CHERRY VALLEY, Illinois — Called “Negara Brunei Darussalam” in the Malay language, which serves as the lingua franca of the country, Brunei is a small sultanate located in Southeast Asia. With origins dating back to the first few hundred years CE, Brunei came first under Hindu influence, and then eventually, under Islamic control. In modern history, the region fell under British rule. The question of poverty in Brunei Darussalam has entailed numerous factors since 1929 when Brunei garnered outside interest after it began producing petroleum. Those Bruneians who currently find themselves in extreme poverty make up a minority of the populace — 0.02%.
It was not until 1984 that Brunei became free from foreign government interference, becoming an Islamic sultanate on the first of that year. In 2014, despite international irritation, it became the first East Asian nation to implement Sharia law and its penalties. To this day, the Muslim religion remains the prevailing belief system. And, just as in the 20th century, Brunei’s economy continues to stand predominantly on its natural resources of oil and natural gas.
In 2019, the BBC said “Brunei has one of the world’s highest standards of living,” which it owes to the petroleum and natural gas industries. It sounds like a positive attribute, but the fact that the economy rests so heavily on such a select group of industries means that it also sways with the constant market fluctuations. At the same time, Brunei depends on imported products when it comes to just about all of its manufactured goods and many of its foodstuffs.
While the economy leans on the oil and gas trade, accounting for close to 90% of the country’s exports, the administration strives to keep it bolstered by a number of less lucrative sources. With more than half of the country covered in rainforests, in the late 20th century, the law restricted logging. Instead of deforesting the landscape, Brunei established plantation programs to adequately supply needed timber.
According to Britannica, “Brunei is among the largest consumers of fish per capita in the world.” Imported fish products peaked in the 1990s, prompting the government to instate local fishery programs. In a few years, Brunei began to produce more fish than it imported. While the government looks forward to a sustainable future, overfishing is nevertheless a legitimate concern.
According to a Heritage Foundation index updated in 2022, Brunei has an 8.4% unemployment rate. (Comparatively, the U.S. has only a 3.6% unemployment rate as of June 2022). However, Brunei’s government also does not enforce a personal income tax.
The Issue of Poverty
Poverty in Brunei is not non-existent, but it does affect a relatively small fraction of society. Having a total population of less than half a million, 2012 statistics showed 20,790 individuals living in poverty, representing a little over 5% of the population.
More recent information suggests marginal improvement to the severe poverty experienced in Brunei. In its “business-as-usual” model for Brunei, Our World in Data projects a drop from 0.02% of the population living in extreme poverty to 0.01% by 2030.
Indeed, Brunei has expressed its hopes of holding a “dynamic, sustainable economy” by 2035. Under the surface, however, it becomes clear that Brunei is, economically speaking, in troubled waters. For instance, in 2016, The Diplomat reported that BP World Energy Outlook anticipated Brunei’s petroleum reserves “to run out in 22 years.”
Many of the people in Brunei work government jobs, ensuring them some financial security. Unfortunately, Bruneians have grown accustomed to living in debt. In a way, the lingering poverty in Brunei might be measured in the debt hanging over the heads of many of its citizens. Debt and materialism do not foster mental health. Different perspectives have arisen as to the cause of the debt.
An anonymous ex-journalist, interviewed by The Diplomat, believes the debt to be a reflection of a shattered economy. “Too much emphasis on the hydrocarbon sector has…shrunk the job market,” she said. It “also made different clusters of [the]economy stagnant.” Without the oil and gas sector, she views the future economy and employment landscape in a bleak manner.
While severe poverty in Brunei touches few of the citizens, it is not in an economical “safe zone” either. Even though the sultanate state is severe in many of its laws, it is actively working toward self-sufficiency as the laws strive to safeguard and build up local resources. As a developing country, Brunei will be able to establish a secure economy so long as its government continues to stay committed to working on proper legislation.
According to the website for Projek FEED, an organization that helps Bruneians learn about economic stability, the government operates projects that offer aid to families in need. Projek FEED, however, wants to work on solving this problem at its roots, offering resources for people to learn financial literacy and help support themselves in the long run. Since its foundation in 2017, the local organization has helped 150 families.
With federal cooperation and initiative on the part of people like those behind Projek FEED, poverty in Brunei can be lessened and Bruneians can continue to enjoy the standard of living they have experienced during the “halcyon days” of recent memory.
– John Tuttle