Brunei's First Public Debts Through Sukuk Al-Ijarah

The Brunei Government will have its first public debt very soon. The Finance Ministry officially launched the short term Brunei Dollar Islamic Bond Sukuk Al-Ijarah yesterday. The questions which a lot of people are asking - what is sukuk and why is the government issuing this?

To the completely uninitiated, a bond is basically an IOU note issued by the government which you buy and the government promises to pay you back after a specified period with an interest, or the government pays you a yearly interest or a combination of the two depending on the type of bond you buy. In the meantime the government uses your money for whatever purposes it wants to do. It may be used to balance the budget, to build new schools or whatever. This is essentially an overdraft by the government with only the trust of the government as its collateral. The interest which the government promises to pay depend on how much you trust the government. A poor and not so trusted government may have to pay higher interests so that you as an investor will be willing to buy its bonds. However in the Islamic Principles, any type of bond that contains the element of interest (or riba) is prohibited.

An Islamic Bond (known as sukuk) is, on the face of it, similar to the above. You as the investor will still get whatever returns the government promises when you buy the government bonds. The government still gets its hands on your money to do whatever it wants. But the major difference is the principles behind it. Unlike a conventional bond, the Islamic bond will be dependent not just on the goodwill of the government but will be based on an income or returns made by the government. In the case of the Brunei Islamic Sukuk, the government will base the bond on an income stream or revenue from the rental of government buildings built on government lands. You as the investor is indirectly part owner of the income stream and should the government default, then you can go to the court and force the government to pay that income stream to you to compensate for the sukuk that you bought. Unlike the conventional bond, where you have only the goodwill of the government, in the Brunei Islamic sukuk, you actually have a handle on something tangible.

Back to the most important question - why is the Brunei government doing this? Doesn't the government have enough money? I can assure you that the government in the present $60 a barrel oil price, has more than sufficient revenues. The Brunei Government is probably one of the few countries in the world that will be issuing debt notes but actually has no use for the revenues that it generates.

It issues the Islamic sukuk because of several technical reasons - firstly, to create a capital market as currently there is not much financial activity to stimulate the market and hence the government has to step in. Secondly, it is to generate an international rating as rating agencies have not been able to rate the country's sovereign rating and by having sovereign rating, then private sector issuance in Brunei can also be rated. Thirdly, this is to help the private sector be able to raise capital directly from the market by issuing bonds and other instruments cheaply as compared to borrowing from the banks and with rating agencies providing ratings, those instruments can be marketed internationally.

At the same time, even though the government has no immediate use for the additional revenues generated from the sukuks, the government may invest the revenues and keep whatever profits it make after paying off the investors. The government may also opt not to use its own investment savings to pay for government expenses and continue to earn a higher rate of return by investing those savings. In the meantime it may be able to use the 'cheaper' funds from the bonds. So, by issuing the sukuks, the government will have for the first time, public debts in its books but at the same time, there will be much more intangible gains that can be had by issuing the sukuks.

So I do hope today's rather serious blog compared to the usual light hearted one, in a nutshell enables you all to know what the Brunei Government Sukuk Al-Ijarah is all about and why the government will be issuing the first B$150 million worth of sukuks by the end of the month. To find out more about sukuk, you can logon to to read the Ministry of Finance's statement as well as to read about an article written by lecturers from Universiti Brunei Darussalam.


kamakazi said…
My father last night was asking me what Sukok is, and I explained to him the almost same thing, though I used Road and airports as examples. During last night news, there was not much an explanation given as to what sukok is all about. I only wish during yesterday presentation, the BCMB’s official take that opportunity to explain to the audience and the press in the way that you have explained it – in lament terms that everyone can understand it. I am definitely sure, there are more people out there, asking similar question. Press conference perhaps??

Nevertheless, the issuance of Sukok, definitely has shown how the MoF has progressed in terms of creating the nation’s competitiveness in the development of capital market. Once fully developed, it can be an attractive tool for foreign investors to invest in. In terms of rating, I probably have a little bit of reservation on it simply because the requirement of rating agencies for transparency before the actual rating can be given. For us to invite S&P, Moody’s or Fitch to come to Brunei, the Government actually has to disclose all its assets including reserve i.e. it will include distinguishing which assets are own by the Government and which is own by ‘others’. Unless we know our way around to it, that I think will be a very difficult requirement to fulfill. Another alternative which Brunei can consider, in terms of rating is to create its own rating. Take Malaysia for example, they have their own rating agency called ‘Rating Agency Malaysia’ or in short RAM. It works pretty much like rating agencies I mentioned earlier.

In terms of its attractiveness, I can’t comment at this point in time, simply I have not seen the details i.e. coupon rates, expected yield etc. but all I know it is a 3month Sukok – hey I can use that as the risk free rate. But I do hope that through the issuance of this sukok, that it is able to control Brunei market interest rate, in particular the mortgage rates which to me at this point of time is just too high compare to the like of our closest neighbor, Singapore.
sifan said…
the bcmb presentation was an exercise in restraint. it was assuming that a lot of people have understood the concept of islamic sukuk and was only explaining the spv that will be used. i guess mof has to come in and explain it properly. tho bruneiresources website has been helpful in trying to create awareness. tho i do wish the administrator uses the same simple language as he does for the blog on sukuk. maybe we shud alert him.
Obi-chan said…
So basically a sukuk is the same as a normal bond arrangement as offered by banks, and only differs in principle - thanks for the explanation. What sort of packages will they be offering, eg. according to length of time, and what terms and conditions, eg. certain time periods where you are not retract the bond, or in other words allowed to sell the bond back to the government?
sifan said…
it depends on the bonds or sukuks. some have no maturity date and just give you an interest payment every year. some have maturity dates and you cash it in at sometime, so yes, you are supposed to sell it back to the government at that time. in the meantime, you can actually trade it and sell it to other people. most bonds tend to be long term like 20 years. the brunei government one i think is about 3 months.
azka amin said…
a riba is still a riba no matter what you called it in islamic arabic word!! proof of what prophet muhammad pbuh said that ummah the end of time will be more like the jews where the forbidden and haram will be twisted as halal and just!!

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