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 people still express their views on many topics.
- In October, the Brunei government signed multiple agreements with the government of Bangladesh to increase the number of Bangladeshi workers in Brunei and to increase the number of flights between the two countries so as to ease migrant workers’ travel. In the past, rights groups have noted that Bangladeshi workers are subject to awful and inhumane conditions in Brunei. Workers who were promised salaried jobs upon arrival have found no employment, and employers have seized workers’ passports to prevent them from accessing services and from leaving for another job.
- In June, Hajah Romaizah became the first woman ever appointed to the cabinet. She will serve a four-year term as education minister, replacing the previous minister before the end of their term. Women do not hold meaningful political representation: of the 33 seats on the Legislative Council, only 3 are women.
|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.
In recent years, authorities have 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.
|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 33 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.
|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.
|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, but does not have representation in the Legislative Council, which is appointed.
|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.
|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.
|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.
Women do not hold meaningful political representation. Of the 33 seats on the Legislative Council, only 3 are women. However, in June 2022, Hajah Romaizah became the first woman ever appointed to the cabinet. She will serve a four-year term as education minister, replacing the previous minister before the end of their term. LGBT+ people have no political representation, and open expressions of nonbinary gender identities and same-sex relations are criminalized, with the latter punishable by death.
|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. The Legislative Council only serves to suggest changes to policies and legislation that ultimately need the approval of the sultan.
|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 several 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.
|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.
|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. The Scoop, a news site that launched in 2017, contains mildly independent coverage.
|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 and requires Muslims to participate in religious observances. In 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.
|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.
|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. Nevertheless, Brunei has an increasingly active and vibrant online community, and this continued in 2022, though internet users reportedly self-censor regarding issues related to the monarchy.
|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.
|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 some work on issues related to social welfare. All groups must register, registration can be refused for any reason, and registered groups can be suspended.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
|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. The Brunei authorities maintained some pandemic-related restrictions in 2022 but eased them in line with epidemiological data.
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.
|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.
|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 spousal rape is not criminalized.
Transgender people are prohibited from dressing in line with their gender identity under the Sharia-based penal code.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
There is no private-sector minimum wage in Brunei. 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.
In October 2022, the Brunei government signed multiple agreements with the government of Bangladesh to increase the number of Bangladeshi workers in Brunei and to increase the number of flights between the two countries so as to ease migrant workers’ travel. In the past, rights groups have noted that Bangladeshi workers are subject to awful and inhumane conditions in Brunei. Workers who were promised salaried jobs upon arrival have found no employment, and employers have seized workers’ passports to prevent them from accessing services and from leaving for another job.
According to the US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, Brunei has not made substantial efforts or dedicated adequate resources to preventing human trafficking. The Brunei government has disputed the claims of the US report.
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Global Freedom Score28 100 not free