Booming on Borrowed Labor
After more than five years of graduate study in Great Britain,
Asliza was anxious to return to her native Brunei. But the country she returned to was not
the same one she had left. She wonders at times how much longer she will be able to stay.
She doesn’t mind covering her head with the traditional Tudong, but she has trouble
covering her mouth. Speech is not free, not even for men, much less for women.
When Asliza went away to study in the late 1980s, Brunei was a
rapidly modernizing, albeit officially Muslim, state. It continues to modernize
technically and bureaucratically; in fact, the facilities that matter most to the people
who matter most, such as those governing palace security, are as modern as limitless
riches can buy. But socially, in the early 1990s, the country reversed its course and
retreated more deeply into the middle ages.
Brunei is either the world’s richest country, per capita, or a
very poor country ruled by the world’s richest autocrat, depending on how one
conceives the relationship between the Sultan and his subjects. The Sultan’s own
conception is clear enough. Virtually all public works are described as gifts from the
Sultan. There is no clear distinction between assets of the state and of the royal family.
The Sultan claims personal ownership of 90 percent of the land, including, of course, the
immensely productive oil fields.
Now a modest 2,226 square mile enclave in Malaysian territory, the
Sultanate of Brunei claimed the entire island of Borneo in the 16th century. Pushed back
to the top of the island, the royal family sought British protection in 1888. The British
investment proved to be a sound one when petroleum was discovered in 1929. The
protectorate soon became the third largest oil producer in the Commonwealth.
In 1959, the British administration of Brunei was detached from that
of (now Malaysian) Sarawak; the Sultanate acquired greater executive authority and drew up
its first written constitution. It took another step toward political modernization when
elections were scheduled in 1962. But the royal family was not pleased with the results
and negated the process. The popular uprising that ensued so weakened the Sultan that he
vacated the office in favor of his son, who was inaugurated in 1967.
A State of Emergency has been in effect since the 1960s. Prisoners
are still being held for involvement in the uprising of 1962, and people continue to be
arrested and imprisoned from time to time for political offenses. Even now speech is
carefully guarded. At an international conference I was attending in 1995, a South African
speaker representing a non-governmental organization was to give a presentation suggesting
the use of folk songs for teaching language. Local organizers became agitated when they
realized that the songs to be used by way of illustration had not been screened. They
urged him to refrain from mentioning the NGO he represented for fear that there might be
repercussions against the local branch of the organization.
Criticism of the monarchy and the royal family is strictly
prohibited. All offices and shops display portraits of the Sultan and his two official
wives—the first now middle-aged and of noble descent, the second a younger woman who
had been a stewardess on Royal Brunei Airlines. It seemed to me that in those ubiquitous
portraits, the first wife was scowling at the second. It is generally understood that the
Sultan also has a great many kept mistresses.
I cannot speak for the palace of the first wife, with 1,700 rooms,
the world’s largest. But along with a few hundred other honored guests, I was able to
have tea with wife number two in her not-so-shabby digs. The palace of the second wife is
a maze of marbled and gilded halls and pavilions. In a single parlor we observed the
paintings of a half dozen European masters. Brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and
cousins—even distant relatives have their own palaces. (The most important
administrative posts are also held by members of the royal family.)
When I visited in 1995, new monuments, archways, and reviewing
stands were going up around the capital city for the celebration of the Sultan’s 49th
birthday. It was to be a grand bash, though nothing on the order of the Silver Jubilee
spectacle of 1992, or the 1996 wedding of the Sultan’s daughter, before 5,000 guests.
The Tudong, as the scarves worn by Muslim women are called, came
back in 1992, about the same time that cellular phones started arriving in large numbers,
and they are often seen together. Women are by no means secluded from the modern world, or
even from modern responsible professions. But within modern institutions and professions
they are expected to stay in their place. It is stunning to see gatherings of several
hundred professionals in which men sit on one side of the room and the Tudong-topped women
on the other.
The main organization representing women’s interests is the
organization of government ministers’ wives. Most of the leaders and active members
are effective and respected professionals in their own right, and their concerns are
hardly different from those of women’s movements elsewhere. But they can be
credentialed or legitimized as spokeswomen only through the positions of their husbands.
Some two dozen angelic-looking, tightly scarfed school girls who
performed choral numbers for participants in our international conference were most
anxious to speak with the foreign women visitors. Most of all they wanted to know what
they were missing. They felt very much confined by the social and political prohibitions
of their society.
The girls confided that there are secret (illegal) members-only
disco clubs around town serving bootlegged liquor. If caught in such clubs, juveniles are
arrested and held until their parents bail them out. One of the girls complained that her
parents would not allow her to go West to study, even if she were offered a scholarship,
because her cousin had gone and came back "changed." Such social conservatism is
a recent innovation and is by no means universally observed. The liquor ban was instituted
only in 1991. It did not really dry up the country, because those who wanted to drink
stocked up well before the ban. Moreover, black market supplies are abundant and still
cheaper than taxed products in neighboring states. And nearby Labuan, the Malaysian
money-laundering island, also serves as a party town and supply depot for Brunei.
But prohibition, we were told, had ruined public social life; it
drove socializing back to private clubs and private home—or palaces. The strict new
laws do not apply to the royal family. Pilots of low-flying planes report what one might
call major orgies, or well-attended parties, in the courtyard of one of the most imposing
Apart from the likelihood of punishment for nonconformity, why do
the people accept such conspicuous consumption and ostentatious law-flaunting by the
monarchy? Many accept because they find that the benefits of citizenship outweigh the
For a tuition-free institution, the state-run University of Brunei
has an unusual problem: it does not have enough students to populate its resplendent new
campus. Education at all levels is free, to men and women alike, but only to citizens. For
citizens, health care is also free, housing is subsidized and there are no taxes. Nor are
jobs hard to come by; half of the citizens of the Sultanate work for the government.
But citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and essentially one
that can be acquired only through inheritance. It is inherited through the father; a woman
who marries a non-citizen loses citizenship for herself and her children. There is no
right to citizenship based on being born there or on length of stay in the national
territory. Naturalization comes about only through a Malay "literacy" test that
is rarely passed. Like literacy tests elsewhere, it is essentially a racial or ethnic
The permanent or long-term population of the country is only about
70 percent Malay or para-Malay. Some 15 to 20 percent is ethnic Chinese, urban
businesspeople whose local roots may go back several generations. Another 10 to 15 percent
is non-Malay indigenous. Many of them were driven from the rainforest when the Sultan set
aside huge tracts as nature preserves. Indigenous peoples were not considered to be a part
of that nature and so were prohibited from pursuing the hunting, fishing, gathering, and
subsistence farming that had constituted their way of life.
The citizenship difference is easy to spot. There are model
water-villages, subsidized housing for citizens, that are spacious and endowed with all
the modern amenities—running water, electricity, several bedrooms, each equipped with
television, telephones, and ghetto-blasters, luxurious furnishings, and royal family
photos. The model villages, though, are surrounded by acres of squalid non-subsidized
water villages, flimsy and crowded, lacking the most basic requirements even for safety
As the economy of Brunei booms, citizens are more and more likely to
constitute a minority of the population in the country at any given time, because at least
one-third of the labor force—the manual, or less-skilled labor force—is
imported. Labor is recruited from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the
Philippines—all of the neighboring countries except China. There has always been
concern about expansion of the Chinese sphere of influence. There is no minimum wage for
alien contract labor. Payment is whatever the labor contractor can negotiate. Contracts
are for periods of up to two years, but a worker can be deported at any time if he/she is
Like the mini-state of Brunei, Malaysia is also a historic
Sultanate, overlaid with a more modern parliamentary system. The inter-ethnic tensions
that long bedeviled this mainly Malay, Chinese, and Indian population have been eased
since the mid 1980s by annual economic growth running at a clip of 6 to 8 percent. The big
issue now is foreign labor, contracted to fuel the boom. Prejudice and discrimination have
been redirected toward Filipino, Thai, and Indonesian (especially Timorese) construction
workers, even though it is hard to see what citizens might begrudge them. There is no
citizenship for newborns, no services for the families of contracted workers, and no floor
under their wages. Having learned nothing from the futility of Chinese efforts to hold off
the Mongolian hordes, Malaysia was building a great wall to keep out uninvited Thais.
Kuala Lumpur is in many ways a mess. Its traffic jams are awful. Its
stunningly rapid growth seems to have been utterly unplanned. But architecturally it is a
fairyland—a laboratory for every new idea in high rise construction. The most
fascinating project underway when I visited in 1995 was a set of towers—twins, one
going up under Korean management, the other under Japanese. The project, costing more than
a billion dollars, was to serve as a civic center. Completed by early 1996, the Petronas
towers, with 174 floors, are for the time being, the tallest buildings in the world.
In the extravagance of its pageantry, the presumptions of its
rulers, and the rigidity of gender relations, Brunei may seem a relic of the distant past.
But its social relations in general are very modern—in fact, the wave of the future
if current global trends hold.
There are a number of countries, particularly in the oil-producing
regions of the Middle East, where great wealth is shared by an even more narrowly drawn
citizenship elite. This social profile was set in relief in 1990 when Iraq’s invasion
of Kuwait sent much of the labor force packing, wreaking havoc on the economies of
labor—exporting countries like India, Pakistan, Syria, and Jordan. Laborers who
stayed—i.e. Palestinians with no country to return to—suddenly became not only
illegal aliens, but enemy aliens as well.
Tens of thousands of foreign workers from countries whose leaders
had supported Iraq were deported during and after Operation Desert Storm. But by 1996 the
country was again aswarm with foreign workers, particularly from Egypt, Pakistan, and the
Philippines. According to Kuwaiti government statistics, 1.3 million of the country’s
2 million inhabitants in 1996 were non-Kuwaiti, and only 176,000 of the 1.1 million
members of the labor force were Kuwaiti citizens.
Of the fortunate few who enjoy citizenship, 93 percent work for the
government. Kuwaiti citizens are guaranteed shorter working hours and a minimum wage of
more than twice what foreigners receive. The citizenship elite pays no taxes but receives
extensive benefits, including free medical care, education at all levels, and generously
subsidized utilities. But all citizens are not created equal. Women do not have the right
to vote, and even male voters must be able to trace Kuwaiti ancestry back at least a
Moreover, Kuwaiti’s non-citizens do not necessarily have
citizenship elsewhere. In addition to the deportable foreign workers, there is a category
of non-citizens known as the "bidoon," or stateless. They are generally of Iraqi
or Iranian origin, though their families have lived in Kuwait for generations. Their
numbers are down from some 220,000 before the war to about 117,000 in 1996, but they still
outnumber the actual eligible voters.
A Buyers Market for Labor
Such cases as Brunei and Kuwait are exceptional, but only in the
extremes they represent, not in the logic or the consequences of their policies. All over
the world rules governing citizenship are being tightened and doors are being closed to
refugees and immigrants, partly because with shrinking social service budgets, taxpayers
and governments are anxious to decrease demand for such services. But competitiveness as
labor cost reduction demands a labor surplus. Increasingly that demand is being met,
especially in the booming new Orient, by foreign contract labor. In fact, the boom must be
explained in part by the availability of cheap and docile labor.
Just as labor contracting in the domestic sphere removes legal
liability, messy transactions, and even personal guilt from growers and manufacturers,
employed internationally, it leaves importing countries free of responsibility for the
unmet needs of underpaid workers and free even of awareness of those needs. Downward
pressure on wages and labor conditions is not limited by a need for workers to double as
consumers, or even by a need for a particular national labor force to reproduce itself.
Recruiting across a broad multinational or multi-state region makes the labor market
always a buyers market. Z
Jan Knippers Black is author of United States Penetration of
Brazil, Sentinels of Empire, The Dominican Republic, and Development in Theory