Brunei, a Malay state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, has a population of under half a million and one of the highest standards of living in the world, thanks to its large reserves of oil and gas. The country is governed by the constitution and the national tradition of the Malay Islamic Monarchy, and there have been no direct legislative elections held in Brunei since 1962. Brunei is a member state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Rating: Grave Violations

The implementation of the first phase of a new Sharia penal code, and the state Grand Mufti advocating death for apostasy, represent a serious degradation in freedom of thought and expression. As of 2018 the second phase of the Sharia implementation, which would introduce death penalties for crimes such as “apostasy”, is apparently on hold. However, the country remains at risk of further degradation in an already seriously imperiled human rights situation.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Whilst Brunei’s constitution states that “all […] religions may be practised in peace and harmony”, it also establishes “the Muslim religion according to the Shafi’i sect of that religion” as the official religion of Brunei.

Anyone who teaches or promotes any “deviant” beliefs or practices in public may be charged under the Islamic Religious Council Act and punished with three months incarceration and a fine of BND 2,000  (US$1,550).

All government meetings and ceremonies commence with a Muslim prayer.

New Sharia law

Brunei adopted a new Sharia penal code in 2013. The new penal code has been deeply damaging toward the right to freedom of thought in the country and contains a range of provisions that restrict the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. They include harsh penalties for not performing Friday prayers or observing Ramadan and expanded restrictions on the rights of individuals hold or speak freely about certain beliefs. (See “Apostasy and blasphemy” below.)

Future phases of the law were planned to include more severe penalties, including the death penalty for blasphemy, mocking the Prophet Muhammad or verses of the Quran and Hadith, or declaring oneself a prophet or a non-Muslim. Apostates would be liable to lose all rights to the property they own and to custody of their children. However, as of 2018, the implementation of more severe Sharia penalties appears to have been “delayed”.

There had been international condemnation of the planned second stage of the Sharia implementation.

“Application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offenses contravenes international law.”

— Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

Education and children’s rights

The government’s promotion of the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam to the exclusion of other beliefs has continued within the education system. The Compulsory Religious Education Order of 2012 mandates compulsory Islamic religious education registration of all Muslim children aged seven to fifteen. The Islamic Religious Council Act stipulates the banning of public teaching or promotion of any “deviant” beliefs. Punishment can include three months imprisonment and a fine of BND 2,000.

Family, community and society

National dress, including head coverings for men and women, is obligatory for all regardless of belief when attending citizenship ceremonies. Women not wearing the hijab in public face up to 6 months in prison or a $1600 fine, or both.

Since Muslims and non-Muslims are not allowed to marry, non-Muslims must convert to

Islam if they wish to marry a Muslim.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The state of emergency declared by the Sultan of Brunei declared in 1962 continues, and allows for severe restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to free assembly and freedom of association.

Independent media in Brunei is extremely limited and journalism is restricted. A 2005 amendment to the national sedition law strengthened prohibitions on criticizing the sultan and the national “Malay Muslim Monarchy” ideology. Brunei’s Internet Code of Practice limits online any content deemed subversive or encouraging of illegitimate reform efforts.

Apostasy and blasphemy

The provisions of the 2013 Sharia code include harsh penalties for not performing Friday prayers or observing Ramadan and expanded restrictions on the rights of individuals hold or speak freely about certain beliefs.

Articles 213, 214 and 215 of the revised penal code criminalize printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing of publications deemed contrary to Sharia. Non-Muslims are forbidden to refer to ‘Allah’ as their God (some Bruneian Christians do use ‘Allah’ where in English Christians say ‘God’).

In 2014, the State Mufti, Abdul Aziz Juned, declared apostasy an offence punishable by death for any Muslims who choose to disassociate themselves from the faith. The State Mufti said that those who had made blasphemous statements or performed sacrilegious actions and had not repented would be liable for a death sentence. This declaration does not appear to have made it into law.