On April 3, Brunei sparked global controversy with the confirmation of reports that it had adopted a much stricter sharia code, including the punishing of gay sex, adultery and blasphemy by stoning to death and the amputation of hands or feet for theft.
It was a public holiday in Brunei, as it marked the observance of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah had chosen this special day to tell his people that he wanted to “see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger”.
The sultan intends to leave a strong legacy for his nation, which is striving to diversify its economy from heavy dependence on oil and gas revenues. In announcing the implementation of sharia, the sultan, also the nation’s prime minister, pointed out that Brunei was “a sovereign Islamic and fully independent country” and, “like all other independent countries, enforces its own rule of law”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was quick to respond, saying the UN “stands clearly against any form of cruel punishment” and believes the Brunei legislation clearly violates the principles “that human rights are to be upheld in relation to every person everywhere without any kind of discrimination”.
Tiny but oil- and gas-rich Brunei rarely attracts media attention; the absolute monarchy has been deeply reluctant to open the doors to any kind of publicity. Its population of around 400,000 enjoys practically free education, housing and health provision, along with other heavily subsidised facilities from the sultan. Brunei is active in Asean, but the 72-year-old sultan is not known for expressing his stance on any regional or international affairs. The nation is located on the island of Borneo, which is also shared by predominantly Muslim nations Indonesia and Malaysia.
Several years ago, however, the absolute monarch could not avoid unwanted media attention, following reports about the super-opulent lifestyle of his brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah and its serious impact on the state economy. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the sultan ordered independent accounting of Brunei Investment Agency, which invested much of the country’s wealth and was overseen by Jefri. The results prompted the Brunei government to accuse Prince Jefri of embezzling $14.8 billion. The internal feud has since apparently been settled amicably within the royal family.
We would like to raise a simple question, which often arises regarding sharia implementation. Why are the laws only strictly enforced against sex offenders and those suspected of other petty crimes such as gambling? Knowing that corruption and stealing from state coffers are much more damaging crimes to society, why are sharia punishments rarely meted out to those guilty of corruption? Among others, the law might also need to apply to Prince Jefri.