“Enjoy, we are in the free luxury open prison,” said one of my Couchsurfing hosts as we casually chatted about Brunei.
Brunei did felt like this luxury open prison, and while I was not the “prisoner”, I could feel the social shackles through my interactions with people and first-hand experiences with how things work there.
I saw how normal social behaviors were frowned upon or were simply illegal. For them, this is common. I was aghast.
My time in Brunei was eye-opening, inspiring, and infuriating; so I want to share bits of it through a series of topics and brief conversations. (Bear with me, as this is a long post)
Couchsurfing in a Conservative Country
I wanted to Couchsurf in Brunei since, with all honestly, the country has not much to offer when it comes to major tourist sights and activities.
There’s the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and the Royal Regalia Museum, but they can be done in half day and none of them scream, “You must come to Brunei to see me!!”
I knew I had to experience Brunei beyond its building façades and sights. I wanted to have deeper conversations and get to know the country through locals. I got a glimpse of it. A glimpse that shocked me more than I expected.
I’m actually lucky that I managed to find a Couchsurf host in Brunei, but it wasn’t easy. I sent over a dozen requests, but only one replied positively. Bruneians are quite conservative, but I got to see how many of them are genuinely open and friendly.
Still, I got to see first hand how some people avoided certain “foreign” interaction due to fear and repression “from their own country,” or simply because of their beliefs.
Just so you have a perspective of how conservative it is, while my hosts were very open-minded, they advised me to not say in public that I was Couchsurfing with them. In theory, “I was staying” at the Brunei Hotel.
LGBT Life in Brunei
Through my hosts, I had the opportunity to meet a wide spectrum of locals; including gays, lesbians, and a transsexual woman. A shocker for Brunei standards.
There is this common misconception that the LGBT life doesn’t exist in Brunei. Let me tell you, it does. It’s not openly expressed, but it exists (buried way, way, way deep). People know it, but they just choose to play ignorant, not say anything about it and keep things in the closet.
This saves homosexuals from a lot of conservative judgmental long stares people throw at them to make them feel ashamed of who they are, or worse, punishment.
I actually came to learn that there is counseling for all kinds of “social problems” (including homosexuality), but it is very religious, so it doesn’t really help much since they indoctrinate even further the things they are “challenging” in the first place.
I’m proud of the LGBT people I met because they do live true to themselves even when they know they can face a lot of judgment and punishment for their “sinful behavior” – which now, since April 2014, can be punished with death penalty.
To me, it is unthinkable how a trans woman can live openly in Brunei, so I had to sit down and ask her how she manages. The way she put it was that it was “really sad to work really hard to be who you are, yet you have all these people shoving you back to the closet.” While true, this is not exclusive to Brunei.
She continued by explaining how she must dress for work. As a trans, “you need to look like a man – dressed with a still feminine looking suit, yet very professional.
They want to see you like a feminine figure, but not like a real woman. Hair tied like a boy, black pants, black suit.” (I want to note though, that her look is as feminine as any biologically born woman, so you wouldn’t know she’s trans by just looking)
The Free Luxury Open Prison
Citizens don’t pay any taxes or medical insurance in Brunei. That is great and people love it, but it has a price. The government pays it all in exchange for their freedom – a freedom that is slowly reduced as time passes by and was further diminished with the new Shariah Law that was implemented in May 2014.
A lot of people don’t seem to like the law, but their subsidized life have made them complacent to their government.
Brunei became the first Southeast Asian country to adopt this controversial law, which is considered a serious violation of human rights. This law introduced brutal punishments like public flogging, stoning to death of adulterous and gays, and amputation of limbs for theft.
For example, a transsexual could go to jail for 90 days and pay a fine of BND$ 1000 for “cross-dressing”. (Section 198 of the law. You can see some of the General Offenses in this list)
In which century are we living in?
I had the chance to speak with a Bruneian DJ, who seemed to not fully agree with the implementation of the Shariah Law but wouldn’t say otherwise publicly; so I asked him, “What is the one positive thing about the law that would make you agree with it?”
He responded, “The only positive thing is the mercifulness. If someone steals or murders, and the family forgives him, his punishment will be a payment or service that is decided by the family. Like, learn the entire Koran.”
Yet he added, “the law only applies to Muslims. If a Buddhist steals, he will be punished in a normal fashion. So, if we both get caught stealing and happened to go to jail, the Buddhist should not dare shake my hand, because I will have none.”
Even without the Shariah Law, Brunei is already a strict Islamic society. Every business in the country must shut down Fridays from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm for prayer time, every building must be within hearing reach of a mosque, and no building must be taller than the mosque’s minaret.
Only one church or temple per other faiths is allowed in the city, women must wear the hijab, alcohol is strictly forbidden (though easily found under the table), and pork is forbidden too (also found if you search properly).
There is a slippery mindset on how social behavior works, so all social interactions are limited as much as possible. It’s like everything “bad” will degrade to something worse.
Karaoke was banned because “congregating in karaoke boxes will lead to sex.” Social gatherings on the street are completely banned. Yes, I’m not kidding.
A group of two or more people in a place not designed for seating or congregating can get you incarcerated. You could be convicted of trying to create a rebellion. Seriously?
Even expats get expelled from the country for nonsensical reasons, as you could read in Adventurous Kate’s post from her recent visit to Brunei.
This is just a glimpse of how controlling (and dull) life can be in Brunei. In fact, I came to know of a few people who would actually leave the country if they could, just because of the new Shariah Law and their increased limitations of freedom.
As I said before, the sale and consumption of alcohol are prohibited in Brunei, but whether they like it or not, alcohol finds its way into the country and its borders. Hell, I even drove with locals to the Malaysian border to drink alcohol.
Foreigners (and non-Muslims) can import up to two liters of spirits or wine and up to twelve cans of beer every 48 hours. But, this sparked a question in me. How do they know you’re Muslim? Can’t you just pretend you’re not? No. If you’re born in a Muslim family, you’re automatically Muslim.
I followed with, “what if you are born Muslim but don’t truly believe in Islam? Can you renounce?” No. This is apostasy, and in Brunei (as well as several other Islamic countries), it is punished by death. In some countries, entering a church or even speaking wrongly of Islam can be considered Apostasy.
According to what I was told, in Brunei, even locals can perform the punishment with their own hands (kill the apostate) if there is enough proof of apostasy and four witnesses during the punishment.
I was shocked.
Gossips of The Royal Hypocrisy
Speaking badly of Islam is not the only thing that will get you in trouble in Brunei. Speak badly of the Sultan or the monarchy, and you’re bound to have trouble.
The problem is, everyone gossips in Brunei and everyone gossips about the royal family. But, they are careful when they do it. They either do it freely behind closed doors, or they use keywords or whisper carefully when doing it in public.
There are undercover po-po’s (as some call the police) with the sole purpose of catching dissidents.
Even the whole world knows of the “misadventures” of the royal family. They certainly don’t live a religiously pious existence. Google-search on “Brunei royalty” and you’ll see a plethora of news and testimonies about the unscrupulous indulgence of the Sultan and his family.
The royal family parties, drinks, gambles, and do whatever they like, and it is well known that the Sultan has a former playboy life and is supposedly now “making amends” as he grows older by leading a “devout life”.
The local “bad tongues” say that the limitations on Bruneian’s freedom are a reflection of the Sultan’s “failure to control his children, so he directs his gaze over to the people to control them instead.”
Whether this is accurate or not, I don’t know, but it is quite clear that the strict rules imposed on Brunei’s citizens don’t apply to royalty since they appear to be above the law. Just think of this… smoking is illegal in Brunei, yet the Sultan has his own brand of cigars. A bit hypocritical, I guess.
Freedom of Press
There’s no such thing in Brunei. All news are basically propaganda or state-approved news that can only portray the country or its institutions in a positive way or further indoctrinate their beliefs. Have a contrary opinion? It will never see the light of day.
A journalist told me that if he told some “juicy royal gossip” (not the ones everyone knows, but the really dirty laundry), he could get expelled from the country. Yes… Actually, the government even pays you BND$ 20,000 so you leave the country and keep your mouth shut.
I laughed when one of the locals I met jokingly and enthusiastically asked; “20,000?! How can I manage to get kicked out of the country? I can probably come out with some interesting gossip!”
Who knows, maybe they’ll have a better life outside.
The disparity of rich, poor, opulence, and disrepair
Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, is stuck in a bad 90s post-modern style. Several buildings are falling apart or abandoned, and the ones in good condition have absolutely no architectural aesthetics. How can a very rich country have such a bad urban look?
The wealth of the country technically belongs to the royal family and they can do whatever they want with the oil money that’s been sustaining the economy of Brunei since its independence from Britain in the 80s.
Over 80% of the 400,000 inhabitants of Brunei “act rich.” They aren’t rich and can’t invest, yet they pretend to have the lifestyle to keep up with the wealthy image the country has. Not many know, but there is an alarmingly high unemployment rate and a lot of poor people too.
While not necessarily all poor, about 39,000 people (10% of Brunei’s population) live in the water village of Kampong Ayer in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Many of them live a fine life with their underpaid jobs, while others do live out of welfare to make ends meet.
(Sort of) Off-the-Beaten-Path Tourism
Brunei is not on most travelers map. You can feel that when you’re in the country and notice how there’s no tourism infrastructure.
You only see a few sights and maybe the rainforest in Temburon province, which I hear is great for hiking (but good luck finding a way to get there on your own). For me, even finding information on where to take the bus from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu was a pain in the ass.
In the end, it is worth visiting?
I won’t tell you to go out of your way to visit Brunei, but if you have a chance to pass around as your travel Southeast Asia, do so. It’s worth it. But, do try to interact with locals through Couchsurfing or other means.
Brunei has a rich and interesting culture that while very similar to Malaysia’s, they do twist it a bit to identify as Bruneian.
I found heartwarming how kindness and optimism rule amidst the increasingly dark and oppressive regime that rules the country. It is a very passive country and they will do their best to make you feel at home.
I know this post doesn’t show a pretty picture of Brunei, but the truth is, things are not pretty over there right now. The country might be what it is, and I respect it, but I’m nowhere close to accepting its perspective on social justice.
For me, the problem isn’t with Islam or religion; it’s what greedy, power-obsessed people do with religions to subjugate others.