A Muslim worshiper dons a face mask amid Covid-19 worries in Brunei. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – When Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivered an address at the opening of Brunei’s annual legislative session on March 9, he expressed gratitude to “God” that his nation remained free of Covid-19 infections. At the time, the oil-rich Borneo sultanate was still one of the last countries in Southeast Asia without a confirmed case.

The monarch began an otherwise down-to-earth speech on the economic repercussions of the viral global pandemic for energy-dependent Brunei by ascribing the Islamic nation’s virus-free status to divine “protection” gained through prayer.  

“Brunei is constantly praying, in our mosques, houses and assemblies. With continued prayers, Brunei will continue to receive divine blessings and protection,” said the sultan, one of the world’s few remaining absolute rulers, in his speech officiating the Legislative Council (LegCo) sitting.

Hours after his speech, Brunei confirmed its first Covid-19 case.

Within days, there were dozens of new cases linked to Bruneians returning from a mass gathering of pious Muslims in Malaysia organized by the missionary Tablighi Jamaat movement in late February, Southeast Asia’s largest coronavirus cluster to date with confirmed infections in multiple countries.  

A fast uptick in cases sparked alarm and panic buying at grocery stores and led to Brunei prohibiting citizens and foreign residents from going abroad on March 15. The country then sealed itself off entirely, with all land, sea and air entry points closed on March 24.

At present, Brunei has 133 confirmed Covid-19 cases with one death recorded.

Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant at Suri Seri Begawan Raja Pengiran Anak Damit Mosque to counter the Covid-19 coronavirus in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dean Kassim

But the situation was quickly brought under control. Brunei was among the first nations to introduce travel restrictions on affected countries and temperature screenings for inbound travellers. By early February, authorities began readying quarantine shelters capable of accommodating more than a thousand potential patients.

Observers say the wealthy sultanate’s handling of the pandemic has been robust and transparent, despite the adoption of drastic and arguably draconian measures.

“Once the first cases were reported, Brunei quite impressively and professionally handled the situation, putting into action best practices likely inspired by neighboring Singapore,” said Dominik Müller, a professor of cultural and social anthropology at Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) Erlangen-Nuremberg.

“They were swift and apparently very efficient in setting up new testing, treatment and contact-tracing structures, which is all the more remarkable as there’s often a stereotype of policies and basically any other procedures in Brunei typically being rather slow,” the academic told Asia Times.

Mosques, suraus and prayer halls across the country have also been shuttered and are likely to remain closed in the near-term.

Places of worship and prayer facilities were initially set to remain closed until at least April 6. But in a press briefing on April 2, Health Minister Mohammad Isham Jaafar said the government would only ease Covid-19 restrictions, including mosque closures, after 28 consecutive days with no new cases recorded.

“Unlike Singapore, Brunei was initially reluctant to close mosques and cancel Friday prayers,” Müller said, though precautions such as closing mosques for disinfection and cleaning were taken. “But once the case numbers grew, the government eventually declared that Friday prayers at mosques were not religiously obligatory for the time being.”

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes during National Day celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, February 24, 2018.  Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani
Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes during National Day celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, February 24, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Brunei’s ruler, in a televised speech addressing the Covid-19 situation on March 22, called on the public to remain calm and exercise responsibility to prevent wider spread of the pneumonia-like illness.

As believers, said the sultan, Bruneians are required to undertake prayer and devotional acts while at home rather than at mosques to curb the contagion’s spread.

“This is where our culture is different, we know this pandemic does not exist by itself but comes from our creator. Nobody among us knows why it came,” the 73-year-old monarch said. The country’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has since reiterated calls for the public to undertake pious acts and religious deeds in order to obtain God’s protection.

In 2019, Brunei courted global controversy after it adopted an Islamic sharia penal code allowing for amputation, whipping or stoning to death for violations. But when the monarch vowed to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and not enforce the death penalty under the new religious laws, outside pressure eased.

As the country copes with the scaling back of communal religious activity in the midst of the pandemic, Müller notes that the basis for forgoing religious gatherings is itself derivative of sharia principles.  

“Their rationale was clearly that the protection of life and health is a ‘higher goal’ of the sharia – maqasid al-syariah – and thus overrides personal sharia duties, such as attending Friday prayers, in an emergency situation like the current public health crisis,” the scholar said.

Spiritual measures aside, Brunei has expedited the opening of a new national virology laboratory to conduct molecular tests for Covid-19, which the sultan has said will increase testing capacity tenfold. Since the outbreak began, Singapore has helped supply Brunei with coronavirus test kits.

A man wearing a face mask amid concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus walks at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, March 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Dean Kassim

All Bruneians returning to the country are required to take a coronavirus swab test and undergo mandatory isolation at a quarantine facility. To ensure compliance with virus-curbing rules, penalties for violators have been ratcheted up. Offenders face fines of B$10,000 (US$6,988) or six months in prison.

“Since the pandemic, life has definitely changed in many aspects, especially in terms of freedom of movement,” said Bruneian academic Mu’izz Abdul Khalid, a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. “The need for social distancing has acted as a catalyst for Brunei to start using online services.”

Brunei’s government has advised the public to use its online services portal for tasks like applying for business licenses and paying road taxes rather than visiting service counters; it also set up a drive-through system for pension collections.

All public and private school students are currently taking classes online in accordance with social distancing.

“Initially after the announcement of ‘Patient Zero’, the public mood definitely became more manic and fearful of the virus,” Mu’izz told Asia Times. “However, things have become much calmer now due to the actions and the lengths taken by the Bruneian government to show that it is here to protect the citizens of Brunei.”

Economic challenges facing the country have been compounded by the public health crisis. Brunei recently unveiled stimulus measures worth B$450 million ($314 million) to help its relatively small private sector weather the pandemic storm.

Measures include loan payment deferments, wage subsidies, social security contributions, and sponsored training programs for graduates, employees and businesses.

Analysts say that while the negative economic shocks associated with Covid-19 will hit Brunei’s economy, the larger threat to the third-largest oil producer in Southeast Asia is the ongoing oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Oil and gas revenues account for upwards of 80% of total government earnings.

Energy exports have long financed generous welfare policies, including zero taxes, subsidized housing and free healthcare and education. The government has in recent years sought to scale back welfare spending and reorient its economy toward private sector entrepreneurship and Islamic finance, goalposts now toppled by contagion headwinds.

Brunei Muslims pray in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

“As long as global markets remain awash with Russian and Saudi oil, Brunei should expect large revenue deficits and rampant debt-financing of social programs and subsidies to keep the economy afloat amid Covid-19-related shutdowns,” said Liam Hunt, a market analyst at SophisticatedInvestor.com.

Brunei’s government projects a budget shortfall for two consecutive fiscal years, with a deficit of B$1.46 billion ($1 billion) expected in 2020. That figure could widen on the back of a prolonged national health emergency, tepid global demand for hydrocarbons and a sustained drop in crude prices at $20 or less per barrel.

“The stability of Brunei’s social and political system depends quite fundamentally on its oil and gas-funded economic foundations,” said Müller. “The aim for economic diversification and reduction of dependency from oil and gas will now become even harder to achieve – and the dilemma may be deepened by the decreasing oil revenues due to falling prices.”