Brunei’s Hidden Economic Crisis – The Diplomat
To the outside world, Southeast Asia’s tiny Brunei monarchy looks like a Shangri-La. The country, with a population of less than half a million, has one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. The benevolent sultan, once the richest man in the world, provided free education and medical care, as well as highly subsidized food and housing for his subjects. Most Bruneians are employed by the government, which provides them with a considerable degree of economic stability.
Against this backdrop, an increase in mental illnesses, including the suicide rate, might be the last thing an observer might expect. On World Mental Health Day 2020, Brunei’s Minister of Health revealed that 7,000 Bruneians, or 1.5% of the total population, are undergoing treatment for mental illnesses like anxiety, depression and social isolation.
Of these, the minister said nearly 4,000 people were being treated for psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder with hallucinations and disorganized thoughts that can impair patients’ ability to function. The other 3,000 suffered from mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder.
The most worrying aspect of mental illness in Brunei is that over the past four years the suicide rate has more than doubled.
According to statistics from the Royal Brunei Police, the suicide rate rose from 1.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015 to 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018. Brunei has seen a sharp increase – 62% – of suicides and suicide attempts during 2016 and 2017 alone. The Talian Harapan 145 national mental health helpline, which was launched in February last year, receives more than 200 calls per month.
Dr Abdul Haq, an Indian doctor who has worked in Brunei for more than 10 years, believes that the surge in suicide attempts is the result of a combination of multiple factors.
“Somehow the government subsidy is also responsible. When you are sure of certain things, only then will you begin to look for other things. This made the society very materialistic and “demanding”. Everyone wants the latest gadgets and luxury goods, ”he said.
Bruneians have always enjoyed a very high standard of living, with the average household owning at least three cars due to the low cost of gasoline and diesel. In Brunei, a liter of gasoline costs 53 cents (Brunei’s currency is pegged to the Singaporean dollar), which is cheaper than a bottle of mineral water or a cup of tea at any waterfront restaurant. road.
The other factor is that the old family structure is threatened by the attitudes of a young generation trained abroad. “Young people, when they return home, find the society too repressive and they want to continue the lifestyle they have known abroad. This creates tension not only in the family but also in society, ”Haq said.
Mr. Dean, a fitness instructor who asked to be identified only by his last name, somewhat agrees with Haq’s assessment. “It’s a global thing,” he said, referring to the pressures on mental health. “People generally want to look like they can afford things despite having trouble keeping up with and placing their image as a higher priority against their mental health and physical well-being.”
He added that financial literacy can play an important role in reducing the rise in suicides and mental illnesses.
“We are all responsible for our conditions, whether we put ourselves on it or refuse to find a way out. No one is putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to buy the new iPhone.
“Financial literacy isn’t just about how money works, it’s also about how to discipline yourself to avoid being a slave to recurring payments,” Dean said.
Unfortunately, in Brunei people have accepted to live with debt. It has become a way of life, as evidenced by payday traffic jams and seeing people lining up at banks to repay loans, he added.
But a former reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said the reason for the large debt is that the economy is simply broken.
“Too much emphasis on the hydrocarbon sector has not only shrunk the labor market, but has also stagnated various clusters of the economy,” she said.
Dismissing the myth that Bruneians live beyond their means because they believe that in the end the Sultan will save them, she said people are willing to work but are unable to find meaningful employment.
“Besides oil and gas, what do we have? What are the employment opportunities? asked the former reporter.
“It’s like our economy is a kid who learned to fly but can’t walk. So if he can’t walk he is paralyzed, “she said, adding,” it’s like our first world problems are leading us into a third world reality “.
A social media consultant, who also asked to remain anonymous, added his thoughts. “In my opinion, there is a segment of the population, especially the younger generation, who are increasingly aware of the dire state of the economy and that there will be no one to ‘rescue’ them. when the shit hits the fan!
He says it is too presumptive to say that all Bruneians believe they will be saved from economic distress, whether by God or the king. This thinking applies more to the older generations than to the young.
“The idea that Brunei is a utopia sheltered from turbulent economic and natural forces no longer exists,” he added.
Dean said the whole issue is complicated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and everyone involved must play their respective roles. Getting the economy back on track will require the right policies and the right attitudes – and it will take time, too.