By Zhenjie Im.
5th November 2013, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 4, No. 4.
Brunei is to enforce a strict new Islamic legal code, expected to include death by stoning for adultery and flogging for consuming alcohol.
On 22nd October 2013, Sultan Hassanal Bolkah announced that Sharia Law would be implemented in Brunei in phases across six months. The new measure would now extend the jurisdiction of Islamic courts beyond marriage and inheritance. Punishments announced include death by stoning for crimes such as adultery and the amputation of limbs for theft. He was quoted describing the legislation “as part of the great history of our nation” and a form of “special guidance” from God. He added “it is because of our need that Allah the almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so we can utilise them to obtain justice”. Sultan Bolkah also announced that the new measure would only be applicable to the Malay majority who generally follow the Islamic faith.
By doing so, Brunei will have become the first East Asian country to implement Sharia law at the national level. This is however carried out in a backdrop of little demand for Sharia law to be extended beyond its current jurisdiction. While following the Islamic faith, the affluent Malay majority tends not to practise the brand of fundamentalist Islam common to the Middle East. Furthermore there have been doubts over the compatibility of an all-encompassing Sharia law with the general laid-back Malay culture in Brunei that tends not to identify with the ultra-conservatism of the Middle East. This measure has thus generated rare discontent amongst the populace who generally accept the Sultan’s will without question.
Given the disconnect between him and his subjects on this matter, Sultan Bolkah’s move can perhaps be explained better by political motives than religious ones. According to Dr. Ahmad Faroud Musa, the change would “cement his [Sultan Bolkar’s] authority over his citizens and it will give him the power, like my decree is basically a decree by God and I’m actually voice of God on earth or something like that.” Dr. Musa also referred to the possible impact of the Arab Spring to the 600 years-old monarchy in Brunei as a probable reason for such a legislation.
Such an explanation is highly plausible given that an appeal to Sharia Law will provide the Sultan with another means of justifying his authority and perpetuating his family’s rule over the kingdom similar to Saudi Arabia. The lavish lifestyle of the royal family has generated much displeasure amongst the population. The monarch, estimated to have a fortune worth USD$20 billion by Forbes, has a collection of luxury cars and gold bedecked palaces. His brother was discovered to own a luxury yacht called “Tits” and paid for a high-priced harem of Western paramours through revelations from his public feuds with Sultan Bolkah. He was also charged for embezzling USD$15 million dollars during his tenure as finance minister. Furthermore Sultan Bolkah viewed the integration of the world – and with it, dissemination of information and new ideas – as a threat to Brunei’s moral value. Such a stance against globalisation is perhaps fuelled by a fear of losing his grip on the country if the population begins questioning the monarchy. Therefore while Brunei was never in danger of following the steps of Tunisia or Egypt, it is possible such events compelled Sultan Bolkah to seek further legitimacy for his rule in hopes of preventing an Arab Spring at his doorstep.
While the Sultan has called upon other states not to interfere in its internal affairs, it is important to note that such a measure has impacts beyond Brunei’s domestic borders. Some Malaysians and Indonesians who belong to the small but growing group of conservative Muslims support the move and even seek to migrate to Brunei because of its introduction of Sharia Law. The implementation of Sharia law in Brunei can generate an expectation among this group of conservative Muslims that the same can be done in neighbouring Muslim-dominated Indonesia and Malaysia. Unlike Brunei which has about 12 000 non-Muslims out of a population of 400 000, Indonesia and Malaysia have a far greater number of non-Muslims who definitely do not view Sharia Law to be compatible with their way of life. Such expectations would therefore either lead to unfulfilled expectations and hence possible restlessness or unnecessary discontent among non-Muslims and mainstream Malay Muslims if Sharia law were passed. Either way, pressure on the governments of both countries arising from the successful implementation of Sharia Law in Brunei should be expected. How these countries then deal with this pressure will set the general tone of dialogue with their regional neighbours in an extremely heterogeneous Southeast Asia.
Please cite this article as:
Zhenjie, I. (2013) ‘Brunei brings harsh Reality of Sharia law to Southeast Asia’. Human Security Centre, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 4, No. 4.