Brunei | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Brunei received an upward trend arrow due to the announcement of the reconstitution of the legislative council after 20 years.


Although Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah took a landmark step in announcing the revitalization of Brunei's parliament in 2004, he shows no signs of fully liberalizing this Southeast Asian nation's political system. His action most likely represents a small concession in the face of ongoing problems such as the growing number of foreign workers in the country and the possibility of declining oil revenues.

Consisting of two tiny enclaves on the northern coast of Borneo, Brunei is an oil-rich, hereditary sultanate that has been under the absolute rule of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah four nearly four decades. The 1959 constitution vested full executive powers in the sultan while providing for five advisory councils, including the Legislative Council (parliament). In 1962, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin annulled legislative election results after the leftist Brunei People's Party (BPP), which sought to end the sultanate, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. The BPP then mounted an insurgency that was crushed by British troops but whose legacy is still felt today. Sultan Omar invoked constitutionally granted emergency powers, which are still in force, and began ruling by decree. That practice was continued by his son, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who became the 29th ruler in a family dynasty that has spanned six centuries when his father abdicated the throne in 1967. The British granted full independence in 1984.

Oil and natural gas exports to Japan and other countries have given Brunei a per capita income rivaling that of many Western societies. Food, fuel, housing, schooling, and medical care are either free or subsidized, and there is virtually no poverty except for small pockets in tiny, remote villages. Energy reserves are dwindling, however, and the government has had limited success in diversifying the economy. The oil and gas sector's contribution to gross domestic product was 39.8 percent in 2003, up from 37.1 percent in 2002 because of higher oil prices. The ongoing dispute with Malaysia over the contested oil- and gas-rich Baram Delta waters off the northern Borneo coast took on a new urgency with the discovery in March 2004 of deepwater oil at Gumusut, near the disputed territory. Negotiations with Malaysia may be more successful under that country's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi.

In July, the sultan announced that he would reconvene Brunei's Legislative Council as part of a set of measures designed to "engage the citizens." The council, which has been suspended since 1984, will not be elected; Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah appointed the first 21 members in September 2004.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bruneians cannot change their government through elections. The sultan wields broad powers under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1962, and no legislative elections have been held since then. Lacking a more open political system, citizens often convey concerns to their leaders through a traditional system under which government-vetted, elected village chiefs meet periodically with top government officials. Citizens generally avoid political activity altogether, apparently because they know that the government disapproves of it. Their docility is explained by the lavish benefits the government grants them, including free health care, free education, generous pensions, and housing subsidies.

Now 58 years old and one of the world's richest men, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has done little to reform the ossified political system that he inherited. Although the sultan decided in July to reconvene the Legislative Council, members continue to be appointed by the sultan rather than elected, and the only two legal political parties are largely inactive. Both the Brunei People's Awareness Party and the Brunei National Solidarity Party (BNSP) publicly support the sultan. The BNSP is an offshoot of one of two parties banned in 1988.

Although hard data indicating high levels of corruption are scarce, the sultanate's vast wealth lends itself easily to profligacy among officials. The settlement of a major corruption scandal, involving the misappropriation of state funds by the Sultan's brother, made headlines across the world in 2000. In October 2004, Brunei's former Minister of Development pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of corruption; his trial is set for February 2005. Brunei was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bruneian journalists face considerable restrictions. Legislation introduced in 2001 allows officials to shut down newspapers without showing cause and to fine and jail journalists who write or publish articles deemed "false and malicious." The largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin, practices self-censorship, though it does publish letters to the editor criticizing government policies. Another daily, the News Express, closed in 2002 after being sued successfully by a private law firm for defamation. Brunei's only television station is state-run, although Bruneians also can receive Malaysian television and satellite channels. The Internet is becoming widespread. In addition to restricting the media, the government has in previous years detained several Bruneians for publishing or distributing antigovernment materials.

The Shafeite sect of Islam, Brunei's official religion, permeates all levels of society in this predominantly Muslim country. In schools, Islamic study is mandatory and the teaching of other religions IS prohibited. The sultan promotes a combination of Islamic values, local Malay culture, and allegiance to the hereditary monarchy through a national ideology called "Malay Muslim Monarchy." Critics say that the ideology, which is taught in schools, is used in part to legitimize an undemocratic system. While promoting Islam, Brunei's secular government has also voiced concern over religious fundamentalism, and one Islamist group, Al-Arqam, is banned. The government also restricts religious freedom for non-Muslims. It prohibits proselytizing, bans the importation of religious teaching materials and scriptures such as the Bible, and ignores requests to build, expand, or repair temples, churches, and shrines, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2003, released in February 2004.

Freedom of assembly is restricted under emergency powers that have been in effect since 1962. Membership in political parties is highly restricted, and those parties that exist remain largely inactive. Most non-governmental organizations and civil groups are locally-based professional or business organizations. All such organizations must receive permission to operate in Brunei under the Companies Act. All trade unions must be registered with the government. Brunei's three trade unions are all in the oil sector, and their membership makes up less than 5 percent of that industry's workforce. Strikes are illegal in Brunei, and collective bargaining is not recognized. There was no union activity of any sort in the country in 2004.

Courts in Brunei generally "appeared to act independently," according to the U.S. State Department report, despite the fact that the constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary. The legal system is based on British common law, although Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes. Sharia does not apply to non-Muslims.

While the government has faced few overt threats since the 1960s, authorities occasionally detain suspected antigovernment activists under Brunei's Internal Security Act. The act permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods. Recent detainees include a prominent citizen said to have committed treason by providing classified government documents to an unnamed foreign country; two others deemed subversive for posting classified information on a Hong Kong-based Web site; 16 people involved in selling and distributing counterfeit Brunei currencies to the public; and six people who attempted to revive the proscribed Al-Arqam group (these six were released in July 2004).

Freedom of movement of persons other than former political persons is not restricted. Most citizens enjoy reasonable personal autonomy, but many "stateless" people - mostly ethnic Chinese - are not accorded full citizenship status and thus lack rights such as the right to own land and to have access to subsidized medical care. Foreign workers, especially female domestic servants, are the persons most likely to be subjected to economic exploitation.

Women remain unequal to men in areas such as divorce and inheritance, in accordance with Islamic law. Nevertheless, the number of women entering the workforce has increased substantially over the past several years. Women in government-run institutions must wear the tudong (a traditional head covering); many educational institutions also pressure non-Muslim students to wear it as part of a uniform.