Nothing rankles with Borneans more than corrupt politicians who line their pockets at the expense of the public, the island's dwindling rainforests and indigenous land rights. Accounts of back-room deals with logging companies and palm-oil conglomerates provoke rage and despair in the people of Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan. Such tensions are barely surfacing in Brunei, where the population still accepts both the sultan's supremacy and his oil-revenue-funded generosity.

Politics & Economics

In Kalimantan the policy of transmigrasi, the government-sponsored relocation of people from more densely populated areas of the country to Indonesian Borneo, has led to tensions between immigrants and the indigenous populations, but it is the struggle for resources that is the more prevalent issue affecting the island today. While Kalimantan's riches are plundered by foreign businesses in cahoots with the government, the local population enjoys little of the spoils.

Sabahans are well aware that while their state was Malaysia's second-richest in the 1970s, it is now the country's poorest. A major reason, they claim, is that all but a tiny percentage of Sabah's (and Sarawak's) oil revenue flows into federal coffers. The movement 'Sarawak for Sarawakians', a slogan that adorned car bumper stickers and T-shirts across the state following a rally of the same name in July 2015, was an expression of dissatisfaction with the current system and a demand for a more equitable return of state profits from the federal government. It was never intended to be a secessionist movement.

Between 2011 and 2018 yellow-shirted supporters of Bersih 2.0 (www.bersih.org), a civil-rights organisation campaigning for electoral reform, held rallies in Kuching in Sarawak, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia. The protests were prompted by various corruption scandals, including one embroiling former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and the 1Malaysia fund (1MDB), as well as by state oppression of media outlets opposed to the government.

With a new party in power, things seem to be looking up, with Najib Razak facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted on corruption charges.

Malaysian Multiculturalism

Following the race riots of 1969, the Malaysian government implemented a policy of 'affirmative action' (ie positive discrimination) to give the majority Malays a more equitable share of the economic pie. The result was a range of subsidies and preferences designed to benefit a category of people called bumiputra (sons of the soil) that encompasses Malays and, in Sabah and Sarawak, indigenous groups (Dayaks) – that is, virtually everyone except the Chinese. As a result of these policies, ethnic Chinese have found themselves facing quotas and discrimination in housing, higher education and public-sector jobs.

Relations between the dozens of ethnic groups in Sarawak and Sabah tend to be more relaxed and open than in Peninsular Malaysia, but the states are not quite the multicultural paradise portrayed in Tourism Malaysia's 'Malaysia – Truly Asia!' campaign: Malays form the majority in a country based on ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), but they are a minority in Sabah and Sarawak; ethnic Chinese wonder about their place in a society that often treats them as outsiders generations after their ancestors put down roots; and members of indigenous groups juggle tribal identity and religious affiliation (the majority are Christian) in a Muslim-majority society.

Brunei: An Islamic Monarchy

The implementation of the first step of a three-phase process introducing sharia law in Brunei made global headlines in 2014. Legislation tightened up concerning Friday prayers – which Muslims are required by law to attend – and Ramadan (during which eating, drinking and smoking in public during daylight hours is prohibited for both Muslims and non-Muslims). The more severe phases of sharia law, such as the severing of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery, were implemented in April 2019 to global criticism.

Since Brunei's economy is almost entirely reliant on oil, the crucial question facing the sultanate in the 21st century is what will happen when this resource runs out? At the current pace of extraction, it is estimated Brunei has less than two decades of oil left. Back-up plans for economic diversification remain thin on the ground, though the construction of a 30km bridge linking Brunei-Maura with Temburong, due to be completed in 2021, may prove a boost to tourism. With rising rates of youth unemployment, Brunei has courted Chinese investment in the country, with a US$3.4-billion oil-refinery complex being constructed on Muara island promising to bring 10,000 jobs. In return for its investment China seeks a potentially key ally as it stakes its claims on the waters of the South China Sea.

For now at least, Bruneians seem happy to enjoy the benefits of living in an oil-rich sultanate, while accepting and observing the laws of a religiously conservative government, but the future of the country remains far from certain.