Life after oil: How will Brunei survive?

Photo: IQRemix/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sarah Caroline Bell

Flush with money, Brunei has the financial capacity to provide its citizens with an unbelievably comfortable lifestyle. Bruneians, the fourth wealthiest people in Asia, have been generously assisted through every step of their lives.

With the glory days of abundant oil reserves a distant memory, the future economy of Brunei is now a topic of discussion. So what will the future hold, and most importantly, how will its citizens respond to a change in their lifestyle?

If there is no money, then there will have to be changes. We have all seen that with economic downturn, assistance to citizens is the first thing to be cut. As such, there has been much talk that the current spending level of Brunei is unsustainable.

According to The Economist, Brunei’s economy expanded at the slowest rate in South-East Asia between 2004 and 2014. Historically, the country has had its riches handed to it on a platter, giving them the ability to spend money freely. Without it Brunei is thrust into the real world, and like a fledgling bird they are scrambling to deal with the situation.

Anticipation of dissent

Brunei’s economy has contracted for two years in a row, and is predicted to continue to shrink with the government running a deficit. A downturn, and accompanying reduction in government support to the public, is likely to result in negativity.

We know that crime increases in times of economic downturns. So what better way to preempt that, than by enacting strict religious law? Brunei’s new provisions allow for the amputation of the hands for property offences, making it a potential way to deal with stealing when citizens resort to crime to make ends meet.

Religion has long been a good strategy for population control, but once the oil runs out it is not going to help Brunei reach its dream of reinventing itself as a place of economic prosperity. That will need an outward-looking strategy.

Failure to attract tourists

Brunei wanted to position itself as a place for tourists to enjoy the experience of their lush jungle, but that has largely failed. It is not hard to see why.

With the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore nearby Brunei is overlooked by foreigners looking for somewhere to relax. For people with alternative religious beliefs, or without beliefs at all, a vacation in a destination with strict religious law does not sound like a holiday at all.

However, in the World Bank Group’s 2016 Ease of Doing Business Index, Brunei climbed to 74 out of 189 countries surveyed, a massive increase from 2015 where Brunei was down at place number 181. Clearly, it is getting easier to do business in Brunei, at least partly due to the Ministry of Finance introducing incentives to improve processes for startups.

Brunei is showing other signs of success, such as the development of future-focused organisations. For example, iCentre, Brunei’s first ICT incubator, Anggerek Desa Technology Park (ADTP) a technology hub of over 40 startups, and the Knowledge Hub (K-Hub) – a training, research and development business linked to Microsoft and IBM. Brunei also boasts SocialMart, a digital mall and DotRoot Technologies, an application development leader popular across ASEAN. For a population of less than a million, these are achievements that deserve applause.

Modern competitiveness

The question at hand, is how can Brunei think forwards: to innovate, keep encouraging entrepreneurship, and attract foreign investment? People are the real resource and figuring out how to bring out their best must be the primary concern for those in power.

In 2016, a knowledge economy is the solution and early results show they are forging ahead but the country will need to attract workers by being the kind of place people want to live. In the past, the prime resource was below ground. Now the resource is above ground, the Bruneians.