By Ernie Bower & Noelan Arbis
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced on October 22 that Brunei would implement a Sharia penal code system beginning April 2014. The new measures would broaden the judicial capacity of Sharia laws, which are currently limited to family matters such as marriage and inheritance, to levying corporal punishments like amputations for theft and stoning for adultery. These changes do not appear to be consistent with the direction the Sultan has defined for his country. Imposing laws that go against moderate Islam in the Brunei specifically and Southeast Asia generally could hamper the country’s appeal to foreign businesses and visitors and disrupt the calm, easy going equanimity of society.
The Sultan has become a more devout practitioner of Islam as he gets older. But his vision for a modern Brunei has always included a signature of moderation and tolerance in interpreting religion’s role in governance and society. The question is why change now? The new dictates appear to be emanating from the Ministry of Religious Affairs led by Minister Dr. Haji Muhammad bin Pengiran Haji Abdul Rahman.
Brunei traditionally has practiced a more conservative brand of Islam relative to its neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. Bruneian laws ban the sale and public consumption of alcohol, mandate Islamic education for Muslim children, require businesses to close during Friday prayers, and discourage non-Muslims from dining in restaurants during the holy month of Ramadan. While the new measures will only apply to Muslims, who make up approximately two-thirds of Brunei’s population of nearly 450,000 people, they will make Brunei the only country in the Asia Pacific region to implement strict Sharia-based penal codes on a nationwide scale.
These new developments in Brunei will draw attention and beg the question of whether Islam in Southeast Asia – traditionally moderate and tolerant in its interpretation and application – is becoming more fundamentalist. In Malaysia, a court ruled on October 14 that only Muslims could use the word “Allah” in referring to God, raising tensions between the country’s majority Muslim population and non-Muslim citizens.
The question is why is the Sultan allowing his country to move toward a less tolerant, more fundamentalist application of Islam. That is not clear, but many Bruneians are privately concerned that creeping conservatism, led by the Minister of Religious Affairs, has created a political trap for the Sultan who has been spending time trying to forge a secure and economically prosperous future for his country. It may be hard, even for the Sultan who is the unchallenged and sole leader of Brunei, to disavow initiatives to make the country more devout.
However, when asked for his views, the Sultan has mouthed support for the new strict enforcement measures saying the penal code comes as “special guidance from God,” and part of “Brunei’s great history.” Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, the country’s top Islamic scholar and a close associate of the Minister for Religious Affairs affirmed that the new code is critical for enhancing the country’s security.
The rise of a stricter religious regime may not be consistent with Brunei’s avowed economic strategy. Brunei’s oil reserves are expected to run out in two decades. In response, the government is embarking on a strategy to attract more foreign investment in diverse, non-resource based sectors and it is promoting tourism. To this end, Brunei has been a founding member of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and has proactively worked to enhance closer economic coordination with the United States and other trading partners including China, Japan, Korea, India and Europe. Brunei just successfully completed a year as chair of ASEAN and hosted the East Asia Summit last month.
Bruneians have been very careful about criticizing the implementation of new sharia laws. It is possible that limits on religious toleration in the population could also be restricting policy makers from addressing what appears to be an obvious contradiction in objectives. The harsh new penal code could undercut Brunei’s geostrategic and economic long term objectives. One hopes that the Sultan, who has been a wise and caring leader, will be able to reconcile these competing trends.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.