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Chinese in Brunei Darussalam

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    Ethnic Chinese migrated to Brunei during the British colonial period and they dominate the small non-state commercial sector. The percentage of Chinese in Brunei Darussalam has decreased substantially since 1960, when the minority was approximately 26 per cent of the population, to now just over 10 per cent, though figures vary and may be higher than official estimates. Most Chinese are Buddhists (around 65 per cent) and Taoists or Christians (20 per cent), with smaller numbers of Muslims. 

    Among the Chinese languages spoken in the country are, in decreasing order, Min Nan, Mandarin, Min Dong, Yue, and Hakka. A number of Chinese also use English at home. 

    Close to half of the Chinese still remain as temporary residents while less than a quarter were citizens. 

    Historical context

    While there existed already in the 17th century a Chinese community in Brunei, Chinese established themselves in large numbers after 1929 and the discovery of oil. Between 1931-1947, the Chinese population increased by more than 200 per cent, mainly from Sarawak, Singapore and Hong Kong. Because of the employment opportunities available, the Chinese minority’s immigration continued to increase until after the Second World War, slowing down and even reversing by the 1990s. 

    After independence, only about 9,000 ethnic Chinese were given full Brunei citizenship. In 1984 the Sultan tightened citizenship regulations, requiring applicants to have resided in the country for twenty-five consecutive years, and to meet language and cultural qualifications as well. The difficulties in obtaining citizenship, and the ensuing restrictions in access to land ownership and certain professions, have led some Chinese to emigrate. 

    It has reportedly been easier for Chinese to obtain permanent residency/citizenship if they convert to Islam. Christian Chinese face problems in trying to practise their faith. The government has refused work permits for foreign priests and permission to build churches. Many Christians are forced to use shops and houses as churches; Taoists and Buddhists similar problems. 

    Current issues

    Many members of the Chinese community are stateless and continue to be excluded from some aspects of society, including subsidized health care and land ownership. Discrimination and the continued application of the stringent Malay language requirement enshrined in the Brunei National Act 1961 have prevented many from securing citizenship. Due to issues stemming from statelessnessrestrictions on freedom of religion and limits to minority language rights, Chinese are increasingly assimilating or choosing to emigrate. As a result, the Chinese presence has been waning, and their relative proportion of the population today is greatly diminished from what it was 50 years ago. 

    It has been argued that the complicated Malay language exam, which apparently requires a detailed knowledge of the terms for local plants and animals, is discriminatory for non-native speakers such as the Chinese. Other such discriminatory policies have been linked to the reasons why these minorities have been denied the right to citizenship.  

    The Brunei administration imposed restrictions on the public celebration of Chinese New Year in 2015, including limiting traditional dances to a select number of hours, days and locations. Similar restrictions were also imposed on public Christmas celebrations, and religious enforcement authorities instructed businesses to remove Christmas decorations.

    Updated May 2020

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