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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Brunei

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Brunei, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 1 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 is a small, wealthy monarchy located on the north coast of Borneo. The population of roughly 290,000 is predominantly Malay (65 percent). Chinese (15 percent), indigenous peoples (6 percent), and foreign residents (14 percent) make up the remainder. Brunei is a hereditary sultanate ruled by the same family for 600 years. It became a British protectorate in 1888 and fully independent in 1984.

The 1959 Constitution provided for the first delegation of political power by the Sultan. In 1962 the Sultan invoked an article of the Constitution that allowed him to assume emergency powers for 2 years. These have been regularly renewed and remain in force. 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 produces an average of 160,000 barrels of oil per day and about 5.5 million tons of liquefied natural gas per year. This bountiful natural resource endowment, in combination with Brunei's small population, gives it one of the world's highest per capita gross national products.

In September Brunei participated in the issuance of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration which, among other things, confirmed the right of "all human beings, without distinction as to race, color, sex, language, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, family or social status, or personal convictions, to freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, and religion." The Declaration also affirmed the right of citizens "freely to determine their political status." Nothing in Brunei's Constitution or laws states that its citizens cannot change their government. In practice, however, citizens do not have this right. Bruneians generally eschew political activity of any kind, knowing that such activity will be disapproved by the Government and ruler and may lead to punishment. Nor do Bruneians genuinely exercise the freedoms of speech, press, and association provided for in the Constitution. Other human rights abuses, including mandatory flogging of prisoners for certain offenses, discrimination against women, and circumscription of religious freedom continued in 1993.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

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

In 1988 whipping with a cane 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. The incidence of crime in Brunei is low, and caning is infrequent.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution has no provision for habeas corpus. While legislative provisions granting the right of habeas corpus exist, those provisions, like the Constitution itself, may be superseded, either partially or wholly, through invocation of the emergency powers. No such action has occurred to date. Police officers have broad powers to arrest people 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. The Internal Security Act (ISA) permits the Government to detain suspects without trial for renewable 2-year periods. The Government has occasionally used the ISA to detain persons suspected of antigovernment activity.

Brunei's prison population is not large. Prisoners are not known to be abused. The several facilities for prisoners range from adequate, for the short-term "lockup," to good, for the long-term prison at Jerudong.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Bruneian judicial system consists of five levels of courts, with final recourse available through the Privy Council in London. Although there is no trial by jury, procedural safeguards are available, including 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 in 1993 and no trials of political opponents.

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

Although the Government is empowered by law to intrude into the privacy of individual persons, families, or homes, this rarely happens.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not restricted by law, but the Government frequently censors international newspapers and periodicals by removing or blacking out articles or photographs found to be objectionable. In 1993 articles were subject to censorship if they were potentially embarrassing to Brunei's royal family, critical of the Government or the Sultan, or were judged improper by the censors. The growing use of facsimile (FAX) machines makes 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 television station is government owned. (The broadcasts of two Malaysian television stations can also be received.) 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 those who attempted to espouse 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 other political party, the Brunei National Solidarity Party, lingers on with a few dozen 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 Darrussalam."

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. The resulting Islamization of Bruneian society has created a variety of impediments to the full and unconstrained exercise of religious freedom called for in the Constitution and in the recent Kuala Lumpur Declaration. Despite constitutional guarantees and the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, 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. 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.

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

While the movement of former political prisoners was restricted during the first year of their release, there were no restrictions on freedom of movement in the country for most citizens, permanent residents, and expatriates. The Government places some contractual restrictions on foreign travel for certain expatriate employees, but this is limited to the first year of the contract. While 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

Bruneian 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 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, under a new system inaugurated in 1992, are elected by secret ballot at meetings in which all adults may participate and vote. Once elected, village chiefs serve for life. Candidates must meet 2-year village residency requirements; have a knowledge of Islam, though they need not be Muslims; and have no current or past involvement with any political party. 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.

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

There are no government or private organizations in Brunei 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


Based on Koranic precepts, women in Brunei 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 the male only. Female citizens of Brunei 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.

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 Brunei's armed forces, although they may not serve in combat. At the junior and middle levels of Brunei's large government bureaucracy there are now substantial numbers of women. Maternity leaves of 56 workdays are now granted to women regardless of whether they hold permanent or month-to-month positions and may be taken at any time before or after delivery. The number of female university graduates is increasing, and nearly two-thirds of the National University's entering class is female.

A woman now serves as an intermediate court judge, the highest judicial position held by Bruneians, and sat recently with a foreign high court judge in a capital case involving a foreign woman. Nevertheless, at higher levels of the bureaucracy a clear pattern of discrimination exists. Since independence, no woman has been appointed to ministerial rank; 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.

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 pressure on non-Muslim women to do so. The incidence of rape or domestic violence against women appears to be relatively low, though the extent to which either may occur and go unreported is not known.

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 whipping and a longer jail sentence. One area of apparent abuse involves female domestic servants. While the level of violence in Bruneian society is comparatively low, there is less taboo about the 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." Since most domestics are foreign workers, who are reasonably well paid and highly dependent on their employers for continued employment, 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 take action, including the imposition of fines and punishment.


While published statistics regarding the welfare of children, and crimes against children do not exist, the strong commitment to family within Bruneian society, the country's high standard of living, and government funding for children's welfare guarantee almost all children growing up in Brunei a healthy and nurturing environment. With a few exceptions involving small villages in extremely remote areas, nutrition standards are high and poverty is almost unknown. Instances of child abuse appear low.

The Government's commitment to the welfare of children is demonstrated in Brunei's hospitals where health care is free for all citizens. This includes rural hospitals and traveling clinics which provide high levels of health care and public health outreach programs. There are excellent prenatal, neonatal, and postnatal programs, free childhood immunization, and rehabilitation and physical therapy programs for injured, sick, or handicapped children.

Indigenous People

Six percent of Brunei's population is comprised of indigenous peoples. They have long been integrated into Bruneian society, although a few still live in remote jungle areas. They enjoy the same rights of land ownership and access to natural resources as other Brunei citizens and have never possessed, or had a concept of, defined tribal lands. They are free to celebrate traditional festivals and to maintain cultural traditions. Presumably, since most are non-Muslim, they may feel the same discomfort as other minority groups over the Government's active efforts, particularly through the Ministry of Education's directives to schools, to inculcate in all citizens the concept of the MIB. There is no apparent pattern of job discrimination against indigenous peoples, a number of whom have risen to high positions such as deputy director of the Anticrime Bureau, registrar of the University of Brunei Darussalam, and commanding officer of the Royal Bruneian Armed Forces' special combat squadron.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Few of the substantial Chinese minority, constituting 15 percent of the population, are citizens. Those having no claims to other nationalities were "British-protected persons" prior to independence, and are now stateless and either permanent or temporary residents. Noncitizens may not own land but may hold property through long-term leases.

The process of obtaining citizenship in Brunei is long and difficult. Many aspirants complain that the Malay-language test required for citizenship is administered so rigorously that it is almost impossible for a nonnative speaker to pass.

In general, however, the Chinese community, which conducts much of the country's commercial activity, has prospered in Brunei. While the Chinese have done well economically, and some hold key governmental positions, including one position at the permanent secretary level, some are reevaluating their position in Brunei, especially the prospects for their children in a society in which ethnic Malay citizens are favored in such areas as government employment and access to the National University, and some Chinese are emigrating.

People with Disabilities

There are no provisions for easy access to public places and no affirmative legislation for the disabled in Brunei. However, the disabled are well integrated into Brunei society and the workplace, due mainly to past and ongoing efforts of the Government and associations for the disabled to raise public consciousness.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Trade unions are legal in Brunei but must be registered with the Government. Signatures of seven members are required for registration. There are four registered trade unions, all of them in the oil sector, with a total membership amounting to less than 5 percent of the 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 of Brunei's trade unions 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.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Government has not prevented the legal registration of trade unions, nor has it dissolved any. There is no government interference 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 is a lack of those kinds of industries 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

Forced labor is prohibited by Chapter 93 of the Laws of Brunei, and it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Chapter XI of the Labour Enactment Laws of 1954 specifically covers the employment of children. Employment of children below the age of 16 is prohibited. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission is required for those below the age of 18. Women under 18 may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms. The Labor Department, which is a part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, effectively enforces laws on the employment of children.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Skilled labor is in short supply, and market forces enable most citizens of Brunei to command good salaries. Brunei has no minimum wage. 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. Working conditions are subject to inspection on a routine basis and in response to complaints to Department of Labor (DOL) officials. 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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