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Brunei’s Hidden Economic Crisis

Economic pressures and household debt are taking a toll on the Sultanate’s population.

Brunei’s Hidden Economic Crisis
Credit: Depositphotos

To the outside world, the tiny Southeastern Asian monarchy of Brunei looks like a Shangri-La. The country, with a population of less than half million, has one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. The benevolent Sultan, once the richest man in the world, has ensured free education and medical care, and highly subsidized food and housing for his subjects. Most Bruneians are employed by the government, which assures them a considerable degree of economic stability.

Given this background, a rise in mental illness, including in the suicide rate, might be the last thing an observer would expect. On World Mental Health Day 2020, Brunei’s health minister disclosed that 7,000 Bruneians, or 1.5 percent of the total population, are undergoing treatment for mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

Of these, the minister said that nearly 4,000 people were being treated for psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder with hallucinations and disorganized thinking that can impair patients’ ability to function. The remaining 3,000 suffered from mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder.

The most worrying aspect of mental illness in Brunei is that in the past four years the suicide rate has more than doubled.

According to statistics from the Royal Brunei Police, the rate of suicides increased from 1.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015 to 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018. Brunei saw a sharp surge – 62 percent – in suicides and attempted suicides during 2016 and 2017 alone. The National Mental Health helpline Talian Harapan 145, which was launched in February last year, receives more than 200 calls a month.

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Dr. Abdul Haq, an Indian doctor who has worked in Brunei for more than 10 years, believes that the upsurge in suicide attempts is the result of a combination of multiple factors.

“Somewhere, the government subsidy is also responsible for it. When you’re assured of certain things, then only you start looking for other things. This has made society very materialistic and ‘demanding.’ Everybody wants the latest gadgets and luxuries,” he said.

Bruneians have always enjoyed a very high standard of living, with the average household having at least three cars due to the low cost of petrol and diesel. In Brunei, a liter of petrol costs 53 cents (Brunei’s currency is pegged one-to-one with the Singaporean dollar), which is cheaper than a bottle of mineral water or a cup of tea at any roadside restaurant.

The other factor is that the old family structure has come under threat from the attitudes of a foreign-educated younger generation. “The youth when they return home find the society too suppressive and they want to continue the lifestyle they have enjoyed abroad. This creates tension not only in the family but also in the society,” Haq said.

Mr. Dean, a fitness instructor who asked to be identified only by his last name, somewhat agrees with Haq’s assessment. “It’s a global thing,” he said, referring to the mental health pressures. “People generally want to look like they can afford things despite struggling to keep up and place their image as a higher priority against their mental health and physical well-being.”

He added that financial literacy can play an important role in the curbing rise in suicides and mental illness.

“We’re all responsible for our conditions, whether we put ourselves in it or we refuse to find ways out of it. Nobody puts a gun to our heads and forces us to buy the new iPhone.

“Financial literacy is not just about knowing how money works, it’s also about knowing how to discipline oneself to avoid being a slave to recurring payments,” Dean said.

Sadly, in Brunei, people have come to terms with living with debt. It’s become a way of life, which is evident from payday traffic jams and seeing people queuing up at banks to pay loans, he added.

But a former journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the reason for the large amount of debt is that the economy is just broken.

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“Too much emphasis on the hydrocarbon sector has not only shrunk the job market also made different clusters of economy stagnant,” she said.

Dismissing the myth that the Bruneians are living beyond their means because they believe that in the end, the Sultan will rescue them, she said people are ready to work but are unable to find meaningful employment.

“Outside of oil and gas, what do we have? What job opportunities are there?” the former journalist asked.

“It’s like our economy is a child that’s learnt how to fly but cannot walk. So if it cannot walk it’s paralyzed,” she said, adding, “it’s like our first world problems are driving us into a third world reality.”

A social media consultant, who also asked to remain anonymous, added his thoughts. “In my opinion, there is a segment of the population, particularly the young generation, that is becoming more aware of the dire state of the economy and that there will be no one to ‘rescue’ them when shit hits the fan!”

He says it’s too presumptive to say all Bruneians think they’ll be rescued from economic distress, either by God or the king. That thinking applies more to the older generation than the young.

“The notion that Brunei is a utopia that is shielded from turbulent economic and natural forces no longer exists,” he added.

Dean said that the overall issue is complicated. There is no one solution and everybody involved needs to play their respective roles. Fixing the economy will take the right policies and attitudes – and it will also take time.