Foreign workers are gathering their families, packing their bags and leaving Brunei, where a ban on celebrating Christmas has been enforced since 2014 by an authoritarian regime happy to impose stiff penalties for any breaches of the law.
Fearing Muslims would be led astray and convert to Christianity, the sultan of Brunei imposed full Sharia law in April, a culmination of an all-imposing Islamic legal system that was introduced step by step over the last six years.
In a move that bears striking similarities to Biblical stories from the Roman occupation of the Holy Land, Christians are only allowed to celebrate Christmas within the privacy of their own homes and only after they have notified authorities.
Any breaches can result in jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to US$20,000, or both, following the growing influence of Wahhabism, a harsh brand of Islam followed by the likes of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that has its roots in Saudi Arabia.
“The people in Muslim-dominated Brunei are quite tolerant and very easy to get along with, but the government is fearful of outside religions,” said one Western expatriate who fears Brunei’s harsh defamation laws and declined to give his name.
Increasingly, foreign Christians working in Brunei spend Christmas time outside the Islamic country and return only in the new year, the expatriate said.
“Leaders here don’t have the oil money they once did and are trying to impress and win foreign aid dollars from Saudi Arabia. The only way to enjoy the festive season is to get out for a vacation.”