Less than half of the size of Sylhet division of Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam is an independent tiny sultanate on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo, wedged between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. It has a total area of 5,765 square kilometres. Brunei is completely surrounded by Malaysia except its coastline with the South China Sea. The population of Brunei will not exceed 450,000 and capital Bandar Seri Begawan is home of the one-third population of the country. A large number of Bangladeshi workers are employed in Brunei. The estimated number ranges between 30,000 to 40,000; considering the total population of the host country, it is evident that Bangladeshis living in Brunei have been playing a very important role in the development of Brunei.
The Sultanate recently showed interest in recruiting 3,000 more workers from Bangladesh. Brunei is one of the wealthiest nations of the world. According to Forbes, it is the fifth richest country with an average GDP (gross domestic product) per capita of $55,111.20 as of 2011. The full name of the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam; ‘darussalam’ means abode of peace and ‘negara’ means country in Malay, the language of the mass population. According to legend, Awang Alak Betatar founded Brunei, later he was known as Sultan Muhammad Shah. It is said that upon landing of this land, he exclaimed, “Baru nah” (in English, “that’s it!” or “there”), from which the name “Brunei” originated. He was the first Muslim ruler of Brunei. Before the rise of the Bruneian Empire under the Muslim Bolkiah Dynasty, Brunei was ruled by Buddhist kings. Chinese historical records show that in 977 AD, the word “Po-ni” used to refer to Borneo where modern day Brunei was located. In 1225, a Chinese official reported that Po-ni had 100 warships to protect its business interests and the kingdom was very rich. The power of Brunei Sultanate was very high between the 15th and 17th centuries when it was extended from northern Borneo to southern Philippines. During that period, Spain had a great influence in the neighbouring region of Borneo that includes a large area of Philippines which it had already colonised. Spain regarded Brunei as a threat and the centre of Islamic preaching in the Philippines. Spain declared war in 1578 and attacked Kota Batu, Brunei’s capital at the time. Because of the invasion, the Sultan was forced to flee but heroic local forces successfully chased the Spanish away from Brunei. Suffering high fatalities due to outbreaks of cholera and dysentery, the Spanish decided to abandon Brunei and returned to Manila after 72 days. Afterwards, as Spanish colonial power phased out, Britain took over as the major power house. It started intervening in Brunei and other neighbouring regions. During a time of internal conflicts, Britain attacked Brunei in July 1846. During the period of 1880s, Bruneian Empire continued to decline. The then sultan granted land (now Sarawak state of Malaysia) to a Briton named, James Brooke. Over time, Brooke and his family members leased or annexed more land. Brunei lost much of its land and power to Brooke. At this juncture, Sultan Hashim sought help from the British Empire to stop further encroachments; so, the Treaty of Protection was signed in 1888. The treaty said that “the sultan could not cede or lease any territory to foreign powers without British consent and Britain would help Sultan to protect his kingdom”. But Britain didn’t help Brunei when neighbouring Sarawak annexed Brunei’s Pandaruan District in 1890. This annexation left Brunei with its current small land mass and separation into two parts. Nevertheless, using the power vested in the treaty, Britain took effective control over Brunei’s external affairs, making it a British protectorate. During the World War II, Japan invaded Brunei and gained administrative power to run the country, keeping the Sultan on throne. After World War, a new government was formed in Brunei under the British Military Administration. In 1959, a new constitution was enacted and Brunei was declared as a self-governing state but foreign affairs, security, and defence responsibilities remained under Britain. A small rebellion erupted against the monarchy in 1962, which was suppressed with help of the United Kingdom. Known as the Brunei Revolt, it frustrated the move to create the North Borneo Federation. The rebellion partially affected Brunei’s decision to opt out of the Malaysian Federation.
Brunei gained independence from the United Kingdom on January 01, 1984.
Under Brunei’s constitution, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Wad’daulah is the head of state with full executive authority. Sultan Bolkiah also serves as the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Defence Minister. He has been on the throne since 1967. The Sultan has been ranked among the wealthiest individuals in the world; Forbes estimated his total peak net worth at US$20 billion in 2008. The Royal family retains a venerated status within Brunei. During national festivals, including Hari Raya (Eid) celebration, the Sultan allows his subjects to meet him and distributes special gifts to all. The Sultan is highly popular in the country. All citizens enjoy free medical service, free education, exemption of personal income tax, housing benefits and low-interest housing. The government also helps the people to get appropriate job and provides other incentives. Therefore, Brunei people lovingly call their country “the abode of peace” Economic growth during the 1990s and 2000s, with the GDP increasing 56 per cent from 1999 to 2008, transformed Brunei into an industrialised country. It has developed wealth from extensive petroleum and natural gas fields. Brunei has the second-highest Human Development Index among the Southeast Asia nations, after Singapore, and is classified as a “developed country”. Brunei’s well-preserved nature reserves and ecosystems remain the country’s main attractions as a tourism destination. Brunei’s pristine rainforest has encouraged the producers of South Korea’s renowned reality-documentary show “Law of the Jungle” to film one of its episodes in this green kingdom.
Brunei has a few interesting tourist attractions but nothing could be more prominent than The Istana Nurul Iman, the palace and official residence of the Sultan of Brunei. It is world’s one of the largest residential and administrative palaces currently in use. The palace has 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms, and a floor area of 200,000 square metres. Amenities include five swimming pools, an air-conditioned stable for the Sultan’s 200 polo ponies, a 110-car garage, a banquet hall that can be expanded to accommodate up to 5,000 guests, and a mosque accommodating 1,500 people. The palace was built in 1984 at a cost of around US$ $400 million and has 564 chandeliers, 51,000 light bulbs, 44 stairwells, 18 elevators, and 13 (exterior) satellite dishes. The palace is used for all state functions. Islam is the official religion and dictated by the Mudabh of Shafi’I under Sunni branch. Two-thirds of the population, including the majority of Bruneian Malays and Bruneian Chinese, adhere to Islam. Buddhism (13 per cent, mainly by the Chinese) and Christianity (10 per cent) are other two major religions. Brunei’s revised penal code came into force on April 22, 2014, stipulating death penalty for numerous offences including defamation of the Prophet, insulting any verses of the Quran and Hadith, blasphemy, declaring oneself a prophet or non-Muslim, robbery, rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations for Muslims and murder. Upon adopting sharia laws, Brunei banned Christmas decorations in public places. Though this decision was criticised abroad, local and foreign Christians didn’t face any problem to celebrate Christmas and attended the mass as in usual manner. Brunei is one of the many countries, including Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and China, which claims some part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. There is another disputed land issue. The status of Limbang as part of Sarawak under Malaysia has been disputed by Brunei. The issue was reportedly settled in 2009, with Brunei agreeing to accept the border in exchange for Malaysia giving up claims to oil fields in Bruneian waters. The Brunei government denies this and says that their claim on Limbang was never dropped. Petroleum was discovered in 1929 after several fruitless attempts. The British Malayan Petroleum Company (now Brunei Shell Petroleum Company) was formed in 1922. The first offshore well was drilled in 1957. Oil and natural gas have been the basis of Brunei’s development and wealth since the late 20th century. But without new discoveries, Brunei’s oil and gas reserves will last only 24 years, according to a report by the British Petroleum. There is an apprehension that with the price of oil at record lows, Brunei is quickly becoming the first oil-rich country to fall victim to economic reliance on the energy industry. Recent data released by the Department of Economic Planning and Development show that Brunei economy struggled to return to growth last year. GDP decreased 0.6 per cent in 2015, which followed a 2.3 per cent contraction in 2014. At the peak of its 2008-2015 financial crisis, Greece’s budget deficit was equal to 15.7 per cent of its GDP. For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Brunei is currently on track to report a fiscal deficit calculated at 16 per cent of its GDP. With economic stagnation is inevitable, it is important to see how Brunei overcomes its recent challenges and continues to develop the country as planned in its vision 2030. It is important for Bangladesh also since a good amount of foreign remittance has been coming from Brunei and there exist further opportunities to strengthen economic relationship between the two friendly countries.
The writer is a researcher and business analyst. He is the CEO & Chief Consultant of Best Sourcing Business Advisory Services.