Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Concern about the country’s dwindling oil and natural gas reserves continued to shape a range of policies in 2006, including planned elections for 15 seats in a reformed Legislative Council, though a date had still not been set. The citizenship status of permanent residents of Brunei who could prove their contribution to the national economy was reconsidered, even as the government clamped down on illegal workers. In the country’s highest-profile corruption case, contempt proceedings against Prince Jefri Bolkiah were dropped in February, but he would still have to transfer substantial assets to the Brunei Investment Agency.
Now composed of two tiny enclaves on the northern coast of Borneo, Brunei is an oil-rich, hereditary sultanate that became a British protectorate in 1888. The 1959 constitution vested full executive powers in the sultan while providing for five advisory councils, including a Legislative Council. In 1962, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien annulled legislative election results after the leftist Brunei People’s Party (BPP), which sought to end the monarchy, won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. The BPP mounted an insurgency in response, which was crushed by British troops. Omar subsequently declared a state of emergency, which has remained in force ever since. His son, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, continued his father’s absolute rule and became, when Omar abdicated the throne in 1967, the 29th sultan in a dynasty that has spanned six centuries. The British granted Brunei full independence in 1984.
In September 2004, Hassanal reconvened Brunei’s Legislative Council, which had been suspended since 1984, in an effort to “engage the citizens.” Consisting of the sultan’s relatives and those with proven loyalty to the monarch, the Council passed a constitutional amendment to expand the chamber to 45 seats with 15 elected positions, as well as a law allowing its members to express their opinions freely—so long as they were neither subversive nor in opposition to the sultan.
Hassanal in September 2005 convened a new Legislative Council, including five indirectly elected members representing village councils. Plans for the 45-person legislature with 15 popularly elected slots remained on the table in 2006, but elections had still not been scheduled by year’s end. The sultan’s family and appointees continue to hold all state power, with the Internal Security Act maintaining virtually untrammeled powers for the sultan himself.
Thanks to oil and natural gas exports, Brunei’s per capita income is far greater than that of other developing countries and is growing at one of the highest rates in Asia. Oil and gas currently account for 90 percent of state revenues, and allow the government to provide Bruneians with education, health care, and subsidized housing and rice, without charging an income tax. The government is also the country’s largest employer, with most of the population on its payrolls. At the sultan’s lavish 60th birthday celebration in July 2006—part of his policy of promoting loyalty to the monarchy—he announced that all civil servants and members of the security forces would receive an accelerated, incremental pay raise for the first time in 22 years. His discouragement of price hikes and emphasis on saving for the future and diversifying the economy reflected the sultan’s concern about the country’s dwindling oil and gas reserves, which were expected to bottom out within the next 10 to 20 years. Brunei joined the Asian Development Bank in April 2006 and over the year made significant efforts to develop Islamic banking—a system of investment practices designed to adhere to Islamic rules on usury and other matters—and promote the private sector. Tentative political liberalization plans regarding the Legislative Council are largely considered preparation for the time when oil reserves run out and the government can no longer provide Bruneians with such extensive benefits. Recent government efforts to distance the national identity from radical Islam and attract foreign investment also appear to stem from these concerns.
Brunei’s reputation as a moderate Islamic nation in the region has facilitated the participation of Bruneian troops in peacekeeping missions in the postconflict Indonesian province of Aceh and in the southern Philippines. In addition, at an Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in August 2006, Brunei agreed to contribute 100 troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
The country’s ongoing dispute with Malaysia over contested oil- and gas-rich sites off the northern Borneo coast acquired new urgency in March 2004 with the discovery of deepwater oil deposits at Gumusut, near the disputed territory. No concrete proposals for a solution have yet emerged, and the quarrel continues as both sides seek to expand their limited oil reserves.
Brunei is not an electoral democracy. The sultan wields broad powers under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1962, and no direct legislative elections have been held since then. Lacking a more open political system, citizens often convey concerns to their leaders through government-vetted, elected village chiefs who meet periodically with top government officials via the Mukim and Village Consultative Committee, for which the sultan implemented new regulations in May 2006. Extensive benefits and high incomes appear to compensate citizens for these political restrictions, and there is little effort to defy prohibitions on political activity. 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,” which he expects those he bestows with titles to uphold. The government portrays disobedience to Islamic law and Malay Muslim Monarchy values as treason or haram (sin).
One of the world’s wealthiest men and longest-reigning absolute monarchs, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah has made only superficial reform efforts in the past. The displays of citizen engagement and plans to move toward a partly elected Legislative Council seem designed mainly to encourage broader international involvement in Brunei’s economy and have done little to change the political system thus far. The unicameral Legislative Council has no political standing independent of the sultan.
Nevertheless, continued discussion of a 45-member legislature with 15 popularly elected members, as a result of increased concern about dwindling oil reserves, appears to have generated some, if still extremely limited, political activity. Members of the Brunei National Solidarity Party (BNSP), an offshoot of one of two parties banned in 1988, met in January 2006 to discuss the party’s administration and agenda. The National Development Party (NDP), headed by former political prisoner, exile, and insurgent leader Awang Muhammad Yasin Affendy bin Abdul Rahman, was permitted to register in 2005, although with a pledge to work as a partner with the government and an oath of loyalty to the sultan. The NDP nominated 28 members to its central executive committee and held its first congress, again with a focus on electing officials, in April 2006. In October, an NDP delegation reported on the congress and submitted a manifesto to the Royal Brunei Police Force as required by the 2005 Societies Order. Both the BNSP and NDP condemned the recent publication of Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad early in 2006. Otherwise, these parties and the country’s third legal political party, the Brunei People’s Awareness Party (PAKAR), remained largely inactive. Parties in Brunei generally focus more on social than political issues because of the extensive restrictions placed on political life.
Early in the year, the government warned civil servants and members of the armed forces against attending political meetings or being seen to participate in politics. Delegates at a Legislative Council meeting held in the spring were allowed to question government ministers on the national budget, and they requested a raise in civil-service salaries. Although the government rejected the request at the meeting, the sultan subsequently issued a raise at his birthday festivities in July.
The year 2006 featured major developments in the country’s highest-profile corruption scandal, which originated in 2000, when the sultan’s brother and former finance minister, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, was charged with misappropriating public oil revenues that were intended for profitable investments to provide for the population once the country’s oil ran out. In February 2006, the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) dropped contempt proceedings in London courts that had been brought against the prince in 2004 for failing to disclose assets as part of his 2000 settlement. The BIA rejected reports in the British press describing the decision as an “embarrassing setback” for the monarchy, claimed that the prince had in fact revealed information about his accounts as required, and continued to press for further disclosure and the transfer of his assets. The Brunei high court ruled in March 2006 that the 2000 settlement remained enforceable and that Jefri would be required to transfer billions of dollars in assets to the BIA. The prince lost a subsequent appeal in May, marking a small victory for the rule of law in a country where the vast wealth of the sultan and his family lends itself easily to profligacy among officials. The corruption trial of former minister of development Haji Ismail, the first minister to ever be a charged with a crime other than Prince Jefri, began in February 2006 and continued throughout the year, and an investigation led by Brunei’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) resulted in the conviction of a former imam for expropriating a charitable donation in August.
The country claims to have launched a three-pronged, zero-tolerance policy on corruption. Noting the country’s need to attract foreign investment, the new head of the ACB announced in September his hope to see Brunei rank as the “least corrupt country in the world” on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index; the group did not include Brunei in its 2006 survey. In an attempt to present Brunei as a regional leader in combating corruption, the ACB in July had hosted a two-day Meeting on Multilateral Cooperation in Combating and Preventing Corruption, attended by officials from across the region. The ACB also collaborated with the Ministry of Education to launch a Corruption Prevention Education Program in Brunei’s schools early in the year; the program’s approach tied anticorruption goals to the high ethical standards of the national Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology. In a move supported by Brunei’s primary natural gas liquefier and a group of Brunei Shell companies (owned in equal shares by the Brunei government and the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies), anticorruption textbooks were presented to schools in the Tutong District in January.
Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Legislation passed in 2001 allows officials to shut down newspapers without cause and to fine and jail journalists who write or publish articles deemed “false and malicious.” The national sedition law was amended in 2005, strengthening prohibitions on criticizing the sultan or the national ideology. The largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin , practices self-censorship, though it does publish letters to the editor that criticize government policies. A smaller, Malay-language newspaper and several Chinese-language newspapers are also published. Brunei’s only television station is state run, but residents can also receive Malaysian broadcasts and satellite channels, which deliver international news. The country’s internet practice code stipulates that content must not be subversive or encourage illegitimate reform efforts; the government stepped up efforts to monitor internet use in 2006, calling on internet cafes to install firewalls to prevent users from viewing immoral content.
The Shafeite sect of Islam, Brunei’s official religion, permeates all levels of society. The constitution allows for the practice of other religions, but religious freedom for non-Muslims is restricted. Proselytizing and the importation of religious teaching materials and scriptures by other faiths is prohibited, while Muslim religious authorities regularly organize dakwah (proselytizing) activities and offer financial incentives, homes, and mosques for converts. The government requires all residents to carry identity cards stating their religion. Visitors are asked to state their religion upon arrival in the country, although many do not comply. Marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not permitted. Muslims require permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to convert to other faiths, and official and societal pressure make it nearly impossible to do so. Christianity, to which some indigenous people do convert, is considered the greatest threat to Islam and is consequently the most common target of censorship. Radical Islam is also feared, however, especially because of the government’s interest in attracting foreign investment. The Islamist Al-Arqam movement is banned, as is the Baha’i faith. The country’s various groups coexist peacefully, however, and the sultan attended a Chinese New Year celebration in February 2006.
The study of Islam, Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology, and the Jawi (Arabic script used for writing the Malay language) are mandatory in all schools, including Christian schools; the teaching of all other religions is prohibited. As part of a landmark cabinet reshuffle in July 2005 that was intended to help attract foreign investment, the sultan replaced Education Minister Abdul Aziz, an architect of the country’s Islamist state ideology who had been crucial to the sultan’s promotion of Islamic conservatism in the 1990s. The Ministry of Religious Education, which regained control over religious education in January 2006, four years after it was placed under the authority of the Ministry of Education, held seminars and workshops on religious education in February that were reportedly attended by more than 2,000 people. The government remains committed to promoting conservative social behavior.
Freedom of assembly is restricted under emergency laws that have been in effect since 1962. Most nongovernmental organizations are locally based professional or business groups and must receive permission to operate under the Companies Act. The January 2005 Societies Order, which replaced the Societies Act, requires all organizations to register as well as to name all members, and can be refused by the Registrar of Societies or Commissioner of Police for any reason. All trade unions must be registered with the government. Brunei’s three trade unions are all in the oil sector, but represent less than 5 percent of that industry’s workforce. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized.
The constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary, but the courts generally appear to act independently. Brunei’s legal system is based on English common law, plus legislation enacted by the sultan. The local magistrates’ courts try most cases, while more serious cases are reserved for the high court, for which British judges are appointed. Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes. Sharia does not currently apply to non-Muslims, though Brunei is considering a merger of the common law and Islamic legal systems.
In 2006, religious enforcement officers raided homes, arresting and detaining numerous khalwat offenders—those suspected of violating the Islamic prohibition on the close proximity of a Muslim with a member of the opposite sex other than a spouse or close relative. Authorities continued to detain suspected antigovernment activists under Brunei’s Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods, despite the lack of significant overt threats to the government since the 1960s. In July 2006, three detainees were released after serving their sentences and taking an oath of loyalty to the sultan.
According to the U.S. State Department 2006 human rights report, prison conditions in Brunei generally met international standards, and a new Children and Young Person’s Order passed in March will establish juvenile courts as part of the country’s legal system, with authority for dealing with child offenders.
Most citizens enjoy reasonable personal autonomy, but many “stateless” people, mostly ethnic Chinese, have not traditionally been afforded citizenship or the rights and benefits thereof. In May 2006, the government agreed to reconsider the citizenship status of permanent residents of Brunei, particularly those who could prove their economic contributions and male foreign nationals married to Bruneian women. According to the minister of home affairs, the motivation was to encourage more investment and the participation of skilled workers in the national economy. Also that year, however, the authorities cracked down on illegal workers, and the local media regularly reported immigration raids, in which those who overstayed their visas were jailed, caned, or whipped in some cases. A Malaysian man was hanged for possession of methamphetamine, an illegal substance, in February.
In accordance with Islamic law, women are treated as unequal to men in areas such as divorce, but the number of women entering the workforce has increased substantially over the past several years. According to the Bruneian press, about 59 percent of women are economically active, and women own more than half of all small and medium-sized enterprises. 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. Princess Hajah Masna, ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, promoted gender equality at a regional gathering in Tokyo in June 2006. The meeting issued a joint communique stressing equal partnerships between women and men.