Brunei Darussalam - Country Overview

Brunei Darussalam, the abode of peace as the name suggests, is an oil rich Sultanate in Southeast Asia. The country had won independence from the British in 1984. Area and population wise it is no doubt, a small country. But it can be proud of its robust economy which the country is now enthusiastically trying to diversify. The people of Brunei have high GDP per capita.

It is also a great tourist attraction in the region. It offers to tourist grand mosques, river cruises, beautiful beaches and virgin rain forests that cover 70% of the country. It is the 2nd smallest country in the ASEAN fraternity with an area of just 5,765 sq km located on the island of Borneo. Brunei Darussalam is a sovereign, independent, constitutional Islamic monarchy.

The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is dominated by the scenic Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. The Istana Nurul Iman is a fascinating site in Brunei and the world's largest residential palace. The Kampong Ayer or water village is described as the "Venice of the East". It is home to 30,000 people and features stilt houses over the water.

The country has several unique features. Some of them are: high GDP (PPP) per capita (US$50198),high literacy (93 per cent),high life expectancy (76 years), a tax free society, high status for women and many others. The country despite being hot and moist is completely free from malaria. The crime rate is almost nil. Free education for all at all stages, including education at foreign universities. Free medical treatment for all citizens and government servants with families, including treatment abroad when necessary.

Brunei has global partnership in several fields. It is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, ASEAN, APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and Organization of Islamic Conference and also some other regional and international forums. 

Geographic Location 

Brunei Darussalam is situated in the south-eastern region of Asia, on the Island of Borneo, between longitudes 114'04" and 114'23" East and latitudes 4'00" and 5'05" North. Brunei, is the only sovereign country on the island, which it shares with the Indonesian provinces of West, East, South and Central Kalimantan and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Land Area

Brunei occupies 5,765 sq km (2,228 sq mi) on the northwestern coast of Borneo. The area occupied by Brunei Darussalam comprises two small enclaves separated by the Limbang River Valley, a salient of the Malaysian State of Sarawak, which surrounds Brunei on the east, south and west. On its north lies the South China Sea. . Brunei's total boundary length is 381 km (237 mi).


The estimated population of the country in2005 2010 was 422,700. Its population grows at the rate of 2.8 percent per annum. According to the government's census, most of Brunei's populace live in the Brunei/Muara district (66.0%), followed by Belait (20.2%), Tutong (10.9%) and Temburong (2.9%). By age group, about 33.0 per cent of the population is below 15 years of age, about 64.0 per cent fall under the 15 to 64 years category while the rest are over 65 years of age. So it is rich in its work force. In terms of ethnic distribution, Brunei’s indigenous communities comprising mainly Malays, Kedayans and Tutongs form about 73.0 percent of the total population, followed by the Chinese (15.0%), and others (12.0%). Ibans, Dayaks and Penans are smaller groups of indigenous people who come mostly from Sarawak.


Ancient history
Archeological evidences say that early modern humans were present in Borneo 40,000 years ago. They were replaced by Austronesian migrants whose descendants form the many ethnic and cultural groups living in Borneo today, alongside more recent immigrants from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Early Borneo kingdoms were under the cultural, economic and political influence of larger Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago.

There were trade relations with India & China in the 6th Century with a rich trade in camphor, spices, precious woods and unique jungle products grown in the area that is modern-day Brunei.

The rise of the Sultans: The Empire of Brunei

Islam was introduced to Brunei along with trade with the Arabian Peninsula and with Indian Muslim traders. In 1363 Brunei’s monarch embraced Islam and founded a dynasty which exists even today; and he ruled the country as Sultan Muhammad. Brunei’s monarchy is the oldest unbroken reigning dynasty in the world.

Brunei’s sovereignty rose to great heights in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it controlled the whole of Borneo and parts of the Philippines. After acquiring wealth from international commerce the empire’s wealth attracted early European explorers as they returned to Europe with stories of gold, regalia and majestic ceremonies.

Europeans Arrive – better to refer to Tourism info attached

After arrival of James Brooke, an indomitable English adventurer, in 1839, trade declined & colonial intrusions battered the size and influence of Brunei, He was appointed governor or Rajah of Sarawak, after defeating the Sultan.

However, he soon gathered power and started expanding the territory under British control, creating his own dynasty of “White Rajahs” that ruled Sarawak until World War II.

During their rule, they frequently invaded Brunei’s territory, which was already under pressure from British trading companies. Several disputes made the Sultan to accept British protection and control over external affairs. In 1906, Brunei surrendered to a British Resident system. Brunei’s fortunes were revitalised after the discovery of oil in 1929. The resulting wealth was judiciously managed and sustained, even during the nation’s occupation by the Japanese during World War II. Following the war, it was the late Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien, the true architect of modern Brunei, who set Brunei on its course to modernization.

Modern, Independent Brunei

Brunei became independent from the British in 1984, under the able leadership of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. During His Majesty’s reign, Brunei showed remarkable progress building upon the nation’s oil wealth. This resulted in a visible improvement in quality of life for all Bruneians. Now leading the nation into the 21st century, His Majesty’s government is carefully undertaking booming construction and infrastructure expansions in a bid to diversify and strengthen the country’s economy. These have turned Brunei into one of Southeast Asia’s fast developing nations.

The Sultan of Brunei and his government are encouraging foreign investments, strengthening the nation’s human resource base and making tourism more attractive. These steps are expected to fortify the nation to meet challenges of the 21st century. 


Brunei's culture has its deep roots in its age old Malay culture. This is reflected in the nation’s language, architecture, ceremonies, and customs of the people and in their daily lives. At present, Bruneians are predominantly Malay, though significant Chinese, Indian and indigenous Bornean segments of population add to the cultural diversity of the land. Brunei’s blend of cultures, customs and beliefs are very similar to those of Malaysia. The nation’s official language is Malay, but English is widely spoken by most people, particularly the business community and those in the tourist trade. Not surprisingly therefore, most advertisement signs in the country are written in Roman script, often in English.

Islam is the official religion, but Buddhism, Christianity and indigenous faiths are also followed by the people of the country. Religious freedom is guaranteed under the constitution. The nation’s Malay Islamic Monarchy is a unique blend of Malay culture and the teachings of Islam, strengthened further by a healthy respect for each other between the ruler and the ruled.

This strong adherence to national philosophy is giving the people of the country a distinct sense of identity as well as fostering unity and stability to the Bruneians. This forms the backbone of Bruneian cultural identity. 


The majority of the population being Muslims there, Brunei’s official religion is Islam. Historians differ as to when Islam first arrived in Brunei. A number of relics showed that Islam could actually be practised in Brunei by the 12th century.

Amongst these were tombstones found in the various Islamic graveyards in Brunei particularly the one at Rangas which showed one with a Chinese Muslim by the name of Pu Kung Chih-mu. He was buried there in 1264. This is more than a hundred years before the conversion of Awang Alak Betatar as the Islamic Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Sultan of Brunei. 

Pu is the common surname of people whom Chinese historians identified as Muslims. The tombstone also identified Pu Kung Chih-mu as one who had originated from Chuan-chou city in China. 

It was not the only Chinese Muslim grave there. Another grave nearby belonged to another Chinese Muslim by the name of Li Chia-tzu from Yung Chun (Fukian) who died in 1876. Yung Chun is also another city in China which Muslim travellers and traders used to frequently visit. 

According to Chinese records, stated in the “Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca Compiled From Chinese Sources” written by W. P. Groeneveldt in 1880, one Chinese Muslim trader named P’u-lu-shieh, arrived in Brunei in the 10th century. He was both a trader and a diplomat. The Brunei King at that time was named Hiang-ta. The arrival of the diplomat-trader from China was greeted by the King with a great ceremony. If this is so, Islam had actually arrived in Brunei in the year 977. Interestingly, the Brunei King’s delegation to China to return the Emperor’s greetings was headed by another Muslim by the name of P’u A-li (Abu Ali). 

Based on this fact alone, Abu Ali must have held an important position in the Brunei Government. It is also likely that some other members of his royal court were also Muslims. 

A number of European historians claimed that Brunei was still not a Muslim nation until the 15th century. However, the Ming Shih, Book 325, a Chinese reference book noted that the King of Brunei in 1370 was Ma-ho-mo-sa. Some say that this should be read as Mahmud Shah. But local Brunei historians take this to refer to “Muhammad Shah” the first Islamic Sultan of Brunei. 

Robert Nicholl, a former Brunei Museum Curator argued in another paper entitled “Notes on Some Controversial Issues in Brunei History” in 1980 that the name Ma-ho-mo-sa could be pronounced as Maha Moksha which means Great Eternity. Maha Mokhsa would make it a Buddhist name. Nicholl goes on to argue that even the Brunei Sultan who died in Nanjing in 1408 was not a Muslim. 

Nicholl further argued that Sultan Muhammad Shah converted to Islam as late as the 16th century and not during the 14th century as is widely known. However, according to Brunei historians, Sultan Muhammad Shah embraced Islam in 1376 and that he had ruled until 1402. After him it was Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan, who died in China , had ascended the throne.  

Most likely there were two waves of Islamic teachings that came to Brunei. The first was brought by traders from Arabia, Persia, India and China. The second wave was brought about by the conversion of Sultan Muhammad Shah. With the coming of the second wave, Brunei’s Islamisation had hastened. 

The propagation of Islam in Brunei was led by a Syarif with the name of Syarif Ali who was a descendant of Rasulullah S.A.W. through his grandson Sayydinia Hassan or Sayydinia Hussin. 

Syarif Ali arrived from Taif. Not long after he arrived in Brunei, he was married to a daughter of Sultan Ahmad. Syarif Ali built a mosque in Brunei. Syarif Ali was closely connected to a few other well known Islamic scholars and propagandists in the region. 

Syarif Ali ascended the throne as the third Sultan of Brunei when he took over from his father-in-law. Because of his piousness, he was known as Sultan Berkat (Berkat means ‘blessed’). 

The mosque especially the pulpit was used by Sultan Syarif Ali himself. Sultan Syarif Ali himself conducted the sermons during Friday prayers. So he was not only the Sultan but he was also the Imam and brought the religion directly to the Brunei people. 

By the 16th century, Brunei had built one of her biggest mosques. In 1578, Alonso Beltran, a Spanish traveller described it as one of five storeys tall structures built on water. Most likely it had five layers of roofs to represent the five pillars of Islam. Thus, Islam was firmly rooted in Brunei by the 16th century. 

By the time of Sultan Hassan, Brunei’s ninth Sultan, Brunei had the Islamic laws incorporated into the Brunei canons. 

The celebration of many festivals and Events in Brunei indicate a mosaic of cultures and brotherhood amongst the various races that live in Brunei. Some of the festivals and events in Brunei are: 

• National Day
• Hari Raya Aidilfitri
• Hari RayaAidiladha
• His Majesty the Sultan’s Birthday (15th July)
• Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday
• Chinese New Year in Brunei
• Christmas in Brunei
• Royal Brunei Armed Forces Day 

Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated by the people belonging to the Muslim faith right after Ramadhan, the fasting month. On the very first day after Ramadhan, devout Muslims visit mosques in the early morning all over the country and offer their prayers. The Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration is marked by cooking of sumptuous dishes like rice cakes (ketupat), beef and chicken kababs and rendang which is marinated beef. During this festival His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei opens the doors of Istana Nurul Iman and let the citizens of his country meet him and other members of the royal family. He greets them and wishes a very happy Hari Raya Aidilfitri. 

Royal Brunei Armed Forces Day Festival is celebrated on 31st May, every year to commemorate the building of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. On this day military parades, battle demonstrations and parachute shows are held. 

His Majesty the Sultan’s Birthday is celebrated on 15 July every year. The celebration begins with people from all over the country gathering at Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar Saifuddien which is located in the heart of the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan. His Majesty meets his people and gives a speech or a titah. The celebration continues for the next two weeks during which there are fire works in the sky, merriments, parades and processions in the country. 


Located close to the equator, Brunei Darussalam has moderate equatorial climate throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 23oC to 32oC. Rainfall occurs heaviest in September to January and May to July with March and April being the warmest months. Annual rainfall averages to 320cm. Humidity is high throughout the year and is estimated to be 79 per cent. The temperature, typical of a tropical climate, averages between 23°C and 32°C (73°F to 89°F) the year round. Heavy rain falls during the northeast monsoon which is from December to March. The intensity of rainfall decreases during the Southwest Monsoon, from May to October. On Brunei's coast the annual rainfall averages around 275 centimeters (110 inches). The best time to visit Brunei Darussalam is June to September, Lightweight clothes and a good rain jacket are essential items of clothing to keep comfortable in this country. 


Malay having been the biggest ethnic group in Brunei Darussalam, Malay or Bahasa Melayu is the national and official language of the country; at the same time, English is widely spoken and understood. 

Various indigenous groups such as the Dusun, Murut and Iban speak in their respective dialects while the Chinese speak Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese while being equally conversant in Malay.