Open Letter to Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah

Photo by Jack McGrath, graphic by Rachael Millar

By Jack McGrath

Preamble

For seven years, I lived in the Sultanate of Brunei. I had arrived following two years in Egypt which was, at the time, suffering the upheavals of the Arab Spring. 

Brunei itself could not stand more comically in contrast to Egypt. To go from one to the other is to trade unforgiving deserts for vast, undulating, breathing jungles. It is to exchange insane streetways for a tranquility that borders on the absurd. It is to see political and societal turmoil vanish between the pillars of uniformity and silence. 

You see, Brunei’s claim to being the ‘abode of peace’ was, for quite some time, not a ridiculous one. The discovery of oil at Seria eventually made Brunei one of the richest countries per capita on Earth. Most its citizens consequently enjoyed a comfortable tax-free lifestyle. Political unrest was unheard of. And religious intolerance was an idea that simply held no currency. To many eyes, it may have seemed the achievement of paradise undying. 

But Brunei was created by no God. It is no divine revelation. It is more accurately seen as a groping toward paradise. A groping that cannot be anything but distinctly and tragically human. Tragic because human endeavours are always bought. Human paradise (to use such a phrase) is no exception. It is a bought paradise. One that must be leveraged on slavery, or gold, or oil, or otherwise. It is, moreover, bound to be temporary. Destined to be fleeting.

When the sun begins to set on such places, as it always must, you might begin to hear whispers from outside the Garden of Paradise. And aged and withered rulers will pay heed to such whispers, in desperation. ‘Anything’ they will say, ‘anything’ to not lose what they still have.

Henceforth, I address this to you directly, Mr. Bolkiah. The sun is indeed setting on your paradise. And I know the whispers that you have been courting. They speak to you of religious fundamentalism, of closer ties with Saudi Arabia. Let me tell you, Mr. Bolkiah, why this is a doomed path. And let me implore of you, beg of you even, to consider another. 

Sunset

As you must be aware, Mr. Bolkiah, Brunei’s stability is leveraged on oil (and related resources). It constitutes 90% of your exports and 60% of your GDP. This would be of no concern if oil were endless. But it is not. In fact, the BP World Energy Outlook has suggested that you will deplete your supplies within the next two decades. But surely, I hear you say, deep sea exploration will yield more oil. Perhaps. But that is not something you can rely on. In any case, low oil prices will undoubtedly discourage Shell and Petronas (your oil partners) from investing in such pursuits. So, even if there are discoveries to be made, it is unlikely that you will be in a position to capitalise upon them anyway.

If you carry blindly on into the future then, you will walk your country into economic oblivion. This much is surely obvious. But why, given that, have you done so little to diversify? In 2014 an energy white paper revealed your bewildering vision for the future. One, I would add, that is easily paraphrased: Oil, gas. Gas, oil. And then more still of both. It claims that by 2035 you will be producing 650,000 barrels of oil a day, up from 372,000 in 2015. But, of course, no plan is offered explaining how that will be achieved. 

What you should be doing is attracting foreign eco-investment and eco-tourism (making the most of your other great natural resource). But on both counts you are failing. According to the World Bank, Brunei currently trails Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia (all fellow ASEAN countries) with respect to the ease with which one can do business domestically. Tourism, on the other hand, seems to barely feature among your concerns. It was given a meagre $300,000 budget in 2015 and since 2004 has seen a 75% decline.

The picture becomes bleaker still. If you are to have any hope of diversifying your economy through eco-investment and eco-tourism, at some point you will have to target a western audience. An ASEAN audience alone will not suffice. And yet you have actively undermined this by embracing religious fundamentalism in the form of Sharia Law.

Somewhere along the way, it ought to be said, it seems that you saw this latter part of the picture. This is why, I think, you halted the introduction of phases 2 and 3 of Sharia Law in 2016/17. Yet it was too late. The damage was done. Eco-investment and eco-tourism had already been fundamentally undermined. In fact, it seems that in the eyes of the west, you, Mr. Bolkiah, committed an unforgivable crime. Something that you cannot come back from. And so, Mr. Bolkiah, it would seem that now you are the problem. 

Let me be very clear. Religious fundamentalism will get you nowhere. It is not compatible with the kind of diversification that your economy requires. But now, even if you backpedal on your fundamentalism, it seems a bitter taste will remain. It seems that so long as you are in power, fundamentalism or not, Brunei is destined for economic collapse.

Sunrise

So, Mr. Bolkiah, it appears you are in a predicament indeed. But I promised a route out. Let me make good on that promise now. 

For a future of stability Brunei needs dramatic change. This means; 

firstly, the complete denunciation of any form of religious fundamentalism,

secondly, a return, made in earnest, to religious tolerance,

thirdly, diversification away from an export-led oil-reliant economy toward eco-tourism and foreign investment, and

fourthly, your abdication and the democratisation of Brunei.

Do all that and, I can assure you, Brunei will have at a least a chance at a future of stability. 

Shadows

If, however, you do not carry out these measures, Mr. Bolkiah, then I must instead call on your own people to do so. If you lack the integrity, the decency, and the moral courage, to do the right thing, then your people must find all that within their own selves and enact the change that you could not. To fight for their future, their lives, and their home. And, I do truly believe, they would succeed.

So, Mr. Bolkiah, I recommend that you walk along the banks of your rivers. I recommend that you walk along them and think. Paradise has been and, if we are being honest, has gone. What remains is a pale phantom of the past. A phantom perverted by shadows that speak from behind a veil of self-deceit. Your self-deceit. 

Do not entertain shadows, Mr. Bolkiah. 

– Jack Dylan McGrath.

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