Brunei | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)



In 2013, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah announced new provisions to Brunei’s Penal Code based on Sharia (Islamic law). The new rules, which will come into effect in 2014, include harsher penalties for a variety of crimes, including stoning for adultery, limb amputation for theft, flogging for abortion, and others.

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 gross domestic product 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 agreed to a 50-50 sharing partnership for a period of 40 years.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 7 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12

Brunei is a constitutional sultanate. Its constitution was drafted in 1959. Brunei achieved political independence from the United Kingdom in 1984, though in practice the country has been self-governed since 1959. The sultan is the head of state and prime minister, and continues to wield broad powers under a long-standing state of emergency imposed in 1984. No direct legislative elections have been held since 1962, when elective provisions of the constitution were suspended after the leftist and antimonarchist Brunei People’s Party (BPP) won all 10 elected seats in the 21-member council. While the most recent constitutional amendment in 2004 expanded the size of the Legislative Council and included 15 elected seats, there is no timetable for any Council elections, and in practice the size and composition of the Legislative Council has differed from constitutional provisions with members appointed by the Sultan.

The Sultan is technically advised by the Council of Cabinet Ministers, Legislative Council, Privy Council and Religious Council. Citizens convey concerns to their leaders through government-vetted councils of elected village chiefs.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 3 / 16

The reform efforts of Sultan Hassanal have been largely superficial and are designed to attract foreign investment. The unicameral 33-member Legislative Council, which was reinstated in 2004 after being suspended since 1984, has no political standing independent of the sultan. While the 2004 constitutional amendment expanded the body to 45 seats, 15 of which would be elected, in 2005 Hassan appointed most members of a new, 29-member Council, which included five indirectly elected members representing village councils. Most of the other members of this body were either relatives or loyalists. Following the completion of its first five-year term, the Legislative Council was disbanded in March 2011 and replaced with a newly appointed and expanded 33-member council in June 2011. The council’s mounting oversight activity and queries aimed at the government reflect a growing demand for accountability and responsible spending; in January 2013, members of the Council met with village council leaders, where issues such as pensions and healthcare were raised. 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.

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 that 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.

Genuine political activity by opposition groups remains extremely limited. In 2007, the Registrar of Societies disbanded the People’s Awareness Party 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 as Brunei’s sole remaining legal 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.


C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12

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 challenges, including a 2008 arrest warrant, over accusations that he misappropriated state funds, and he was ordered to return significant personal assets to the state after a drawn out court case that went as high as the Privy Council in London. Brunei was ranked 38 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, an increase from 2012.


Discretionary Political Rights Question A: 1 / 4

Citizens have the opportunity to convey concerns to their leaders through government-vetted councils of elected village chiefs.

Civil Liberties: 23 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 6 / 16

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.

Approximately 67 percent of the population is Muslim, 13 percent is Buddhist, and 10 percent is Christian (approximately half of whom are Catholic). 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. In July 2013, the government enacted regulations banning non-Muslims from eating in Muslim-owned restaurants and eateries during Ramadan.

Islamic courts oversee family-related matters and handle approximately 27 criminal offenses. In October 2013, the government announced that stricter Sharia-based laws would be included in the Penal Code in 2014. The new rules would apply only to Muslims and these would increase the number of criminal offenses handled by Sharia courts to more than 95. While Brunei already implements many Sharia-based laws, the amendment is expected to include harsher punishments for a number of crimes, including stoning for adultery, limb amputation for theft, and flogging for abortion; other punishable offenses include failure to preform Friday prayer and cross-dressing. 

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.

Academic freedom is generally respected, though in January a Myanmar professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) resigned his position, citing academic censorship.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 3 / 12

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 any purpose without a permit. Brunei only has three, largely inactive, trade unions, all of which are 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.  Civil servants may not join a political party.

The law guarantees the right to form and join a union, though there is no provision for collective bargaining. Only a single union exists, that of the Brunei Shell Petroleum workers. Strikes are prohibited.


F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16

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 takes precedence in areas including divorce, inheritance, and some sex crimes, though it does not apply to non-Muslims. Amendments to the Penal Code are expected to be enforced in 2014, which will increase the number of offenses covered by Sharia courts. 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.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16

Freedom of movement is respected in the country, though all government employees—domestic and foreign—must apply for permission to travel abroad. The government utilizes an informant system to monitor suspected dissidents, and emails, chat-rooms and cellphone messages are monitored for subversive content; however, social media is not censored and foreign press widely available.

Same-sex relations are illegal, and in practice, individuals do not disclose sexual orientations, which has likely led to the low occurrence of societal and official discrimination in employment, ownership, access to services, etc.

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 50.4 percent of the civil service in 2010. Brunei appointed its first female attorney general, Hayati Salleh, in 2009; she was formerly the first female High Court judge. Women have access to family planning and free healthcare. In 2014, Brunei maintained its position at 88th place, down from 75th place in 2012, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, particular in the areas of economic participation and educational attainment. Brunei serves as a destination, transit, and source country for the trafficking of men and women for forced labor and prostitution.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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