Brunei Darussalam is a country of 5,769 square kilometers on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo. Divided by the Malaysian state of Sarawak into two parts, it is bounded on the north by the South China Sea, and surrounded on all other sides by Sarawak. The indigenous peoples of Brunei mainly inhabit the less sparsely populated interior uplands, whereas the Malays live mainly in the riverine and coastal communities, and the Chinese in the urban areas.
Main languages: Malay, Chinese, English
Main religions: Islam Shafi’i sect (official), Buddhism, Christianity, animism
Minority and indigenous groups include Chinese 44,000 (Ethnologue 1988), Dusun 25,000 (Joshua Project), Murut 23,000 (Joshua Project), Kedayan 18,700 (5.1 %), Iban 15,000 (1995) and Tutong 15,000. There are also large migrant communities, including Filipinos, Koreans, Indonesians and Indians.
Prior to colonization, the Sultanate of Brunei was a regional power, controlling large parts of Borneo and the southern Philippine islands. The wealth and power of the sultanate were based on trade. At various times Brunei was a tributary state of China and of the Hindu Majapahit of Java. The extent of the sultanate’s domain was drastically curtailed by Spanish, Dutch and British imperialism.
By the late nineteenth century, Brunei had shrunk to about its present size. In 1888 Brunei voluntarily became a British Protectorate. In 1929 oil was discovered off its coast, but large-scale extraction did not begin until after the Second World War.
It is after the Second World War that the demographics of Brunei began to change dramatically, with the expansion of the oil and gas industry attracting more and more immigrants such as the Chinese and Koreans.
In the early 1960s, Brunei entered negotiation with Kuala Lumpur to join the Malaysian Federation. Negotiations broke down over Brunei’s desire to retain control over its oil wealth, and over issues pertaining to the status of the Sultan.
In the late 1950s, Parti Rakyat Brunei (the Brunei People’s Party) was established and won elections on a platform of democratic reforms and federation with neighbouring states. Unwilling to share power, the Sultan called in Gurkhas and British forces. On 1 January 1984, Brunei became a fully independent state.
Brunei Darussalam’s stability and economic wealth have attracted relatively large numbers of migrants into the country, with the result that the official population figure of 365,251 excludes a significant population who have not been granted citizenship or permanent residence. Some estimates indicate that in 2004, Brunei Darussalam’s population would exceed 500,000 if these were taken into account. This migrant population (about 40% of the workforce is made up of temporary residents) thus includes substantial minority groups (such as the Koreans at an estimated 37,000).
Brunei Darussalam became a fully independent state on 1 January 1984. The constitution was established on 29 September 1959, with some provisions suspended under a State of Emergency since December 1962 after a revolt in December 1962 following the country’s last direct polls which was won by a party opposed to royal rule, the Parti Rakyat Brunei. Its demands for a union with Malaysia were rejected by the Sultan, triggering their revolt which was immediately crushed by the father of the present Sultan, with British help. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is the current head of state and head of government. Brunei Darussalam is one of the few countries that hold no elections at all, the Sultan being assisted and advised instead by five councils which he appoints.
Amendments adopted on 19 September 2001 severely restrict freedom of the media in the country, with provisions criminalising the distribution of ‘false news’ and prison sentences of up to three years and fines of up to 40,000 Brunei dollars.
In September 2004 the Sultan decreed a number of changes to the constitution that will allow limited elections to an expanded legislative council, though with the majority of council members still to be appointed by the Sultan. No date for the elections has been announced, and the council has advisory powers only as it is to mainly constitute a forum for public discussion of proposed government programmes.
Brunei’s wealth is based entirely on the petroleum industry. Oil money allows the state to provide its citizens with one of the highest standards of living in Asia. More than 70 per cent of the ethnic Brunei labour force works for the government and another 10–15 per cent work for the oil and gas industries and related commercial concerns.
The policy of the sultanate on minorities is assimilation. Given the omnipresence of the Brunei state, the process of assimilation of indigenous minorities continues to take place, although the pace is uncertain. The situation of stateless Chinese remains unresolved.
Religious minorities face numerous restrictions and prohibitions, with surveillance or even detention of persons involved in radical Islam, non-Muslims involved in proselytising, and those from religious groups that did not belong to the official religion.
The large number of stateless persons and permanent residents in Brunei, most of whom are Chinese, Koreans and other minority groups, cannot directly own land in the country and are denied a number of other rights, such as subsidised medical care. There has been some relatively recent relaxation of the country’s citizenship laws in 2003 which have permitted older individuals to become citizens without having to pass a written citizenship test.
There has however been a crackdown since February 2004 on ‘newer’ migrant workers who have been subjected to changes to Brunei’s immigration laws which introduced retroactive prison sentences and caning for workers who had overstayed their work permits, illegal immigrants seeking work, and foreign workers not actually employed by their initial sponsor.
Brunei is an Islamic state, with the official national ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja (or Malay Muslim Monarchy). There has continued to be pressure on the non-Muslim population to convert to Islam and adopt Malay culture. Non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities continue to be subjected to unfavourable treatment by Brunei authorities. Under the Constitution, Bumiputeras (Malays as well as indigenous Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Murut, Kedayan and Bisaya) enjoy a number of affirmative action benefits denied others, including indigenous Iban and Penan minorities who are not considered to be Bumiputeras.
Non-traditional religious minorities face particular difficulties, with groups such as the Baha’is being banned. Non-Muslim minorities are not permitted to hold public religious processions, and all schools, public and private, are also prohibited by the Ministry of Education from teaching of other religions, while Islam must be taught in all schools.