Six years before his death in 2015, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew gave an insightful interview during which he attributed his country’s outstanding success to air conditioning.
Lee told New Perpectives magazine that the invention of air conditioning was, for Singaporeans, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history.
‘It changed the nature of civilisation by making development possible in the tropics,’ he said.
‘Without air conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency.”
But fortunately for Prime Minister Lee, first there was the fuel to power that efficient air con.
Fed up with Australia’s catastrophic energy policies I embarked upon what became a petroleum-tour of South East Asia last week.
I don’t love the smell of crude in the morning but I do like what crude can do for those who have embraced its power to unlock human potential. Anyway, since Deepwater Horizon’s accident, there is little crude spilt around Asian and Western wells and almost nothing to smell. It is simply too valuable too waste.
Singapore is ranked 78th in terms of world oil production, but is Asia’s largest oil trading hub and its Jurong Island petro-industrial zone hosts some 95 petroleum organisations and is the world’s largest bunkering port.
Australia relies on fuels and lubricants from Jurong Island though we are ranked 33rd in oil production. Singapore’s neighbours Malaysia and Brunei stand at 25th and 41st respectively, but Singapore has made the most of its location and resources. Hooray for oil and air conditioning.
However, and this is a big however, whilst oil revenues in Australia, Singapore and Malaysia are taxed and royalties are levied benefiting the state, the Sultan of Brunei benefits from what is effectively a monopoly.
Brunei’s Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the dissolute former owner of the super-yacht Tits with its tenders Nipple One and Nipple Two, is currently under house arrest at a palace in Bandar having misused about US$19 billion on women and other poor investments, but his older brother Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, whose 72nd birthday on July 15 is still being celebrated by his worshipful subjects, is ushering in what is termed as ‘an incremental implementation’ of sharia law and driving a new tourism initiative.
Sharia and tourism are as likely to mix as oil and water.
The Sultan is an absolute monarch to the fewer than half a million citizens. He is both the head of state and the prime minister and enjoys an exemption from sharia and pesky republican movements. There are no liquor stores for his subjects but members of the British forces – Gurkha troops – garrisoned in Brunei have both a pub and a bottle shop within their barracks and employees of Royal Dutch Shell – partner with the Sultan in the oil business – can pre-order supplies of alcohol which will be delivered within their camp. Loyal subjects drive across the border into Malaysia where Miri’s well-stocked liquor stores fill their two-bottle import limit. The slow lines of cars creeping through the customs and immigration booths are impressive.
Oil is the lifeblood of the nation and Shell has been the midwife to the industry since the first Brunei well was spudded in 1928. Across the border, the White Rajah of Sarawak James Brookes opened his sultanate to Shell in Miri and oil started pumping in 1910.
The Sarawakans celebrate that discovery with a petroleum museum at the site of the first well, the Grand Old Lady, a popular site, and in Brunei, there is a memorial to the One Billionth Barrel near the town of Kuala Belait. There are no Greenpeace stickers at either site, no pleas for solar or wind, just quiet respect for pioneers who brought better living conditions to the locals than those who occupy most of the rest of the world as well as cheaper petrol – 53c a litre in Brunei and 84c a litre in Miri. Miri is also home to Curtin University’s offshore engineering school – Australia’s largest international campus – but the students show none of their Australian brethren’s fondness of idle protest.
The contrasts between the cultures in the absolute monarchy of Brunei and the constitutional monarchy which exists in Malaysia are stark. As benign as Sultan Hassanal may be, there is a lack of the competitive drive that distinguishes the vigour of Malaysians from their Bruneian cousins. Inhibited by the lack of population, there is a lack of choice of jobs though education is not an issue, and there is a sense of an underlying air of entitlement.
To work for Brunei Shell Petroleum is to have a job that could last a lifetime.
On the outskirts of Kuala Belait and Miri abandoned oil service camps are gradually being resumed by the jungle. The newer Bruneian towns look as if they were designed by the same people who put the Truman Show set together, fairly soulless, anchored by shopping malls with limited variety.The older settlements look like extensions of the oil company camps and military housing.
In Kuala Belait, a giant teapot is set above a major roundabout. A metal stream fixedly directed into one of four teacups is meant to symbolise the outpouring of the Sultan’s love for his people in each of the four districts of Brunei; Belait, Tutong, Brunei-Muara, and Temburong. Only brave cynics would note that just a single cup benefits.