Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Brunei Darussalam : Chinese

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Brunei Darussalam : Chinese, 2008, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Ethnic Chinese migrated to Brunei during the British colonial period and they dominate the small non-state commercial sector. The percentage of Chinese minorities in Brunei Darussalam has decreased substantially since 1960, when it was approximately 26%, to less than one third and perhaps now just over 11% of the population, though figures vary and may be higher than official figures. Some Chinese are Muslims; a sizeable number are Christians and the rest Taoists or Buddhists.

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, the Chinese minorities established themselves in large numbers after 1929 and the discovery of oil. Between 1931-1947, the Chinese population increased by more than 200%, mainly from Sarawak, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Because of the employment opportunities available, the Chinese minorities' immigration continued to increase until after the World War II., slowing down and even reversing by the 1990s.

After independence, only about 9,000 ethnic Chinese were given full Brunei citizenship. Close to half of the Chinese still remain as temporary residents while less than a quarter are citizens. 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. Chinese who practise traditional religions (for example, Taoism, Buddhism) face similar problems.

Current issues

Many members of the Chinese minorities continue to be burdened by the denial of citizenship and to be excluded from some employment and other opportunities linked to this, including land ownership. Partially as a result of being stateless or permanent residents and other policies that restrict their freedom of religion and limit the spheres of use of their languages, some Chinese are gradually being assimilated into the Malay-Muslim community or, more commonly, choose to emigrate. As a result, the Chinese presence has been waning, and their relative proportion of the population today is greatly diminished from 40 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 and explains why these minorities have been effectively excluded from obtaining citizenship.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld