Examining Brunei’s Morals


Amnesty International describes it as a “return to the dark ages”. The Sultan of Brunei has announced the commencement of a highly controversial sharia penal code for his tiny state this month, amid international outrage. The new law criminalizes acts such as sodomy and out-of-wedlock pregnancies and introduces stiff new penalties which include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning.

The Sultan, His Majesty Hassanal Bolkiah, defends the move by stating that an emphasis on Islam is a “firewall against globalization” and hit back at those crying injustice by saying: “theory states that Allah’s law is cruel and unfair but Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair.” The ruler of the oil-rich state may be passing himself off as simon-pure, claiming to be holier than thou, but the royal family of Brunei may not be all that moral. Indeed this is not the first time the family, which controls the bulk of the nation’s massive oil wealth, made global headlines which are out-of-this-world strange.

If the country were to set a high moral standard for its’ people, Sultan Hassanal’s family are the wrong role models.

Prince Azim of Brunei, third in line in the succession to the throne, is photographed partying with high-profile guests.
Prince Azim of Brunei, third in line in the succession to the throne, is photographed partying with high-profile guests.

Brunei boasts rich oil reserves and among the wealthiest monarchs in the planet estimated to be worth US$20 billion. The royals are living in a palace with 1,788 rooms, 257 bathrooms which can accomodate 5,000 guests at any single time. Bruneian citizens also enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.

While Brunei may enjoy fame for being a prosperous nation in a corner of the world with a lot of extreme poverty, recently it has also attained notoriety for a very wrong reason.

Early this year, the Sultan – HM Hassanal Bolkiah – announced a transition to a sharia based penal code which would apply to all residents of the state, be they Muslim or otherwise. The law will come into effect in different phases, the first one taking effecting on the 1st of May. The new law makes acts such as sodomy, adultery and homosexual intercourse serious offences which would result in flogging or even death by stoning.

Abortion, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, apostasy and practice of another religion besides Islam has also been forbidden and is punishable with fines and prison sentences while theft results in the severing of hands.

It’s not surprising to know that the world is less than pleased by this new development, particularly as it oppresses homosexuals, transgenders and members of other faith. Global celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres and British actor Stephen Fry have called for boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air which are both in the ownership of an investment fund owned by the royal family of Brunei.

The Sultan defends his move by saying it was to retain morals in his country, particularly to ’emphasize’ Islamic way of life.

Ironically however, the Sultan’s own family members may struggle to conform to the strict moral code he has set. Two members of the Brunei royal family – Prince Jefri and Prince Azim – both having stakes in a tremendous amount of oil wealth and have courted controversy in the past.

At the start of the millenium, Prince Jefri Bolkiah faced his own family in the courts of Brunei. Prince Jefri was the Finance Minister from 1986 to 1998 and during his stint as minister he is thought to have embezzled billions of dollars of the nation’s wealth to finance a playboy lifestyle. This is an instance of theft, a violation of his elder brother’s sharia law. If he had done that next year, he would have been made to face harsh penalties if found guilty.

Despite how serious of a crime that may have been, what Prince Jefri had spent the money on is a greater violation of the moral code.

A former Miss USA, Shannon Marketic, came forward in 1997 and accused the prince of flying her in along with “many other women” to be part of a harem of the prince’s very own sexual amusement. Among the acts demanded of them was to lick the prince’s body clean.

This was not an isolated case however. The following year he was sued by former business partners for neglecting a business deal the Prince had agreed with them as he instead flew in prostitutes from around the world. Both this lawsuit and the Miss USA case were settled out of court.

Both acts however fall outside the Sultan’s sharia penal code. Under sharia, sexual intercourse is only allowed between husband and wife. Any form of sex outside wedlock is considered a crime and punishable by death.

Another member of the royal family is Prince Azim, a party-loving monarch in his early 30’s. Aside from having royal status in his home country, Prince Azim is well-known among global paparazzis. The reason for this is because of his high-profile party appearances and for hosting gatherings with A-list international celebrities in attendance.

The most famous of these gatherings might be his “Party of the Year” birthday celebration in 2009, with Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Joan Collins in attendance. He has also thrown parties with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in attendance, and is known to be friends with movie star Scarlett Johansson. His biggest claim to fame? Boasting that he took shots with the late superstar Michael Jackson during a party in London in 2007.

That moment could not have happened in his native Brunei, for the sale of alcohol has been banned for many years. This is in accordance to strict Islamic dietary customs, with all intoxicating substances forbidden by the Qur’an. Consumption of alcohol is among the major Islamic sins and the trading of alcohol is even considered forbidden.

Therefore is Prince Azim boasts about being a massive party animal, and brushing elbows with Western celebrities then it is almost unlikely that he practices this straightforward Islamic dietary requirement. Under the Sultan’s new sharia penal code, alcohol consumption faces a penalty of flogging. It will be interesting to see a member of a prestigious royal family being flogged for breaking a law.

But who are we kidding? The Sultan’s attempt at imposing morals on his citizens is a big sham. If the Sultan is serious in promoting a stringent practice of Islamic code, he needs to ensure his own family straighten their acts first. It is really embarrassing to be claiming to be sacrosanct while the media reports otherwise.

Chastity and family values are of course commendable, but it is unfair to be pointing the fingers at homosexuals when straight people fall short of this expectation too. And what moral ground do you have requiring people to get married before they can engage in intercourse when your own brother is among the world’s biggest patron of prostitutes?

True leadership does not boss people around, but instead sets standards. The Sultan needs to be a role model, along with his family, if they want to make the new sharia law legitimate. A law that comes from God Himself should not exclude anyone, not even those that claim to be kings. The royal family should not have the privilege to be exempt of these new laws, and if they finally find perspective and admit that it is too absurd and ludicrous – then they should heed to the call of their people and of the citizens of the world and scrap this primitive, barbaric law once and for all.

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