Brunei | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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One of Brunei’s two remaining political parties was deregistered without explanation in February 2008. Nevertheless, the Legislative Council continued to demonstrate a more active oversight role during the year, meeting in April to review government policy and the national budget for the 2008/2009 fiscal year.

The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei 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 Saifuddienannulled 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. After British troops crushed an insurgency mounted by the BPP, Omar declared a state of emergency, which has remained in force ever since. Continuing his father’s absolute rule, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah became Brunei’s 29th sultan in 1967. The British granted Brunei full independence in 1984.

In 2004, Hassanal reconvened the Legislative Council, which had been suspended since 1984. The body passed a constitutional amendment to expand its size to 45 seats, with 15 elected positions. However, Hassanal in September 2005 convened a new, 29-member Legislative Council, including five indirectly elected members representing village councils. Plans for the 45-person legislature with 15 directly elected slots have remained on the table since 2006, but elections have yet to be scheduled. The sultan’s family and appointees continue to hold all state power, with the Internal Security Act (ISA) reserving virtually untrammeled authority for the sultan himself.

The Legislative Council appears to have assumed budget review as a regular function in recent years, meeting in 2006, 2007, and 2008 to scrutinize government expenditures. At the council’s 2007 meeting, one member requested information about the government’s Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) and the Employees Trust Fund. Budget review recurred at the 2008 meeting along with a request by Council members for the government to convert land leases acquired under British rule into permanent ownership. The government also announced its intention to raise public sector wages by 5 percent.

This modestly increased budget oversight—along with the plans for elected council members and efforts to promote the private sector while curbing corruption and radical Islam—are considered preparations for the eventual depletion of the country’s oil and gas reserves, which currently account for 90 percent of state revenues and are expected to run out in two to three decades. Energy wealth has long allowed the government to stave off demands for political reform by employing most of the population, providing citizens with extensive benefits, and sparing them an income tax.

The government’s tentative plans for directly elected legislative seats have been coupled with tighter control over political party activity by the Registrar of Societies. In February 2008, one of the two remaining political parties, the Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB), was deregistered without explanation.

Brunei ratified the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) charter in February 2008, and in August the country signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Japan. In keeping with its policy of fostering ties with other Islamic countries, the sultanate began plans to enter an FTA with Pakistan in 2009, and talks began with EU negotiators signaling an FTA could be signed with the EU in 2009 as well. In late August, Brunei offered to lead the peacekeeping effort in Mindanao in the southern Philippines when Malaysia’s agreement came to a close and peace talks deadlocked.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Brunei is not an electoral democracy. The sultan wields broad powers under a long-standing state of emergency, and no direct legislative elections have been held since 1962. Citizens convey concerns to their leaders through government-vetted councils of elected village chiefs. The government promotes a combination of Islamic values, local Malay culture, and allegiance to the monarchy through a national ideology called Malay Muslim Monarchy, and portrays abandonment of these values as treason and haram (sin).

The reform efforts of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah have been largely superficial and are designed to attract foreign investment. The unicameral Legislative Council has no political standing independent of the sultan. However, the council’s mounting pressure on the government to disclose information on state investments and salary increases reflects a growing demand for accountability and responsible spending.

Despite long-standing plans to establish a 45-member legislature with 15 popularly elected members, political activity remains extremely limited. In 2007, the Registrar of Societies disbanded the People’s Awareness Party (PAKAR) and forced the PPKB’s president, Mohd Atta, to resign. The PPKB was deregistered without explanation in February 2008, leaving the National Development Party (NDP) as Brunei’s sole remaining political party. Headed by a former political prisoner, exile, and insurgent leader, the NDP was permitted to register in 2005 after pledging to work as a partner with the government and swearing loyalty to the sultan. The NDP has been sporadically active: it met in February 2008 to discuss a new government development policy, Wawasan Brunei 2035 (Vision Brunei 2035) and, at the party’s third annual congress in June, NDP President Muhammed Yasin made the Bruneian offer to lead peacekeeping troops in Mindanao. When active at all, parties have traditionally focused on social rather than political issues because of the country’s extensive political restrictions.

The vast wealth of the sultan and his family lends itself to profligacy among officials. Brunei claims to have launched a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, and its Anti-Corruption Bureau has made efforts to cooperate with regional partners and the Ministry of Education in recent years. In June 2008, an arrest warrant was issued for the sultan’s brother and former finance minister, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who had skipped a court appearance concerning his failure to transfer billions of dollars in assets to compensate the sultanate for misappropriated oil revenues. The transfer had been ordered in 2006 by a Brunei court and upheld by the Privy Council in London in November 2007. Brunei was not included in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Legislation enacted in 2001 allows officials to shut down newspapers without cause and to fine and jail journalists for articles deemed “false and malicious.” The national sedition law was amended in 2005 to strengthen prohibitions on criticizing the sultan and the national ideology. In April 2007, the deputy prime minister warned the media not to “play with fire” when reporting on the sultanate, and to respect government decisions to withhold certain information. The largest daily, the Borneo Bulletin, practices self-censorship, though it does publish letters to the editor that criticize government policies. A second English-language daily, the Brunei Times, was launched by prominent businessmen in 2006 to attract foreign investors. A smaller, Malay-language newspaper and several Chinese-language newspapers are also published. Brunei’s only television station is state run, but residents can receive Malaysian broadcasts and satellite channels. The country’s internet practice code stipulates that content must not be subversive or encourage illegitimate reform efforts. Access to the internet is reportedly unrestricted.

The constitution allows for the practice of religions other than the official Shafeite branch of Sunni Islam, but proselytizing and the importation of religious literature by non-Muslims is prohibited. Christianity is the most common target of censorship, and the Baha’i faith is banned, but the country’s various religious groups coexist peacefully. All residents must carry identity cards stating their religion, and marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed. Muslims require permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to convert to other faiths, though official and societal pressure make conversion nearly impossible. However, radical Islam is discouraged, in part due to the government’s interest in attracting investment.

The study of Islam, Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology, and the Jawi (Arabic script used for writing the Malay language) is mandatory in all public schools. The teaching of all other religions is prohibited.

Emergency laws continue to restrict freedom of assembly. Most nongovernmental organizations are professional or business groups, and under the 2005 Societies Order, all must register and name their members. Registration can be refused for any reason. Brunei’s three, largely inactive trade unions, which must also register, are all in the oil sector and represent only about 15,000 workers. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized. Brunei joined the International Labor Organization in January 2007.

The constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary; although the courts generally appear to act independently, they have yet to be tested in political cases. 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, though it does not apply to non-Muslims. The country’s backlog of capital cases results in lengthy pretrial detention for those accused of serious crimes. According to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report, caning is mandatory for 42 criminal offenses, including immigration violations, and is commonly carried out.

Religious enforcement officers raid homes to punish the mingling of unrelated Muslim men and women. In February 2008, the Sharia Court of Appeal announced the registration of 172 such cases in 2007, while the U.S. State Department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report noted 691 cases for roughly the same period. The authorities also detain suspected antigovernment activists under the ISA, which permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Brunei’s many “stateless” people, mostly longtime ethnic Chinese residents, are denied the full rights and benefits of citizens, while migrant workers, who comprise 30 to 40 percent of the workforce, are largely unprotected by the labor laws. Authorities are very strict on illegal entry, and workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned or whipped.

Women are treated as unequal to men in areas such as divorce, in accordance with Islamic law, but an increasing number of women have entered the workforce in recent years. Women in government-run institutions and non-Muslim female students are required or pressured to wear traditional Muslim head coverings.