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Main languages: Malay (Bahasa Melayu) (official), English, Chinese dialects 

Main religions: Islam Shafi’i sect (official) 78.8 per cent, Christian 8.7 per cent, Buddhist 7.8 per cent, other (includes indigenous beliefs) 4.7 per cent (2011 Census) 

Main ethnic groups: Malay (66.0 per cent)Chinese 10.1 per cent (citizens and permanent residents), others (23.9 per cent) which includes not only foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Asia, or stateless residents, but also the indigenous population (DusunBisayaMurut) which is estimated at around 4 per cent of the population (2015 estimates). Out of a population of 417,200 in 2015, 301,300 (72.2 per cent) are Brunei citizens, 7 per cent permanent residents and 20.8 per cent temporary residents. 

Ethnic categories have shifted through successive censuses in Brunei Darussalam, with groups such as Dusan and other indigenous peoples grouped in 1971 as Malays rather than indigenous, with other changes in subsequent censuses until 2001 when the ethnic categories were reduced to just three groups: Malay, Chinese and Other (the latter including the formerly separate category of ‘other indigenous’, itself a vague and non-specific term). The demographic share of these different groups has fluctuated over time, with the proportion of ‘nationals’ falling between 1911 and 1969 when the percentage of Malay and indigenous residents fell from around 96 per cent to 70 per cent while the Chinese population grew from 6 per cent to 26 per cent, alongside the development of a number of small minorities including South Asian and European communities. In subsequent decades, the relative share of the Chinese population diminished significantly, however, due largely to emigration. While the proportion of Malay and indigenous residents remained largely unchanged, the country instead saw the development of a larger and more diverse immigrant population from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and elsewhere. 

 

Updated May 2020

The small but diverse population of Brunei Darussalam includes, alongside its ethnic Malay majority, a significant Chinese minority, a number of indigenous peoples and a variety of smaller immigrant communities from Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and elsewhere.  While Islam is the official religion, around a fifth of the population subscribe to Christianity, Buddhism, animism or other beliefs. However, restrictive nationality laws have resulted in many members of non-Malay communities being classified as ‘residents’ rather than Brunei citizens, with Chinese, Koreans and other groups making up a sizeable share of the more than 20,000 stateless individuals in the country. At the same time, since 2014 the phased introduction of a draconian Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO) has introduced a range of restrictive provisions that, while curtailing the freedoms of the whole population, have particular implications for non-Muslim groups.  

These issues are felt in particular by the Chinese minority who, while making up around 10 per cent of the population and residing for generations in the country, are mostly classified as residents rather than Brunei citizens. This is due in part to the exclusion of Chinese and a number of other communities from the Brunei Nationality Act 1961 shortly after independence and the subsequent exclusion of thousands of ethnic Chinese from full citizenship. The persistence in subsequent years of strict requirements around proof of residence and Malay language ability to secure citizenship has left many effectively stateless. As a result, they face social exclusion, discrimination and limits on their participation in public life, including land ownership and access to subsidized healthcare1  

The absence of clear official data on Brunei Darussalam’s indigenous population, previously enumerated individually in the country’s census but now either amalgamated into the ‘Malay’ category or classified as ‘other’, reflects their broader experience of assimilation and secondary status within the country. Estimated today at around 4 per cent, many face pressure to conform to mainstream norms and practices, with some reportedly incentivized with financial aid or housing to convert from animism to Islam. While a variety of indigenous communities are listed in the Brunei Nationality Act 1961, this does not automatically confer citizenship rights on community members, and some are reportedly still classified only as permanent residents despite their longstanding presence in the country. 

Though many members of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are Muslim, significant numbers are Christian, Buddhist or animist and experience discrimination as a result.  Restrictions on minority or indigenous religious practices are commonplace, including on the building, expansion or renovation of churches, and have escalated since May 2014 when the implementation of the first stage of the SPCO began, applying to both Muslims and non-Muslims, and existing alongside the common-law based legal code. Phase 1 included fines and prison sentences for ‘indecent behaviour’ such as pregnancies outside of marriage and proselytizing religions other than Islam (with up to five years in prison, a fine of 20,000 Brunei dollars (14,900 USD), or both). Individuals eating, drinking or smoking during Ramadan hours also face fines and even imprisonment up to one year.  Phase 2 includes the introduction of flogging and amputation of hands as criminal punishments, while Phase 3 envisions execution and stoning for adultery, abortion, homosexuality, and blasphemy. In 2019 the government announced that from April some of the harshest provisions, including stoning to death for same-sex relations and amputation for stealing, would be implemented, prompting an international outcry from human rights organizations. After boycotts were called against Brunei business interests, the government backed down and said that it would extend its moratorium on the death penalty.  

 

Updated May 2020

Environment 

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. 

History 

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 was 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 417,200 (2015) excludes a significant population which has not been granted citizenship or permanent residence. There are over 100,000 foreign workers residing in the country, many of whom come from neighbouring countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia as well as increasingly China.   

Governance 

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. In September 2004 the Sultan decreed a number of changes to the Constitution that would allow limited elections to an expanded legislative council, though the majority of council members would still to be appointed by the Sultan. Yet since then no date for the legislative council elections has been announced.    

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. 

Emergency laws have been in effect for nearly half a century and have restricted freedom of expression and media freedom.  Press legislation adopted in 2001 criminalizes the distribution of ‘false and malicious’ news with prison sentences of up to three years and substantial fines. The Sedition Act of May 2005 also prohibits, among other punishable offenses, criticism of the Sultan and the royal family.  

 

Updated May 2020

Minority based and advocacy organisations

 

No organisation deals directly with human rights issues in Brunei Darussalam. Regional and international organisations whose work includes human and minority rights issues in the country include:

 

General

Asia against Child Trafficking (Philippines)
Tel: + 632 929 0822
Email: asiaacts@tri-isys.com

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) (Thailand)
Tel: + 66 2391 8801
E-mail: info@forum-asia.org

Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong)
Tel: + 852 2698 6339
Email: ahrchk@ahrchk.org

Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA) (Japan)
Tel: + 81 6 6577 3578
Email: webmail@hurights.or.jp

Human Rights Watch Asia (US)
Tel: + 1 212 290 4700
Email: hrwnyc@hrw.org
Website: www.hrw.org

Chinese

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) (Thailand)
Tel: + 66 2391 8801
E-mail: info@forum-asia.org

Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong)
Tel: + 852 2698 6339
Email: ahrchk@ahrchk.org

Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA) (Japan)
Tel: + 81 6 6577 3578
Email: webmail@hurights.or.jp

Human Rights Watch Asia (US)
Tel: + 1 212 290 4700
Email: hrwnyc@hrw.org
Website: www.hrw.org

Dusun, Murut, Kedayan, Iban, Tutong, Penan

The Borneo Project (US)
Tel: + 1 510 547 4258
Email: borneo@earthisland.org

Cultural Survival
Tel: + 1 617 441 5400
Email: culturalsurvival@cs.org

Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Threatened Peoples) (Germany)
Tel: + 49 551 49906 0
Email: info@gfbv.de

Survival International (UK)
Tel: + 44 20 7687 8700
Email: info@survival-international.org

Sources and further reading


Minorities and indigenous peoples in
Brunei Darussalam: