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Booming on Borrowed Labor
Southeast Asia and the modern Muslim world
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 doesnt 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 worlds richest country, per capita, or a very poor country ruled by the worlds richest autocrat, depending on how one conceives the relationship between the Sultan and his subjects. The Sultans 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 wivesthe 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 worlds 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 cousinseven 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 Sultans 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 Sultans 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 womens 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 womens 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 homeor 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 palaces.
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 costs.
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 screening device.
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 amenitiesrunning 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 and sanitation.
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 forcethe manual, or less-skilled labor forceis imported. Labor is recruited from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippinesall 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 deemed troublesome.
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 fairylanda laboratory for every new idea in high rise construction. The most fascinating project underway when I visited in 1995 was a set of towerstwins, 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 modernin 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 Iraqs invasion of Kuwait sent much of the labor force packing, wreaking havoc on the economies of laborexporting countries like India, Pakistan, Syria, and Jordan. Laborers who stayedi.e. Palestinians with no country to return tosuddenly 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 countrys 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 generation.
Moreover, Kuwaitis 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 and Practice.