After delaying implementation briefly because of criticism from the United Nations and rights groups, the Sultan of Brunei, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, announced a tough new Shari’ah-based criminal code for his tiny country earlier this week, dialing back the clock of civilization in his small, wealthy nation by 13 centuries or so.
The new law will impose Islamic penalties on crimes covered by the Sultanate’s existing British-based justice system, and add a host of new ones, including adultery, pregnancy outside of marriage, failure to perform Friday prayers, blasphemy, and declaring oneself to be a non-Muslim.
The law also increases the severity of penalties for crimes already covered by Brunei’s strict penal code, introducing flogging, amputations for theft or robbery, and death by stoning for a number of offenses, including homosexual activity, which under Brunei’s current laws is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Not all of the new law’s tough provisions will be applied to non-Muslims, but some will, and in announcing the law this past Wednesday, Sultan Bolkiah warned that public criticism would be considered a violation of it. The law is to be implemented in phases over the next three years, with the harshest penalties due to be introduced later.
Apart from the mild criticism from the UN, which considers stoning a form of torture and expressed disappointment that Brunei would be implementing a death penalty that has not been carried out in the former British colony since 1957, the only other backlash so far has been a protest from the LGBT community and its supporters, who have called for a boycott of hotels owned by the Dorchester Collection. Dorchester is an investment vehicle for the Sultanate, and owns 10 luxury hotels around the world, including The Dorchester and 45 Park Lane in London, The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, Plaza Athénée, Hotel Meurice, and Le Richemond in Paris, Principe di Savoia in Milan, Cosworth Park in Berkshire, England, and Hotel Eden in Rome.
The implementation of Brunei’s new law prompted fashion designer Peter Som and Brian Atwood to cancel planned Fashion Week events at the hotels, and they were quickly joined by author and activist Stephen Fry, who cancelled a booking at the plush Cosworth Park in protest of Brunei’s “stone the gays” law.
Brunei officials other than the Sultan have sought to allay fears about the new laws, saying that imposition of the brutal punishments would be subject to stringent legal conditions and that judges would be given wide latitude in handing down sentences. These qualifications, however, seem to contradict the point of view of the Sultan himself, who, in announcing the laws, called them “a great achievement.”
Foreign diplomats and other observers in Brunei have noted that the Sultan has become increasingly religious in the past few years, which has an immediate impact on Brunei as a whole because Hassanal Bolkiah is the epitome of the “L’État, c’est moi” attitude toward leadership.
Up until now, the Sultan has been able to cement his strong popularity among his subjects (three-fourths of whom are Malay Muslims, with most of the rest being non-Muslim ethnic Chinese) with one of Asia’s highest standards of living, liberally financed by Brunei’s impressive oil and gas revenues.
There are signs, however, that the resource reservoir is starting to run out; Brunei’s output of oil declined nearly 35 percent between 2006 and 2012, from 220,000 barrels per day to about 141,000 bbl/day, and while some recent discoveries of small yet still commercially-viable gas reserves in the part of the South China Sea controlled by Brunei have extended the life of the country’s resources, most estimates see Brunei’s total output declining by half before 2035, and running out entirely sometime after that.
While the government is aware of the need to diversify the Sultanate’s economy, efforts towards that goal have so far been unimpressive, and it seems they very well might be completely hamstrung by the Sultan’s decision to apply his personal medieval sense of morality on the whole country.
The initial backlash against the barbaric punishments and new restrictions on personal freedoms might not have much effect now, but if it spreads – which is more likely if and when Brunei actually imposes a brutal sentence on someone for a moral crime – Brunei’s much-needed foreign investors as well as countries in which the Sultanate can apply its own formidable financial resources to invest in non-petroleum enterprises (such as Australia, where Brunei owns a cattle ranch that is actually bigger than its home country) are going to be made very uncomfortable by appearing to support a radical Islamic regime.
Another potentially troublesome factor is that Brunei’s foray into grim desecularization of its justice system is being looked at as a test case by others in the region, particularly increasingly conservative Muslim political parties and their constituents in parts of neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
In Malaysia’s Kelantan state in particular, the dominant Islamic PAS party has said Brunei’s move has encouraged it to accelerate its plans to push for a similar law, an initiative that the government of Prime Minister Rajib Nazak is doing little to stop despite PAS’ effort being at odds with Malaysia’s ostensibly secular constitution.
While the efforts of the Sultan to maintain the peace and order his small realm is already known for can be appreciated, imposing a rather bloodthirsty, narrow personal moral standard in order to achieve that has disturbing implications. Not just for his own country, where it might ultimately prove to be self-defeating, but for the whole region where political relationships between Islamic and non-Islamic interests are already tenuous at best.