Brunei a throwback to an age of absolute monarchy

With a swing of his powerful arm, a prison guard landed a wicked-looking cane on the back of a dummy dressed in the white uniform of convicts in Brunei.

“It doesn’t hurt as much as you think,” he said.

Earlier this month, the International Convention Centre in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, was hosting a regional summit with the likes of John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and President Xi Jinping of China.

Last week, however, it was the venue for a three-day event designed to showcase the Sultan of Brunei’s decision to adopt Sharia for his country’s Muslim population. Robes worn by judges were put on display and Islamic scholars gave speeches.

But the caning demonstration brought home the harsh reality of a penal code which punishes adultery with death by stoning, theft with amputation by sword – and drunkeness with 40 lashes from a rattan cane.

From next April, the Muslims who are 70 per cent of Brunei’s 400,000-strong population will risk all these punishments. And despite the guard’s assertion, just three or four strokes of his cane will break the skin and leave most victims scarred for life.

The impending adoption of Sharia has led to calls for Britain, Brunei’s closest ally, to re-assess its relationship with a former Protectorate which won independence as recently as 1984.

David Cameron was already facing criticism for agreeing to attend next month’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, where human rights abuses are common. The Prime Minister is now being pressed to condemn Brunei’s embrace of laws widely regarded as barbaric and draconian.

“London has a very important role in trying to get the Sultan to re-consider this drastic move to a criminal Sharia system,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a major international outcry to stop this law and Great Britain should take the lead, starting by raising public concerns at the upcoming Commonwealth meeting.”

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is not used to having his decisions challenged. The 67-year-old is head of state and prime minister, as well as finance and defence minister. Ruling in near feudal fashion, the Sultan does not tolerate dissent or opposition political parties.

Armed with the revenues of Brunei’s oil and gas reserves, the Sultan is one of the world’s richest men and his fortune enables him to pay for a British Army garrison of about 1,000 soldiers – mainly a battalion of Gurkhas – which informally guarantees his rule.

His opulent, golden-domed palace in Bandar Seri Begawan is patrolled by former Gurkhas, rather than local troops. The British Army retains a jungle warfare training school in the country.

Sharia is already in use in divorce cases and many local Muslims believe that the new penal code is needed to combat a growing tide of immorality.

“I think his majesty feels the need for Sharia law is more pressing now because of changes in our society,” said one female barrister who asked to be known only by her first name Diwa.

“Many Bruneians study abroad, especially in the UK, and they experience things there and bring them back with them. We are seeing more cases of unmarried pregnant women, of adultery, drinking and drugs. Even the divorce rate is rising.”

But few outsiders regard Brunei as a den of debauchery. Alcohol and cigarettes are illegal, there are no nightclubs, few cafes and just four cinemas.

Nonetheless, advocates of Sharia believe that 100 lashes for couples who have sex outside marriage is the only way to combat pernicious Western influences. “It will be a deterrent to people. I mean, who wants to be stoned to death?” said Mrs Diwa.

Others are less sanguine. “A lot of people are talking about the new law and they don’t like it,” said a 27-year-old IT worker who asked to be known as Rosmani. “They ask, ‘Will the law be applied fairly? Will it be applied if a member of the royal family commits adultery?’ It’s not fair if it isn’t.”

Any criticism of the twice-divorced Sultan, whose family has been embroiled in a number of personal and business scandals, is only ever uttered in private.

“In Brunei, you can’t talk about politics or the royal family in public,” said Mr Rosmani. “There are many plain-clothes police and you never know who is listening. If they hear you say bad things about the Sultan, you’ll be arrested and can end up in prison.”

Brunei is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of natural gas, giving the Sultan enough wealth to buy the loyalty of his subjects. There is no income tax, education is free and a visit to hospital costs a token 50p.

“The Sultan is popular because so much is subsidised and there’s no tax,” said one ethnic Chinese businessman. “People don’t have to work very hard to have a good life. In Singapore, the moment you wake up you’re busy. It’s not like that in Brunei.”

In return, people refrain from mentioning that there have been no elections since 1962, or that the huge parliament building exists only so that the legislative council, whose 36 members are chosen by the Sultan and have only advisory powers, can meet for two weeks a year.

Nor is the Sultan’s lifestyle up for discussion, despite his personal fortune believed to exceed £12 billion, his 1,800 room palace, 7,000 sports cars, private jumbo jet – and estate in Berkshire.

Brunei’s ties with Britain remain extremely strong. The reigning Sultan went to Sandhurst and his late father was rescued by the British Army when it obligingly crushed a brief revolt in 1962.

The main British base, known as Tuker Lines, is currently the home of 1st Bn Royal Gurkha Rifles. Strategically located in Seria in southern Brunei, Tuker Lines is just a 10-minute drive from the vast Shell crude oil terminal and close to the natural gas refineries that line the coast.

Just as most Bruneians accept the absolute rule of the Sultan, so Britain’s continued presence here is not questioned. Instead, it is boredom that most people grumble about. “Brunei is very quiet. There’s nothing to do and nothing to see,” said one student named Yasid. “That’s why we don’t get many tourists coming here.”

There may be even fewer once Sharia takes effect.