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  • Brunei Darussalam in 2019:Issues Revisited
  • Pushpa Thambipillai (bio)

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It was generally a busy year for Brunei Darussalam in 2019 as it continued to focus on developmental issues while experiencing peace and political stability. Recurring concerns for the economy and administration surfaced periodically in line with fresh assessments towards the one major national goal—Wawasan 2035 (Brunei Vision 2035). Except for intense but short-lived global attention on its syariah system of jurisprudence, Brunei's domestic affairs were not of much concern for foreign observers. The effects of the preceding years' reduced income from the country's hydrocarbon exports were still felt by the domestic economy, although global prices for oil had moderately improved in early 2019. Any increase in prices for the period under study was only speculative given the uncertainty of global economic trends. Increasing down-stream hydrocarbon activities provided diversification, while improved productive capacities in agriculture and agroindustry were sought. The recurring national concerns had familiar undertones—except that relevant policymakers appeared more committed to advancing the social and economic development of the state—with frequent admonishment from the Head of State and Government, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah.

Managing the State

As a small state, Brunei is politically and economically manageable in accordance with the stated priorities embodied in its philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB; Malay Islamic Monarchy) and Vision 2035, which promotes socio-economic [End Page 99] developmental goals. At an average growth rate of 3 per cent, the 2018 population was 442,400, a bane for large-scale economic activities.1 However, guided by the twin pillars of Vision 2035 and the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030, the policymakers are mindful of the directions that uphold the national aspirations of growth amidst austerity in providing a satisfactory quality of life for Bruneians. The annual economic growth rate is of concern. In his speech on the occasion of the New Year 2019, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah expected better economic growth for the year. However, he reminded his subjects that they had to "march forward … with full spirit and determination" and not be plagued with "lazy syndrome". He urged them to be "a more proactive and productive society" in light of the economic challenges faced by Brunei.2 On another occasion, at the commencement of the Legislative Council meeting, he called for concerted action by all, as GDP growth had been "less favourable" with the drop in global oil prices, and there was thus a need for emphasis on the non–oil and gas sectors and preparedness for the inevitable surge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.3 Given the nature of Brunei's economy—with the oil and gas sector accounting for between 73 and 75 per cent of the whole—ascertaining GDP growth for the year is not straightforward. Various international agencies have offered their assessments. For example, the IMF expected economic growth in 2019 to reach 1.8 per cent based on stronger oil and gas activities, while the ADB forecast a 1 per cent growth rate. The EIU sees an average growth of between 1 and 1.5 per cent. The most optimistic assessment, at 2.1 per cent, was given by AMRO, the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office.4 Bruneians are generally "cash-rich", at a GDP per capita of BN$41,366, with generous subsidies and welfare programmes. Other than through natural increase, the number of citizens enlarged by only a small amount, given the tough requirements. For instance, in 2019, 222 residents were granted Brunei citizenship, while the total from January 2017 to October 2019 was 1,262.5

One of the tasks of the Legislative Council, which meets in March of each year, is to pass the budget for the financial year from April to March of the following year. The Minister of Finance and Economy II (concurrently Minister at the Prime Minister's Office) presented the year's budget, themed "Investing in our Future". The budget allocation of BN$5.86 billion for 2019/20 was only BN$560 million more than that of the previous year. The minister pointed out that he expected another budget deficit...