Brunei is a small yet affluent country where residents receive free medical care and education, and pay no income tax, thanks to its natural gas and oil. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary His Excellency Mr. Haji Shahbudin Haji Musa about topics including general information about Brunei (a country with four districts, one of which is physically separated), its history, its strong ties with Japan via natural gas, and its numerous sightseeing attractions that form the basis of its current efforts to become a tourist destination.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today.
(Mu) I heard I’m the first ambassador from Brunei to be interviewed. I look forward to speaking with you.
(Mo) Me, too. I’ve traveled to 83 countries around the world. I visit around three or four every year, and I learned about Brunei when I was searching for my next destination. It’s a wonderful country that is close to Japan, so I definitely want to visit! But first, I invited you, the ambassador to Japan, here so we could talk. Many Japanese people, including myself, don’t know anything about Brunei. I hope you will take this chance to teach us about your country. The official name in Japanese is “Brunei Darussalam,” is that right?
(Mu) Thank you very much for this opportunity. I also think many Japanese people are unaware of Brunei, and that my job is to share information about my country. As you mentioned, “Brunei” is the common name, while “Brunei Darussalam” is the official one. “Darussalam” means “Abode of Peace.” Brunei is located on the north part of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, and is surrounded by Malaysia and the South China Sea. Our population numbers roughly 450,000 people, of whom 100,000 are foreign nationals working in Brunei. It is about the size of Japan’s Mie Prefecture and is divided into four districts. Due to historical reasons, only the Temburong District is physically separated from the other three. Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital. The Malay ethnic group makes up approximately 70% of the population. People of Chinese descent account for 10%, and the rest are from various ethnic groups. Islam is the official religion, and 80% of the population are Muslims. Although Malay is the official language, people also speak English because Brunei used to be a British protected state. Brunei is a small country, but we are located right in the middle of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Another unique characteristic is that 70% of our territory is covered by tropical rainforest.
(Mo) It is an affluent country, and the main industries are oil and natural gas production.
(Mu) Yes, we are small yet wealthy. Brunei is still a constitutional monarchy with a sultan. Brunei’s territory was largest during the reign of Sultan Bolkiah the 5th in the 15th century. Back then, Brunei spanned the area from what is today Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia (on Borneo) to the islands near Indonesia and the south part of the Philippines. Brunei later became a British protected state, but it restored self-government for domestic affairs in 1959, and became fully independent from Britain in 1984. That’s when diplomatic relations were established with Japan.
(Mo) When were oil and natural gas discovered?
(Mu) Oil fields were first discovered in 1929 during the Great Depression. Offshore natural gas was discovered in 1964, and then it was found in other locations in 1970.
(Mo) Brunei has a very small population, so I imagine the citizens enjoy very affluent lifestyles thanks to these natural resources. What about taxes?
(Mu) Yes, our gross national income (GNI) is about 30,000 dollars per person. After Singapore, this is the second-highest economic level in Southeast Asia. All medical care and education is free, and there is no income tax.
(Mo) That’s great. I wish I could live there!
(Mu) Shell (the major oil company that discovered natural gas), the government of Brunei, and Mitsubishi Corporation jointly funded the new Brunei LNG in 1969. After building plants and other facilities, the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Brunei was delivered to Japan in 1972. Stable provision has continued for almost a half century after that. Japan is the top export location for Brunei’s LNG. However, although it is certainly true that Brunei has vast amounts of oil and natural gas, we do tend to depend too much on these.
(Mo) Although oil demand is falling because of impacts from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), conflict has been revealed between Russia and Saudi Arabia as they have decided to increase crude oil production, causing crude oil prices to crash. It’s clear that Saudi Arabia and Russia want to force American companies to cut their shale oil production – which has high extraction costs – with the aim of stealing away this share.
(Mu) This is a common strategy by Saudi Arabia. It’s done similar things in the past. It tries to gain power by controlling the supply.
(Mo) About how much does it cost to produce oil in Brunei?
(Mu) I don’t really know the details… Today the crude oil cost is less than 50 dollars per barrel, and I’ve heard it’s economically difficult to produce unless the price is at least 50 dollars or more.
(Mo) I think Saudi Arabia’s aim is to snatch away the shares of countries that have higher production costs, including the United States.
(Mu) Saudi Arabian crude oil production may be viable even if the price per barrel is under 20 dollars.
There are many things to see in the capital city, including a luxurious palace and mosques
(Mo) Brunei is a constitutional monarchy just like Japan. The head of state is the sultan, who is the equivalent of a king in the Islamic world. You said Islam is the official religion. Is Brunei Shia or Sunni?
(Mu) It is Sunni.
(Mo) There are religious quarrels between Iran, a Shia nation, and Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country. Does that mean Brunei more closely resembles Saudi Arabia?
(Mu) Yes, and some people go to work in Saudi Arabia. We can also say Brunei is similar to Oman because both countries are ruled by sultans. However, the current Omani sultanate began in the 18th century, while Brunei’s dates back to the 14th century. Hassanal Bolkiah, the current head of state, is the 29th sultan. He also serves as the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.
(Mo) I looked up some information about Brunei, and I learned there is a gorgeous royal palace and mosques in the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan.
(Mu) Yes, the palace is called “Istana Nurul Iman.” It was completed in 1984 and cost a total of 400 million dollars to build. People say it is the largest palace in the world, and it has a massive scale. There are 1,788 rooms, including a banquet hall that can hold 5,000 people and a mosque that can hold 1,500.
(Mo) Can anyone go inside?
(Mu) It is usually closed to the public, but you can go inside during the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting) every year. Another must-see sight is Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which has golden domes and is nicknamed the “Old Mosque.” This building was completed in 1958 and can be regarded as a symbol of Brunei’s prosperity.
(Mo) That’s fascinating.
(Mu) If you want to enjoy nature, you should go to the national park in Temburong, which is separated from the other districts. You can travel there overland or by boat from Bandar Seri Begawan. For example, you can gaze down from a high place at mangroves and vast tropical rainforests, take guided forest tours, and have fun canoeing rivers through the trees. It’s a perfect place for nature lovers. Brunei is also a world-famous scuba diving spot. Many divers come from the U.S., Europe, and across the globe to dive to shipwrecks that have become fish reefs.
(Mo) How do you fly from Japan to Brunei?
(Mu) Direct Royal Brunei Airlines flights between Narita and Brunei started in March 2019. There are four flights per week that take about five hours from Narita Airport to Bandar Seri Begawan. When you visit, you can stay at The Empire Brunei, the finest hotel in Brunei that is located on a coast near Bandar Seri Begawan. It is right next to The Empire Country Club, where you can enjoy golfing.
(Mo) I have two golf courses at APA Resort Joetsu-Myoko in Niigata Prefecture and APA Resort Tochiginomori in Tochigi Prefecture. I only play at other courses when I am visiting to observe them (laughs). I’ve previously traveled to Bahrain at the invitation of the king. They welcomed me warmly, including dinners with the king, crown prince, and prime minister. A Bahraini prince married a Saudi Arabian princess. Bahrain is a small country, but it is extremely wealthy.
(Mu) Qatar and Bahrain are quite similar to Brunei.
(Mo) Bahrain is composed of more than 30 islands in the Persian Gulf, and it is linked to Saudi Arabia via bridges. The Bahraini ambassador to Japan drove me to Saudi Arabia, which had a totally different atmosphere. It has strict religious laws and all women cover themselves. Bahrain wasn’t that strict. I’ve heard that rich Saudi Arabians go to Bahrain to let loose. Are there strict religious laws in Brunei?
(Mu) It is a moderate country, and there is no need for foreign women in particular to cover up. However, women must cover their hair with a hijab when visiting a mosque. They can borrow one at the mosque.
(Mo) The royal palace of Bahrain was also impressive, and I’d definitely like to see the palace in Brunei, which is said to be number one in the world.
(Mu) Quasr Al Watan, the presidential residence in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is also magnificent. It was opened to the public in March 2019 and has become a popular new sightseeing spot.
(Mo) I’d like to go there someday. When is the best season to visit Brunei?
(Mu) The climate is unpredictable, so that’s a hard question to answer. Basically, the weather is relatively cool and very humid during the rainy season from November to February. The dry season from March to August is fairly hot, and the temperature always exceeds 30°C in the afternoon.
(Mo) Some cities are cool like Nairobi in Kenya, which has an elevation of about 1,800 meters although it is right by the Equator. I feel like that is true of many capital cities.
(Mu) Bandar Seri Begawan is at sea level. Brunei has some hills, but most of our land is green and flat.
(Mo) Important figures frequently travel between Japan and Brunei, which opened diplomatic relation in 1984.
(Mu) Sultan Bolkiah has visited Japan in 1984, 1989, 1995, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013, and in 2019 for the emperor’s enthronement. He has also met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Then-Crown Prince Naruhito attended Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah’s wedding in 2004. Abe also visited Brunei in 2013 for the ASEAN Summit in 2013.
(Mo) Japan is Brunei’s biggest trading partner. To Japan, Brunei is an important nation in terms of stable energy supply, and Japan imports about 5% of its LNG from of Brunei.
(Mu) That’s right. APA Hotel is using Brunei-produced LNG when it consumes electricity at its hotels around Japan.
(Mo) Japan imports a great deal of LNG from Brunei, but what about oil?
(Mu) Brunei doesn’t actually produce large volumes of oil. It is refined in the country and is of very high quality, so it’s expensive. It is more beneficial for Japan and other countries that have good oil refining facilities to import cheap oil. That’s why Japan doesn’t import much oil from Brunei. If we say the amount of LNG imported is 100, then oil is just one.
(Mo) Does Brunei have any resources besides oil and natural gas?
(Mu) I think nature is our biggest resource. Tropical rainforest wood can be processed and sold, but Brunei doesn’t do this at all to conserve our natural environment. All wood used in Brunei is imported from Malaysia and other countries. We also have rich marine resources and a thriving fishing industry. We make processed foods from this seafood, but very little is exported. Right now Brunei is focusing its greatest efforts on the tourism industry with a strategy of starting direct flights to locations around the world.
(Mo) Visiting the royal palace and mosques in Bandar Seri Begawan sounds like fun, and you also have many activities like nature tours and scuba diving that make use of the natural environment. It seems like Brunei is definitely an appealing tourist destination. It’s also amazing that there are regular direct flights to a country that only has 450,000 people.
(Mu) I agree.
(Mo) Where do these flights go besides Japan?
(Mu) There are flights to the major ASEAN member states. The largest number of foreign travelers to Brunei come from Malaysia, followed by China. I think an important task I must do as ambassador is increase the number of Japanese tourists who fly directly to Brunei.
(Mo) How long have you been in Japan?
(Mu) Ten months.
(Mo) What is your impression of Japan?
(Mu) I think it is of the top level in the world. Japan has clean hotels, modern cities, and a rich culture – qualities it shares with Brunei. The people are polite, warm, and friendly. Japan also has great infrastructure, such as public transportation, and wonderful facilities like golf courses. My only complaint is that the cost of living is high.
(Mo) Thank you for those wonderful words of praise. Unfortunately, Japanese people today are not aware of this – they don’t understand the great qualities of Japan.
(Mu) Maybe they think these are ordinary because they encounter them every day.
(Mo) I am engaged in various activities to teach more Japanese people about how great Japan is, and to revive pride in our home nation.
(Mu) I’m sure you are understand this better than anyone, since you have traveled to 83 different countries.
(Mo) I think so. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Mu) Brunei and Japan have very similar backgrounds, including our long histories and rich traditions and cultures. Japan has its Imperial Family and Brunei has its royal family. Both countries are working to protect their natural environments, too. However, I do think Japan is a much more advanced country than Brunei. Based on this, I have three pieces of advice for young people.
The first is “study hard.” I hope they will learn as much as possible when they can at educational institutions. It is also important to go to all sorts of places and learn things rather than just studying at school. I hope they will open their hearts and learn about other cultures in addition to Japan. The second is “focus.” They should focus on their dreams and what they want to achieve in life. Do they want to become a pop star, inventor, or top athlete? The third is “self-discipline.” In addition to obeying the laws, I hope young people will have the strong dedication to improve themselves. I also hope they will make contributions to improving their organizations and society.
(Mo) I would also like to add that young Japanese people should feel a sense of pride and confidence in their own country. I am always saying, “You should have more confidence.” Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(Mu) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: March 18, 2020
H.E. Mr. Haji Shahbudin Haji Musa
Born in 1961. Earned his bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Essex (1983), master’s degree in energy economics at the University of Surrey (1986), and master’s degree in accounting at the University of Strathclyde (2003). His past positions include working in economics at the Prime Minister’s Office of Brunei Darussalam, head of the Sales Division at Brunei LNG, undersecretary of the Ministry of Finance and Economy of Brunei Darussalam, and managing director of Brunei Gas Carriers. He became the ambassador to Japan in May 2019.