Negara Brunei Darussalam (State of Brunei, Abode of Peace) is situated on the China Sea coast in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo. It is a tiny country with a total population of 420 thousand, with half of the residents living in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. Although small in land mass and population, it is oil rich. And the Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, is the second wealthiest monarch in the world valued at $28+billion. The Sultan claims to have roots going back to Mohammed, and his is the longest reigning monarch in the world. Once a year he holds an open house event where he personally meets and shakes hands with over 30,000 residents. The Sultan was responsible for turning the very poor country of the 20th Century into the second richest by bringing in oil companies to develop the primary industry. To this day, the poor are well-subsidized by the government. English is the lingua franca of Brunei.
Charge’ d’Affaires, Emily Fleckner’s introduction to Brunei immediately captured everyone’s attention, and she held it for the entire session—which went into overtime with thoughtful and insightful audience questions. From the beginning she showed delight that at least one member of the audience had visited Brunei and had a true sense of the place and the culture. She was also pleased that she had an audience so engaged in learning about the world.
Early on, she paid “homage to the power of nature” as she mentioned that Brunei is in the midst of a jungle, and she surmised that “if the city were to disappear, the jungle would reclaim the territory in about three weeks.”
Ms. Fleckner arrived in Brunei in 2020—during the “non-pandemic time” in Brunei—after the sudden passing of the Ambassador. She said that while the rest of the world was in the throes of COVID, Brunei’s immediate, strict imposition and enforcement of COVID protocols had left Brunei pandemic-free. “Strong rule and isolation” had won the battle against the pandemic, but recently, an underground network of smuggling tunnels was likely responsible for current the spread of the Delta variation coming from Malaysia, again shutting down the country. Businesses and schools are closed, and people are once again working from home causing the bandwidth issues that likely caused her Internet to go down for a time just prior to the start of her talk.
Ms. Fleckner discussed her priorities for her time in Brunei:
- To ensure the safety of American citizens, and to ensure an even playing field for American businesses.
- To help Brunei protect its China Sea territorial waters and oil rights, while diffusing disputes before they escalate.
- To help Brunei prepare to maintain economic stability should oil prices fall.
- To support Brunei during it year-long term as Chair of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations ten-member economic group). Normally not engaging on the global stage, this year Brunei has taken the lead on pushing junta leaders to decrease violence and release foreign detainees, including one American.
When asked about Brunei’s relationship with China, Ms. Fleckner said that China plays a major role in the Brunei economy. Many citizens are merchants of Chinese descent and still speak Chinese. The cultural ties are strong and so are the economic ties. China is also investing in infrastructure, building a Petro-Chemical complex to process oil and sell by-product chemicals. China also donated 150k does of vaccines. On the other hand, China is not a good-faith actor in terms of the resources in China Sea.
A question about education determined that there is a great disparity in the educational system between the rich and the poor. The private schools for diplomats and the wealthy rival the top schools anywhere. At the other end of the spectrum, many of the poorer schools focus on religious studies that do not provide a foundation for skills needed for a vocational/technical economy. Currently, skilled technicians are brought in from Philippines or Malaysia for general repairs when needed. Our Executive Director offered to put the educational arm of the Embassy in touch with Pima Community College stating they can provide online training in those areas.
An audience member who had visited Brunei was impressed by how beloved and admired the Sultan seemed to be by his people. Ms. Fleckner confirmed his impression. When the Sultan brought in oil companies and redistributed the wealth, within two generations he had transformed a poverty-stricken country with an extremely high mortality rate into one of the wealthiest. He brought high prosperity to his people and in return, his demand is simple: “No criticism. No questioning of priorities or choices.” He is a “man of the people” and is frequently out and about among them for bike rides and other activities. “People there are genuinely excited to see him.”
Chargé d’Affaires Fleckner painted a frank and intriguing picture of Brunei. It is likely that some in the audience would also be excited to meet him, as well. Post-pandemic, of course.
Article by Patricia Houston, VP of Citizen Diplomacy Alliance.