Episode 3: A Closer Look at Brunei
Through the Eyes of a Legislative Council Member and an Agricultural Entrepreneur
June 3, 2021 — Legislative Council member Iswandy Ahmad and agricultural entrepreneur Dr. Vanessa Teo share their view on Brunei, the monarchy, and discuss the government’s as well as entrepreneurial activities in the agricultural sector as part of A Closer Look, a 5-part series by the Asia Society Switzerland, the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich, and the Schweizerische Asiengesellschaft. The series sheds light on different Asian countries from the perspective of leading local voices. Season 1 covers Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Brunei, Bangladesh and Bhutan. (58 min., 19 sec.)
Our key takeaways
The independent Islamic sultanate Brunei Darussalam is a small country that covers an area of 5,765 km2 on the island of Borneo. It is roughly 14% the size of Switzerland (slightly bigger than the canton Valais of Switzerland).
The sultanate is divided into two non-contiguous territories that are separated by the Malaysian State of Sarawak. The western segment is the larger of the two and contains the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. To the north Brunei has a 161 km coastline along the South China Sea.
Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Since the discovery of petroleum resources in the 1920s, Brunei’s economy has largely been dependent on gas and oil revenues, making it one of the highest per capita income countries in Asia. The government has recognized that it needs to diversify its economy.
Brunei is definitely a conversation starter, says Dr. Vanessa Teo: We only have a population of about 400,000. People tend to be quite shocked by that number and the fact that Brunei is a tax free nation, with free healthcare and education.
Vanessas’ main concerns about Brunei are how the country is going to start diversifying its economy, how Bruneians can be part of the solutions, and what the job opportunities for the new generation of graduates are.
“Wawasan Brunei 2035”: Brunei as a new “Tiger state" or "Miracle” of Southeast Asia?
Wawasan Brunei 2035 aims to make Brunei Darussalam into a nation which will be widely recognised for the accomplishment of its well-educated and highly skilled people measured by the highest international standards: quality of life that is among the top 10 nations in the world; and a dynamic and sustainable economy with income per capita within the top 10 countries in the world.
Currently Brunei is focussing on four things: 1) Sustainable economic growth; 2) Economic diversification (away from oil); 3) Macroeconomic stability; and 4) Low unemployment rate (of concern for many in Brunei).
To diversify the economy, the government is investing in other industries, such as food (halal manufacturing), tourism, ICT, and services.
In terms of agriculture, Brunei has various initiatives to optimize farming by super-computing. As the country has limited available land (most of it is under protection) smart farm technologies, vertical farming, data gathering and analyzing for farmers for better farm results are introduced. Over time, more and more farmers have started embracing new ideas.
There are huge changes in the agricultural sector, especially in the last few years. According to Dr. Vanessa Teo, new farmers came into the country who are recognizing new business models. The aim is to develop a long-term vision and business models for farms (it is not just about the development of farms).
Brunei is trying to increase its food security by targeting a 20% self-sufficiency (currently at 5%). Export helps to secure GDP growth, but it is as important to achieve self-sufficiency.
According to Dr. Vanessa Teo, Brunei has so much variety of fresh vegetables, crops etc. interesting for global market. Many opportunities for new flavours, new foods. So it is time to develop and be creative!
Civil society in Brunei
Due to Brunei’s small size and population, even remote areas are relatively easy to access. But this also means that human resources are limited. The civil society in Brunei is mainly volunteer based, and is focussed on areas such as arts, sports, women. Topics which were considered taboo before, such as mental health and sexual harrassment, are now starting to be voiced out more and more, with people increasingly engaging in constructive conversations, says Iswandy Ahmad.
Governance in Brunei
Brunei is governed by His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the 29th Sultan in the lineage. The official religion in Brunei is Islam, which came to Brunei around 600 years ago. In Brunei, Chinese New Year and Christmas are celebrated too. The country has a dual law-system: Civil and Sharia law.
His Majesty the Sultan is the head of state and prime minister, and is well loved by his subjects according to Iswandy Ahmad. The Sultan is a father-figure in Brunei, he is a “working monarch”: He works, he visits people, every Friday he goes to different mosques, spends time with his subjects, take selfies with them, shakes hands with them, and even tourists can chat to him.
Brunei and Covid-19
Brunei has been quite successful in handling the crisis. In the beginning there was a lot of uncertainly due to misinformation. However, Brunei government came up with strict guidelines, online portals, and support for business and subsidies to avoid that people lose their jobs.
Government provided a sense of security and clear guidance. There has been mutual trust between the population and the government, says Iswandy Ahmad. Always at 5 p.m. a government press-conference was held. Highest representative of leadership on the ministry took part. Townhalls existed before, but this was live on TV and on the radio with live questions: ministers had to answer live. This is unprecedented in Brunei.
Brunei is almost back to “business as usual”, and the economy is surprisingly booming. According to Dr. Vanessa Teo, Bruneians like to travel abroad and spend money on vacations. Currently, they are spending more in their own country and lots of local businesses are growing.
Brunei’s foreign relations and relations to ASEAN
Brunei is the current chair of ASEAN, facing challenges that need to be tackled in a unified manner (South-China Sea, Myanmar, etc.). Thanks to Brunei’s good relation with other ASEAN countries, it is possible to come up with solutions.
Brunei is a “good friend to everyone” as Iswandy Ahmad puts it. The respect they show to others is mutually returned, and Brunei tries to balance its relationships, be it with countries in the East or West, small or big.
Excursion to Brunei
Chop Jing Chew (in Bandar Seri Begawan), a restaurant developed in 1946 which serves tea and toast and is a melting pot of the younger and older population. A “must-see” recommended by Dr. Vanessa Teo
Hiking trails e.g. in the Ulu Temburong National Park to watch the sunset (“beyond words” – you have to experience yourself), recommended by Iswandy Ahmad
Nasi Katok: white rice, chicken, sauce, recommended by Iswandy Ahmad
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The Honourable Iswandy Ahmad is a Member of the Legislative Council of Brunei as Person who has Achieved Distinction. He regularly delivers capacity-building programs for leadership development for young Brunei leaders and is an active advocate in civil society. Among his voluntary social contribution are HIV & AIDS work on awareness & advocacy, youth mentorship, and employability among job seekers. He is also the Lead Trainer at Perspective Insan Academy (P.I), a capacity-building consultancy. In his role as a Member of the Legislative Council, among his area of policy interests are social enterprise, youth engagement, NGOs, socio-economic development, and volunteerism.
Dr. Vanessa Teo is the Founder of Agrome, an agriculture technology platform that provides digital farm certifications to ensure farm product quality and safety. She pursued her doctorate degree specializing in rice crop modeling and agricultural systems modeling. Her PhD research focused on utilizing modeling systems and algorithms to support in rice farming system optimization in Brunei. Her research was conducted in collaboration with the University of Brunei Darussalam, IBM ResearchLab New Delhi, Bangalore, Brazil and the USA and the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, Brunei.
Simona A. Grano is Senior Lecturer at the University of Zurich (UZH) and Director of the Taiwan Studies Project at UZH. She completed her Ph.D. in Chinese Studies at Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Italy. She has held research positions and taught China Studies and Taiwan Studies at her alma mater, at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and at the National Cheng'chi University in Taiwan. She has also been a visiting scholar at the University of Hong Kong and is a research fellow of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), in Tübingen, Germany as well as a research associate of SOAS for the year 2021. Simona's regional expertise centers on the People's Republic of China as well as on Taiwan and Hong Kong. She is the author of Environmental Governance in Taiwan: a new generation of activists and stakeholders, which has been published in 2015 by Routledge. Her new co-edited monograph titled Civil Society and the State in Democratic East Asia: Between Entanglement and Contention in Post High Growth (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) analyzes the dichotomy between civil society and the state in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.