Life under syariah law in Brunei

Life under syariah law in Brunei
Shops getting ready to close as part of a law that stipulates all business and activity have to stop between noon and 2pm on Fridays, to respect the Friday prayer hours and for Muslim men to go to the mosque.

Just before noon on a recent Friday, businesses in Brunei's capital city shut down as men walk briskly towards the iconic Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque.

Those who fail to close shop until 2pm or Muslim men who do not attend compulsory congregational prayers on Fridays can be fined up to B$1,000 (S$1,000) under the controversial new syariah law that Brunei began implementing on May 1.

Two days later, life seems normal. A woman in tights and a sleeveless top goes for a Sunday morning jog past a group doing taiqi clad in short-sleeved tops, shorts and T-shirts at the Tasek Lama Recreational Park in Bandar Seri Begawan. In the streets, women wear everything from long pants and skirts to long or short-sleeved tops, some without headscarves.

Thus, while some aspects of life in Brunei are already changing under the syariah criminal code imposed by the country's ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, others remain the same - so far. The code is being implemented in three phases, starting this month, stretched over three years to prepare the judicial infrastructure before full implementation. (See sidebar).

That news puts Brunei, which rarely makes headlines, in the same league as Sudan and Saudi Arabia, which are among a handful of countries practising the strictest form of syariah law allowing for extreme sentences ranging from stoning to death for adultery and apostasy, to amputation of limbs for theft.

Despite a relatively relaxed form of Islam in the past where even alcohol, though banned, has been sold and served by some in paper cups, many Bruneians accept this new law as they see their charismatic 67-year-old ruler as the father of the nation, a protector of Islam and therefore beyond reproach.

The oil-rich state, with 70 per cent Malays, 15 per cent Chinese and a smattering of Indians and indigenous groups, ranks as the world's 12th richest country with per capita income at US$54,800 (S$68,600). The Sultan, more than his nation, usually makes it into the news as he ranks among the richest men in the world.

So far the most obvious evidence of stricter adherence to Islamic laws occurs on Fridays. At an Indian restaurant near the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque, people shout for takeaway orders of roti prata or fried noodles.

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