The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the Indo-Pacific region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in our region.

On this page:

  • Overview
  • Short History
  • People and Society
  • National Psyche
  • Media and Internet


The Islamic Sultanate of Brunei is a small oil rich nation of approximately 485,000 people. It consists of two unconnected sections which are physically separated by Malaysia, making it almost an enclave within Malaysia. Approximately 97 percent of the population live in the larger western region, while only about 10,000 live in the mountainous eastern district of Temburong. Brunei is close to vital sea lanes running through the South China Sea linking the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Map of Brunei

Almost 75 percent of the country is covered with mangrove, heath, peat swamp, and montane forest. Almost 80 percent of the population live in urban areas with Bandar Seri Begawan (the capitol) being the biggest and most populated city of 65,000 people. Formerly known as Brunei Town, the city hosts the Istana Nurul Iman, the seat of the government and royal residence, and covers an impressive 100 square kilometres.

Brunei is a tropical country, with high temperatures, high humidity, and heavy rainfall throughout the year.

Short History

Brunei has been ruled by a long line of sultans dating back to the 14th century. The current Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, can be thought of as synonymous with the ruling House of Bolkiah with generations being traced from the first sultan, Mahammad Shah (1336-1368).

The sultanate was a thalassocracy – the primary focus was controlling maritime trade rather than land. Situated in a strategic location between China and the trading networks of Southeast Asia, the state served as a waypoint which collected tolls on water traffic.

After the 9th Sultan (Hassan) died in 1598, battles over royal succession led a period of decline and a 12-year civil war (1661 to 1673). At the same time, the rising influence of European colonial powers disrupted traditional trading patterns and crippled Brunei’s economy.

In 1839, an Englishman adventurer, James Brooke, arrived in Borneo and helped the Sultan put down a rebellion in Sarawak. As a reward, he became governor and later "White Rajah" of Sarawak in northwest Borneo and gradually expanded the territory under his control. Brooke never gained control of Brunei, although he did attempt to. During the white Rajah period, Brunei’s landmass became smaller and separated into two parts. Brooke himself is renowned for battling piracy and ending the headhunting trade of the native Dayak people.

From 1888 to 1984 Brunei was a British Protectorate and in 1959, a constitution was signed which declared Brunei a self-governing state, although the British Empire still maintained control of foreign affairs, security, and defence.

On January 1, 1984, Brunei Darussalam became a fully independent state.

People and Society

Two thirds of the population of Brunei are classified as ethnic Malay with about ten percent being of Chinese origin. Standard Malay is the official language although a Brunei Malay variant is spoken by the majority of people. The two languages differ substantially. Brunei recognizes five indigenous minority groups that speak their own languages; however, all these native languages are at risk of becoming extinct. Other languages include Chinese, Indian, Nepali, Dutch, and English.

Islam is the official religion of Brunei with 81 per cent of the population identifying as Muslim. Hinduism and Christianity are also practiced. Because the Quran is written in Arabic, most people can speak and write the language with some level of proficiency. On the 1st of November 2023, religious subjects once taught only at religious schools were mandated as compulsory for all government and private primary schools.

The government actively promotes adherence to Islamic values and traditions. This includes adherence to Sharia law. The Syariah Penal Code Order 2013 came into full effect in 2019 and is legally enforceable for all citizens and foreigners. Under the law, sex before marriage, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion may all be punishable by death. Petty crimes such as theft can result in multiple amputations. While the introduction of the Sharia penal code drew widespread international criticism, Brunei has argued that the penal code will primarily be used as a deterrence and so far, there has been a moratorium on the death penalty since it was introduced.

National Psyche

Brunei’s culture is predominantly Malay, with heavy influences from Hinduism and Islam. While culturally similar to Malaysia, it is seen as more conservative. The sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned, with foreigners and non-Muslims allowed to bring in only small amounts of beer and spirits. After the introduction of prohibition in the early 1990s, all pubs and nightclubs were forced to close.

Individual families play a critical role and are considered the building blocks of society. As is customary in conservative Islamic societies, elders must be respected, and women are expected to be fully covered with only their hands and face exposed in public.

The Istana Nurul Iman palace, the official residence of the sultan, is located on a leafy riverside sprawl of hills on the banks of the Brunei River directly south of Brunei's capital. At 2,152,782 square feet, it is the largest residential palace in the world and the world's largest residence of any type. By comparison, it is nearly three times the size of Buckingham Palace.

Brunei has one of the highest incomes per capita in Asia due to its vast reserves of oil and gas. It has well developed social facilities, many elaborate mosques, and a robust public transport system. Most people in Brunei own at least one car.

Media and Internet

Brunei telecommunications is regulated by the Authority of Info-Communications Technology Industry (AITI) which was formed on the 1st of January 2003. AITI manages the radio frequency spectrum, develops ICT innovation, and regulates the telecommunication and postal systems and services. There are several government-operated radio and television channels as well as private satellite and cable television services. Most of which are broadcast in Malay. The China Central Television (CCTV) is broadcast in Brunei, which provides content to many countries in six different languages.

Approximately 95 per cent of the population of Brunei use social media with Instagram and Facebook being the most popular. Brunei had the second highest level of digital connectivity and access among ASEAN member states in 2023.

For further information on Brunei, see the resources below:


  1. Britannica – Brunei
  2. BBC – Brunei Country Profile
  3. CIA World Factbook – Brunei General Information
  4. World ATLAS – The Culture of Brunei
  5. BBC – Inside the Silent Nation of Brunei