Bruneians unfazed by ‘sensationalism’ of Sharia law
By Sumisha Naidu/www.channelnewsasia.com/10th Jun 2015
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Every Friday at 12pm, Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghost town.
Muslims in the capital observe Friday prayers and for the next two hours, every business – from restaurants to entertainment outlets – must remain closed by law.
During the fasting month, a similar scenario occurs. In 2014, the government declared that restaurants will not be able to serve dine-in food between sunrise and sunset, regardless of the owners’ or customers’ religion.
These are just some of the effects of the deep Islamic roots that run through the nation of about 420,000 people. In 2014, the Sultan announced the rollout of a strict Islamic penal code, a first for a Southeast Asian country. Some of the harsher penalties include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning.
While Islam is Brunei’s official religion, government figures state about 34 per cent of the population are of different religions, including Buddhism and Christianity.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs said the minorities are free to practice their faiths, but only among themselves. Public displays of non-Muslim festivities are prohibited as this could be construed as attempts to propagate religions other than Islam.
The laws sound restrictive but many non-Muslims appear unfazed.
“This is a Muslim country so we have to follow Muslim laws right?” said Jessica, a retiree.
“I think because I grew up here in Brunei, I’m used to the life here so I think everything is fine,” added Shar Pay, a teacher.
Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said: “Being a minority in Brunei, they’ve always lived under restrictions, even before the Sharia law was imposed. So I think they are used to living with restrictions. They have a coping mechanism built in. The Chinese population has been there since the 15th century.”
Publicly at least, complaints are few and far between in Brunei, one of the world’s richest nations. But internationally, the small nation has often been thrown into the spotlight over its religious policing and the lavish lifestyles of the royal family, to whom Sharia law does not apply.
Brunei is constitutionally an absolute monarchy, and there are very few limits to the powers of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
But some locals have said foreign media have unfairly sensationalised the royals and the Islamic regulations, so much so that it has affected tourism.
“Actually before we had a lot of bookings but now it’s quite quiet,” said tour guide Ali Kairul Rizal. “When foreign media reports mention Brunei, it is all about the Sharia law, it is all about the bad things about our Sultan. But they didn’t get the news where every single thing, where every single Bruneian was happy because of our Sultan.”
Many Bruneians Channel NewsAsia spoke to also revered the Sultan for using his oil wealth to help the people. “We love him so much, I’m very proud to have him as our Sultan of Brunei,” said one citizen.
“The majority of them would support the monarchy for the very simple reason that Brunei have extensive welfare provisions,” said Professor Chin.
“For example, there is no personal income tax in Brunei. The overwhelming bulk of the population works for the civil service. All medical care for Brunei citizens are free. Education is completely free. And almost everything else is subsidised.”
Still, some from the younger generations are growing restless. Locals talk of boredom, crossing over the border on weekends to the much more liberal Malaysia. Some bring back restricted quantities of alcohol and cigarettes – things not openly sold in Brunei.
“The majority are happy. Only a small number of them think they’re restricted,” said Brunei director of Youth and Sports Abdul Malik Mohammad. “Rebels, it is normal for young people to like to rebel.”
To some Bruneians, these small gripes are still outweighed by the benefits of being a citizen. They do not see a need to leave just yet as long as the country continues to deliver on the promise enshrined in its official name: The Nation