BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah called on the 36-member Legislative Council (LegCo) to be “transparent and brave” in their deliberations, urging them to address the government’s fiscal sustainability as the deficit is projected to grow due to a sharp decline in oil prices in 2020.

Delivering his titah at the opening of the parliamentary session on Monday, the sultan said he expects “lively but healthy” discussions on issues ranging from the economy and fiscal consolidation to unemployment and human capital development.

As LegCo members only gather on a national stage once a year, members should speak freely and “not restrict their views”, he said.

A general view of the Legislative Council chamber during the opening of the parliamentary session on March 15, 2021. Photo: Infofoto

‘Fiscal consolidation must be a priority’

His Majesty stressed that members must address the government deficit — which is projected to reach 15 percent of GDP in 2020 — as the pandemic cooled demand for oil and gas.

“What happened to our government revenue? If there are negative elements, how do we address it?,” he asked.

With the COVID-induced collapse in oil prices, revenue from Brunei’s energy sector was almost three-fifths lower in 2020 compared to 2019.

However, the deficit is expected to ease in 2021 on the back of a recovery in oil prices to nine percent of GDP.

The Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies (CSPS) said the government would still record a budget shortfall in 2021, despite projections that the economy would grow by 2.8 percent in the same year.

The think tank said government faces tough decisions to cut spending or introduce new taxes in a bid to balance the books as oil prices are expected to remain modest.

The mace is carried into the chamber of the LegCo building. Photo: Infofoto

‘Brunei to generate more jobs for locals’

The sultan said that his government will continue to implement projects that contribute to human capital development and strengthen the economy.

Speaking on unemployment, he said the Manpower Planning and Employment Council — which was formed in 2020 — has seen results in lowering the jobless rate.

Brunei’s unemployment decreased to 6.8 percent in 2019 after reaching a record-equalling rate of 9.3 percent in 2017, according to government data.

With the introduction of several initiatives under the Economic Blueprint, the country will be able to generate more employment opportunities for locals.

It is hoped that these job opportunities will not be wasted due to jobseekers being choosy because such a mindset is not beneficial,” His Majesty added.

Cabinet ministers had to observe COVID-19 health protocols during the opening of the Legislative Council on March 15, 2021. Photo: Infofoto

Address TAP issues, LegCo told

The monarch said LegCo members should also discuss the effectiveness of Employees Trust Fund (TAP) in ensuring pensioners have enough savings to get by.

This is not the first time His Majesty brought up his concerns on TAP, as he noted the social security fund’s low dividend rates during an unscheduled visit to the Ministry of Finance and Economy last December.

The LegCo had also raised questions on insufficient TAP savings last year, with Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah saying his ministry was conducting a study on increasing the dividend rates.

Speaker of the Legislative Council, YB Pehin Dato Hj Abdul Rahman. Photo: Infofoto

HM congratulates COVID-19 frontline workers

The sultan also extended his congratulations to frontline workers for containing the coronavirus outbreak in Brunei.

He hoped all levels of society will continue to work together with the government in keeping the COVID-19 situation under control.

Brunei has not recorded locally acquired COVID-19 infections for over 300 days, with the overall tally inching closer towards the 200-case mark.

Last year’s LegCo sitting was the shortest since Brunei revived its parliament in 2004, lasting five days instead of the usual 2 weeks.

LegCo Speaker YB Pehin Orang Kaya Seri Laila Dato Seri Setia Hj Abdul Rahman DS Hj Mohd Taib abruptly cut short proceedings last year after Brunei reported its first COVID-19 case on the same day the parliament convened.