Not Free
PR Political Rights 7 40
CL Civil Liberties 21 60
Last Year's Score & Status
28 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Brunei is an absolute monarchy in which the sultan exercises executive power. There are no elected representatives at the national level. Freedoms of the press and assembly are significantly restricted. Online speech is monitored by authorities, but is lively nevertheless.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • COVID-19 transmission accelerated in August, prompting authorities to impose restrictions that were loosened in November. Some 15,000 cases were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by year’s end, along with 54 deaths.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The hereditary sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, is the head of state and prime minister, and continues to wield broad powers under a state of emergency imposed in 1962, when Brunei was still governed as a British protectorate.

In recent years, Brunei has appeared to be paving the way for Hassanal’s son, Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, to take power. There are no indications that any transition would involve moving away from a traditional monarchy.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The unicameral Legislative Council has no political standing independent of the sultan, who appoints its members. Brunei has not held direct legislative elections since 1962.

Elections are held for village-level councils that play a consultative role, though candidates are vetted by the government.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

There are no national-level electoral laws, and there have not been any national, direct legislative elections in over five decades.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

Genuine political activity by opposition groups remains extremely limited. The National Development Party (NDP) was permitted to register in 2005 after pledging to work as a partner with the government and swearing loyalty to the sultan; it is Brunei’s only registered party.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

There are no national-level elections in which opposition forces could gain power. Since the National Solidarity Party was deregistered without explanation in 2007, the NDP has been Brunei’s sole legal political party. It has no formal political role and is unable to challenge the sultan’s power in any meaningful way.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1.001 4.004

With the dominance of the sultan and lack of elections, residents have few avenues for genuine and autonomous political participation. However, people have a very limited ability to challenge unpopular policies through the organization of social movements.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

Members of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have few opportunities for political participation, even on a local level. Village council candidates must be Muslim, and ministers and deputy ministers must be Muslim and Malay unless the sultan grants an exception. Since many ethnic Chinese in Brunei remain permanent residents and not citizens, they are further excluded from the country’s politics. Women play a minimal political role at the national and local level.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

No national-level policymakers are chosen through elections. The sultan wields broad powers and is counseled by appointed advisory bodies and the appointed legislature.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

In 2015, the government enacted amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, which strengthened the anticorruption framework by establishing new conflict of interest rules for public officials, among other provisions. The government claims to have a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, and its Anti-Corruption Bureau has successfully prosecuted a number of lower-level officials.

In early 2020, two former judges were convicted of charges including money laundering over accusations that they embezzled millions of dollars from government-controlled accounts. In July 2021, the Court of Appeal upheld their convictions and lengthened their prison sentences.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1.001 4.004

Although the appointed Legislative Council has no independent power, it formally passes the state budget and engages in question-and-answer sessions with government officials. The council meets once each year for a session lasting approximately two weeks. However, government operations are largely opaque.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

Officials may close newspapers without cause and fine and imprison journalists for up to three years for reporting deemed “false and malicious.” Brunei’s only television station is state-run. The country’s main English-language daily newspaper, the Borneo Bulletin, is controlled by the sultan’s family and its journalists often practice self-censorship. Another English-language newspaper, the Brunei Times, closed abruptly in 2016, allegedly after complaints from the Saudi embassy in Brunei over critical coverage of Saudi hajj policies. The Scoop, a news site that launched in 2017, contains mildly independent coverage.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

The state religion is the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, but the constitution allows for the practice of other religions. Non-Shafi’i forms of Islam are actively discouraged, and marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed. Muslims require permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to convert to other faiths. Christians are allowed to hold low-key Christmas celebrations inside churches or at homes, but not outdoors or at shopping malls.

In 2014, Brunei implemented new criminal regulations based on Sharia (Islamic law), which include limits on the use of certain words and expressions deemed to be sacred to Islam in reference to other religions. The code also includes a ban on proselytizing of a religion other than Islam to Muslims or atheists and requires Muslims to participate in religious observances. In April 2019, the government implemented a second phase that mandated death by stoning for insulting the prophet Muhammad, though a moratorium on this phase was issued that May.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2.002 4.004

Academic freedom is respected to some extent, although institutions must seek approval from authorities to host visiting scholars, public lectures, and conferences. Scholars reportedly practice self-censorship.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2.002 4.004

The government utilizes an informant system to monitor suspected dissidents, and online communications are monitored for subversive content. In 2019, a former civil servant became the first individual to be convicted under the Sedition Act after making statements criticizing the government’s halal certification policy; the individual subsequently fled Brunei, fearing punishment under laws prohibiting same-sex activity as a gay man. Nevertheless, Brunei has an increasingly active and vibrant online community, though internet users reportedly self-censor regarding issues related to the monarchy.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

Long-standing state-of-emergency laws restrict freedom of assembly. No more than 10 people can assemble for any purpose without a permit, and these laws are frequently enforced.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are professional or business groups, although a few work on issues related to social welfare. All groups must register, registration can be refused for any reason, and registered groups can be suspended.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

The law guarantees the right to form and join a union, but the agreement that had permitted Brunei’s only formerly active union, the Brunei Oilfield Workers Union, is expired. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

Brunei has a dual judicial system of secular and Sharia courts; all senior judges are appointed by the sultan. The courts appear to act independently when handling civil matters, and have yet to be tested in political cases or under the new regulations recently phased in. They have not shown independence in any cases relating to the sultan’s interests, however.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2.002 4.004

Civil and criminal law is based on English common law and is enforced in secular courts, while Sharia is enforced in Sharia courts. People detained under the Internal Security Act lack due process rights including the presumption of innocence.

The country’s controversial Sharia-based penal code was delayed for several years; Brunei introduced the first phase in 2014 but did not fully implement the code, which contains penalties including amputations and death by stoning, until 2019.

The government only provides an attorney to indigent defendants in death penalty cases. To address this gap in access to justice, the Law Society of Brunei launched a pilot program for the country’s first legal aid fund in 2018.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Brunei retained the death penalty for crimes including drug trafficking before the new Sharia code was launched. However, no individual has been executed since 1957. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Sharia-based criminal statutes implemented in 2019 contain more severe penalties for violations including consensual same-sex relations, theft, and adultery; they vary from whippings to amputations and death by stoning. That May, the sultan issued a “de facto moratorium on capital punishment,” but did not issue clarification on the other provisions.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Bruneian citizenship is inherited from citizen fathers. Citizen mothers must complete an application to pass citizenship on to children born to a noncitizen father. Thousands of stateless residents of Brunei, including longtime ethnic Chinese residents, are denied the full rights and benefits granted to citizens. The royal family receives unique and favored treatment in all aspects of laws, policies, and practices.

LGBT+ people living in Brunei are subject to severe penalties for same-sex relations under Sharia-based laws. Under regulations introduced in 2019, consensual same-sex acts can be punished by death, or by whipping if the offenders are female.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

Freedom of movement is respected. All government employees, domestic and foreign, must apply for permission to travel abroad, but permission is easily obtained. Brunei did not rely on aggressive lockdowns seen elsewhere in the region in response to COVID-19.

Stateless children do not have free access to education and instead must apply to enroll in schools; if accepted they sometimes have to pay tuition not required of citizens.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Bruneian citizens are able to own property and can establish businesses with relative ease, but protections for private property are weak. State-linked firms dominate many sectors of the economy and the government heavily subsidizes a number of industries.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Women are disadvantaged in Brunei under Islamic law in matters involving divorce and child custody. The Sharia penal code criminalizes “indecent behavior,” enjoins women to dress “modestly,” and makes abortion and extramarital sex capital offenses. There is no specific law against domestic violence, and although rape is a capital crime, spousal rape is not criminalized.

Transgender people are prohibited from dressing in line with their gender identity under the Sharia-based penal code.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2.002 4.004

There is no private-sector minimum wage in Brunei. Labor inspections are frequent but are often aimed at identifying undocumented migrant workers. Migrants who come to Brunei to serve as household workers are often coerced into involuntary servitude or debt bondage and can face varying forms of abuse. Workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned.

According to the US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, Bruneian authorities are making efforts to combat human trafficking; however, they did not identify trafficking cases, prosecute traffickers, or secure convictions during the reporting period. The government operates a shelter for women and boys who are trafficked, but adult males do not receive shelter or services.

Brunei ratified the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Convention against Trafficking in Persons and acceded to the United Nations Trafficking in Persons protocol in 2020.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    28 100 not free