Brunei: the most loved repressive regime in the world?

Sanne van Oosten

Visiting Brunei was very interesting to us. Especially from the point of view of a political scientist. Brunei has free education, practically free medical care, free museums and subsidized fuel. And no…. income tax! All thanks to good ole black gold: oil. 90% of export revenue is thanks to oil and this also makes for a nice and fat piggy bank for the government, or should I say Sultanate, of Brunei.

The government of Brunei is much loved. Which was quite a difference from what we noticed when we were in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. The people we spoke to are generally positive about their government and agree with their policies. And why wouldn’t they be? They receive so many benefits from their government and the Bruneian people are quite affluent. No worries?

I would be worried as I would call the Bruneian government quite repressive. For instance, you are not allowed to organize or visit concerts at which the audience stands. If the audience can sit it is ok, but if they have to stand, then it is not allowed. Too bad for fans of festivals, you have to go to Malaysia if you want that. However, parades to celebrate independence and honor the sultan are exempt from such regulations.

Also, house parties and public gatherings are not allowed to last until any later than 11 PM.

Being caught littering will cost you the equivalent of 500 USD. If you are caught littering for the second time, shame on you, you are fined with the equivalent of 1500 USD and a possible three month imprisonment, as many signs throughout the city will remind you.

Most notably, however, no alcohol is allowed to be sold anywhere within the Sultanate of Brunei.

Still the people are quite positive about their government. This could be due to the democratic nature of these seemingly strict policies. Don’t get me wrong, Brunei is not a democracy. Nevertheless, these policies that I mentioned above could still be in general agreement with public opinion. This isn’t to say that all people agree with such policies, proven by the fact that Malaysian towns bordering Brunei are often visited by Bruneians in search of relative freedoms.

However, I want to propose another explanation, or actually a hypothesis that requires further research to prove right or wrong. Couldn’t it also be possible that since the government is in the position to give so much to the people of Brunei, they can get away with strict rules like this? People who live in a repressive regime will accept this when they see the benefits of living in that country, the affluence, the government subsidies and the relative peace they have in Brunei. Especially when the benefits are so much better than in the surrounding countries?

This way such policies could be instated without the people being severely skeptical about the government and forcing any kind of resignation through a popular uprising? Similarly, some contend that the uprisings in Egypt in January of 2011 had more to do with severe youth unemployment than with loathing towards the Mubarak regime. Likewise, the French Revolution ultimately was fueled by rising bread prices. However, these are examples of why revolutions did commence and not theories of why revolutions did and do not commence. Too bad I have graduated as a political scientist and am more of a sociologist now, I think this would have been a great hypothesis for a thesis.

31 responses to “Brunei: the most loved repressive regime in the world?”

  1. Rachel W says :

    Very thought provoking post. I have read another interesting post that compares Brunei’s capital city with other world cities. You should check it out.

  2. islam di dadaku says :

    I never visited brunei even I live indonesia so I am interesting to visit it because this post

  3. Klondike Cheats says :

    What’s up, constantly i used to check blog posts
    here early in the break of day, as i love to find out more and more.

  4. http://test.com/ says :

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  5. JustGolda says :

    Interesting. It’s good to hear both sides of this since I am considering employment as a teacher in Brunei. It concerns me that the laws are becoming more strict in the next year and I’m glad for this new information. Thank you all for writing here to help inform the uninformed here in the sheltered west!

    • Make sense says :

      I’m jz dissatisfied with d police department.they r very unprofessional.jz passed few months,thrs few murder case & robbery incidents & yet d police always say wat they say best-( still under-investigation) & few weeks later no news after all..it’s been like this ever since way back & it’s police fields r reli unprofessional.i mean their education background only taught them how to catch couple in those secluded area n doing roadblocks,trust me,that’s their only expertise.i mean wat to expect from them?they wil nvr be like those US police or anywhere else cz they jz tk this as a daily job.But other than d policemen dissatisfaction,I hav no complaint about d country & The Sultan.this country is just d right country to live in minus all d unproffesional police..

  6. wouldnt you like to know says :

    This is a very interesting post that seems to have created 2 sides to the argument. Nazwims comments were surprisingly, and refreshingly frank and it was a good read. Sanne, it was good to hear this comment from a political scientist rarther than a few people having a drunk conversation and yes, your hypothesis could well be true. I hate to quote a god awful film such as the fast five but the main villan is said film keeps the local population under control by providing them with a few of lifes little luxuries so they feel life is better under his regime.
    I am not for a minute saying that the sultanate in Brunei is in anyway close to the mafia/cartel style ruling of an area but the idea of giving people a comfortable way of living while implementing strict laws is a system that seems to work in Brunei.
    First and foremost, no one has a bad word to say about the Sultan or his family, however, a few people who seem more progressive, or have lived outside of Brunei before (educated in UK etc) do moan (when asked) about the bruneiens peoples inherently lazy/apathetic nature and the far to comon excuse of why something isnt done of ‘this is Brunei la’
    Then there is the amount of red tape that requires a buzz saw to cut it is so thick and entagled. A charity event was organised recently that required 4 different permits just to allow the items to be brought into brunei….they were paintings…..and the cost of the permit required to sell the paintings, which were offered to the charity for free by the artist, was so much that 70% of the paintings would have to be sold to break even.
    Then there is the tv and the press, the newspapers are not heavily censored but items which would make big news like government corruption are in a small article somwhere in the middle of the paper in black and white next to a big colour image of some good news. On the tv, all nudity is edited (no matter what time of day) and most signs of male affection towards another male including warm hugging embraces from to hetrosexual males. Most sh*ts Fu**s and C**ts are edited and every mention of God dam It! or Jesus Christ! but all action is not edited, including recent movie Conan the Barbarian which was at least 4 decapitations, all shown at 3pm 🙂 Even more amazing is that the BBC made a complaint to malaysian broadcasters Asrto about their world news being edited before being shown in Brunei and Malaysia.
    The interent is also edited with certain sites (mainly porn and anti muslim) blocked by the brunei server.
    An update on further laws being passed; regarding alcohol, from 1st January 2013, no alcohol is allowed in the country. That includes bringing alcohol over the boarder in any quantity.
    all female teachers will now have to wear tudongs (scarfs covering the hair and neck) in government schools. Before, all teachers had to wear bajus (long dresses) but the tudong was optional. Now it is mandatory for all teachers (including non muslims & expats which make up for 20% of teachers in schools)
    During friday prayers, all shops and restaurants were ‘asked’ to close so the country can be more religious. Now everything on Friday is shut between 12 and 2.30
    As Nazwim said, this will drive the expat comunity from Brunei. Before, people accepted that you cannot buy alcohol in the country, it is a muslim country and muslims cant drink, but the ability to drink in the privacy of your own home and be able to bring beer in was welcomed. now…… who knows.
    Im am sorry spartan, but in regards to only a few people go over the boarder to drink….Miri, Kuala Lura, Kota Kinabalu, and Labuan always have a number of Bruneiens drinking (I always seem to find them). I have been asked on a number of occasions to bring alcohol back for them because they cannot bring it back on their passport

  7. Teah says :

    Hello bloggers with Borders! Thank you for writing this, and as a former political science student who continues to be aware of political theories and global ongoing, I would like to point out several things in regards to this piece. That is not to say I don’t agree with it. There are some point that i definitely agree with and see the reason behind the argument. As a Bruneian, I would like to point out several things to enlighten some points.

    In terms of the littering law, I would like to point out that such law–although it exists–is not something that is practised. It is possible that it is an old law that has yet to be modified to be in par with more modern justice practises. but it is definitely not something that is practised, therefore I see it as somewhat redundant.

    The house parties regulation could also be because of the close distance between houses. As someone who have neighbours who karaokes regularly, I do find this useful because it helps that i have to go to work in the morning without having to be bothered by disturbances like these. Although, I’m not sure if the 11pm curfew still stands. It might actually be later than that.

    I would also like to share this: I had a talk with someone yesterday regarding repressive governments that uses populist/socialist policies in order to keep their people happy. We compared Brunei with UAE and we concluded that at some point, democracy should be something that is practised. Our conclusion is basically that it’s okay for royalties to be the higher authority figure, but why not introduce smaller scale elections? And we have smaller scale elections in Brunei, whereby we elect the head of the “village” we live in. However, although such thing is introduced, voters outcome is still relatively low. This is part and partial of the political apathy that has been fueled in people. There aren’t a lot of people who care about politics or social justice, so most of the time they see opportunities such as voting as something that is unnecessary and even laugh at the idea of electing the head of their village. When there’s food in your belly and roof above your head and a Sultan who provides populist policies, people just don’t see a reason to vote. Uprising is not going to happen because people would choose peace instead of risking the comfort they have.

    Brunei functions like a small town, which is why people are positive with the government. There is a tendency that people know each other because of the small population. That is not to say there are people who are absolutely happy with the state of the government. I would like to see it improve in efficiency, to see more women (qualified, of course) on top, and to have better resources to the things we already have. Not everyone is as apathetic as you came across when you visited the country. There are plenty of young people who try to get involved in society by forming their own NGOs in order to tackle stuff that the government is doing very slowly, but the amount of people who does this comparative to the ones who opt to just complain-with-no-action is still relatively small.

    The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport introduced a dialogue session with youths since two/three years ago, which I think is a good first step to get people’s voices heard. The people involved in these dialogues are student leaders and youth groups, which may shed a light into what’s in store in the future: more active leaders who are doers. but whether the repressiveness is going to continue is not something i can predict because the apathy is too great to determine the future outcome.

    Last thing I’d like to point out: Your White Man’s Burden is showing. 🙂

    • Bloggers Without Borders says :

      Wow, what a great comment! You really show us a deeper side of Brunei and really explain more about what I’m so amazed about in my blog. Thank you for this comment.

    • Nazim Dinwan says :

      I have lived in Brunei for over 3 years now. Some of the comments above are fact….
      The regime is repressive and there are very few “freedoms” that are accepted as given in the West – you cannot say what you want.
      The people are very sheltered and live life as agreeable subjects of the Sultan who gives out a miniscule amount of his income in the form of housing or such and then the people say he is benevolent. He remains a dictator that forces his will and law upon all by his government of people who are favoured – all being related to the Royals.
      There are NO elections or ANY form of democracy. Head of Village? He is a puppet who is nominated and the apathy is as a result of people knowing that there is no point in voting.

      There was an uprising many years ago, which was put down. But the Sultan is ever-fearful of this and only now is the highway being built from KB to BSB.
      The popular voice is disgruntled but people are scared and very wary, because there are informers and secret police listening and reporting. It is not uncommon for people to disappear.

      People are often not allowed to leave the country at all , even on a long weekend, to show respect for the Sultan’s birthday or a wedding etc. This has even been applied to ex-pats.

      As for the littering law and fines…..you are having a laugh! The country is filthy and polluted. Islands of plastic and junk flow down the rivers and lie next to the roads. People happily throw packets of KFC or McDonalds out of car windows.

      There is also supposed to be a law preventing open burning. LOL! Smoke billows from numerous open fires every day as people ignore this and burn their rubbish openly.

      There is NO law against partying! Muslim weddings are nororious noise polluters and last 3 days with karaoke going till way past 4am – even on a week night. There is NO respect for your sleep.

      Brunei is an enigma with 2 faces. People like Teah above live in a dream because the truth is never told and they grow up believing the lie. Even the newspapers are owned and censored by the royal family.

      If the Sultan was so great why does Brunei have one of the worst internet structures in the world? Why are there so many power outages? Why is the water so bad? Why is the sewarage system still pumping waste into rivers and the sea? Why is the road system so terrible?

      And now the government is moving towards Islamic and Sharia law? Watch all the putehs run! And then all the brains and hard workers will go and Bruneians will have toget up off their backsides and work – not sit in a government office all day doing nothing and getting paid for it.

    • Kulturaustausch says :

      Dear Teah,
      I’m working at a journal in Germany, who tries to give different perspectives on certain issues. At the moment I’m looking for someone to write about Brunei.
      If you read this in time, please contact me for further details: Karrer@ifa.de.
      Thank you!
      All the best!

    • Kulturaustausch says :

      Dear Teah,
      I’m working at a journal in Germany, who tries to give different perspectives on certain issues. At the moment I’m looking for someone to write about Brunei.
      If you read this in time, please contact me for further details: Karrer@ifa.de.
      Thank you!
      All the best!

  8. ka says :

    I do believed that brunei is a great country.. imean education free, and everything… what is not enough??? I think it has already reached to a satisfactory level, even that the sultan is too grateful and do care of his people very much… what is not enough??? No tax? What is not enough?? I do see brunei have a different perspective view towards thier people than the neighbouring countries.. even by having this ‘lawful’ lifestyle, we observed it as a still peaceful country throughout the years.. i do think that whatever has been given to you is never enough and demanding more and more are greedy.. dont you think?

  9. Passerby says :

    Never heard of underground bars anywhere in the country after living there for lots of years. This is really quite an interesting hypothesis that you’re proposing and it’s what some of my friends have been feeling about too, but they’re mostly foreigners though. Personally, what I’ve noticed is that people in Brunei grow up getting used to the “strict” laws and are entirely ok with it as if it was second-nature. Maybe it’s the way they were raised up, educated and, I dare say, maybe some religious factors play another role as well? No offense lol. There are so many things to consider and so many variables, factors….how can this hypothesis ever be proven true? I never really fancied political science though. It would’ve been easier to prove a physics equation. XD

    • passerby also says :

      Never heard of underground bars anywhere in the country after living there for lots of years. —- There are a few, obviously not made public.

      people in Brunei grow up getting used to the “strict” laws and are entirely ok with it as if it was second-nature. —- I agree with what you say, even with the part that some religious factors do play in some roles for example the Khutbah (Sermon). However, it does make me think that if the constraints get tighter; it might or might not bring up some problems.

  10. Sanne says :

    Dear Dan and the rest,

    So if I understand correctly, you are only refuting my statements on two points:

    – You say Brunei is not repressive, and you are completely in your right to say so. This is up to ones personal interpretation. I say yes, risking a 3 month imprisonment after littering is quite excessive and even repressive to me. But you can think differently about that. Therefore, this is not a wrong fact, but it is up to interpretation.

    – You refute my statement that alcohol is not allowed in Brunei by stating that alcohol is served at embassies and underground bars. First off, an embassy is officially the territory of the country it concerns, so they are allowed to employ the laws of that country. And second, have you ever stopped to think about why these alleged underground bars are underground in the first place? I rest my case.

    If these are the only two points in which my blog can be called “factually erroneous” then I say that it is, in fact, NOT “factually erroneous” at all. And all the other reactions in which my scolastic aptitudes are called into question are unwarranted.

    Dan, I really like how you question the extent of freedom anywhere in the world. This is a question I constantly ask myself too. I would like to add a few things to your questions. How free are people who are constantly submitted to watching commercials in which we are told to act a certain way? How free are people who are constantly told that they are supposed to act in a certain way because of the gender category they were born into? How free are people who are having trouble making ends meet? In my blogs about my home country, the Netherlands, I often call our alleged freedom into question. Just read my blog on homonationalism or my most recent blog called freedom after speech.

    I want to call out to all the people who disagree with this blog: write a blog yourself! Bloggers without Borders is open to posting blogs by other bloggers, just read the guidelines on the “join us” page above. I would love to post a blog that is about the “other” side of the story. Just send the blog to info@bloggerswithoutborders.com and let yourself be heard.

  11. Once a blogger too, but it gets old fast says :

    Dear Sir

    Please provide quotations or reference to these below:

    I would be worried as I would call the Bruneian government quite repressive(Citation Needed).

    For instance, you are not allowed to organize or visit concerts at which the audience stands. If the audience can sit it is ok, but if they have to stand, then it is not allowed. (Citation needed)

    Too bad for fans of festivals, you have to go to Malaysia if you want that. (Citation needed) However, parades to celebrate independence and honor the sultan are exempt from such regulations.

    Also, house parties and public gatherings are not allowed to last until any later than 11 PM.(Citation needed)

    Being caught littering will cost you the equivalent of 500 USD.(Citation needed, you mean your country doesn’t fine you for litterling? Fining people for littering is repressive??)
    If you are caught littering for the second time, shame on you, you are fined with the equivalent of 1500 USD and a possible three month imprisonment, as many signs throughout the city will remind you.

    Most notably, however, no alcohol is allowed to be sold anywhere within the Sultanate of Brunei.(Have you been to the British Garrisson and the Embassies of Foreign Countries in Brunei, or more adventurous, any underground pub?)

    This isn’t to say that all people agree with such policies, proven by the fact that Malaysian towns bordering Brunei are often visited by Bruneians in search of relative freedoms.(Searching for what kind of “freedom” may you care to explain more? Perhaps you could define to us freedom in the context of your article?)

    I think many political students have the assumption that a strict government or a a government ruled by a royal family is always repressing its people by somehow exploiting their freedom. I know from many countless history or case studies you did that may seem the case. But then again politically, what kind of freedom has democrazy brought to the people? Yes, you can buy whatever you like and go to whosever concert you fancy, but is that an illusion of freedom? Do you really get freedom? You have to pay taxes, you have to be led to use whatever service the corporations wanted you to use (for example cable or mobile coverage). Your government might not be the one you voted for. You might be pro-life but your state has just legalised abortions. Is that the freedom that you seek?

    My point is the context of freedom is subjective and not a one size fits all.

    Good day

    Dan

  12. bloggerswithoutborders says :

    Dear all,

    Yes, agree to disagree is my answer. You might find it “unrespectful” but I find it a respectful reply.

    Also, you say I have factual errors in my piece, please tell me what they are so I can improve this piece. And please, add links to respected websites to back your corrections, I’d like to be able to do some internet-research before posting corrections. Also, stick to the factual errors and not the differences between the Bruneian generally shared opinion and my opinion.

    All of the heated replies on Facebook and here do prove one claim in my blog to be right: Brunei is a country that is very much loved by its inhabitants, which I would call a very good thing.

    Best,

    Sanne

    P.S. the connection between the Arab Spring and unemployment is not something that out of the blue just dawned on me, it was a statement made in order support my hypothesis.

  13. estob says :

    Seriously? “Agree to disagree” is your answer?! These people point out some severe factual errors in your blog post, and seriously challenge some of the claims you make and you just put them off by replying that you agree to disagree. Unrespectful!

    Also, for a graduated political scientist to only now – after more than a year – come up whit the hypothesis that maybe (just maybe) the uprisings in the M-E have had something to do with unemployment and a bad economy really makes wonder how you ever managed to graduate. This hypothesis has existed for a long time and has been covered in existing literature to great extends. In fact, this hypothesis existed well before the uprising commenced in Tunesia and spread to other countries and has been proven to be at least partly valid in several other cases.

    I would seriously recommend you to get your research right before you post something on your pompous but low-quality blog.

  14. bloggerswithoutborder says :

    Thank you for the reply. Let’s just say we’ll agree to disagree!

  15. Fadli Z. says :

    Thank you for your views. It’s something to think about but we have to take account on the history, culture and religion of the people. I’m afraid your article might be misleading and bias with a few rough factual errors that might be corrected. Perspective-wise is interesting to see opinions and views of foreign natured visitors but opinions will differ with expatriates e,g New Zealanders, British, who’ve been living in Brunei happily for more than 10 to 15 years. View skepticism and reality with optimism. Without effort, hope and goals, progress is better than nothing really.

    But it’s something for everyone to think about.

  16. Spartan says :

    house parties and public gatherings are not
    allowed to last until any later than 11 PM? Common sense, we human need sleep

    no alcohol is allowed
    anywhere within the Sultanate of Brunei? False. You are allowed to bring/drink for personal use only

    proven by the fact that Malaysian
    towns bordering Brunei are often visited by
    Bruneians in search of relative freedoms, such as concerts and alcohol? False, because…OMG
    Only few people go there for drink. Concerts? O M G…Sabah or Sarawak concerts? LOL may i know what concerts that Bruneian most going? I bet u cant answer, maybe dangdut concerts LOL

    Wah, u graduated as a political scientist, nice la, but u need to learn how to put shoes others, aka empathy, i dont like your article because view by foreign is so stupid and hypocrite alien.

    I hope u will not involve in any politic, because the world will getting worst when you present

  17. Abdul Malik Omar says :

    Reblogged this on The AMO Times and commented:
    Here is something to think about

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