Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of Brunei Darussalam, sits on the northern bank of the Brunei River. / Courtesy of Information Department of Brunei
By Na Jeong-ju
Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich sultanate in Southeast Asia, hopes to strengthen economic ties with South Korea, particularly in the areas of information technology and tourism, the country's leader said.
``We have unspoiled yet fairly accessible pristine rainforests, offering rich biodiversity and are thus well positioned for eco-tourism,'' Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah told The Korea Times. ``We will continue to market our country to the world, including Korea. We will see more Korean tourists visit Brunei in the future.''
Brunei, officially Negara Brunei Darussalam, is one of the oldest kingdoms in the world as well as one of the youngest independent nations in Southeast Asia. Korea established diplomatic relations with Brunei in 1984 right after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom on Jan. 1 that year.
One of the Islamic nation's key policy goals is to promote the country as a unique tourist destination in Asia, making the industry a key source of revenue and one of the main contributors to the growth of national wealth.
``Looking forward, perhaps we could also focus on other tourism segments, such as sports and medicine, and position ourselves to provide integrated tourism experiences,'' the Brunei leader said in an e-mail interview with The Korea Times.
Crude oil and natural gas, which account for nearly half of the country's gross domestic product, allow the Brunei government to provide the population with one of Asia's best healthcare systems, free education, and food and housing subsidies.
A large portion of the labor force is from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India and Bangladesh while American and British professionals are engaged in industry, education and medical services.
Experts say the economy can be called a mixture of domestic and foreign entrepreneurship, government regulation, well-established welfare system and village tradition.
``Since oil was discovered in 1929, it has dominated the country's economy. We are very thankful for this, as it has put us in a better position to enjoy economic development and overcome challenges such as the global economic slowdown,'' the Sultan said. ``At the same time, we recognize that economic diversification is in the long-term interest of the nation and community. We have created an attractive and competitive environment for business and investors and my government is also working on several incentives to strengthen the private sector.
``In this regard, we look forward to Korea's cooperation and support through exchange of experience, expertise and capacity building. At the same time, we also welcome Korean investors and companies to participate in our economic diversification projects, such as the Sungai Liang Industrial Park and the Pulau Muara Besar Port,'' he added.
Korean Cultural Wave
Asked about Brunei's interest in Korean culture, he said like may other people in the region, many Bruneians have been attracted to increasingly popular Korean soap operas, movies and songs.
``I see much benefit from closer cultural cooperation and exchanges. Especially, these cultural waves help us understand each other and learn about the history of South Korea,'' he said.
The Brunei leader noted ASEAN and South Korea have made good progress over the last two decades, and the summit on Korea's southern resort island of Jeju will provide a crucial opportunity to take their relations to a higher level.
In light of the current global challenges, such as the economic crisis, food and energy security and the recent outbreak of influenza, it is important for both ASEAN and Korea to work closely to address those challenging issues, he said.
``We value our strong relations with Korea. We have good cooperation in trade, energy and education. We further hope both countries will continue to find ways to strengthen trade relations as well as in the area of IT and tourism,'' the leader said.
With a population of some 400,000, developing human capital and improving the welfare of people have been a priority for the Southeast Asian country.
Free Education, Healthcare
Brunei spends much part of its earnings from oil exports on maintaining its welfare system.
Bruneians enjoy free medical and health care which is provided via the government hospitals, health centers and health clinics throughout the whole country.
In remote areas that are not accessible or access by land or water is difficult, primary health care is provided by the Flying Medical Services. Other than four government hospitals in each district, there are also two other private hospitals.
It also has excellent housing programs.
It seeks to provide comfortable homes for landless Brunei citizens, especially government employees who are eligible for housing loans.
``The benefits provided to Bruneians cover many areas, including free education and medical services, on personal income tax, subsidized housing and land for those who are landless,'' the leader said.
``However, there is always room for improvement, and in this regard our long-term national development, called Brunei Vision 2035, aims to build a first-class education system and ensure the sustainable system of our health services, which are comprehensive, equitable and affordable,'' he added.
Brunei is heavily dependent on international trade for economic growth. Substantial income from overseas investment supplements income from domestic production.
Stated plans for the future include upgrading the labor force, reducing unemployment, strengthening the banking and tourism sectors, and, in general, further widening the economic base.
The national airline, Royal Brunei, is trying to make the country a hub for international travel between Europe and Australia and New Zealand, and also has services to major Asian destinations.
Brunei's culture was mainly derived from the Old Malay World, which encompassed the Malay Archipelago, and from this stemmed what is known as the Malay Civilization.
Based on historical facts, various cultural elements and foreign civilizations had a hand in influencing the culture of the country.
Thus, the influences on culture can be traced to the four dominating periods of animism, Hinduism, Islam and the West. However, it was Islam that managed to wind its roots deeply into Brunei, hence it became a way of life and was adopted as the state's ideology and philosophy.
Brunei Darussalam is richly endowed with a cultural heritage steadfastly maintained until today.
The country has focused on the preservation and proliferation of the arts and crafts of bygone days for which it was renowned, such as boat making, silversmithing, bronze tooling, cloth weaving as well as mat and basket weaving.
Relics and other items of artistic heritage include Malay weaponry, wood carvings, traditional games, musical instruments, silat (the traditional martial art of self defense) and decorative items for women.
Brunei is a member of the United Nations, Commonwealth of Nations, Asia-Pacific Economic Forum, Organization of the Islamic Conference, ASEAN and other regional and international forums.