The underlying reason behind Brunei’s cabinet reshuffle

The Sultan of Brunei replaced several prominent ministers. The reshuffle could indicate a move to clamp down on high-level corruption.

By Oliver Ward

In the final few days of January, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced a major cabinet reshuffle. The shakeup comes two years after the last one. Typically, cabinet reshuffles occur every five years.  He replaced six of the country’s top ministers. This appears to be something more than just time to move people on.

Source: The Scoop

The shuffle represents a step towards progress and modernity for Brunei

In the reshuffle, the Sultan gave two women ministerial positions. Datin Hjh Elinda Hj CA Mohamed will become Deputy Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Datin Paduka Dr Hjh Romaizah Hj Mohd Salleh is now Deputy Minister for Education.

This represents progress. Prior to their appointment, only one woman had been involved in the cabinet. In the 2015 reshuffle, no women received cabinet positions.

It may also be indicative of something else. The new Deputy Minister of the PMO was the director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. This could be indicative of the real reason behind the Sultan’s unexpected shakeup.

Corruption could be an underlying reason

Speaking after the reshuffle, the Sultan reiterated the importance of avoiding corruption. He said cabinet ministers “should really focus on matters that are beneficial for the country and not for self-interest or for the interest of any parties.” His comments could explain why he replaced some ministers after two-years in the job.

Transparency International releases a corruption index each year. It ranks each country based on the level of corruption in its public sector. Brunei slipped three places in the corruption index between 2013 and 2016. In 2013 Brunei ranked 38th in Transparency International’s global rankings. In 2016, it ranked 41st.

The Sultan tightened anti-corruption laws in 2015

The Sultan of Brunei made tackling corruption a priority in 2015. The drop in rankings would have been disappointing news.

In 2015, the Sultan and the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) tightened corruption laws. They amended the Prevention of Corruption Act. The amendments criminalised the use of public funds for private purposes. It also forbade private business interests conflicting with public duties.

The punishment for corrupt practices became more severe. Corrupt public officials and ministers now face seven years in prison and a fine of up to US$30,000 if convicted.

His shuffle resembles another attempt to cleanse the government of bad seeds

The Sultan’s address contained references to putting the country first. He wants his ministers to forgo personal gain. He spoke about the dangers of becoming intoxicated with power and promoting nepotism.

The former Energy Minister is currently a defendant in a US$45 million case against Shell Brunei. Armtr Corporation alleges the government and Shell Brunei breached its contracts. It filed for loss of revenue between 2012 and 2016. Mohammed Yasmin Umar sat on the board of Brunei Shell Petroleum while he was Energy Minister. This is the kind of conflict of interest the Sultan alluded to in his address.

A shakeup, while unexpected, shows that the Sultan is serious about getting results. It sends a message that nobody is too senior to get away with pursuing personal gain in government. It is a message that will resonate with the Brunei public. The wheels are in motion for a cleaner Bruneian government.