For a country where – for Muslims at least -- having a beer could earn you two years in jail, and 80 strokes of the cane the sultanate of Brunei was surprisingly easy place to get a drink. Speakeasies at hotels rooms or converted lounges -- were open secrets.
“You just went up to the front desk and told the receptionist you wanted to go to the bar. And while you were riding the elevator up they checked you out on the elevator camera. If you didn’t look like police or something they let you in,” one young guy told me over the phone. He’s 31, bisexual and didn’t want to be identified much beyond that.
By now I think I’ve spoken with pretty much the same LGBT Bruneians as all the other foreign reporters herehave (the human rights activists we all called only had so many contacts).
From what I can tell Brunei is a cozy place, where life was good as long as you’re connected and didn’t stand out.
“It’s a good idea to have someone from the upper middle class – a son of a nobleman or something – to your party,” the same guy told me. “It’s a joke, but it kind of isn’t.”
That “don’t- ask- don’t- tell” approach seemed to come to an end last year when those bars at the top of this blog were raided by police and closed. Anything that may have opened in their place is a much more closely guarded secret.
Last week Brunei’s 72-year-old sultan, Hassanal Bolkiahenacted the death penalties for adultery and gay sex. Tiny and conservative, the sultanate didn’t have much of an international profile until started introducing the Sharia code in 2013. Now at the end of its year’s long introduction of its sharia code, sex crimes carry penalties including death by stoning.
“It hurts that this is all anyone knows about Brunei,” said an activist who also didn’t want her name used. “I’m getting lots of questions from friends in the UK and the US about it. I understand though.”
What she tells them is the “yes, but” nuanced view that Bruneians are quick to point out. There are lots of stiff penalties on the books and they are rarely enforced. No one’s been executed since the 1950s – not even for possession of small amounts for drugs, which is also a capital offence.
That’s the silver lining. Still…
“Enforcement is a different story. But I’m worried it will give people a permission to hate,” the activist said.
To understand where all this is coming from look no further than the country’s schools. Broken fans, decade-old computers running pirated Microsoft, overgrown gardens are not uncommon, some teachers said.
Part of this has to do with a tanking oil price and slumping revenues, sure. Pensions were universal. Now they’re not.
The other reason is the penchant for showiness of the country’s top-down absolute monarchy. The government is keen on big declarative set piece initiatives but isn’t too bothered about the follow through.
“You would get a new school open and all the students would get iPads but the old schools couldn’t cut their grass,” one teacher said.
That’s where the country’s Sharia system comes from. It’s a big piece of religious theatre just as the largess dries up. It doesn’t help that the sultan, who is universally revered, is rumoured to want to step down for his son, who is less so.
What now? Forget about the sultan backing down. George Clooney and Elton John may be calling on boycotts for the sultan’s clutch of high-end hotels, but that would amount to bowing to foreigners.
Instead of celebrity money the sultan has Chinese money. The Chinese are investing in a refinery, a toll road and a dam. China’s Xi Jinping visited in November.
In fact the opprobrium may be working in the sultan’s favour. He’s positioned himself during his reign as a defender of Islam. Squawking from Hollywood may just be proving him right, said one young resident.
“You can almost get away with criticizing Islam. You can’t criticize the sultan.”