With a long history as a centre of trade, the country is well positioned to take advantage of opportunities

With a long and distinguished history, Brunei Darussalam represents stability and continuity in a region subject to rapid change. At the same time, under His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s guidance, the country has also become an important player in regional politics, a major international energy provider and a significant force in the world of global finance, via its sovereign wealth fund.

Brunei Darussalam’s people live in a nation that has sought to preserve traditional culture and appreciation of the environment, which is among the most bio-diverse on the planet. A strong respect for Islam, the religion of the ethnic Malay majority, has also recently been reinforced with a move towards official observance of sharia law.

In some ways, however, this is simply the fulfilment of the path set out by His Majesty as he established the Sultanate’s central political philosophy as that of a Malay Muslim monarchy upon full independence from the UK on January 1, 1984. Thus, Brunei Darussalam is continuing to follow the path it set out, nurturing the strong ties it has with both the West and East, its South-east Asian neighbours and its allies in more distant Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America. It also has strong links to China, continuing a relationship that stretches back to the very beginnings of the Sultanate’s recorded history.

Regional Centre

Indeed, the first records of a civilisation occupying the northern part of the island of Borneo, on which Brunei Darussalam is located, date back to the accounts of Chinese traders in the 10th century CE. There are also historical records regarding a Po-ni ruler, Ma-na-jih-chia-na, whose tomb was recently discovered in Nanjing. By the close of the 13th century, Po-Ni, as the Chinese referred to this Borneo-based empire, had grown to include Sabah and Sarawak, along with Sulu and other parts of what are now the Philippines.

The first recorded sultan of Brunei Darussalam was Sultan Muhammad Shah, who ruled over an Islamic kingdom from 1363-1402. The historical record blurs with the mythical, exemplified by the national epic Syair Awang Semaun, or Tales of Awang Semaun. Prior to mass conversions to Islam by the majority of the population, the region was heavily influenced by Hinduism as practised in nearby Java and Sumatra. Sultan Muhammad Shah is credited with introducing Islam to the Sultanate after his own conversion in 1363 following his marriage to a princess from Johor. This powerful entity then became caught up in regional struggles between the Javanese Majapahit Empire and the Sulu Sultanate, however.

Changing Power

By the mid-15th century, Brunei Darussalam was closer to the Malay kingdom of Malacca, and when the Portuguese conquered the key trading post in 1511, refugees fled to the Sultanate, which by then was a powerful regional state. Indeed, the period of Sultan Bolkiah’s rule, from 1485-1524, is often seen as the country’s golden age. Brunei Darussalam had colonies in Manila Bay, the Philippines, and ruled over present-day Sabah, Sarawak and the Sulu archipelago. Its power and wealth were based on maritime trade, with the Sultanate acting as a hub for goods in the region.

Contact with Europe began when Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition arrived in 1521, an event that was soon followed by the outbreak of war with Spain. Success in this conflict is an important source of national pride for Bruneians, with Bendahara Sakam, a semi-legendary figure and folk hero, leading the fight. Nonetheless, the conflict appears to have weakened the Sultanate, with civil strife characterising the latter 17th century. Periodic outbreaks of this were then later exploited in the 19th century by the British, the most prominent example of which is English adventurer James Brooke, who successfully expanded a personal fiefdom in Sarawak and established a dynasty there. Sabah also came under the control of British commercial interests in the 19th century, further pushing the territory back into its current boundaries. Britain then began exercising greater control over Brunei Darussalam itself, which became a protectorate in 1906 under the Supplementary Protectorate Agreement.

Lucrative Trade

Oil was discovered in 1929, with the abundance of the Sultanate’s reserves demonstrated by the fact that some of these early wells were still operating 80 years later. The first well was drilled at Seria, and as production increased considerably in the 1930s the British Malayan Petroleum Company was formed, which would eventually become Brunei Shell Petroleum. This resource also made Brunei Darussalam of interest to the Japanese, however, who invaded in the final days of 1941. The Sultanate remained under Japanese occupation until Australian troops fought their way back in during the closing months of the Second World War.

After the conflict, the country moved towards greater autonomy, with 1959 seeing a new constitution that established the Sultanate as a self-governing state within the Commonwealth. Foreign affairs and security remained the responsibility of the UK. Partially due to a revolt the UK government’s plans to make Brunei Darussalam part of the North Borneo Federation, along with Sarawak and Sabah, did not come to fruition, as did efforts to persuade the sultan to join the Malaysian Federation along with Singapore and Malaya. The 1962 rebellion, known as the Brunei Revolt, came as a surprise to many and led to the deployment of British troops against the leftist and likely Indonesian-backed North Kalimantan People’s Army, which was supported by the since-banned Brunei People’s Party. The rebellion was put down, but the Sultanate has been under an official state of emergency ever since.

During the 1970s, a series of treaties were signed between Brunei Darussalam and the UK that gradually moved towards more Bruneian control over its own affairs. These led up to the 1984 declaration of independence, read out by His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who then became the first ruler of the new, independent Brunei Darussalam.

Head Of State

Brunei Darussalam’s current sultan can trace his ancestry back to the very first occupier of the position – Sultan Muhammad Shah, who ruled from 1368 to 1402. Sultan Muhammad Shah established the House of Bolkiah, which has provided a ruling sultan ever since. His Majesty was born on July 15, 1946 in what was then Brunei Town and is now the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. He is the eldest son of the former sultan, Omar Ali Saifuddien III, and Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Damit. He has three brothers: HRH Prince Mohamed, HRH Prince Sufri and HRH Prince Jefri. He also has six sisters: HRH Princess Masna, HRH Princess Norain, HRH Princess Umi Kalthum Al Islam, HRH Princess Amal Rakiah, HRH Princess Amal Nasibah and HRH Princess Amal Jefriah.

His Majesty married Pengiran Anak Saleha in 1965. They have 12 children, with the eldest son and heir apparent being Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah. The crown prince is also a senior minister at the Prime Minister’s Office and oversees the National Board for Disaster Management, Wawasan Brunei 2035 and the National Development Plan, as well as being a general in the Bruneian army and the deputy inspector general of the police. The current sultan acceded to the throne on October 4, 1967, following his father’s abdication, with his coronation taking place on August 1, 1968.

His Majesty is head of state and, as prime minister, also head of the government. He also holds the portfolios for the minister of finance and minister of defence, as well as being commander-in-chief of the armed forces and inspector general of police. The sultan also heads five powerful councils, all of whose members he appoints.

The Privy Council advises the sultan on matters of state and the Succession Council on matters pertaining to the succession. The Brunei Islamic Religious Council advises on religious matters, while also determining policies for the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Finally, the Council of Ministers is the Cabinet, on which heads of ministries sit along with the sultan and other leading government officials.

Legislative Issues

The original, 1959 constitution established the Legislative Council (LegCo) as the country’s legislative body, with one election held for 16 of its 33 members back in 1962. As this was followed by the Brunei Revolt, the LegCo was dissolved and did not reassemble until 1970, when it was revived as a body appointed by the sultan. The council was once again suspended in 1984, before being revived again in 2004. In 2005 His Majesty expanded the body to include 29 members.

LegCo now has a total of 36 members, including the sultan, the crown prince and HRH Prince Mohamed, who is also minister of foreign affairs and trade and perdana wazir, the chief of the sultan’s advisors. All 11 Cabinet ministers are also members of the LegCo. The other 19 members are drawn from the cheteria, or aristocracy, from the four districts of the country and a range of professional, religious and social groups upon His Majesty’s appointment. In 2011 the sultan suggested that in the future elections could be held for some of the seats on the LegCo, but this reform has yet to be enacted. After the council’s annual opening session, debates are open to the public, with matters of great importance, such as the budget, actively discussed.

Local Levels

Brunei Darussalam has four districts: Brunei-Muara, Belait, Tutong and Temburong. The geography of the Sultanate is such that Temburong forms an exclave, separated from the rest of Brunei Darussalam by the territory of Limbang in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Brunei-Muara is the largest district by population and home to the nation’s capital, although the smallest by territory. The four districts have no separate local government, but instead have district offices that fall under the authority of the national Ministry of Home Affairs, along with three municipal boards, each responsible for urban areas.

District representatives are eligible for appointment by the sultan to a seat on the LegCo. In addition, each district is also governed by an appointed district officer. Districts are further divided into mukims, or sub-districts, each headed by a penghulu, or county head. The mukims are composed of kampungs, or villages, led by ketua kampungs, or village heads. At the village level – and longhouses may also count as villages in some cases – heads tend to be elected, with the traditional political structures and practices respected.

Judicial Structure

Brunei Darussalam’s long connection to the UK is evident in the way English common law has been used for many years as a basis for much of the legal system. Yet this has also worked in parallel with sharia law, which has until recently been limited to matters such as religious observance, family law and inheritance matters concerning Muslims. However, the sultan announced in October 2013 that the powers of sharia courts would be progressively expanded to include offences that were previously within the jurisdiction of civil criminal courts (although the latter still retain jurisdiction over those offences), and the first phase of this process began on May 1, 2014. Nearly 70% of the population is Muslim, with the rest being largely Christian, Buddhist or adherents of indigenous religions.

Structure Of The Legal System

In terms of the structure of the judiciary, the highest court in the non-sharia system is the Supreme Court, under which come the High Court and the Court of Appeal. The chief justice, who also sits on the Supreme Court, heads the High Court, while the Court of Appeals is headed by the president, who also sits on the Supreme Court. The High Court has both civil and criminal jurisdiction, with appeals of its decisions sent to the Court of Appeals.

Next in the hierarchy come intermediate courts and then subordinate or magistrate’s courts. The Intermediate Court does not have jurisdiction in cases involving the death penalty or life imprisonment, with these referred up to the High Court instead. In civil matters, the Intermediate Court generally has jurisdiction in matters involving fines between BN$15,000 ($11,770) and BN$100,000 ($78,470). Civil and criminal appeals at this level go straight to the Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, magistrates courts may judge in civil matters of value up to BN$30,000 ($23,541), and while in criminal matters the court may judge less serious crimes, it tends to send those potentially involving tougher sentences to the Intermediate or High Court.

As for sharia courts, the religious judicial system consists of the Sharia High Court, Sharia Court of Appeals and Sharia Subordinate Courts. The Sharia High Court has both civil and criminal jurisdictions, as do Sharia Subordinate Courts, though in the past, these have been limited in the criminal sphere to cases involving a maximum fine of BN$10,000 ($7847) or seven year’s imprisonment. The Sharia High Court has also tended to adjudicate mostly in cases involving civil law as it applies to Muslims.


Under the rule of His Majesty, Brunei Darussalam looks set to continue on the path it has followed since independence. Stability is a major characteristic of the Sultanate, as well as a major value of its people and their ruler. Social harmony is often put ahead of short-term gains. The move towards sharia law may attract some criticism in the months ahead and the Sultanate’s handling of legal issues will be an important test.

In the year after the Sultanate successfully chaired ASEAN, much still remains to be done in terms of pursuing a final resolution of territorial issues between some ASEAN members and China. Brunei Darussalam will likely have an important role to play. Ahead of the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the country’s approach to trade will also stand it in good stead as the region’s nations move towards increased economic integration.


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