International Criminology World

World : Asia : Brunei

Historians believe there was a forerunner to the present Brunei Sultanate, which the Chinese called Po-ni. Chinese and Arabic records indicate that this ancient trading kingdom existed at the mouth of the Brunei River as early as the seventh or eighth century A.D. This early kingdom was apparently conquered by the Sumatran empire of Srivijaya in the early ninth century and later controlled northern Borneo and the Philippines. It was subjugated briefly by the Java-based Majapahit Empire but soon regained its independence and once again rose to prominence. The Brunei Empire had its golden age from the 15th to the 17th centuries, when its control extended over the entire island of Borneo and north into the Philippines. Brunei was particularly powerful under the fifth sultan, Bolkiah (1473-1521), who was famed for his sea exploits and even briefly captured Manila; and under the ninth sultan, Hassan (1605-19), who fully developed an elaborate Royal Court structure, elements of which remain today. After Sultan Hassan, Brunei entered a period of decline, due to internal battles over royal succession as well as the rising influences of European colonial powers in the region, that, among other things, disrupted traditional trading patterns, destroying the economic base of Brunei and many other Southeast Asian sultanates. In 1839, the English adventurer James Brooke arrived in Borneo and helped the Sultan put down a rebellion. As a reward, he became governor and later "Rajah" of Sarawak in northwest Borneo and gradually expanded the territory under his control. Meanwhile, the British North Borneo Company was expanding its control over territory in northeast Borneo. In 1888, Brunei became a protectorate of the British Government, retaining internal independence but with British control over external affairs. In 1906, Brunei accepted a further measure of British control when executive power was transferred to a British resident, who advised the ruler on all matters except those concerning local custom and religion. In 1959, a new Constitution was written declaring Brunei a self-governing state, while its foreign affairs, security, and defense remained the responsibility of the United Kingdom. An attempt in 1962 to introduce a partially elected legislative body with limited powers was abandoned after the opposition political party, Partai Rakyat Brunei, launched an armed uprising, which the government put down with the help of British forces. The 1959 Constitution had provided for the first delegation of political power by the late Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin to an appointed council of state, but in 1962 he invoked an article of the Constitution that allowed him to assume emergency powers for 2 years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the government also resisted pressures to join neighboring Sabah and Sarawak in the newly formed Malaysia. The Sultan eventually decided that Brunei would remain an independent state. In 1967, Sultan Omar abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Hassanal Bolkiah, who became the 29th ruler. The former Sultan remained as Defense Minister and assumed the royal title Seri Begawan. In 1970, the national capital, Brunei Town, was renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in his honor. The Seri Begawan died in 1986. On January 4, 1979, Brunei and the United Kingdom signed a new treaty of friendship and cooperation. On January 1, 1984, Brunei Darussalam became a fully independent state. Today, Brunei Darussalam, a small, wealthy monarchy, is a sultanate ruled by the same family for 600 years. The emergency powers invoked by the Sultan in 1962 have been regularly renewed, most recently in July 2000. In August 2000, the Foreign Minister confirmed that a review of the Constitution had been submitted to the Sultan for approval, and that "an element of an election" was in this report. Although not all the articles of the Constitution are suspended, the state of emergency places few limits on the Sultan's power. The Sultan also serves as Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of Finance, Chancellor of the national university, Superintendent General of the Royal Brunei Police Force, and leader of the Islamic faith. The Constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary; however, in general the courts appear to act independently.


The crime rate in Brunei is low, and violent crime is rare. The crime rate for 1997 had decreased slightly by 3.2% from the previous year 1996. There were 3269 cases reported in 1997 compared to 3380 cases in 1996. This represents an overall crime rate of 1044.41 per 100,000 for 1997. Brunei did not report crimes for the United Nations Sixth Annual Survey; however, assuming this rate is comparable to the "total of recorded crimes" used by the U.N. Survey, this compares with 1,506.50 for Japan (country with a low crime rate) and 9,622.10 for USA (country with high crime rate). Forty percent (1320) of the cases were solved. Most crime involves petty theft or is linked to alcohol and narcotics, both of which are banned. A stolen car is considered to be a serious news event. Most of the crimes committed in Brunei are committed by individuals or groups of individuals who are not part of an organized criminal group. The illegal four digit gambling activity is the only criminal activity that seems to be well organized in the country. Drug trafficking and illegally importing controlled substances are serious offenses in Brunei and carry a mandatory death penalty, and there is little sign of money-laundering activity.


The legal system is based on English common law; for Muslims, Islamic Shari'a law supersedes civil law in a number of areas, including divorce, inheritance, and some sexual crimes. Shari'a law is not applied to non-Muslims. Shari'a law differs from Western law in providing severe punishment for moral crimes, such as adultery, fornication, and consumption of alcohol, as well as apostacy, or switching from Islam to another religion. These are included in a category of punishment called "hudud" crimes, which are crimes against Allah. Hudud crimes include stealing, robbing, fornication, consumption of alcohol, and apostacy. Robbery is punished by cutting off the hand of the thief. Fornication by unmarried persons and alcohol consumption are punished by flogging, but adultery by stoning to death. Other crimes, such as murder and assault, are punished severely, as well. Murder is punishable by the death penalty. Assault is punishable using the principle of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth." However, it is possible through negotiation in an Islamic court to escape such punishment through providing compensation, financial or otherwise.


The Royal Brunei Police Force was established in 1921 with the passage of the Brunei Police Force Enactment. In 1923, the police duties were expanded to include fire services, prisons, immigration, motor-vehicle registration, issuing various licenses, and the registration of non-citizens. As time elapsed, structural changes to the police force made it more efficient. In 1958, the Immigration Department was established. One year later, in 1959, a Commissioner of Police was established by the Constitution. Brunei became a member of international police commissions INTERPOL and ASEANAPOL in 1984. By 1993, an Internal Security Branch was formed to replace the Special Branch. Most recently, in 1997, the Traffic Division was upgraded into its own department, further maximizing police efficiency. The Royal Brunei Police Force is organized into seven districts: the Brunei, Belait, Muara/Marine, Tutong, Temburong, Jerudong, and Berakas Police Districts. These districs are managed by four directors: Administration and Finance, Operation, Criminal Investigation and Intelligence, and Logistics. The entire police operation is overseen by the Inspector General, Police Commissioner, and Deputy Commissioner.


The law provides for a prompt judicial determination regarding the validity of an arrest. However, those provisions, like the Constitution itself, may be superseded, either partially or wholly, through invocation of the emergency powers. The Internal Security Act (ISA) permits the Government to detain suspects without trial for renewable 2-year periods. The Government occasionally has used the ISA to detain persons suspected of antigovernment activity; however, information on the detainees is published only after they are released. Muhamad Yasin Abdul Rahman, age 76, who played a pivotal role in the abortive 1962 rebellion, was detained without trial for 12 years from 1962 to 1973, when he escaped from prison to live in exile in Malaysia. He returned to the country in 1997 and immediately was arrested and detained once more without trial. In 1999 he was released from detention after swearing an oath of loyalty to the Sultan and admitting his political "crimes." In 1998 authorities briefly detained several citizens under the ISA for distributing allegedly defamatory letters containing allegations about the royal family and senior government officials connected with the collapse of the Amedeo Group, a large holding company headed by the former Finance Minister and Sultan's brother, Prince Jefri. The Government warned citizens that it would take action against anyone involved in such activities. In late 2000 and early 2001, the Government used the ISA to detain at least seven Christian citizens for alleged subversive activities. All were released during the year, the last three in October. Government officials maintain that the detentions were for security not religious reasons. Normally 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. Police officers have broad powers to make arrests, without warrants, of persons caught in the physical act of committing a crime. Under a colonial-era law, the Sultan may forcibly exile either permanently or temporarily any person deemed to be a threat to the safety, peace, or welfare of the country. Since independence there have been no cases of banishment of citizens.


The Constitution does not specifically provide for an independent judiciary. However, in 1996 in a landmark legal decision, the appellate-level High Court ruled that the court has powers independent of the prosecution and ordered a discharge in a car theft case under review, which amounted to an acquittal under the Criminal Procedure Code. The Government has not yet challenged the court's finding that magistrates have the legal power to discharge and acquit a defendant, even when the prosecution does not request the discharge. In general the courts appear to act independently. The judicial system consists of five levels of courts, with final recourse in civil cases available through the Privy Council in London. Procedural safeguards include the right to defense counsel, the right to an interpreter, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to confront accusers. There have been no known instances of government interference with the judiciary and no trials of political opponents. The Constitution of Brunei officially sets up the court system. The system is split up into the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Court. The Supreme Court comprises the High Court and the Court of Appeals. The High Court receives appeals from Magistrate's Courts and is also the court of first instance for criminal and civil cases. The Subordinate Court consists of the Magistrate's Courts. The appeal process in the courts goes from the Magistrate's Courts to the High Court to the Court of Appeals. If the case is appealed any further, then the final court of appeal for civil cases only is the Judicial Committee of the the Privy Council in London. Other courts have arisen to make the judicial system more efficient. Syariah Courts co-exists with the Supreme Court and deal with Islamic laws. The Intermediate Court, established in 1991, possesses extensive civil and criminal jurisdiction, but does not deal with capital offenses.


In 1998, there were 285 persons incarcerated in Brunei. With a population of 313,000, the rate of incarceration is 90 per 100,000, a low rate in the world, but a moderate rate for South Eastern Asia. The law prohibits mistreatment of prisoners, and there were no reports of such mistreatment. Caning is mandatory punishment for 42 drug-related and other criminal offenses and for vandalism. Sentences of caning are carried out in the presence of a doctor who monitors implementation and has the authority to interrupt and postpone the punishment for medical reasons. Caning generally is included as part of the sentencing in 80 percent of criminal convictions. Many convicted persons reportedly prefer caning to lengthy incarceration. Prison conditions generally meet international standards. There is no overcrowding; however, there is a growing prison population. Prisoners receive regular medical checkups. Remand cells at police stations are Spartan.

Brunei has one prison, Jerudong Prison, established in 1954. Jerudong Prison accommodates all categories of prisoners ranging from those on remand and sentenced to a day jail to criminals serving life imprisonment and facing death sentences. The stated purposes of the prison are to rehabilitate its occupants into useful law-abiding citizens and to protect society by detaining and guarding prisoners. To re-integrate an offender back into society, deliberate rehabilitation programs have been established. It is mandatory for prisoners to work in order to build strong ethic and discipline. The programs include psychological, moral, civic, physical, or social rehabilitation. These programs provide a wide range of opportunities in religious and social counseling, physical training, and vocational courses. The rehabilitation process is unique in Brunei because it utilizes the Progressive Stage System, which breaks into five stages. In the first stage, prisoners' mail is limited to one letter sent and received per month, plus one 15-minute visit every two months (for prisoners with sentences of less than six months). In the second stage, the prisoners' mail is limited to one letter sent and received per two months (for prisoners with sentences over six months). With good behavior in the first three months in stage two, the prisoner can be promoted to stage three where he can receive earnings, send and receive letters once every three weeks, and receive twenty-minute visits every six weeks. Stage four promotion includes one letter sent or received every two weeks and one-half hour visit every month, however, is only rewarded with outstanding behavior. Last, in the "Special Stage," prisoners are "honored" with a special blue uniform. They can write one letter each month, receive unlimited letters, and have a thirty-minute visit every two weeks.


The extent to which spousal abuse may occur, and to which it goes unreported, is not known. In 1999 the police recorded 91 cases of domestic abuse, compared with 72 in 1998. The criminal penalty for a minor domestic assault is 1 to 2 weeks in jail and a fine. An assault resulting in serious injury is punishable by caning and a longer jail sentence. A special unit exists within the police department to investigate domestic violence complaints. Female officers staff the unit. A hot line is in service for abused spouses and the public to report domestic violence. During 1999 approximately 10 women and their children stayed at a women's shelter run by the Social Affairs Services unit of the Ministry of Culture (more recent figures have not been made available). The Social Affairs Services unit provides counseling for women and their spouses. In 1999 a photograph of a man accused of stabbing his wife and assaulting one of his children was published in a daily newspaper, a new development in a country in which privacy generally is guarded closely. While Islamic courts usually discourage divorce in domestic violence cases, there appears to be a movement away from encouraging wives to reconcile with flagrantly abusive spouses. Islamic religious authorities recognize wife beating as grounds for divorce. In September 2000, two members of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces were sentenced to 4 years' imprisonment and three strokes of the cane for the attempted molestation and sodomy of a 20-year-old deaf girl. One area of apparent abuse involves female domestic servants. While the level of violence in society is low, 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"--is less socially unacceptable behavior. Since most female domestics are foreign workers who are highly dependent on their employers, those subject to abuse may be unwilling or unable to bring complaints, either to the authorities or to their governments' embassies. However, when such complaints are brought, the Government generally is quick to investigate allegations of abuse and impose fines and punishment as warranted. Prostitution is illegal. Women entering the country for purposes of prostitution generally are deported swiftly.


Contributed by Mark Pajela and Ryan Salamat

Criminology Links
Criminal Codes
Incidence of Crime
Transnational Crimes
Theories and Beliefs
Legal system
Juvenile Delinquency
Crime Prevention

Other Links
Online literature
Travel tips
International criminal justice agencies
News and media
Correspondent email addresses
Distance learning courses
Comparative criminology-related sites

A Comparative Criminology Tour of the World
Dr. Robert Winslow
San Diego State University