Since 2014, the small south east Asian Sultanate of Brunei has been amending its penal code to reflect letter and spirit of Islamic law. Crucially, the Islamic law that forms the basis of the revised penal code will only apply to instances involving Muslims. This means that non-Muslim tourists in Brunei will still be subject to the same British penal law that Brunei had erstwhile enforced throughout its territory since becoming an independent state in 1984.
Most notably, because the British penal laws of many post-colonial states were never amended to reflect contemporary developments in the UK itself, countries like Brunei prohibited homosexual relations not due to Islamic law but due to post-colonial British laws. It was only in 1967 that homosexual relations were made legal in England and Wales. In 1980, homosexual relationships were made legal in Scotland whilst in 1982 the same became law in Northern Ireland. Even today, the UK’s legal system is not monolithic when it comes to the issue of same-sex rights under the law. Most notably, whilst same-sex marriage is legal in Great Britain, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland.
It is against this context that one must view contemporary legislative developments in Brunei. It is likewise true that just as Brunei inherited Britain’s laws regarding homosexuality, the country also inherited British laws regarding capital punishment. In fact, the last time that someone was executed on the soil of Brunei it was whilst the Sultanate was under British rule. This hanging took place in 1957 and there has not been a single execution in Brunei since. This means that in the history of Brunei as a post-colonial independent state, the death penalty has never been used and there is no reason to believe this will change.
It is a further misnomer that Brunei revised its penal code to specifically target homosexuals. The year-by-year shift from a British corpus of criminal law to an Islamic one has been one that covers all areas of the law. It just so happens that the Islamic legal view on homosexual relations has caught the eye of the international media whilst other elements of Brunei’s revised penal code have not. That being said, the illegality of same-sex relations is not new in Brunei, the issue has simply gone from one that was governed by a largely Victorian British conception of justice to one governed by a strict Islamic conception of justice.
For all intents and purposes however, the situation on the ground in Brunei will not change. Just as technically homosexuality remains illegal in Singapore although the law is openly not enforced, in Brunei there will not be any acts of violence against homosexuals in the small Sultanate whose indigenous population is a mere 428,697 people.
These are the facts – facts which have been woefully misinterpreted by so-called responsible media outlets.