Chris stands at the glass door to his student flat and grins crooked. “Women aren’t allowed in here, I’m sorry.” The supervisors at the university in Brunei forbid a woman to enter the room of Christoph Bracks, 24, from Kempten in the Allgäu region at noon. The sexes must be separated, that is the rule in Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s kingdom. Welcome to Brunei.
Chris has been studying Islamic Studies and Linguistics at Master’s level in the tiny oil state on the north coast of Borneo since last August. He lives in one of the eight towers of “The Core”. That’s the name of the modern, chic student residence on campus. Four towers for men, four towers for women.
The Universiti Brunei Darussalam has about 4500 students, almost 250 come from abroad. Chris is one of those who took the trouble to have their police clearance certificate translated and sent to the university in triplicate with a stack of other documents. The slim, muscular German had his blood count analysed and his heart, lungs, eyes and ears tested in order to be accepted in Brunei.
He received the flight, a luxurious room and a scholarship of 380 euros per month. “For the first time, I have no material worries and don’t have to work on the side,” he says. The state of Brunei makes so much money from oil and gas that it can be generous. No inhabitant pays taxes or social contributions, the health and education systems are free, a litre of petrol costs less than a bottle of water.
Arabic books are banned
But the people of Brunei also do without many things. Free research, for example. Since 1984, a law has been in force prohibiting “unwanted publications”. Anything that runs counter to the “public interest and public safety” is undesirable – a vague definition that gives customs, postal and police officers a virtually free hand in censorship. For example, the Faculty of Islamic Studies is not allowed to introduce Arabic books.
Brunei Darussalam is an absolutist state. Its inhabitants are not allowed to vote, the parliament and the ministers are practically powerless. The sultan is at the same time head of state, head of government, finance minister, foreign minister, supreme religious leader and chancellor of the university. The state religion is the Islam of the Shafeite coinage, it influences the entire public and cultural life. There are no theatres or museums for art. Anyone who criticises the Sultan and his family can lose their scholarship, fly out of university or end up in prison.
On campus, therefore, we only meet students who hold back on criticism. “It’s safer to submit,” says Omar Yahya, 27, from Uganda, who is doing his master’s in computing and new media. He doesn’t want to talk about politics, that doesn’t change anything. “We come here and know that we have to obey. Those who don’t like it can leave again.”
Ishan Johari, 22, was born in Brunei, and he too is careful. For example, he does not celebrate parties with alcohol. “That is not part of my religion and culture,” he says. But above all, alcohol is forbidden in Brunei, just like karaoke bars and Christmas trees in public. “But that doesn’t bother me,” says the social science student.
The rulers celebrate excessively
Only away from the campus with its white tiled faculties, the magnificent mosque and the palm trees at the roadside do some students speak more openly. “You can get the feeling you’re suffocating,” says one who doesn’t want to mention his name. The Sultan is gradually introducing Sharia law into criminal law. Homosexuals and adulterers can soon be stoned to death and thieves a hand can be cut off.
The fundamentalist state policy makes it difficult for liberal students. But celebrating is not impossible, of course. In the capital Bandar Seri Begawan there is no nightlife, but after Miri in Malaysia it is three hours by car. There are also parties in the homes of foreigners – and with the ruling family. Some of the twelve children of Hassanal Bolkiah are known for their excessive parties. Prince Abdul Azim, for example, paid a million euros at a New Year’s party for pop star Mariah Carey to sing three songs for him, the British newspaper Daily Mail reported.
If you’re lucky enough to be on the guest list for such celebrations, you have to give your name and passport number beforehand, one student says. You can’t take photos at the parties themselves, you have to address the Sultan’s children with “Prince” and “Princess” and do what the birthday child wants.
Local traffic? Nothing
423,000 people live in Brunei, and they are accustomed to different standards for the authorities than for themselves. The Sultan is one of the richest people in the world with an estimated fortune of $20 billion, according to Focus Money magazine. But in his country there is no functioning public transport system. Buses only run sporadically, subways or trams not at all. Christoph Bracks and the other international students without their own car are therefore dependent on locals to take them with them, because the campus is 15 kilometers outside the city.
Fortunately, every day they meet helpful residents like Mas Dino Radin, 25, an environmental science student. “Oh, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes,” says the cheerful little student, adding diplomatically: “We could use it to further improve our bus and road networks.”
But the Sultan sets other accents. He maintains a fleet of several hundred luxury and sports cars and had a race track built around the palace. Recently, His Majesty had a new seat built for the Prime Minister, i.e. for himself. Since then, there has been one more palace in the pompous capital, with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, fountains and a Moroccan-style mosque for a thousand believers.