Brunei, a Southeast Asian nation with a population of only 400,000, ranks among the world’s wealthiest nations per capita due to its extensive oil and gas resources. Situated strategically on the South China Sea and a member both of APEC and ASEAN, it is also a central player in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact now awaiting Congressional action. David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal, sat down with Yang Berhormat Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a close advisor to the His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei, to examine the stakes on both sides of the Pacific and to discuss the country’s domestic politics and relations with its neighbors.
DAVID A. ANDELMAN: Here we are in 2016 in very difficult times. Where do you see Brunei? What do you think is its place in the region right now?
YB PEHIN DATO LIM JOCK SENG: Brunei is a small country, with a population of about 400,000. We are the smallest member of ASEAN. And our role will be actually very minimal in any organization, being that size. So this is why ASEAN is so important to us, because this is one organization where we feel we can contribute to ASEAN, to the region, and internationally. If we’re doing it alone, it would be impossible. Nobody cares.
DA: You’re the wealthiest country in the region, along with Singapore, by far. You have great resources. You have a strong central government. You’re a peaceful country. You should be one of the great forces in the region. Do you have that confidence to do that?
PDLJS: Yes, we are blessed with oil and gas, and when the prices fall and gas is high, we were able over the last 10-15 years to put all that extra money into reserve, and invest it to the States, Europe, and everywhere. So from these reserves, we have the financial backing, but some of the major players in the region are China, Japan, and India. Within ASEAN, we try to play our part. We feel that in diplomacy, the best way to do anything is to trust each other. I realized from my 30-plus years of experience that if you don’t have the trust, however brilliant you are, you will never get anything done. We have friends, and the natural way for us in Brunei really is that we are very friendly—we like to be friends and trust is the main thing.
DA: Who do you think does not trust you in the region?
PDLJS: I think, generally, they see us as a small country of no significance, but they like us because we never trouble them, we never criticize them, and we are one of those who think, “fine, if that’s alright with you, we’ll come along.”
DA: Does that include China?
PDLJS: That includes China. Both China and America are two major powers and we are friends with both. We tell our American friends that we’re friendly with China, we’re friendly with you, but it would be good if you could use us as a channel, because what I do is, every time I would see the Chinese, I would tell them, “have you ever thought properly what it is that the Americans really want? I would tell you exactly what it is.” And then I will convey to them what the Chinese think, because the Chinese, when we talk about the South China Sea, were telling me, “look, here is China. We are surrounded by Korea, Japan … and then you have Australia, you have Thailand, you have everybody around here. All have military relations with the United States. And the moment that Australia and New Zealand come in, we feel surrounded.” So that’s basically how we see our role.
DA: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is something that’s of great interest now in America, and I’m sure here. Do you see TPP—since TPP has excluded China—as yet another threat to China? And since you are participating in that, do you see that you effectively are, too?
PDLJS: No, because TPP is an open association. Everybody can come in. And we’ve told the Chinese, “come.” We’ve invited everybody and now they have some who are seriously thinking of coming in. And, I think the TPP is good in a sense that it is now moving the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership] we are doing with the Chinese and the Indians. That’s 18 of us in total, without the United States. And now the pace is getting faster because they realize TPP is now on. And we told the Chinese we supported them, we want them to come in, the U.S. wants them to come in. I think the Chinese are thinking seriously now about it—they are getting interested in coming, and they’re not as opposed to it.
DA: But aren’t you afraid that the American government—depending on what administration we have after November—and Congress might say, “Oh, this is just another Trojan horse to get China more weight in the region?”
PDLJS: I think we have more confidence than you on this. In our last meeting, Obama was telling us that he feels that we’ll be able to pull it off. And we were talking to Alex Feldman, with the ASEAN U.S. Business Council. Now, if you look at TPP and what they’re doing, it would be silly of us not to proceed with it. And I’m sure there have been a lot of business sectors saying, “forget about politics.”
DA: What if the United States Congress said we’re not going to ratify this now? Would you go ahead with it without the United States?
PDLJS: I’m not sure of that. We have to change some of the legislation, labor and all that, to accommodate, which will take about 18 months. Then we’re ready to ratify.
DA: Do you sense that the aggressive role of China, in the South China Sea particularly, as well as its defensiveness against the TPP, would shift the power balance in this part of the world?
PDLJS: Economically, with the facts and figures, China is becoming a very important player. It is already the second largest economy in the world. Will it take over? It may, it may not. But at the same time, the U.S.—there is no country in the world that I’ve seen with the same amount of talent, research, and innovation. I was in California’s Silicon Valley. It’s fantastic! There I see Syrians, Sri Lankans, Vietnamese—all the best brains you have. There is nowhere else in the world like it, and that’s why your American spirit, your American dream is important—although the Chinese are trying to get the Chinese dream. But, as long as you pursue this, I don’t think anybody really has the environment to encourage that kind of innovation, and that’s something that America has done very well.
DA: Can Brunei maintain its voice in the region with these levels of oil prices, or do you need to have a higher price of oil?
PDLJS: I think we need some sense so that both the consumer and the producer gain from it. There’s no point in us getting $140 and have some people suffering somewhere. So what we need to get rid of is the volatility. I think Brunei’s role and influence comes from having resources. And, in that sense, a fairly stable middle of the price of oil in the $60s to $70s range [would be good]. We’re fine because constant production is very low.
DA: Now, what I find interesting is the lessons that Brunei could teach other smaller countries that have resources. Indonesia, for instance, has resources. Malaysia has resources. You have the fourth highest GDP-PPP in the world. You must be able to teach other countries something. What kinds of lessons can you teach them?
PDLJS: I’m going to explain to you the policy His Majesty has been following. I once told him, “We have spent a lot of money on welfare. We have spent a lot of money on education.” His emphasis is: “I want education. I don’t care what you all do, ministers. I want everyone to be educated from A to Z. I want everyone to have access to medical care. If you can’t get it in Brunei, we’ll fly the patients out. I want everybody to have housing—cheap housing, or free housing. In fact, in the end, it’s all free housing.” So I said, “You can’t sustain it!” He said, “All the money that comes from oil and gas and everything to the government—it’s for the people. So spend it on the people.”
DA: I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but His Majesty lives very well. And his family lives very well. Do people resent this at all?
PDLJS: As far as I can gather, because he’s trying to give all that money to the people, education and all that, people are quite comfortable. And then the social safety net—when you retire, when you’re older, you still have the pension scheme, which is non-contributory, so you get it anyway. In that case, I think he has won half of the battle in the sense that he has given them the basics plus this social safety net.
DA: I knew Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew a bit. He was a tough man, very smart and very for the people. Did you ever contemplate how Brunei might have been different if you have followed more of a Lee Kwan Yew model? You had resources that they never had in terms of oil and so on, and natural gas.
PDLJS: I think with the kind of society we have, it would be difficult. Brunei’s society is completely different from that of Singapore.
DA: How would you describe Brunei society in that respect?
PDLJS: I would say we are still family-oriented. Because of our small size, we all know each other, we’re all related to each other. And this is why when you talk about corruption and all that, it is so difficult. I’ll give you an example. I did my research in a fishing village for a year, and stayed with a family there. So when I came up, the family would say, “Look, my son hasn’t got a job. Can you please help me?” And the expectation is that you must help him. Now half of me says no, half of me says you have to help him. So I’m caught in a dilemma between the Western and the Eastern world. Eventually, I said, “Send the application. If he’s qualified, he’ll get it.”
DA: That’s more of the Singapore model, isn’t it? That’s what we would say. I think one of the things you do share with Singapore is no corruption here, right?
PDLJS: We’re trying to reduce it. We’re conscious that we haven’t succeeded.
DA: I don’t think of Brunei as a corrupt society, certainly nothing like a lot of the Middle Eastern countries, or certainly most of the African nations. You’re very high on the transparency international list, so that’s good.
PDLJS: So we’re hoping the TPP will help us because the TPP addresses the question of transparency. We need to make some of the rules very clear. That’s one way of ruling out corruption. So in this sense, TPP is helping us to really move up.
DA: What would you say if the U.S. Congress rejected it? What would the consequences be for Brunei, and for the region?
PDLJS: Well, TPP is something that will provide us with a market of 800 million people. It provides us with capacity building—we are trying to build all our businesspeople, our rules, our regulations, so that it’s on par with everyone. In this way, we are bringing Brunei into the international forum. So that’s one aspect of it, apart from creating more jobs. But we also have many other free trade agreements with nations like Australia and New Zealand. There is also RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Now this one is with India, China—but not the U.S. If TPP fails, some of these countries will come in.
DA: So basically, it’ll be worse for America if it fails than it’ll be for Brunei and the region.
DA: That’s a very interesting perspective.
PDLJS: But if you see the World Bank’s report, we are number three getting benefits out of it. But we wouldn’t get any benefits until we move up.
DA: Move up what?
PDLJS: In the sense of some of the rules, the regulations. If I want to attract American investors, my rules and my judiciary must be very clear. Some of the rules are not very clear, like labor. That’s in the process of being done.
DA: But you don’t need TPP for that. You realize that, right?
PDLJS: No, but TPP provides us this motivation.
DA: That’s very interesting. So what else would you want from America?
PDLJS: I think, as I said, America is a very good friend of ours. One of the major powers, if not the major power. It has contributed a lot to the peace and stability of this region. China of course is the up-and-coming one, but we want them to play a positive role—the both of them.
DA: They seem to want to encroach on your oil lands and your oil fields in the South China Sea, and it seems they want to make life difficult for you.
PDLJS: At the end of the day, I think that China and the U.S. cannot afford to fight. The reality is that we need each other, and you can’t do that. I don’t think for a moment that the Chinese would be mad enough to do something, and I’m sure the Chinese have a long-term view of things.
DA: So you’re not concerned then about these things that are happening in the South China Sea?
PDLJS: If it is the nine-dash line, it is part of it, but we’re saying this is ours, and this is yours – but it’s not going to come to any blows.
DA: I’m also interested in the legislative part of the government, and wanted to see how that worked in Brunei.
PDLJS: The composition of the legislative council, which was introduced in 2004, is that a quarter of those people are actually elected as head men of villages. From these 50-60 head men, 15 out of them get to represent in parliament. They were chosen by the people, through elections. And then His Majesty adds about five people who represent some ethnic communities and groups, and another five people who represent the interests from the private sector, people with contributions.
DA: So the idea as I understand it is that the legislative council—people come in, and tell the problems they have to the ministers. You’re one of the ministers—you’ll be up there?
DA: If something does not go their way, they can’t protest. There isn’t that avenue. So does it still function as a safety valve in the communities, or does it not act as a source of frustration?
PDLJS: Our parliament is designed slightly differently. The parliament is trying to have the concept of a discussion, and trying to get a consensus; there is no such thing as opposition. And if you see the design of the sitting arrangement, it’s different.
DA: Have they ever gotten what they wanted?
PDLJS: Some of them do, some don’t, but some questions come up again and again. So the idea is, how do you find a consensus?
DA: But is it really a consensus? It’s really not a true democracy, with all due respect. The head of state and head of government has been in power for over 40 years. But do people still feel a participation in the Brunei miracle, if you will?
PDLJS: There is access to His Majesty. He’s there every Friday, and they will see him and pass on letters to him. So every time he comes back with letters complaining about the ministers not doing anything, and the next day all the ministers will have to answer all of the questions.
DA: Does he ever do anything for the people?
PDLJS: Oh, yes. One example is of a market that is operating and the ministers were saying that they wanted to move the vendors to a better place. But the vendors were saying, we’ve been here for generations, and we want to stay here because this is our place and history and people. So His Majesty came down and talked to them, and they told His Majesty they want to stay. And I think His Majesty took their word and said, “Alright.” They have access to him; they write letters to the palace with requests. The ministers are reminded again and again that everything is for the people, not for themselves. But this message is not well publicized. So His Majesty is always being portrayed as this and that, so he said, “I live with it.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo courtesy of Bernard Spragg]