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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Brunei

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Brunei, 30 January 1996, available at: [accessed 31 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.


Brunei Darussalam, a small, wealthy monarchy located on the north coast of Borneo, is a sultanate ruled by the same family for 600 years.

The 1959 Constitution provided for the first delegation of political power by former Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin to an appointed council of state, but in 1962 the Sultan invoked an article of the Constitution that allowed him to assume emergency powers for 2 years. These powers have been regularly renewed, most recently in September by the current Sultan. Although not all of the articles of the Constitution are suspended, the state of emergency places few limits on the Sultan's power. He also serves as Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, dean of the national university, and chief religious leader.

The police force, which has responsibility for internal security, reports to the Prime Minister's office and is firmly under the control of civil authorities.

Brunei's large oil and natural gas reserves, coupled with its small population, give it one of the world's highest per capita gross national products.

Human rights in Brunei remain broadly circumscribed. In practice, citizens do not have the right to change their government, and they generally eschew political activity of any kind, knowing that the Government and ruler will disapprove such activity and may punish them. Nor, constitutional provisions notwithstanding, do they genuinely exercise the freedoms of speech, press, and association. Other human rights abuses, including discrimination against women and restriction of religious freedom, continued.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The media occasionally report on allegations of police mistreatment of prisoners, but these reports cannot be verified. In 1988 caning became mandatory punishment for 42 criminal and drug-related offenses and for vandalism. Since then, sentences of whipping have been handed down and carried out in the presence of a doctor who monitors implementation and has the authority to interrupt and postpone the punishment for medical reasons. Reportedly, as many as 50 offenders per year are caned.

Prison conditions range from fair to good. There is no overcrowding, prisoners usually have a cell to themselves. Prisoners receive regular medical checkups. Remand cells at police stations are Spartan but adequate.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

While the law provides for a prompt judicial determination of the validity of an arrest, those provisions, like the Constitution itself, may be superseded, either partially or wholly, through invocation of the emergency powers. Moreover, the Internal Security Act (ISA) permits the Government to detain suspects without trial for renewable 2-year periods. The Government occasionally has used the ISA to detain persons suspected of antigovernment activity, but apparently did not do so in 1995. A person detained under the ISA was released in April 1994 following his pledge of loyalty to the Sultan.

Police officers have broad powers to make arrests without warrants. However, under normal circumstances, a magistrate must endorse a warrant for arrest. Warrants are issued without this endorsement on rare occasions, such as when police are unable to obtain the endorsement in time to prevent the flight of a suspect.

Under the 1918 Banishment Act, any person deemed to be a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of Brunei, may be forcibly exiled either permanently or temporarily by the Sultan. There have been no cases of banishment of citizens in recent times.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary. However, Brunei civil law, based on English common law, provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. Shari'a (Muslim law) supersedes civil law in a number of areas, including divorce, inheritance, and sexual crimes.

The judicial system consists of five levels of courts, with final recourse in civil cases available through the Privy Council in London. In January Brunei terminated appeal to the Privy Council in criminal cases. Procedural safeguards include the right to defense counsel, the right to an interpreter, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to confront accusers. There were no known instances of government interference with the judiciary and no trials of political opponents.

A few political prisoners, probably "returnees" (individuals who participated in the 1962 rebellion, fled the country, and subsequently returned), are still in prison because of their role in the rebellion and their alleged refusal to renounce violence and pledge loyalty to the Sultan.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although the law permits government intrusion into the privacy of individual persons, families, or homes, this rarely happens. There are sporadic reports of mail having been opened prior to delivery.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While no law restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the Government on a few occasions censored international newspapers and periodicals by removing or blacking out articles or photographs found to be objectionable, particularly those potentially embarrassing to Brunei's royal family, critical of the Government or the Sultan, or those judged sexually or morally improper by censors. The growing use of facsimile machines and access to satellite transmissions make it increasingly difficult to keep such material from entering Brunei. The independently owned local newspaper practices self-censorship by avoiding issues it knows the Government would object to.

The only Brunei-based television station is government owned. Two Malaysian television channels are received in Brunei. A 10-channel cable network of television stations, which includes the Cable News Network, the British Broadcasting Corporation World News, and several entertainment channels, is widely viewed. Because of the almost total absence of criticism or opposing views, the Government's tolerance of political criticism has not been effectively tested recently. In the past, it has not hesitated to arrest on national security grounds those who attempted to propagate unwelcome political views.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom to assemble for political purposes also has not been seriously tested in recent years. Following the 1967 ban on political parties, the Government allowed two parties to form in 1985 and 1986. The Government severely restricted membership in both parties, disbanding one of them in 1988.

The Brunei Solidarity National Party, which had been inactive for several years, held an assembly in February, reportedly with the consent of the Government. About 50 people attended. In May the party president resigned: in a September interview in a local newspaper, he said he had resigned after the Home Affairs Ministry warned him not to involve himself in political activity because he is a former political detainee. He told the interviewer that he is seeking authorization from the Government to resume political activity. There has been no public party activity since the February assembly.

The activities of international service organizations continue to be constrained. In 1995 the Government reminded local leaders of these organizations that Muslims may not be members.

c.Freedom of Religion

The Constitution states, "The religion of Brunei Darussalam shall be the Muslim religion according to the Shafeite sect of that religion: provided that all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony by the person professing them in any part of Brunei Darussalam." In 1991 the Government began to reinforce the legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy and the observance of traditional Bruneian and Muslim values by reasserting a national ideology known as the Malaya Islam Beraja (MIB) or "Malay Muslim monarchy," the genesis of which reportedly dates back to the 15th century.

This reassertion of MIB has created a variety of impediments to the full and unconstrained exercise of religious freedom called for in the Constitution and in the 1993 Kuala Lumpur Declaration. The Government in 1993 participated in issuing the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which confirms the right of all persons to a wide range of human rights, including freedom of religion. Despite this, and constitutional provisions, the Government routinely restricts the practice of non-Muslim religions by: prohibiting proselytizing; occasionally denying entry to foreign clergy or particular priests, bishops, or ministers; banning the importation of religious teaching materials or scriptures such as the Bible; and refusing permission to expand, repair, or build new churches, temples, and shrines. In July a foreign nun was denied admission to Brunei to attend the annual assembly of the International Conference of Education Teachers (ICET), for which she was a duly registered delegate.

The Ministry of Education has also restricted the teaching of the history of religion or other courses in religion in non-Islamic schools while requiring courses on Islam or the MIB in all schools. Only the International School, which Bruneian citizens or permanent residents generally are not permitted to attend, is exempted from these restrictions.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government restricts the movement of former political prisoners during the first year of their release. Otherwise, it generally does not restrict freedom of movement for most citizens, visitors, and permanent residents. The Government places some contractual restrictions on foreign travel for certain expatriate employees, but this is limited to the first year of the contract. Although Brunei has not been willing to accept asylum seekers, it has agreed in principle, and subject to certain reservations, to the Comprehensive Plan of Action adopted by the 1989 International Conference on Indochinese Refugees.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens are unable to change their government through established democratic processes. Under the continuing state of emergency, there is no parliament, and political authority and control rests in the hands of the ruling monarch. Individual citizens may seek to express their views or to influence government decisions and policies by petitioning the Sultan or handing him letters when he appears in public.

The only form of popular representation lies in a traditional system of village chiefs who, since 1992, are elected by secret ballot by all adults. These leaders communicate constituents' wishes through a variety of channels, including periodic meetings, chaired by the Home Affairs Minister, with several officials appointed by the Sultan.

Substantial numbers of women serve at the junior and middle levels of Brunei's large government bureaucracy. Nevertheless, at higher levels of the bureaucracy a clear pattern of discrimination exists. Since independence, no woman has been appointed to head a ministry, and women continue to be passed over despite the fact that there are by now a number of well-qualified candidates for promotion to positions at permanent secretary and deputy minister levels. A woman now serves as an intermediate court judge, the highest judicial position held by Bruneians.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no government or private organizations that deal specifically with the protection of human rights. Given the tight restrictions on freedom of speech and press and the Government's unwillingness to tolerate criticism, any group or individual attempting to investigate and report publicly on human rights issues would face severe constraints. There were no known allegations of abuses or requests to visit by international human rights groups.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Except for religion (see Section 2.c.), the Constitution does not contain specific provisions prohibiting discrimination based on the factors listed above.


The extent to which spousal abuse may occur and go unreported is not known. However, in response to a growing perception that domestic violence is a serious problem, the police established a special unit to investigate allegations of spousal abuse in October 1994. Approximately 16 cases of domestic abuse were reported to police in the first half of 1995. The Government has established a shelter for abused women, and reportedly there were four residents there in 1995. In January the Government initiated a well-publicized telephone "hot line" to report abusers.

The criminal penalty for a minor domestic assault is 1 to 2 weeks in jail and a fine. An assault resulting in serious injury would be punished by caning and a longer jail sentence. One area of apparent abuse involves female domestic servants. While the level of violence in Bruneian society is low, beating of servants--or refusing them the right to leave the house on days off, sometimes on grounds that they "might encounter the wrong company"--is less socially unacceptable behavior. Since most female domestics are foreign workers who are highly dependent on their employers, those subject to abuse may be unwilling or unable to bring complaints, either to Bruneian authorities or to their governments' embassies in Brunei. When such complaints are brought, however, the Government is generally quick to investigate allegations of abuse and impose fines and punishment as warranted.

In accordance with Koranic precepts, women are denied equal status with men in a number of important areas, such as divorce, inheritance, and custody of children. Under the Brunei Nationality Act, citizenship is passed on through males only. Female citizens who are married to foreigners or bear children by foreign fathers cannot pass on Bruneian citizenship to their children, even when such children are born in Brunei. This has resulted in creation of a sizable population of stateless children, estimated at more than 5,000 residents, who are entitled to live in Brunei and be documented for travel by the Government, but who cannot enjoy the full privileges of citizenship, including the right to own land.

Although men are eligible for permanent positions in government service whether or not they hold university degrees, women who do not have university degrees are eligible to hold government positions only on a month-to-month basis. While recent changes eliminated some previous inequities, women in month-to-month positions continue to receive slightly less annual leave and fewer allowances than their male and female counterparts in permanent positions.

Religious authorities strongly encourage Brunei Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women do so. Some Muslim women do not, however, and there is no official pressure on non-Muslim women to do so. All female students in government-operated schools are required to wear the tudong, however, while students in nongovernment schools are officially encouraged to wear it.

There are no separate pay scales for men and women, and in recent years there has been a major influx of women into the work force. Women serve in a wide variety of capacities in the armed forces, although they may not serve in combat. The number of female university graduates is increasing, and nearly two-thirds of Brunei University's entering class is female.


There are no published statistics regarding the welfare of children. The strong commitment to family values within society, the high standard of living, and government funding for children's welfare provides most children a healthy and nurturing environment. With a few exceptions involving small villages in extremely remote areas, nutritional standards are high, and poverty is almost unknown. There were 18 reported cases of child abuse in the first half of 1995.

People with Disabilities

While no legislation mandates accessibility or other assistance to disabled persons, they are well integrated into Brunei society and the workplace, due mainly to past and ongoing efforts of the Government and nongovernmental organizations to raise public consciousness.

Indigenous People

The 6 percent of Brunei's population that is composed of indigenous peoples has long been integrated into Bruneian society, and enjoys the same rights as other citizens.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Some members of non-Malay minorities, such as ethnic Chinese, including those born and raised in Brunei, are not automatically accorded citizenship and must travel abroad as stateless persons.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Trade unions are legal in Brunei but must be registered with the Government. There are three generally inactive registered trade unions, all of them in the oil sector, with a total membership amounting to less than 5 percent of that industry's work force. All workers, including civil servants, other than those serving in the military and police, may form or join trade unions. Unions are independent of the Government. The Trade Unions Act of 1962 permits the formation of trade union federations in Brunei but forbids affiliation with labor organizations outside Brunei. An individual contract is required between an employer and each employee, but legal trade union activities cannot be deemed to violate employee contracts. Local legal experts interpret this provision as conferring the right to strike, but there have been no strikes. Brunei is not a member of the International Labor Organization.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Government has not prevented the legal registration of trade unions, nor has it dissolved any. The Government did not interfere with lawful union activity. It is illegal to refuse employment or discriminate against an employee on the basis of membership or nonmembership in a trade union. While unions are legal and easy to register, conditions in Brunei are not conducive to the development of trade unions. There is little interest on the part of workers in forming trade unions, and existing unions are not very active. Brunei law is silent on collective bargaining, and it occurs in only a few industries. There are few industries of the kind in which unions have traditionally developed. Also, cultural tradition favors consensus over confrontation. Wage and benefit packages are based on market conditions and tend to be generous.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced labor, and it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Chapter XI of the Labor Enactment Laws of 1954 prohibits employment of children below the age of 16. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission is required for those below the age of 18. Women under age 18 may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms. The Department of Labor (DOL), which is a part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, effectively enforces laws on the employment of children. There were no reports of violations of the child labor laws.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Skilled labor is in short supply, and market forces enable most citizens to command good salaries. There is no minimum wage. The standard workweek is Monday through Thursday and Saturday, with Friday and Sunday off, allowing for two 24-hour rest periods each week. Overtime is paid for work in excess of 48 hours a week, and double time is paid for work performed on legal holidays. Occupational health and safety standards are established by government regulations. The DOL inspects working conditions on a routine basis and in response to complaints. The DOL generally enforces labor regulations effectively. However, in the unskilled labor sector enforcement is lax, especially for foreign laborers. The DOL is empowered to close any workplace where health, safety, or working conditions are unsatisfactory, and it has done so in the past.

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