BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah on Thursday voiced concern over Brunei’s sluggish economic growth and rising unemployment rate, calling on the government to find urgent solutions. 

Speaking at the opening of the 15th session of the Legislative Council, Brunei’s annual parliamentary session, the monarch said volatile oil prices had negatively affected government revenue and GDP, with economic growth projected at just 0.5 percent for 2018.

In 2017, Brunei recorded a GDP of $16.7 billion, posting 1.3 percent growth following four years of contraction due to the sustained slump in the energy market. 

Despite diversification efforts in recent years, the sultanate’s economy is still heavily reliant on oil and gas, accounting for 65 percent of GDP and over 90 percent of exports.

While non-oil and gas sectors — such as fisheries — have shown positive growth, overall GDP growth requires a more holistic approach, His Majesty said. 

“If the frontline administration comprising ministers, deputy ministers, permanent secretaries and senior government officials do not show solidarity and consensus in realising the national vision, all the efforts made will be useless.”

HM the Sultan inspecting the guard of honour during the opening of the Legislative Council on March 7, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

The sultan warned that the rise in unemployment — from 6.9 percent in 2014 to 9.3 percent in 2017 —  cannot be taken lightly. Brunei has the highest unemployment rate in ASEAN, with joblessness among youth even higher, at 28.4 percent.

He called for more research to come up with both short-term and long-term solutions, with more scrutiny into the marketability of graduates — and the relevance of their fields of expertise — in the current economic climate.

Addressing the Legislative Council chamber, the monarch said Brunei is actively trying to build a more conducive business environment, signing several free trade agreements with regional and international counterparts.

Cabinet ministers, who are ex-officio members of the Legislative Council, in a group photo during the opening of the 15th session on March 7, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop
Appointed members of the Legislative Council in a group photo during the opening of the 15th session on March 7, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

He added that the government will soon conclude negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-country agreement that once ratified, will cover a market of over three billion people — the largest free trade deal in the world.

“Local entrepreneurs should take advantage of the opportunities brought about by these agreements, by upgrading their product quality and increasing their competitiveness, which will inevitably contribute to the country’s desire to diversify its economy.”

His Majesty also urged the business community to take advantage of the digital economy, by using technology to empower communities and grasp the opportunities that arise from borderless trade.

The Crown Prince and members of the royal family arrive at the opening of the 15th session of the Legislative Council on March 7, 2019. Photo: Infofoto

He also reminded Legislative Council members to discuss new ways to generate economic growth and diversification, adding that youth opinions should be included in the development agenda. 

Above all, the welfare of the people must be prioritised, the sultan said, adding that welfare assistance and subsidies must be implemented systematically to ensure that recipients do not abuse benefits.

This year’s Legislative Council session is expected to run over two weeks, with members discussing matters of national interest and development. The meeting is also a platform for the government to deliver its budget proposal for the upcoming financial year.