Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (68) is the 29th and current Sultan of Brunei, a tiny Islamic kingdom of 420,000 nested in Southeast Asia, neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. He succeeded to the throne in 1967 after the voluntary resignation of his father and was crowned the following year. Today, he holds what seems to be unlimited power; Bolkiah is Head of State, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of Finance, and Head of Religion. He received his high school education in Malaysia and continued his studies in the United Kingdom at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
The father of eight children from three wives was once dubbed the wealthiest individual in the world. In 2008, Forbes estimated his riches to be US$20 billion. He lives in a palace containing nearly 1,800 rooms and owns at least 150 Rolls-Royces. One of his wives was notorious for splurging half-a-million dollars in one shopping day.
Managing an oil-dependent, rich country, Bolkiah provides welfare for his people. Health treatment, for example, is free of charge for children and costs a minimal amount for most adult citizens. In exchange, he took away freedom of press and religion. In 1991, the Sultan introduced a conservative ideology which presents the monarchy as the defender of Islam. In 2014, he implemented a Sharia penal code that would eventually bring corporal punishment such as flogging and amputation.
Malays, the predominant race in the country, are prohibited from renouncing Islam. Bolkiah allows historical churches to operate, but monitors them closely and strongly curbs evangelism. On the other hand, Islamization takes place at full speed and a good number of Asian expats have converted to Islam as a result.
The Man Behind the Throne
From a distance, the Sultan fits the profile of a dictator—someone more similar to a glamorous Hitler than a Gandhi. But a closer look at the Sultan reveals another side that is rarely seen by international media: he is loved and adored by the Bruneians. “He’s very compassionate and generous,” said a Bruneian believer. “After natural calamities, he goes to the fields and visits his people, granting them whatever they need be it emergency aid or a piece of land.”
As a result, people look up to him as their primary role model. “There was a time when His Majesty enrolled his children in an Islamic boarding school. Suddenly, the school’s intake soared and everyone started enrolling their kids in Muslim education!” said another believer. Soon, the Sultan found that his children barely spoke English as they had learned nothing but the Quran. The disappointed king withdrew his kids from the school and sent them elsewhere; a move followed by many Bruneians.
When Sultan Bolkiah announced his desire to implement the Sharia penal code, speculations arose regarding his motivation behind the laws. “Why only now?” many asked. After all, Brunei had been an Islamic kingdom for centuries. The depleting oil reserve might be one source of his insecurity, some analysts said, prompting him to control his subjects through other means. All this time, social welfare has effectively bred obedience among his people.
But others believe that the motive is purely religious: “He’s getting old. He wants to leave a legacy before he dies.” This is a legacy that, according to Islamic teachings, would earn him a spot in paradise. Meanwhile, others are convinced that the laws were the brain child of not the Sultan himself, but his personal advisors.
When the new Islamic laws were finalized and enforced, confusion filled the air on how to interpret them. The code, for instance, punishes people for indecent clothing—but what constitutes as indecent? Does it mean that every woman must cover her head with hijab and her arms with long sleeves? The debates escalated until His Majesty spoke up: “Let’s use common sense in defining decent: so long as you’re properly dressed and not sneered at by the society.” The following day, youngsters roamed around the town in shorts without a care. There is, apparently, a reasonable man behind the religious stunt.
In another instance, the Sultan himself criticized the penal code. The Sharia Law prohibits non-Muslims from using 19 Islamic words, including Allah (God) and imam (religious leader). “I don’t understand,” said the Sultan, as quoted by a believer. “What is a Christian supposed to say if he’s about to meet or speak with an imam?” The pastor continued: “I trust the Sultan didn’t want the laws to be this brutal.” He was referring to the corporal punishments such as flogging, amputation, and the death penalty for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, and apostasy.
“When we pray for Brunei, we should focus on the Sultan,” pleaded a lady pastor. “He is the key person behind all religious restrictions. If there is one person who could make things better or worse for Christians in this country, it would be him.” In fact, last Christmas, Sharia law enforcers already banned believers from celebrating Jesus’ birth or putting up Christmas decorations in public.
As we pray for the Sultan, let us pray insightfully for the following:
- Pray that the Holy Spirit would minister to him and speak to his conscience. Pray also that he would one day have a personal encounter with the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
- Pray that His Majesty is given wisdom and a reasonable mind in interpreting and enforcing the Sharia Law.
- Pray also for his advisors who may feed the ruler with ideas of Islamic fundamentalism. May the Lord raise more ‘Daniels’ and place them among his inner circle.
- May the Sultan be compelled to demonstrate religious tolerance—a behavior that will be modeled by the citizens.
- Lastly, if the Lord is willing, may the Sultan be exposed to the flaws of the Islamic laws and eventually abolish them.