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Most Read of 2020: Brunei Darussalam: An Unexpected COVID-19 Success Story

07 Jan 2021
By Moez Hayat
The famous Kampung Ayer, a collection of houses, shops, schools and clinics, is perched on stilts in the Brunei River. Located opposite this water village in the centre of town are speculator mosques and the world’s largest royal palace. Source: Bernard Spragg

Unassuming and quiet is sometimes the best way to govern in a pandemic. Southeast Asia’s most overlooked nation, Brunei, has proven its bureaucratic brass and state system functionality, and its success gives credence to its effective leadership and recent reforms in the sultanate.

This article was one of the most read in Australian Outlook in 2020. It was originally published on 17 July 2020.

One ASEAN member state seems to have dealt rather effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic now gripping the world: Brunei Darussalam. Since its first reported case on March 9, the sultanate has suffered some 141 confirmed cases with only three deaths; the remaining 138 victims are in recovery as of July 8. Currently, Brunei has no active cases and has not reported any new cases in two months. While Brunei’s success may come as a surprise to some, the small, oil-rich absolute monarchy was well positioned to respond to a crisis like this pandemic.

First and foremost, Brunei is very small.  Its territory covers less than 6,000 square kilometers. Its population is only 490,000, including expatriates, and Brunei remains fairly suburban and even rural. This demography makes it easier to track and map the spread of the virus, and to quickly quarantine those who may have been exposed.

As a welfare state, Brunei was relatively well prepared for a pandemic. Historically, the government has prioritised the investment of its oil revenues into the medical sector. Bruneians receive free access to state-of-the-art healthcare throughout their lives and, as a result, Brunei already had the necessary infrastructure in place to treat the virus.

Taking Decisive Action

When cases spiked in May, Brunei’s greatest asset was its rapid response. The ruling sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, demonstrated his leadership when, within days, citizens and residents were banned from leaving Brunei and foreigners banned from entering. Return citizens were placed in quarantine centers, and a lockdown was swiftly implemented. This was in addition to travel restrictions for China, Brunei’s largest trading partner, imposed as early as February. This decisive action and its quick implementation were essential to staying the spread of the virus.

Impressively, the bureaucracy efficiently responded to these demands. Testing was increased rapidly and has been fairly successful. Within ASEAN, Brunei only trails Singapore in the number of tests administered per 1,000 people. The government has also remained transparent throughout the crisis, with data on the virus, government initiatives, information on staying healthy, and contact tracing shared widely with the public.

Brunei also drew on its welfare system to lessen the virus’s impact. The government decided to fully cover the costs of testing and treatment, including for foreign workers in the sultanate, as the virus spiked. To reduce the economic impact, the government announced it would partially fund private sector salaries for small businesses, defer loan payments, offer drive-through pension collection, and create a relief fund for medical equipment.

The Benefits of a Malay Muslim Monarchy

Moreover, the sultan’s leadership was particularly relevant as an Islamic authority. COVID-19 reached Brunei after members of a Tablighi Jamaat attending a prayer session in Malaysia were infected in early May, and returned with the virus. This coincided with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims gather to break the fast and hold congregational prayers.

As an avowed “Malay Islamic Monarchy,” Brunei was sensitive to the spiritual needs of its citizens. Mosques were closed and cleaned, and gatherings of more than immediate family banned throughout Ramadan and during Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr). Meanwhile, the government encouraged Bruneians to strengthen and observe at home dhikr and Quranic studies while under quarantine.

As the nation’s political and religious leader, Sultan Bolkiah provided steadfast and public moral leadership. Bolkiah emphasised the duty of Muslims to follow social distancing guidelines, take sanitary precautions, and to redouble their prayers and reflect on the Quran, reminding Bruneians that for Muslims, the virus was itself sent by God. Such sentiments were essential to ensuring respect for public health guidelines.

The Success of Investment and Reform

The coronavirus has highlighted the salience of many recent government reforms. The state has worked to increase e-governance, reduce corruption, and improve the effectiveness of the public sector. It has also supported diversification by increasing self-sufficiency in rice and vegetable production, now timely because of the pandemic’s disruptive effect on the global food supply.

Massive infrastructure projects have had the most visible impact. As part of Brunei’s development scheme, new roads, bridges, and dams have increased its connectivity and self-sufficiency. As the crisis hit, Brunei quickly opened the Temburong Bridge, one of the largest suspension bridges in Asia built in part by South Korean and Chinese construction firms. The bridge connects the Bruneian exclave of Temburong with Brunei proper by land for the first time since 1890. Opening the bridge has ensured residents of Temburong would not be cut off from the rest of Brunei and the state’s resources while the nation’s borders were effectively closed during the lockdown.

Most promising is Brunei’s focus on the private sector. As an oil-rich rentier economy, Brunei’s private sector has generally remained weak. Early on in the crisis, Brunei announced policy initiatives to support the private sector and encourage e-commerce. This included access to online business and finance classes for prospective entrepreneurs and the creation of a new e-commerce platform to share and advertise small business services. The government has also expanded its grant program for e-commerce small businesses in order to prepare the economy for future pandemic shocks. Certainly, the virus has become an opportunity to harness the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

Looking to a Post-COVID-19 Future

Despite this success over the past few months, Brunei still faces difficult challenges as it looks beyond the coronavirus pandemic. The collapse of global oil and gas prices hit Brunei especially hard, and the government will continue to run a record deficit for some time. Diversification plans in tourism, airlines, and shipping are also in doubt due to their dependence on global commerce and travel. Inflation has risen to an all-time high and may remain so for the rest of the year.

For now, Brunei has the financial resources to ride out the worst of the pandemic. The sultanate has already reached Phase 3 of reopening and has developed plans to restart travel with Singapore and Malaysia. It has also used the pandemic to implement data-driven healthcare and institute welfare reforms.

Despite the shock, COVID-19 has allowed Brunei to shine by giving credence to recent government reforms, and by recognising an equally important spiritual dimension to the virus response. Bruneians should be proud of their achievements throughout this crisis and look towards solving the nation’s long-term economic issues with similar ambition as the coronavirus.

Moez Hayat is pursuing his Master of Arts in Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he also received his Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service and a Certificate in Islam and Muslim Christian Understanding. He studies foreign policy and security in the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia and has been published in the National Interest.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.