By GERALD W FRY
Though its majority people are similar to the Malays of both Indonesia and Malaysia, in other respects Brunei is an outlier, unlike other Southeast Asian countries in so many ways. First, it is very small in terms of both population (a little over 400,000) and land area, of only about 25 per cent of the province of Chiang Mai. It is about 75 per cent forest. The country is completely surrounded by the East Malaysian state of Sarawak.
Second, it is the only country in the region that was a protectorate and it has maintained its Islamic monarchy throughout. It achieved that status in 1888 and that lasted until the nation gained its complete independence from Great Britain in 1984 and joined Asean as its sixth member that year.
Like Thailand, Brunei has a long and glorious history. Its current Islamic monarchy dates back to the early 1400s and in the 16th century there was a great Brunei Empire that controlled much of what is now northwest coastal Borneo and the southern part of the Philippines.
Its political system is also an anomaly. It is an absolute monarchy similar to Siam before 1932. It has no political parties, elections, nor legislature.
Brunei is one of the world’s richest nations, primarily because of its having much oil and natural gas. In terms of per/capita income (about $50,000) it is the world’s ninth richest country.
It is the world’s fourth largest producer of liquefied natural gas. It has been called “the Shellfare state” since most of its Malay population either work for Shell Oil or the government.
The 3D (dirty, dangerous, and difficult) jobs are done by foreign guest workers from countries such as Bangladesh. In fact, 40 per cent of the labour force in Brunei are foreigners. Thus, it is quite a cosmopolitan place.
Because of its large oil reserves, petrol for cars is extremely cheap in Brunei (about Bt13 per litre) and the country has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world with the average family having 2-3 cars.
Brunei is a multiethnic society with 66.3 per cent of its population Malay, 11.2 per cent Chinese, 3.4 per cent indigenous, and 19.1 per cent other. Though the Chinese have no political voice, they are allowed to prosper economically.
Another unusual aspect of Brunei is its not having personal or sales taxes at all and its provision of free health and education to all its citizens.
Also Brunei is an Islamic country in which its women have excellent opportunities. Its Islamic women generally wear head scarfs but not vales. Its women were able to compete in the 2012 Olympics.
The average salary of Brunei’s women rank number three in the world, $38,000. With 58 per cent of women participating in the work force, they rank 20th in the world in that regard. More than 50 per cent of small and medium sized enterprises are run by women.
In terms of education, Brunei’s women also fare well, ranking 11th in the world in terms of participation in higher education.
Given the nation’s wealth, many of its students can afford to study abroad. In my many decades of teaching at the college level in the United States, I have never had a student from Brunei. Their students tend to think Oxbridge and usually study in Great Britain or Australia.
Brunei’s major institution of higher education is the University Brunei Darussalam, with approximately 3,000 students. Though Malay is the official language, Brunei has an active bilingual program and English is commonly spoken. Except for a few locally-oriented fields. English is the language of education at the university level. Thais could study there for a tuition of approximately Bt75,000 per year.
Another unique aspect of Brunei, is that it makes no attempt to promote tourism. With its oil and natural gas being non-renewable resources that will eventually be depleted, Brunei must think long-term and develop a more knowledge-based economy. Eco-tourism could also be a possible future area for emphasis.
Though it is a small market in terms of population, its people have great purchasing power and, thus, it will be an excellent market for a variety of Thai goods in the AEC era.
As Asean moves into the AEC era, Brunei with its great wealth could provide much more technical assistance to its poorer Southeast Asian neighbours. Brunei potentially could help fund an Asean Volunteer Corps and the nation, with its strong English capability, could provide more English teachers for countries such as Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
In the new AEC era, Brunei will become much better known and Thai engagement with Brunei will certainly increase, particularly in the educational and economic areas.