After hearing many times from folk in Singapore, and other backpackers, that Brunei is a bit boring…i was a little skeptical about going there. However, i wanted to see the country…home to the world’s richest man (not anymore!) and check it out for myself.
I guess a town or an area is a bit like a night out…often your experience there and your opinion of the place is much more influenced by the people that you meet and what you do, rather than the place itself!
So…on arriving in Brunei…i went to the cheapest place to stay…the Youth Hostel. When i got there, i met this Irish guy who told me he was getting a free tour to go and see a 6 star hotel (new window)…and asked if i would like to go! I jumped in, and the driver took us to see the country’s biggest Mosque (built from the Sultan’s private funds), an amazing hotel on the beach built by his brother Prince Jefry and to the infamous theme park (that is usually desserted!).
However, he also told us a bit about Brunei…and there are some interesting facts. Workers pay no tax on earnings and nearly 50% of the population works for the government and they receive some pretty amazing benefits. Every 5 years you take an exam, if you pass, you get a promotion and a pay increase. After 3 exams you become a Senior Official, and if you do well, you are appointed a VIP person. You then receive invites to all the Sultan’s bashes, you get a free chauffer driven Jaguar, up to 4 free maids, your wife gets an income to stay at home, all your children are given free eduction at top international schools etc etc…the benefits are endless. If you decide to retire at 55 you live in peace, if you want to keep working you usually get appointed a job at one of the Embassies around the world and the benefits grow! If you are homeless in Brunei, you are given a £60,000 house and are asked to repay the cost at 0% interest over as much time as you like, but you have to find work.
The benefits for the citizens are endless. If you are caught speeding it’s a simple BND$50 fine and you’re on your way. Foreigners that work in the country get tax free earnings and get free accomodation from the government. For the first 7 years it was open, the country’s theme park (including 3 roller coasters) was free. Michael Jackson performed there twice…for free, Janet once, Stevie Wonder once…etc etc… The list goes on and on.
How is all this paid for? Simply Oil. The country has masses of oil and the government is very rich from it. However, i worry that when the oil runs out, they won’t really have a solid plan of action for what to do next. The Sultan sued his brother Prince Jefry for allegedly mispending $16billion worth of government money. Part of this went on the beautiful 6 star hotel that we visited, along with his mansion (roughly the same size as the hotel, but further along the beach). The Sultan himself stays in the largest palace in the world, and between him and his brother they own the largest private collection of supercars in the world (including over 200 Rolls Royces!). Oh, he also has his own private airport, with 7 planes!!!
It’s all very staggering and all very impressive…but possibly a little crazy. The Mosque was built for around $5million (i think) to celebrate his 25th year as Sultan. It’s certainly beautiful…but with spending like this…when will it all run out? On my way to Sarawak, i passed through the area where a lot of the oil is welled and refined, and i saw a striking shot. A Donkey head oil well, pumping away in front of the local Mosque. Brunei’s two Gods.
All in, i loved Brunei. It was a nice change from Malaysia, and it’s really amazing to see the difference in a country that is so small, and surrounded on all sides by Malaysia. It is much richer and the citizens have a much higher standard of living, with the government injecting a huge amount of capital into the system, without getting much out.