Syariah law will be fully implemented in Brunei this month when its criminal code comes into force.
The law, known as the Syariah Penal Code Order 2013, complements existing Islamic laws governing property, marriages and divorces, and inheritance that have been in force for generations in this Malay sultanate of 417,000 people.
The Brunei population comprises 67 per cent Muslims, 13 per cent Buddhists, 10 per cent Christians and 10 per cent with indigenous beliefs.
Gazetted last October, the new law has generated immense interest at home and abroad as it covers syariah offences such as adultery, sodomy, apostasy, consuming intoxicants, theft and robbery that carry severe punishment such as stoning to death, whipping and amputation.
These are called hudud or the class of punishments that have been prescribed by the Quran.
While the syariah criminal law is generally applied to Muslims, there are provisions that will apply to non-Muslims as well.
For example, a married non-Muslim will be prosecuted if he or she commits adultery with a married Muslim partner. Both face death by stoning.
A non-Muslim who commits khalwat (close proximity) or co-habits with a Muslim partner will also face prosecution for abetting a syariah crime.
Non-Muslims are banned from propagating religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no religion, persuading a Muslim to renounce his religion and using the word Allah for God and 18 other Islamic terms in reference to other religions.
While Bruneians traditionally do not question royal decrees, some voices of dissent have surfaced on social media, prompting a sharp rebuke from Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah himself. In his address on Brunei’s national day on February 23, the sultan asked local critics to stop the insults, warning that such behaviour is an offence under the syariah code.
Human rights groups outside the country have also been vocal, with the International Commission of Jurists saying the code was a step back for Brunei and violated human rights. To the foreign critics, the ruler said “people outside of Brunei should respect us in the same way that we respect them”.
There have been some voices of support in the media. One letter writer to The Brunei Times described it as a “bold move”, expressing hope that it will “address the many ills/crimes present in society, and at the same time seek to give justice to victims”.
Alluding to the changes, one female barrister told a British newspaper that many Bruneians studied abroad, especially in Britain, and brought back to Brunei their life experiences there. “We are seeing more cases of unmarried pregnant women, of adultery, drinking and drugs. Even the divorce rate is rising,” she added without quoting any statistics.
What exactly could be the motivations of the sultan in introducing the syariah penal code?
One explanation is that the 67-year-old monarch who has ruled since 1967 is sticking to the state ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja or Malay Islamic Monarchy. In this system, the primary source of political legitimacy is Islam.
With Malay culture deeply rooted in Bruneian society, say some observers, it is only natural that the sultan chose the syariah penal code as the basis to maintain law and order in the country.
Syariah is also seen as a “firewall” to protect the rakyat (people) from pernicious Western influences. It is also justified as a tool to combat crime, a concern that the sultan recently raised in response to reports of robberies and thefts in the country.
During Brunei’s national day, the ruler remarked: “We should not only record crimes, but (also) we need to take firm action so those criminals can be arrested and brought to court.”
Yet another explanation looks to changes in the sultan himself as the ageing monarch becomes more conservative and religious, and wishes to leave an enduring legacy.
While the task of bringing the law into force is now settled, attention will now be focused on how it is carried out, what the effects and consequences are, whether it leads to a better society, and whether it improves the level of justice.