Brunei's move at the beginning of May to install Sharia law has gained much media attention. It makes the wealthy Sultanate the first in East Asia to be governed by the contentious legal system. The Sharia legal system (which last week began its three-phase, two-year introduction) includes laws against insulting the Prophet and consumption of alcohol, as well as punishments such as the severing of limbs for property crimes, and the death penalty, by stoning, for adultery and homosexuality.

While NGOs were quick to condemn the move, few reports have looked at what is behind its introduction. Here, I'll look at three possible driving forces.

1. The introduction of Sharia law reflects an ageing leader trying to shed his image as a playboy and restore the former power of his small state

Prior to European colonisation, between the 15th and 17th centuries, the Sultanate was a regional seafaring power encompassing much of Borneo and the southern Philippines, with Islam the backbone of society. But the country's fragility was exposed during World War II when it was overrun in less than a week by Japanese forces (it was recaptured in 1945 by Australian and US forces).

Today, that geographic fragility remains, as does the country's political-religous identity. The petro-state's national ideology is Malayu Islam Beraja (Malay Muslim Monarchy or MIB) and, under Article 3 of the Constitution the Sultan is both Head of State and 'head of the religion of Brunei' . 

The country's 67 year-old absolute monarch, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has led the country since 1967 and, after decades in power, last year declared his intent to introduce full Sharia law. But for some years there have  there have been increasing moves toward greater inclusion of religion in society. The Sultan himself argued in a speech in February that this provided a 'strong and effective firewall' in a new era of pervasive internet and globalisation. The Sultan has a terrible reputation as a philanderer, allegedly employing harems of women from around the world in his 1700-room palace. Lately, he's tried to change this image. This has included several pilgrimages to Mecca, the inclusion of compulsory religious education in schools and now the introduction of Sharia law.

2. The laws allows for tighter controls and further disincentives against 'internal strife' and criminal activity that may destabilise the Sultanate 

Since coming to power, the Sultan's rule has been largely unchallenged. In part, this is explained by the high GNI per capita (one of the highest in Asia at over US$30,000) and what is often termed a 'Shellfare' system where petrodollars support all welfare. The country's citizens pay no income tax and are often gifted high-paying senior public positions.

However, this system is showing signs of strain. Brunei's 400,000 citizens mostly work in the public sector. Unemployment has risen as many youths hold out for higher-ranking public jobs, leading to a restless class of bored youth. Petty theft, graffiti and drug use (mainly methamphetamine) have proliferated. Dissent is expressed online through blogs and WhatsApp (the Sultan has alluded to possible outside influence in orchestrating such campaigns). Sharia law, therefore, is a means by which the Sultan can endeavour to control this 'internal strife'

3. The law will attract greater investment from Islamic economies enabling faster diversification and the potential to become an Asian hub for Islamic banking and finance

Brunei's wealth relies almost entirely on its oil and gas resources (much of it exported to Japan and South Korea). While most estimates suggest these exports will hold steady until at least 2030-2040, the country is taking its lead from Persian Gulf petro-kingdoms and diversifying its economy. Hence the shift to attracting Islamic investment in banking, finance and services. The global Islamic economy is booming. Its potential market was recently valued at over US$5 trillion in a Thomson Reuters report. A large part of that growth will come from Southeast Asia, namely Indonesia and Malaysia.

Malaysia already has the title as the Asian hub of this boom (it is expected to announce itself with more gusto at the World Islamic Economic Forum in Dubai later this year). Its services sector is strong and it can compete in sectors such as halal food, cosmetics, and textiles. Brunei, with a far smaller population, cannot, but it can attract investors to its banking and finance sector. In effect it could become an Islamic Singapore.

Nestled between the region's two largest predominantly Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, Brunei is well placed to be Southeast Asia's Islamic hub. Indeed, the ushering in of Sharia law would give it legitimacy in the eyes of many of the leading Islamic economies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar, among others, all apply some aspects of Sharia law).

Ultimately Brunei's acceptance of Sharia law may say more about its economy than it does about religion in the country. Many states and investors will baulk at engagement with a Brunei governed by Sharia law, but the small petro-state's impressive wealth allows it the flexibility to make daring decisions that may irk its neighbours and friends abroad.

Photo by Flickr user A Moment to Remember.