Brunei | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 

Quick Facts

Bandar Seri Begawan
Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 

In 2015, Brunei continued to implement an initial phase of new criminal regulations that were adopted in 2013 and are based on Sharia (Islamic law). This first phase, which prescribes fines and jail terms for relatively minor religious offenses, was introduced in 2014. Plans to roll out the second and third phases of the regulations, which include severe penalties ranging from flogging to execution by stoning for some offenses, were put on hold through the end of the year. Observers noted that the harsh laws would have jeopardized Brunei’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which was moving toward signing and ratification.

 Brunei’s vast oil, gas, and mineral resources form the backbone of the country’s development plan and the royal family’s power, but the low price of oil and the possibility that Brunei’s reserves will run out within two decades have led the government to pursue a more diversified economy, with greater emphasis on tourism and manufacturing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 7 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12

The hereditary sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, is the head of state and prime minister, and continues to wield broad powers under a long-standing state of emergency imposed in 1984. He is advised by the Council of Cabinet Ministers, the Legislative Council, the Privy Council, and the Religious Council. Members of the unicameral Legislative Council are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the sultan.

Elections are held for village-level councils that play a consultative role, though candidates are vetted by the government.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 3 / 16

Genuine political activity by opposition groups remains extremely limited. The National Development Party (NDP) was permitted to register in 2005 after pledging to work as a partner with the government and swearing loyalty to the sultan. Since the National Solidarity Party was deregistered without explanation in 2008, the NDP has been Brunei’s sole legal political party. It has no formal political role, few activities in practice, and a small membership.

Ethnic and religious minorities have few opportunities for political participation. Village council candidates must be Muslim, and ministers and deputy ministers must be Muslim and Malay unless the sultan grants an exception.


C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12

Although the appointed Legislative Council has no independent power, it formally passes the state budget and engages in question-and-answer sessions with government officials that show a continued openness to light oversight activity.

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, though in general there is little transparency.

Sultan Hassanal and his family members have held multiple positions in government. As part of an October 2015 cabinet shuffle, the sultan—who has long served as defense minister and finance minister—added the position of minister of foreign affairs and trade to his portfolio, replacing his brother, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah.


Discretionary Political Rights Question A: 1 / 4

Citizens have the opportunity to convey concerns to their leaders through the government-vetted councils of elected village chiefs, and through the members of the Legislative Council. The sultan also hears directly from citizens, though usually only from men, on certain days of the year and during festivals.


Civil Liberties: 22 / 60 (−1)

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.” Amendments to the sedition law in 2005 strengthened 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, 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 and other international broadcasts as well as satellite channels. Foreign journalists sometimes face difficulty gaining permission to report from Brunei. Local media have reported very cautiously on the new Sharia-based penal code and have mostly ignored international criticism.

The country’s internet practice code stipulates that content must not be subversive or encourage illegitimate reform efforts. Brunei has an active online discussion community, however, and social media are not censored, though they are frequently monitored.

The state religion is the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, but the constitution allows for the practice of other religions. Non-Shafi’i forms of Islam are actively discouraged, and marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed. The regulations of the 2013 penal code that took effect in 2014 include provisions limiting the use of certain words and expressions deemed to be sacred to Islam in reference to other religions, whether in print, speech, or public statement. The words and expressions include some that are common in the Malay language, such as “Allah” (God) and “hukum” (law). The crime is subject to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $12,000.

The new code also bans proselytizing of a religion other than Islam to Muslims or atheists, and requires Muslims to participate in fasts and other religious observances. By mid-2015, fewer than 20 people had reportedly been convicted of violating the new Sharia code, with most facing fines for smoking during the Ramadan fast or improper proximity to unrelated members of the opposite sex. Also in late 2014 and 2015, the authorities imposed limits on public displays of non-Muslim observances including Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Academic freedom is respected to some extent, though in 2013 a Burmese professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam resigned his position, citing academic censorship.  Some scholars reportedly practice self-censorship or release their work under pseudonyms in overseas publications to avoid repercussions in Brunei.

The government utilizes an informant system to monitor suspected dissidents, and online communications are monitored for subversive content. However, in practice there is relatively open discussion in public spaces on issues other than the royal family or Islamic law.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 3 / 12

Emergency laws continue to restrict freedoms of assembly and association. No more than 10 people can assemble for any purpose without a permit; permits are relatively easily and frequently obtained for social occasions such as weddings. Most nongovernmental organizations are professional or business groups. All groups must register and name their members, and registration can be refused for any reason. The law guarantees the right to form and join a union, but only a single union is active—the Brunei Oilfield Workers Union. Strikes are illegal, and collective bargaining is not recognized. Civil servants may not join a political party.


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. Civil and criminal law is based on English common law and is enforced in secular courts, while Sharia historically has been enforced in Sharia courts. Final recourse for civil cases is managed by the Privy Council in the United Kingdom, and for religious cases the Religious Council of Brunei.

The 2013 Sharia penal code, whose implementation began in May 2014, includes rules that apply to non-Muslims as well as Muslims. For example, those found guilty of getting pregnant out of wedlock or of cohabiting without being married, whether nonmarried Muslims or a nonmarried Muslim with a non-Muslim, can be subject to a fine and prison time. Many of the new Sharia rules overlap with existing provisions of the civil and criminal codes, but under the new Sharia code there will be different sentences and burdens of proof. While a defendant will only be tried in a single court under a single code, comprehensive rules dictating which court will try whom and for which crime were not fully established by the end of 2015. It also remained unclear when the final two phases of the new code—with their harsh corporal punishments—would be implemented.

Brunei retained the death penalty for crimes including drug trafficking and murder before the new Sharia code was launched, though the last known execution took place in 1957. Many criminal offenses, including immigration violations, can be punished in part with caning, and this penalty is commonly carried out, though an attending doctor can interrupt the process for medical reasons. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Thousands of stateless residents of Brunei, including longtime ethnic Chinese residents, are denied the full rights and benefits of citizens. However, the government continued to process permanent-residency applications during 2015, and those with a basic identity document have access to some government services and health and education subsidies.

Same-sex sexual activity is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison under the existing penal code, and in practice LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people do not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. The new Sharia code, if fully implemented, will prescribe execution by stoning for same-sex sexual relations.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 7 / 16 (−1)

Freedom of movement is respected. All government employees, domestic and foreign, must apply for permission to travel abroad, but permission is easily obtained.

The new Sharia penal code criminalizes “indecent behavior” by Muslims and non-Muslims, and enjoins women to dress “modestly.” Cross-dressing is a crime under the code, and at least one man was convicted and fined for the offense during 2015. Religious enforcement officers raid homes to arrest people for khalwat, the mingling of unrelated men and women, when there is probable cause. According to the new code, non-Muslims can be punished for khalwat if another defendant is a Muslim. Most first offenders are fined or released due to a lack of evidence.

Islamic law generally places women at a disadvantage in cases of divorce and inheritance, and the new Sharia penal code institutes offenses that fall mainly on women, such as pregnancies out of wedlock. All women in government-run institutions and schools are required or pressured to wear traditional Muslim head coverings.  In 2015, Brunei ranked 88 out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report; while it scored well on economic participation and opportunity, it performed poorly on health and survival and ranked last on political empowerment.

Migrants who come to Brunei to serve as household workers are often coerced into involuntary servitude or debt bondage, and can be subject to varying forms of abuse. There are approximately 100,000 migrant workers in the country, and they remain largely unprotected by labor laws and vulnerable to exploitation. Workers who overstay visas are regularly imprisoned and, in some cases, caned.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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