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Brunei, which has been ruled continuously by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah since 1967, experienced little political change in 2011. The essentially rubberstamp Legislative Council was disbanded in March after completing its five-year term, and a new, expanded council was appointed in June.
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 Saifuddien annulled legislative election results after the leftist and antimonarchist Brunei People’s Party (BPP) won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. British troops put down an insurrection mounted by the BPP, and Omar declared a state of emergency, which remains in force. 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 Council passed a constitutional amendment to expand its size to 45 seats, 15 of which would be elected. However, in 2005 Hassanal appointed a new, 29-member Legislative Council, including five indirectly elected members representing village councils; most of the members of this body were either relatives or loyalists. Following the completion of its five-year term, the Legislative Council was disbanded in March 2011 and replaced with a newly appointed and expanded 33-member council in June.
Hassanal instituted a significant reshuffle of the Cabinet of Ministers in May 2010. While many ministers retained their positions, and the sultan continued to hold the posts of prime minister, minister of defense, and minister of finance, the changes there were instituted signified a small step toward improving governance. The new cabinet included the country’s first woman cabinet member as deputy minister for culture, youth, and sports.
Energy wealth has long allowed the government to stave off demands for political reform by employing much of the population, providing citizens with extensive benefits and sparing them an income tax. Despite a declining GDP growth rate, Brunei remains the fourth-largest oil producer in Southeast Asia and the ninth-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world. In December 2010, Brunei and Malaysia moved forward with a “milestone” offshore oil exploration deal in which both countries have agreed to a 50-50 sharing partnership for a period of 40 years.
Brunei is not an electoral democracy. The sultan continues to wield 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 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 oversight activity and queries aimed at the government reflect a growing demand for accountability and responsible spending. These tentative reforms were considered preparations for an eventual succession and the expected depletion of the country’s oil and gas reserves, which account for about 90 percent of state revenues.
Genuine political activity remains extremely limited. In 2007, the Registrar of Societies disbanded the People’s Awareness Party (PAKAR) and forced the president of the Brunei National Solidarity Party (PPKB) to resign. The PPKB was then deregistered without explanation in 2008, leaving the National Development Party (NDP) as Brunei’s sole remaining political party.
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 recent years. The sultan’s brother and former finance minister, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, has faced a number of legal issues, including a 2008 arrest warrant, over accusations that he misappropriated state funds, and he was ordered to return personal assets to the state. Brunei was ranked 44 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Journalists in Brunei face considerable restrictions. Officials may close newspapers without cause and fine and imprison journalists for up to three years for reporting deemed “false and malicious.” The national sedition law was amended in 2005 to strengthen prohibitions on criticizing the sultan and the national “Malay Muslim Monarchy” ideology. The country’s main English-language daily newspaper, the Borneo Bulletin, is controlled by the sultan’s family and often practices self-censorship. 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 papers 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.
The constitution allows for the practice of religions other than the official Shafeite school of Sunni Islam, but proselytizing by non-Muslims is prohibited. Non-Shafeite forms of Islam are actively discouraged, in part due to concerns about security and foreign investment. Christianity is the most common target of censorship, and the Baha’i faith is banned. 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 pressures make conversion nearly impossible.
The study of Islam, Malay Muslim Monarchy ideology, and the Jawi (Arabic script used for writing the Malay language) is mandatory in all schools, public or private. The teaching of all other religions is prohibited.
Emergency laws continue to restrict freedoms of assembly and association. Most nongovernmental organizations are professional or business groups. All groups must register and name their members, and registration can be refused for any reason. No more than 10 people can assemble for a purpose without a permit. Brunei only has three, largely inactive, trade unions, which are all in the oil sector and represent only about 5 percent of the industry’s labor force. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized.
The constitution does not provide for an independent judiciary. Although the courts generally appear to act independently, they have yet to be tested in political cases. Final recourse for civil cases is managed by the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. Sharia (Islamic law) takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes, though it does not apply to non-Muslims. A backlog of capital cases results in lengthy pretrial detention for those accused of serious crimes. Caning is mandatory for 42 criminal offenses, including immigration violations, and is commonly carried out, though an attending doctor can interrupt the punishment for medical reasons.
Religious enforcement officers raid homes to arrest people for khalwat, the mingling of unrelated Muslim men and women. However, most first offenders are fined or released due to a lack of evidence. The authorities also detain suspected antigovernment activists under the Internal Security Act, 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 approximately one quarter of the workforce, are largely unprotected by labor laws and vulnerable to exploitation. Workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned or whipped.
Islamic law generally places women at a disadvantage in cases of divorce and inheritance. All women in government-run institutions and schools are required or pressured to wear traditional Muslim head coverings. An increasing number of women have entered the workforce in recent years, comprising 57 percent of the civil service force in 2010. Brunei appointed its first female attorney general in 2009, Hayati Salleh, formerly the first female High Court judge. Brunei serves as a destination, transit and source country for the trafficking of men and women for forced labor and prostitution.