The Southeast Asian Sultanate of Brunei Strengthens its Muslim Identity

Henry Srebrnik
Published on November 17, 2013

It’s not often that the small country of Brunei makes the news, but it did in October.

Brunei’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, announced the promulgation of a new Islamic criminal law that could include penalties like amputation for theft and stoning for adultery, to come into effect next year.

The Shariah penal code, which would be applied to Muslims only, should be regarded as a form of “special guidance” from God, he stated, and would be “part of the great history” of the country. Brunei’s Shariah Islamic court had previously handled mainly family-related disputes.

Brunei Darussalam (its full name) consists of two small enclaves of land on the northeastern coast of the southeast Asian island of Borneo, surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Most of the huge island is part of Indonesia.

With a population of some 420,000 people, mostly Muslims, in an area of 5,765 square kilometres, Brunei is a tiny country. An oil-rich state, the sultanate is sometimes referred to as the Kuwait of southeast Asia.

Brunei was once much bigger. It became an Islamic sultanate in the 14th century, under a newly converted ruler, Muhammad Shah. At its peak in the 16th century, it controlled the northern regions of Borneo, including modern-day Sarawak and Sabah, today part of Malaysia, as well as the Sulu islands, now governed by the Philippines.  

During the 19th century, the Sultanate ceded Sarawak to a British adventurer, James Brooke, as a reward for his aid in putting down a rebellion and named him as rajah; and it ceded Sabah to the British North Borneo Chartered Company. In 1888 what was left of Brunei itself became a British protectorate.

Brunei regained its independence in 1984 and, thanks to extensive petroleum and natural gas fields, is now one of the world’s richest countries. It is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of natural gas, giving the country enough wealth to buy the loyalty of its subjects. There is no income tax, and education and health are virtually free.

Brunei’s ties with Britain remain strong. The current ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, went to the Royal British Military Academy at Sandhurst and his late father was rescued by the British Army when it crushed a brief revolt in 1962.

Under Brunei’s 1959 constitution, the country is an absolute monarchy. The Sultan, who succeeded to the throne in 1967, is both head of state and, in his capacity as prime minister, head of government, with full executive authority, including emergency powers since 1962.

The Sultan’s role is enshrined in the national philosophy known as Melayu Islam Beraja, which encompasses Malay culture, Islamic religion, and the political framework under the monarchy. As an Islamic country, Brunei became a full member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 1984.

Southeast Asia’s Islam, unlike that of the Middle East, has historically been more relaxed when it came to practice but has become more stringent. Since the late 1970s an Islamic resurgence is taking place in the region.  

Rising oil revenues provide an extensive social welfare system and promote Islam, including subsidizing the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), building mosques, and expanding the Department of Religious Affairs.

Brunei’s Muslim-majority neighbours have also been tightening their religious rules. In Indonesia, a bill submitted to parliament earlier this year that called for a ban on alcohol has stirred unease among the country’s predominantly moderate Muslims. Also, the government has ordered that the finals of the Miss World pageant, which some Islamic groups denounced as immoral, be moved from the outskirts of Jakarta to predominantly Hindu Bali.

In Malaysia, former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi furthered the agenda of Islamic supremacy at the expense of other religions. The country has restricted the ability of Christian groups to proselytize among Malays, and recently a Malaysian court has ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah to refer to God, even in their own faiths.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.