Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Life in the Bubble

February 19th, 2013 · No Comments

Prince JefriThe adulation accorded Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear motivated me to look up the very first Scientology exposé I can remember: Richard Behar’s 1991 Time investigation, which irked the Church to no end. That piece made me a lifelong fan of Behar, whose meticulous approach to reporting is something I’ve sought to emulate in my own career.

My favorite Behar piece is his 1999 Fortune account of shenanigans in Brunei’s royal family. Astoundingly, Behar managed to snag an interview with the notoriously profligate Prince Jefri, a man who otherwise shuns the media. That interview reveals a man who, by virtue of his spectacular wealth, has no need to engage with everyday reality:

The prince–flanked by a $160,000 pair of solid-gold tissue dispensers–spoke less in sentences than in syllables. He giggled and glared and cocked his head as if I’d just fallen through the roof in a full suit of armor.

“Jefri is not geared for questions,” explained an apologetic aide. “He is painfully shy,” added another. Jefri did manage to say that he was “looking forward” to his return to Brunei, that he missed the Sultan, and that he was “upset, confused, disappointed” when his assets were suddenly seized. I asked how long he planned to stay in Brunei. “I’m very open,” he responded. I tried another tack. Will the Sultan see you? “He knows I’m coming.” Laughter filled the room, but I’d somehow missed the joke. Have the two of you spoken by phone? “Yes, it is good that way. He asked me about the weather in New York.”

I wanted Jefri’s views on the events swirling around Brunei. “You ask me? You were there.” Again, more laughter. When I asked about Aziz and the conservatives, Jefri said that “they would have their own agendas.” And what are those agendas? “You can tell me,” the prince responded. Chuckles all around.

Clearly, this was the stuff of history, so I pressed on. I told Jefri it seemed that certain government officials wanted his country to become more conservative. “They didn’t tell me,” he responded. I also told him it was obvious from my visit to Brunei that he had done many things to open up the society. “What did I do?” he asked, sounding alarmed and confused.

Jefri never says anything of consequence in the interview, but his inability to observe basic norms of human communication speaks volumes about his character. This is a man for whom fellow members of his species are mere abstractions.

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