MINORITIES IN BRUNEI

MINORITIES IN BRUNEI

Malays make up 65.7 percent of the populations; Chinese, 10.3 percent, indigenous people, 3.4 percent and other, 20.6 percent. There are about 25,000 Iban and Dusan tribal people which live rain forests. The are some Indians. Some of the others are foreign laborers brought in to work as construction workers, domestic help and perform jobs that Bruneians don’t want to do. The Bruneian government runs a housing scheme for landless indigenous people.

According to minorityrights.org: “The policy of the sultanate on minorities is assimilation. Given the omnipresence of the Brunei state, the process of assimilation of indigenous minorities continues to take place, although the pace is uncertain. The situation of stateless Chinese remains unresolved. Religious minorities face numerous restrictions and prohibitions, with surveillance or even detention of persons involved in radical Islam, non-Muslims involved in proselytising, and those from religious groups that did not belong to the official religion. [Source: minorityrights.org |=|]

“The large number of stateless persons and permanent residents in Brunei, most of whom are Chinese, Koreans and other minority groups, cannot directly own land in the country and are denied a number of other rights, such as subsidised medical care. There has been some relatively recent relaxation of the country’s citizenship laws in 2003 which have permitted older individuals to become citizens without having to pass a written citizenship test. |=|

“There has however been a crackdown since February 2004 on ‘newer’ migrant workers who have been subjected to changes to Brunei’s immigration laws which introduced retroactive prison sentences and caning for workers who had overstayed their work permits, illegal immigrants seeking work, and foreign workers not actually employed by their initial sponsor.|=|

As for indigenous peoples, “Brunei is an Islamic state, with the official national ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja (or Malay Muslim Monarchy). There has continued to be pressure on the non-Muslim population to convert to Islam and adopt Malay culture. Non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities continue to be subjected to unfavourable treatment by Brunei authorities. Under the Constitution, Bumiputeras (Malays as well as indigenous Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Murut, Kedayan and Bisaya) enjoy a number of affirmative action benefits denied others, including indigenous Iban and Penan minorities who are not considered to be Bumiputeras. |=|

“Non-traditional religious minorities face particular difficulties, with groups such as the Baha’is being banned. Non-Muslim minorities are not permitted to hold public religious processions, and all schools, public and private, are also prohibited by the Ministry of Education from teaching of other religions, while Islam must be taught in all schools. |=|

Indigenous People of Brunei

The indigenous minority tribal groups in Brunei are the same as in the neighbouring Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Dusun constitute about 6.3 percent per cent of the population, and Murut around 6 per cent. Traditionally animistic, though many have converted to Islam and Christianity, they are also traditionally migrating swidden cultivators and collectors of jungle products residing in the forested interior of the country. The Kedayan are Malay-speaking and Muslim agriculturalists. Despite their language and religious affiliations with the ethnic Malay majority, Kedayan are regarded by Bruneians as closer in status to the animist, interior tribal groups because of a number of similar cultural practices. [Source: minorityrights.org |=|]

Iban, formerly known also as Sea Dayaks, are roughly 4.7 per cent of the population, live mostly along the border with Sarawak (see Malaysia). They are considered to have entered Brunei from Sarawak during the reign of the famous "white Rajahs" of the Brooke family, and it is probably for this reason that they are not considered by Brunei authorities and its Constitution as Bumiputera. Traditionally involved in head-hunting and living in longhouses, they have more recently become labourers and are becoming more urbanised. The Penan are perhaps less than 300 individuals in Brunei and are forest dwellers who traditionally followed a nomadic way of life. They traditionally harvested and used blowpipes with poison-tipped darts to hunt animals. Most now live in permanent settlements and engage in year-round farming. [Source: minorityrights.org |=|]

At its height during the 15th and 17th centuries the Brunei Empire extended to the entire island of Borneo and north into the Philippines. During its decline and the rising influences of European colonial powers in the region, Brunei was to gradually lose most of its territories until by 1888 Brunei was but a shadow of its former self, territorially divided into two slivers of land in the northeast section of the island of Borneo, and became a protectorate of the British Government. |=|

The various indigenous peoples of Brunei thus are indistinguishable from or share close links with other neighbouring indigenous populations of Borneo. As is the case of other countries sharing with it the island – Indonesia and Malaysia – Brunei considers the indigenous populations as Bumiputera, ‘Sons of the Soil’, except for the Iban and Penan. |=|

While indigenous peoples (except for Iban and Penan) are officially in a privilege position since as Bumiputera they may own land, have access to certain types of employment (including in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and Brunei Shell Petroleum) and benefit from other types of affirmative action programmes, there is pressure to embrace Islam for those who continue to practice animism or are Christians. In the 1970s, mass conversions to Islam were reported among the indigenous groups, after pressure from the state. |=|

The government of Brunei continues to ban many religious activities of non-Muslim groups, including those of indigenous peoples, while at the same time permitting or assisting those of Islamic authorities. The latter for example organise what are known as dakwah or proselytizing activities which include incentives to indigenous peoples in rural areas such as financial aid, new homes, water pumps, etc... There is thus great pressure for indigenous peoples to convert from animism and ancestor worship to Islam, though a smaller proportion continues to convert to Christianity. |=|

Indigenous peoples are additionally encouraged to move away from many aspects of their cultures and languages: while there is no active attempt to suppress the private use of indigenous languages, the Government of Brunei’s languages policy and legislation, which provides for the exclusive official use of Malay and in some cases English, all but ensures that the number of speakers of indigenous languages continues to fall. Increasing urbanisation is also seeing traditional economic activities and lifestyles being relegated to the sideways. |=|

Chinese in Brunei

Ethnic Chinese migrated to Brunei during the British colonial period and they dominate the small non-state commercial sector. The percentage of Chinese minorities in Brunei Darussalam has decreased substantially since 1960, when it was approximately 26 percent, to less than one third and perhaps now just over 11 percent of the population, though figures vary and may be higher than official figures. Some Chinese are Muslims; a sizeable number are Christians and the rest Taoists or Buddhists. Among the Chinese languages spoken in the country are, in decreasing order, Min Nan, Mandarin, Min Dong, Yue, and Hakka. A number of Chinese also use English at home. Close to half of the Chinese still remain as temporary residents while less than a quarter were citizens.[Source: minorityrights.org |=|]

It has reportedly been easier for Chinese to obtain permanent residency/citizenship if they convert to Islam. Christian Chinese face problems in trying to practise their faith. The government has refused work permits for foreign priests and permission to build churches. Many Christians are forced to use shops and houses as churches. Chinese who practise traditional religions (for example, Taoism, Buddhism) face similar problems. |=|

Many members of the Chinese minorities continue to be burdened by the denial of citizenship and to be excluded from some employment and other opportunities linked to this, including land ownership. Partially as a result of being stateless or permanent residents and other policies that restrict their freedom of religion and limit the spheres of use of their languages, some Chinese are gradually being assimilated into the Malay-Muslim community or, more commonly, choose to emigrate. As a result, the Chinese presence has been waning, and their relative proportion of the population today is greatly diminished from 40 years ago. It has been argued that the complicated Malay language exam, which apparently requires a detailed knowledge of the terms for local plants and animals is discriminatory for non-native speakers such as the Chinese and explains why these minorities have been effectively excluded from obtaining citizenship. =

Early History of Chinese in Brunei

Rozan Yunos wrote in the Brunei Times, “Pengiran Dr Haji Karim in his book said that the history of the Chinese in Brunei is not a short history based on the historical entries in Chinese records which goes as far back as more than a thousand year ago. At first the relationship between the forerunner of today's Brunei, Poli and Polo, was as far back as 502 AD to 566 AD. With Poni, another forerunner state, that would be another two hundred years later. [Source: Rozan Yunos, Brunei Times, April 30, 2012 <>]

“By the time of the Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1296 AD), the Chinese traders were trading more extensively compared to the traders in the dynasties before. The name Poni was stated much more often and extensively. In 977 AD, one Chinese trader name P'u Lu Xie came to the port of Brunei. With his help, Brunei was able to send an envoy to China and sign a friendship agreement. In 1264 AD, one Chinese Muslim by the name of Pu Kung Chih Mu died in Brunei. He was an envoy of the Southern Song Dynasty. <>

“Pengiran Dr Karim noted that most likely there was likely a Chinese community in Kota Batu as far back as the 13th century. During the reign of Sultan Sharif Ali, the third Sultan, the Salasilah Raja-Raja Brunei ("The Brunei Kings Genealogy") stated that the Chinese helped with the construction of the stone fort in Kota Batu as well as a defensive wall in Pulau Cermin. The 16th century Spanish Report in 1520 also described there were many Chinese that "the Chinese swarmed so densely that native power was eclipsed." <>

“The presence of the Chinese had influenced the architecture of buildings in Brunei then. Pengiran Dr Karim noted that there were similarities between the Tomb of Sultan Bolkiah with other tombs such as Tomb Puhaddin in Yangzhou and Tombs of the Emperor Ming in Beijing. The similarities of the layered tomb and decoration were obvious. Other similarities include the pillar base in an excavation found in Kota Batu with that of the palace of Emperor Ming in Nanjing and Beijing and also old mosques in both cities. <>

“The Salasilah Raja-Raja Brunei also described activities of the Chinese in the 17th century including Chinese trading vessels in Brunei with their captains Nang Pau, Kusi and Si Lu. Thomas Forrest in his book "A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas, 1774 - 1776" described this scene "at Borneo-town, the Chinese sometimes build junks, which they load with the rough produce of the island Borneo, and send them to China ". He also described them as settling in Brunei, " ... here are many Chinese settled, who have pepper gardens the Chinese here are very active and industrious they bring all kinds of the manufacture of china and keep shops on board their junks, as well as ashore". However during the 18th century, the trade to Brunei had deteriorated and by the 19th century, there were not many ships coming to Brunei. With the opening of the Singapore freeport, Chinese vessels stopped coming to Brunei.” <>

Later History of Chinese in Brunei

While there existed already in the 17th century a Chinese community in Brunei, the Chinese minorities established themselves in large numbers after 1929 and the discovery of oil. Between 1931-1947, the Chinese population increased by more than 200 percent, mainly from Sarawak, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Because of the employment opportunities available, the Chinese minorities’ immigration continued to increase until after the World War II., slowing down and even reversing by the 1990s. After independence, only about 9,000 ethnic Chinese were given full Brunei citizenship. Close to half of the Chinese still remain as temporary residents while less than a quarter are citizens. In 1984 the Sultan tightened citizenship regulations, requiring applicants to have resided in the country for twenty-five consecutive years, and to meet language and cultural qualifications as well. The difficulties in obtaining citizenship, and the ensuing restrictions in access to land ownership and certain professions, have led some Chinese to emigrate. [Source: minorityrights.org]

After the Chinese left Brunei after trade declined in 18th and 19th centuries and ships stopped coming to Brunei, they started coming back during the British protectorate period to set up businesses. Most of them were Hokkien from the Island of Quemoy. The discovery of oil in 1929 also helped to expand the number. Most of them were technicians and professionals from Sarawak, Singapore and Hong Kong. And today, it is these two latter groups that formed the majority of the Chinese community in Brunei. [Source: Rozan Yunos, Brunei Times, April 30, 2012 <>]

About a hundred years ago, there was around 500 Chinese in Brunei. According to the report by MSH McArthur written in 1904, he stated that: "... there are probably 500 Chinese in the State. Most of them are registered as British subjects. Their claim to this status is generally based on the payment of naturalisation fees in Labuan. Their numbers would hardly justify their separate mention in this report if it were not for the fact that almost all the trade and practically all the revenues of the country are in their hands, and will be, apparently, for years to come ..." <>

Peter Blundell in his book "The City of Many Waters" published in 1923 writing about Brunei at the turn of the twentieth century wrote that "... the Chinese have been in Brunei for centuries. In days gone there was a big trade direct with China in pepper, gambler, birds' nests, tripang, dried fish, rubber, wax, sago and jungle produce ..." Carrie C Brown in her article entitled "Notes on the First Chinese Temple of Brunei Town 1918 - 1960" noted that "since 1906, the Chinese had responded well to the call of the British Residents to develop the land across the water from the residential kampongs. By 1910, two small streets were cleared and street lamps erected (Brunei Annual Report 1910: 14). Many of the Chinese had opened shops. It began to look like a respectable town, and was a far cry from the rickety shops at Kampong Bakut, where a handful of Chinese had first settled." She said that "the number of Chinese was small. Of the 1,423 reported in the 1921 census, 981 lived in the Brunei/Muara District. Most of them were Hokkien, and most came from the Island of Quemoy ...". <>

Stateless Chinese in Brunei Become Permanent Residents

Zhao Shengnan wrote in US China Daily, “There is a special group of ethnic Chinese in Brunei: they were born and raised in the country; they are well-off, well-educated and enjoy social status. They also love the country. However, what is printed in the "nationality" column of their passport is not "Brunei". It once read "stateless" but now declares "permanent resident". [Source: Zhao Shengnan, US China Daily, December 19, 2013 \+/]

“Lim Boon Hwa, 65, is one of the hundreds of thousands of these residents but he played a leading role, with others, in getting "stateless" removed. "We held British passports under Britain's colonization. Then after independence, we became stateless. Why have things become worse?" asked Lim, vice-president of the Brunei-China Friendship Association and a businessman. \+/

“In Brunei, a multi-ethnic former British colony in Southeast Asia, citizenship, along with a range of rights and social welfare, is not granted automatically to everyone born within its borders, but is determined by ethnic descent. After independence in 1984, only about 9,000 ethnic Chinese were given full Brunei citizenship. The others, about 20,000, like Lim, lost their nationality. "I had to have a visa when going in or out of my own country, and whenever I went through customs abroad, I had to prove, with a lot of cash in hand, that I was not a refugee," he said. \+/

“Citizenship could be obtained if applicants had resided in the country for 25 consecutive years, and met language and cultural qualifications. But the complicated Malay language exam, which apparently required a detailed knowledge of the terms for local plants and animals, led many Chinese to emigrate. "This was a loss for Brunei. Many of the emigrants were skilled technicians who worked for Brunei's oil industry for decades," said Lim. \+/

“Lim failed the exam twice and thought of moving to Australia. But he eventually decided to stay and try to change the system, which only allowed 200 people to take the exam every year. "We respect the Constitution. But the exam's purpose should be to invite those who are qualified to be citizens, instead of going against them. I wouldn't have passed it even if I tried a hundred times; or, I would have passed away before I got it," he said. \+/

“After discussions with the Chinese community, Lim and two others prepared a memorandum for Brunei's government, suggesting it narrow the scope of the exam and increase the number of times people could sit it. "Some people said it was not a good idea saying 'no' to the government, but I think we had to make them aware of our predicament," said Lim, who could recall every detail of the preparation process. "The lucky thing was that Brunei's government encouraged improvement if you managed to prove something was flawed," he said. \+/

Lim did it. Reform of the nationality law, passed in the early 2000s, allows stateless persons over the age of 50 to acquire citizenship by passing an oral, rather than a written, nationality test. Every test now allows 1,000 people to sit it. But because of a strong background in education, Lim was excluded from the oral test, while others gained from his hard work.

Borneo People

See Borneo

Iban, Penan, Kedayan, Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Murut and Bisaya. See Malaysia

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Fortune magazine, Vanity Fair magazine, Brunei Tourism, Prime Minister's Office, Brunei Darussalam, Government of Brunei Darussalam, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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