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Fri. September 20, 2019
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International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Brutal Legislation Means Economic Backlashes for Brunei

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A telling tale into the economic future of Brunei was fortuitously carried out upon the decree of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in early April of 2019. In the wake of an international outcry against the Brunei government, Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s foreign minister, has adamantly defended the country’s new penal code that has indubitably put the rights of all Bruneians into question. Falling under the jurisdiction of Sharia law (Muslim law), Brunei, a predominantly Muslim country, gave an alarming message to the rest of the world that perpetuates a feeling of content as it pertains to stoning, whipping, and even amputation of limbs upon the conviction of several crimes including, but not limited to: gay sex, adultery, and theft.

Among the lofty list of public figures, corporations, and international organizations that have already publicly denounced Brunei’s new legislation, the United Nations (UN) name holds the most significant weight. With multiple UN agencies speaking out against Brunei, the validity of claims in relation to their attack on human rights seems to be less of an opinion and more of a fact. What does this mean for Brunei? Possibly, it could have little to no impact at all. Realistically, it will at least mean a short-lived inflation or general economic dip. But statistically, there is evidence that shows this could have larger economic repercussions than expected. Furthermore, this legislative decision has given potential indicators to where Brunei is heading in terms of future financial partners.

Accounting for 90% of its exports, Brunei has always been heavily dependent on its oil industry to stay consistent in its financial returns. Within the past few years, they have discovered that this economic dependency is far from sustainable. With no other options besides a complete economic downfall, of course Brunei is going to seek other sources of funding that will not only aim to maintain their economy, but grow it.

In prior years, Brunei’s top trading partners have been predominantly capitalist countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States, all of whom show some discomfort in Brunei’s decision to adopt a harsher form of Sharia law. When looking into the matter, it is essential to note that homosexuality has been criminalized under Sharia law in Brunei since 2014. The reason in which they did not adopt the same regulations that have just been put into place is because of the type of international uproar that is currently happening. So, what’s the difference between then and now? Brunei is seeking a shift in economic supporters. Due to past trade relations with China and recent investment China has made into Brunei, it makes sense why they have passed legislation that would appeal to more conservative countries. Given Brunei’s lacking economy for the past few years, primarily due to their failing oil industry because of dramatic price drops, it is likely that their decision to implement such overtly conservative legislation was done for reasons other than to “educate and nurture.”

Brunei’s number one foreign investor, China, has worked with Brunei over the years on various projects, one of them being the Brunei-Guanxi Economic Corridor (BGEC). The BGEC was established in 2014 to boost China and Brunei’s trade industry. Having an economy predominantly driven by oil exports, Brunei is making attempts to diversify and reform their economy, giving an explanation as to why they have recently opened their doors to China. The recent Muara Besar project, run by the Hengyi group of China, is one of Brunei’s largest foreign investment projects. Its influence would create jobs for Brunei’s increasing rate of youth unemployment, and is expected to contribute $1.33 billion to Brunei’s GDP. China’s total investments into East Asia comes to about $205 billion, in addition to its involvement with many southeast Asian countries like Brunei. Recently, this growth of foreign investment has raised concern. China, more aggressive in investment and territorial claims on the South China Sea, has somewhat silenced Brunei’s own claims to the sea. As Brunei’s dwindling oil reserves threaten its political sovereignty, other factors such as the gradual implementation of Sharia law and political restructuring have surfaced. These crackdowns are methods to regain political stability. With Brunei now heavily reliant on Chinese investment, it is easily understandable why the howls of protest from liberal countries have fallen on deaf ears in the Bruneian Government. China is only the first major conservative foreign investor, but given the current circumstances, it seems as if Brunei is laying a path for others to follow suit.

On June 11th, several countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) implemented a free trade agreement (FTA) with Hong Kong. The main efforts of this deal are to remove tariffs and improve access for intra-regional service providers to trade. The ASEAN–Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement  (AHKFTA), will provide trade access for southeast Asian businesses through Hong Kong to mainland China. This will allow for several countries to have a renewed boost in their markets, as they can explore opportunities in economically diverse regions like Hong Kong and mainland China. With the new FTA in place, ASEAN countries can significantly increase their production of goods upon ratification of the new agreement. This will prevent all participating parties from paying tariffs on commodities like jewelry, apparel, clothing accessories, watches, clocks, and toys.

Malaysia and Singapore are two of the five ASEAN nations to sign onto the new free trade agreement. Both countries are economically stable nations, with a foundation greatly reliant on Chinese investment. The economic ties of both countries in relation to China will most likely lead them to follow in China’s footsteps, at least when it comes to economic decision making. Without a doubt, this will include the decisions that offer economic backing to the country of Brunei. So what does this mean? When Brunei’s government signs onto the new FTA, their economy will display a significant boost as a great deal of finances will no longer go toward tariffs. Additionally, China will attract new conservative investors such as Malaysia and Singapore to help in Brunei’s quest for economic diversification within conservative countries. This would help them further separate themselves from the Western world and solidify their new economy with more conservative constituents. These countries are only a few possible options for the larger conservative economic network that Brunei is trying to create as they slip away from the financial grip of the Western world. In the end, there is no doubt that these connections will continue to be made in Brunei’s search for former economic opulence.

While Brunei continues to tow an incredibly harsh line regarding its laws, it seems as if they are doing so with a specific outcome in mind. The country is slowly drifting away from their former economic partners in hopes of a new future. With international media attention putting the government on notice, companies all over the world are retreating from the inevitable social time bomb and former supportive allies are becoming hesitant acquaintances. On the surface, it seems as if these new legislative decisions are an obvious detriment to Brunei’s economy, but the research tells a different story. In a move so critical to the future of their economy, Brunei must realize that its next steps toward an economic shift may also be its last if not perfectly executed, especially after upsetting some of the most economically powerful countries in the world.

Khalil Coleman is a senior at Hampton University studying International Studies with a minor in Pre-Law and concentrating in International Relations. As a student Khalil Coleman has been highly involved with the school taking on leadership positions such as Student Government Association Attorney General and Model United Nations President. In the coming year, Khalil Coleman hopes to either be accepted into law school or continue his education pursuing a Masters in Diplomatic Studies or International Relations.

Alexis Walker is a sophomore at Hampton University from Dallas, Texas. She is currently pursuing a degree in International Studies and Spanish. After college, Alexis plans to enter the foreign service and start a career in diplomacy.

Myles Browne is a junior International Studies major with a minor in Arabic. He is studying International Relations because is, "fascinated with the ways different countries and organizations come together to negotiate and make policies."

Anthony Burley is a Junior International Studies Major, Political Science Minor with an emphasis in international relations currently attending Hampton University. Anthony’s passions are researching how private institutions can improve international cultural sensitivity. He is currently studying for the GRE and hopefully will continue his graduate studies after he secures his BA from Hampton University.

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