Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
This post recounts a trip I made to Brunei Darussalam in 2011.
After starting out the day at the grand Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, and then continuing through Kampong Ayer, the over-water village, I had two hours left in the little sultanate (kingdom). I decided to do something royal. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei (and his wife, who actually is called Sultana) are no longer the richest people in the world – they were superseded in the late 1990s by anyone who was involved in IT (Bill gates, for example). They’re still rich though, although not as rich as they used to be, thanks to Prince Jefri, brother of the current sultan. Jefri was made finance minister in 1986, and by the time the sultan cut him off in 1998, he had spent US$4 billion on himself, including 2000 cars, nine private jets, luxury apartments around the world and gold-plated toilet brushes. In 2004, Brunei‘s anti-corruption commission brought charges against him in search of US$16 billion in missing government funds.
Since he left, most of his luxury houses in Brunei (including one inside Jerudong, Brunei‘s answer to Disneyland) have been converted to resorts to try and recoup some of their costs. But the reality is the Bruneian royal family, while they’re not doing it tough, certainly aren’t as rich as they used to be.
The royal palace in Brunei is not a public affair, and instead of some gaudy structure in the face of everyone who visits, the sultan has opted for a tastefully modern (but still huge) residence hidden by rainforest out in the suburbs. Considering this, I decided instead to visit the Royal Regalia Museum, which is as close as you can get to seeing the lavish life of the Bolkiah family. I took off my shoes to walk through the immaculate gallery, which is a humbling experience; walking barefoot in front of such ostentatious displays of wealth is good for the soul, not for the ego.
The centrepiece of the museum is a life-size reconstruction of the street procession after Sultan Hassanal’s coronation in 1968. You can actually stand on the mock street-side in front of the hundred of royal guard uniforms which are now displayed upon mannequins, and look at the chariot which carried the new king. The rest of the museum houses trinkets which have been given to the Sultan of Brunei from visiting heads of state. What do you give the man who already has everything? The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory gave a framed painting of a Kakadu waterfall when she visited a few years back, while other heads of state opted for gold plated swords, porcelain chests and crystal sculptures. As you do. Photography is strictly prohibited beyond the main foyer, but you can get an idea of it at this blog.
As I departed Brunei, I tried for one last time to define the micro-nation in my mind. It’s tropical, garden city modernity felt like Singapore, but its strong Islamic influence and rough-around-the-edges frontier feel was a bit like Pakistan. Perhaps a latter day Karachi? If Pakistan developed in the way Singapore did, then maybe we would be close. The natural setting looked like Flores, the languid, steamy, undeveloped Indonesian island I visited years ago, but driving out of Bandar to the airport was similar to any outer-suburban drive in Australia, with new development mixed with the occasional semi-rural block. And then it even had a touch of Turkmenistan – whiter-than-white monuments conspicuously rising out of the city centre. I got back to the airport where a bunch of transit tourists had stripped down to their shorts, miniskirts and tank tops, before getting back on the plane where the headscarved flight attendants cupped their hands for a ceremonial prayer before take off.