Government Structure and Society

Government Structure

After Brunei attained full independence in 1984, an Islamic sultanate was established, and the constitution, while retained, underwent significant amendment. Ultimate authority rests with the sultan, who is both head of state and head of government. As prime minister, he presides over a Council of Ministers (cabinet) and is advised by several other councils (Religious, Privy, Succession, and Legislative); the members of these bodies are appointed by the sultan. In 2004 the sultan approved a number of amendments to the constitution. Although a provision for a partially elected Legislative Council was among the amendments, elections have not been held.

Brunei is divided into   for local administration: Temburong in the country’s eastern segment and Belait, Brunei and Muara, and Tutong in the western segment. Each is headed by a district officer. The district officers are assisted by district councils, which are largely appointed. The district are subdivided further into units called mukim, each of which embraces a number of kampung (villages).

Judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court, composed of the Court of Appeal and the High Court, beneath which are the magistrates’ courts.

Social and political stability –Brunei is one of the last absolute monarchies on the globe and its political system is structured according to the Malay Islamic Monarchy. This national philosophy defines Brunei as an absolute monarchy that esteems and practices Islamic laws and values and embraces Malay culture and traditions. Consequently, practically all political power lies with the Sultan who currently simultaneously serves as the country’s prime minister, finance minister, and defence minister. Other government posts are held by members of the Bolkiah royal family. In line with the nation’s philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja, the sultanate’s policies are characterized by a moderate form of Islam, which brings with it the partial application of Sharia law, though British common law generally dominates. While the application of Sharia law might increase following the Sultan’s call upon the Islamic Religious Council to bring criminal law into line with Sharia law, twin civil and religious legal systems will remain in place, provided existing law does not contradict Islam. The adherence to the Melayu Islam Beraja philosophy resonates well with the local population and provides public support for the absolute monarch.

Brunei’s external relations are quite stable. Brunei is a dedicated member of the ASEAN group and recent border disputes with neighbouring Malaysia, another ASEAN-member, have been resolved peacefully by the signing of an agreement for the joint exploitation of the natural resources in the disputed areas. Remaining border disputes with China over some islands in the South Chinese Sea still need to be addressed, but increasing economic ties between the two countries bode well for a solution that reflects both countries’ interests.

Religious stability – The Sultanate has tried stricter implementation of Islam law by establishing the Syariah Penal Code in October 2013. This was implemented in 3 phases, in phase 1 fines were imposed for not observing fasts during the month of Ramadan, in phase 2 crimes penalised by corporal punishment were addressed, whereas in the final stage severe punishments such as death penalty for insulting the Quran were announced.

Many governments have also expressed disapproval in various forms, including the United States, Germany, France, Britain, and Australia. The United Nations voiced its concern about the move. The New York Times headlined: “Brunei’s Barbarity and Hypocrisy.” According to the Diplomat, ‘The outrage is not unjustified given what these laws say. Gays, adulterers, and women who have abortions face death by stoning. For condemned lesbians, it’s 100 lashes – usually fatal – while thieves will have their limbs amputated. Offenses such as rape, sodomy, robbery, and insulting the Prophet Muhammad also carry the death penalty, and that includes children who have reached puberty.’

Provisions of the Sharia penal code violate Brunei’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to life, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, expression, religion, privacy, and individual autonomy, among others. The code is discriminatory on its face, and violates many rights of women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, among others. The punishments provided under the new code violate customary international law prohibitions against torture and other ill-treatment, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and treaties to which Brunei is party, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The use of stoning or intentional amputation as a punishment violates the absolute prohibition of all forms of torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Geographic Advantage

Brunei lies within the island of Borneo, sandwiched between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak to its east and west, respectively. For many years, it has enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity thanks to its abundance of fossil fuel deposits. This geographical advantage places the tiny sultanate in the very high human development category under the Human Development Index (HDI). It is also one of only two advanced economies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – the other being Singapore. Oil was first extracted in Brunei in 1929, and ever since, it has served as the backbone of the nation’s economy. But with the uncertainties of the global fossil fuel markets, Brunei has recently started diversifying its economy. This abundance in the form of petroleum and natural gas fields, gives it on one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. It also has ports in strategically and economically important sea lanes of the South China Sea.


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