minutes, is no secret. As a consequence, many are simply nonplussed by his decision. Perhaps the only positive result that will come of this move is that it will serve as a stark reminder to all other countries that jettisoning moderate and tolerant policies for sharia is not an astute decision in the 21st century.
Bill Ozanick lived in Southeast Asia for nearly four years, where he consulted for various companies and governments.