Brunei is a small, energy-rich Sultanate on the northern coast of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Brunei boasts a well-educated, largely English-speaking population, excellent infrastructure, and a government intent on attracting foreign investment and projects. In parallel with Brunei’s efforts to attract foreign investment and create an open and transparent investment regime, the country has taken steps to streamline the process for entrepreneurs and investors to establish businesses and has improved its protections for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
Despite senior Bruneian leaders’ repeated calls for diversification, Brunei’s economy remains dependent on the income derived from sales of oil and gas, contributing about 50 percent to the country’s GDP. Substantial revenue from overseas investment supplements income from domestic hydrocarbon production. These two revenue streams provide a comfortable quality of life for Bruneians by regional standards. Citizens are not required to pay taxes and have access to free education through the university level, free medical care, and subsidized housing and car fuel.
Brunei has a stable political climate and is generally sheltered from natural disasters. Brunei’s central location in Southeast Asia, with good telecommunications and airline connections, business tax credits in specified sectors, and no income, sales, or export taxes, offers a welcoming climate for potential investors. Sectors offering U.S. business opportunities in Brunei include aerospace and defense, agribusiness, construction, petrochemicals, energy and mining, environmental technologies, food processing and packaging, franchising, health technologies, information and communication, digital finance, and services.
In 2014, Brunei began implementing sections of its Sharia Penal Code (SPC) that expanded preexisting restrictions on activities such as alcohol consumption, eating in public during the fasting hours in the month of Ramadan, and indecent behavior, with possible punishments including fines and imprisonment. The SPC functions in parallel with Brunei’s common law-based civil penal code. The government commenced full implementation of the SPC in 2019, introducing the possibility of corporal and capital punishments including, under certain evidentiary circumstances, amputation for theft and death by stoning for offenses including sodomy, adultery, and blasphemy. Government officials emphasize that sentencing to the most severe punishments is highly improbable due to the very high standard of proof required for conviction under the SPC. While the SPC does not specifically address business-related matters, potential investors should be aware that the SPC generated global controversy when it was implemented due to its draconian punishments and inherent discrimination toward LGBT communities. The sultan declared a moratorium on the death penalty for sharia crimes in response to the outcry and there have been no recorded incidents of U.S. citizens or U.S. investments directly affected by sharia law.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||35 of 175||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2020||66 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||71 of 131||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||$15 million||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||USD 32,230||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Brunei has an open economy favorable to foreign trade and FDI as the government continues its economic diversification efforts to limit its long reliance on oil and gas exports.
FDI is important to Brunei as it plays a key role in the country’s economic and technological development. Brunei encourages FDI in the domestic economy through various investment incentives offered by the Ministry of Finance and Economy.
Improving Brunei’s Ease of Doing Business status by upgrading the domestic business regulatory environment through a whole-of-nation approach has been a priority for the government. The World Bank Ease of Doing Business report indicated that Brunei ranked 66th overall out of 190 world economies in 2019. Brunei ranked first in the report’s “Getting Credit” category, tied with New Zealand, indicative of Brunei’s strong credit reporting mechanisms.
Brunei amended its laws to make it easier and quicker for entrepreneurs and investors to establish businesses. The Business License Act (Amendment) of 2016 exempts several business activities (eateries, boarding and lodging houses or other places of public resort; street vendors and stalls; motor vehicle dealers; petrol stations, including places for storing petrol and inflammable material; timber store and furniture factories; and retail shops and workshops) from needing to obtain a business license. The Miscellaneous License Act (Amendment) of 2015 reduced the wait times for new business registrants to start operations, with low-risk businesses like eateries and shops able to start operations immediately.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
There is no restriction on foreign ownership of companies incorporated in Brunei. The Companies Act requires locally incorporated companies to have at least one of the two directors—or if more than two directors, at least two of them—to be ordinarily resident in Brunei, but exemptions may be obtained in some circumstances. The corporate income tax rate is the same whether the company is locally or foreign owned and managed.
All businesses in Brunei must be registered with the Registry of Companies and Business Names at the Ministry of Finance and Economy. Foreign investors can fully own incorporated companies, foreign company branches, or representative offices, but not sole proprietorships or partnerships.
More information on incorporation of companies can be found on the Ministry of Finance and Economy website .
Other Investment Policy Reviews
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Secretariat prepared a Trade Policy Review of Brunei in December 2014 and a revision in February 2015.
As part of Brunei’s effort to attract foreign investment, the government established the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB) and Darussalam Enterprise (DARe) as facilitating agents under the Ministry of Finance and Economy. These organizations work together to smooth the process of obtaining permits, approvals, and licenses. Facilitating services are now consolidated into one government website .
BEDB is the government’s frontline agency that promotes and facilitates foreign investment into Brunei. BEDB is responsible for evaluating investment proposals, liaising with government agencies, and obtaining project approval from the government’s Foreign Direct Investment and Downstream Industry Committee.
A major share of outward investment is made by the government through its sovereign wealth funds, which are managed by the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) under the Ministry of Finance and Economy. No data is available on the total investment amount due to a strict policy of secrecy. It is believed that the majority of sovereign wealth funds are invested in foreign portfolio investments and real estate. Despite the limited availability of public information regarding the amount, the funds are generally viewed positively and managed well by BIA.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Brunei’s regulatory system is generally seen as lacking in transparency. There is little to no transparency in lawmaking processes, nor is there available information on whether impact assessments are made prior to proposing regulations. Each ministry is responsible for coordinating with the Attorney General’s Chambers to draft proposed legislation. Legislation does not receive broad review and little input is provided from outside of the originating ministry. The sultan has final authority to approve proposed legislation. Laws and regulations are readily accessible on the Attorney General’s Chambers website .
International Regulatory Considerations
Brunei is an active member of ASEAN, through which it has concluded FTAs with Australia & New Zealand, China, India, Japan and South Korea. Brunei became a WTO member in 1995 and a signatory to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1993.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Brunei’s constitution does not specifically provide for judicial independence, but in practice the court system operates without government interference. Brunei’s legal system includes two parallel systems: one based on common law and the other based on Islamic law. The common law judicial system is presided over by the Supreme Court, which comprises the Court of Appeal and the High Court.
Recognizing the importance of protecting investors’ rights and contract enforcement, Brunei established a Commercial Court in 2016.
In 2014, Brunei implemented the first phase of its Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which expanded existing restrictions on minor offenses—such as eating during Ramadan—that are punishable by fines or imprisonment. On April 3, 2019 Brunei commenced full implementation of the SPC, introducing the possibility of harsher punishments such as stoning to death for rape, adultery, or sodomy, and execution for apostasy, contempt of the Prophet Muhammad, or insult of the Quran. However, these forms of punishment require higher standards of proof than the common-law-based penal code (for example, four pious men must personally witness an act of fornication to support a sharia-based harsh sentence), placing them under a de facto moratorium. The sultan confirmed the moratorium in a 2019 public statement.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The basic legislation on investment includes the Investment Incentive Order 2001 and the Income Tax (As Amended) Order 2001. Investment Order 2001 supports economic development in strategically important industrial and economic enterprises and, through the Ministry of Finance and Economy, offers investment incentives through a favorable tax regime. Although Brunei does not have a stock exchange, the government is reportedly planning to establish a securities market.
Foreign ownership of companies is not restricted, although under the Companies Act, at least one of two directors of a locally incorporated company must be a resident of Brunei, unless granted an exemption from the appropriate authorities.
All businesses in Brunei must be registered with the Registry of Companies and Business Names at the Ministry of Finance and Economy. Except for sole proprietorships and partnerships, foreign investors can fully own incorporated companies, foreign company branches, or representative offices. Foreign direct investments by multinational corporations do not require local partnership in setting up a subsidiary of their parent company in Brunei. However, at least one company director must be a Brunei citizen or permanent resident of Brunei. Brunei’s “one-stop-shop” website for investments and business start-ups can be found here .
The Business License Act (Amendment) of 2016 exempts several business activities (eateries, boarding and lodging houses or other places of public resort; street vendors and stalls; motor vehicle dealers; petrol stations including places for storing petrol and inflammable materials; timber stores and furniture factories; and retail shops and workshops) from needing to obtain a business license.
Competition and Antitrust Laws
Brunei’s Competition Order, published in 2015 to promote and maintain fair and healthy competition to enhance market efficiency and consumer welfare, entered into force on January 1, 2020. The sultan also announced the establishment of the Competition Commission in 2017 to oversee and act on competition issues that include adjudicating anti-competitive cases and imposing penalties on companies that violate the Competition Order.
Expropriation and Compensation
Brunei is a signatory to the 1987 ASEAN Agreement for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. There is no history of expropriation of foreign owned property in Brunei, but there have been cases of domestically owned private property being expropriated for infrastructure development. The government provided compensation in such cases and claimants were afforded due process.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Brunei is a member state to the convention on the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention) and a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention). Legislation related to dispute settlement is covered under Brunei’s Arbitration Order 2009.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
In 2016, Brunei’s Supreme Court announced the establishment of a commercial court to deal with business-related cases. More information about Brunei’s judiciary system is available through the judiciary website.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
In May 2016, Brunei’s Attorney General’s Chambers announced the establishment of the Brunei Darussalam Arbitration Center (BDAC). BDAC delivers services and administration for arbitration and mediation to fulfill the needs of domestic and international users in relation to commercial disputes as a resolution alternative to court proceedings.
The International Arbitration Order (IAO), which regulates international and domestic arbitrations, came into effect in February 2010. More information about Brunei’s Attorney General’s Chambers is available on its website .
In 2012, amendments to Brunei’s Bankruptcy Act increased the minimum threshold for a creditor to present a bankruptcy petition against a debtor from BND 500 to BND 10,000 (USD350 to USD7,060) and enabled an appointed bankruptcy trustee to direct the Controller of Immigration to impound and retain the debtor’s passport, certificate of identity, or travel document to prevent the debtor from leaving the country. The amendment also requires the debtor to deliver all property under the debtor’s possession to the trustee. Information about Brunei’s bankruptcy laws is available on the judiciary’s website .
4. Industrial Policies
Companies involved in the exportation of agriculture, forestry, and fishery products can apply for tax relief on export profits. Tax exemption may be available for pioneer industry companies. For non-pioneer enterprises, the tax relief period is eight years and up to 11 years for pioneer enterprises.
In 2015, the government reduced the corporate income tax rate in Brunei from 20 percent to 18.5 percent.
Sole proprietorships and partnerships are not subject to tax. Individuals do not pay any capital gains tax, and profits arising from the sale of capital assets are not taxable. Brunei has double-taxation agreements with the United Kingdom, Indonesia, China, Singapore, Vietnam, Bahrain, Oman, Japan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Laos, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates. Under the Income Tax (Petroleum) Act, a company is subject to taxes of up to 55 percent for any petroleum operation pursuant to production sharing agreements.
Darussalam Assets is a private limited company established in December 2012 under the purview of the Ministry of Finance and Economy to spur the growth of government-linked companies (GLC) through active ownership and management of its GLC portfolio based on commercial principles, in line with Brunei’s 2035 development vision. More info on Darussalam Assets may be found at their website .
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
In 2017, Brunei announced the creation of its first Free Trade Zone, Terunjing Industrial Park, a 235-acre site located between two main highways near Brunei International Airport and Muara Port.
Darussalam Enterprise (DARe), under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, works closely with other relevant government agencies to facilitate the implementation of investors’ projects. DARe oversees and manages 26 industrial parks across Brunei.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
The government of Brunei seeks to increase the number of Bruneians working in the private sector. Brunei’s Local Business Development Framework seeks to increase the use of local goods and services, train a domestic workforce, and develop Bruneian businesses by placing requirements on all companies operating in the oil and gas industry in Brunei to meet local hiring and contracting targets. These requirements also apply to information and communication technology firms that work on government projects. The Framework sets local content targets based on the difficulty of the project and the value of the contract, with more flexible local content requirements for projects requiring highly specialized technologies or with a high contract value. In 2019, senior officials stated an intent to extend local hiring targets to additional sectors of the economy.
Expatriate employment is controlled by a labor quota system administered by the Labor Department and the issuance of employment passes by the Immigration Department. Brunei allows new companies to apply for special approval to expedite the recruitment of expatriate workers in select positions. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the special approval is only available to new companies for up to six months and covers businesses such as restaurants and retail stores. The special approval cuts the waiting time for a quota from 21 days to seven.
Brunei has not announced any specific legislation pertaining to data storage and data localization requirements.
5. Protection of Property Rights
Mortgages are recognized and enforced in Brunei; however, only Bruneian citizens can own land property in Brunei indefinitely. Foreigners and permanent residents can only own properties for up to 99 years. Brunei’s Department of Economic Planning and Development does not publish FDI data for real estate. Each transfer of ownership in Brunei requires the approval of “His Majesty in Council” which is a council of officials representing the Sultan. This process can be lengthy and opaque.
Amendments to the Land Code are being considered to ban past practices of proxy land sales to foreigners and permanent residents using power of attorney and trust deeds. The amendments to the Land Code have eliminated the recognition of powers of attorney and trust deeds as mechanisms in land transactions involving non-citizens. The government may grant temporary occupation permits over state land to applicants for licenses to occupy land for agricultural, commercial, housing or industrial purposes. These licenses are granted for renewable annual terms.
Intellectual Property Rights
Brunei’s intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement regime is still in development but is increasingly strong and effective. The country was removed from the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 report in 2013 in recognition of its improving IPR protections, increasing enforcement, and efforts to educate the public about the importance of IPR.
Brunei finalized and adopted the Copyright (Amendment) Order 2013 in December 2013, a development long requested by the U.S. government. The amendment enhanced enforcement provisions for copyright infringement by increasing the penalties for IP offenses; adding new offenses; strengthening the enforcement powers of the Royal Brunei Police Force and the Ministry of Finance and Economy’s Customs and Excise Department; and allowing for sanctioned private prosecution. The amendments are designed to deter copyright infringements with fines of BND 10,000 (USD7,400) to BND 20,000 (USD14,800) per infringing copy, imprisonment for a term up to five years, or both. Enforcement agencies are authorized to enter premises and arrest without warrant; to stop, search, and board vehicles; and to access computerized and digitized data. The amendments further allow for admissibility of evidence obtained covertly and protect the identity of informants. Statistics on seizures of counterfeit goods are unavailable.
Brunei established the Brunei Intellectual Property Office (BruIPO) in 2013 under the Attorney General’s Chambers. The establishment of BruIPO expanded the country’s Patents Registry Office’s (PRO) ability to accept applications for trademarks registration in addition to patents and industrial designs.
In September 2013, Brunei acceded to the Geneva (1999) Act of the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs to protect IP from industrial designs, making it the second ASEAN Member country, following Singapore, to accede. The accession emphasized Brunei’s commitment under the ASEAN Intellectual Property Rights Action Plan 2011 – 2015. Brunei has also publicly committed to acceding to other World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) treaties including the Madrid Protocol for the International Registration of Marks, the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT), and the UPOV Convention 1991 for the protection of New Varieties of Plants (PV).
(WPPT), and the UPOV Convention 1991 for the protection of New Varieties of Plants (PV).
For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at: http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
In 2013, Brunei signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Securities
Commission Malaysia (SCM) designed to strengthen collaboration in the development of fair and efficient capital markets in the two countries. It also provided a framework to facilitate greater cross-border capital market activities and cooperation in the areas of regulation as well as capacity building and human capital development, particularly in the area of Islamic capital markets. In March 2021, the Minister of Finance and Economy II renewed its annual budget of USD292 million to fund infrastructure, technology, and socio-economic studies related to the implementation of Brunei’s own stock exchange.
Money and Banking System
Brunei has a small banking sector which includes both conventional and Islamic banking. The Monetary Authority of Brunei Darussalam (AMBD) is the sole central authority for the banking sector, in addition to its role as the country’s central bank. Banks have high levels of liquidity, good capital adequacy ratios, and well-managed levels of non-performing loans. Several foreign banks such as Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China (Hong Kong) have established operations in Brunei. In March 2018, HSBC officially ended its operations in Brunei after announcing its planned departure from Brunei in late 2016. All banks fall under the supervision of AMBD, which has also established a credit bureau that centralizes information on applicants’ credit worthiness.
The Brunei dollar (BND) is pegged to the Singapore dollar, and each currency is accepted in both countries.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
In June 2013, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) announced that Brunei would no longer be subject to FATF’s monitoring process under its global Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) compliance process. Brunei’s Mutual Evaluation Report cited Brunei’s significant progress in improving its AML/CFT regime and noted that Brunei had established the legal and regulatory framework to meet its commitments in its Action Plan regarding strategic deficiencies that the FATF identified in June 2011.
Any person or company providing services for the transmission of money must be licensed by the Brunei government. Only Brunei citizens may hold remittance licenses. Local financial institutions such as Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam (BIBD) and Standard Chartered Bank provide remittance services. Remittance companies require the customer’s full name, identification number, address, and purpose of the remittance. They are also required to file suspicious transaction reports with AMBD.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) manages Brunei’s General Reserve Fund and their external assets. Established in 1983, BIA’s assets are estimated to be USD60-75 billion. BIA’s activities are not publicly disclosed and are ranked the lowest in transparency ratings by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
Brunei’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), managed by Darussalam Assets under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, lead key sectors of the economy including oil and gas, telecommunications, transport, and energy generation and distribution. These enterprises also receive preferential treatment when responding to government tenders. Some of the largest SOEs include the following:
The telecommunications industry is dominated by government-linked companies Telekom Brunei (TelBru), Data Stream Technologies (DST) Communications, and Progresif Cellular. In 2019 the government consolidated the infrastructure of all three companies under a state-owned wholesale network operator called Unified National Networks (UNN).
Royal Brunei Technical Services (RBTS), established in 1988 as a government owned corporation, is responsible for managing the acquisition of a wide range of systems and equipment.
Brunei Energy Services and Trading (BEST) is the national oil company owned by the Brunei government. The company was granted all mineral rights in eight prime onshore and offshore petroleum blocks totaling 20,552 sq. km. PB manages contracts with Shell and Petronas, which are exploring Brunei’s onshore and deep-water offshore blocks. The government continues to modify BEST’s role in the oil and gas industry. In 2019, the government established Petroleum Authority as the oil and gas sector’s regulatory body, a function which had been filled by BEST.
Royal Brunei Airlines started operations in 1974 and is the country’s national carrier. The airline flies a combination of Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
Brunei’s Ministry of Transportation and Info-Communication has made corporatization and privatization part of its strategic plan, which calls for the Ministry to shift its role from a service provider to a regulatory body with policy-setting responsibilities. The Ministry is studying initiatives to privatize a few state-owned agencies, including the Postal Services Department and public transportation services. These services are not yet completely privatized and there is no timeline for privatization. Guidelines regarding the role of foreign investors and the bidding process are not yet available.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
Brunei relies heavily on foreign labor in lower-skill and lower-paying positions, with approximately 25 percent of the labor force coming in from abroad to fulfill specific contracts. The largest percentage of foreign employees work in construction, followed by wholesale and retail trade, with the balance serving in professional, technical, administrative and support roles. Most unskilled laborers in Brunei are from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and enter the country on renewable two-year contracts.
The skilled labor pool includes both foreign workers on short-term visas and Bruneian citizens and permanent residents, who often are well-educated but who generally prefer to work for the government due to generous benefits such as bonuses, education allowances, interest-free loans, and housing allowances. In 2019, the Labor Force Survey stated that approximately 33.8 percent of the labor force was employed in the public sector. In 2016, the Department of Labor under the Ministry of Home Affairs introduced an improved Foreign Workers License process with stricter policies to create more employment opportunities for Brunei citizens.
While the law permits the formation of trade union federations, it forbids affiliation with international labor organizations unless there is consent from the Minister of Home Affairs and the Department of Labor. Under the Trade Unions Act of 1961, unions must be registered with the government. The government prohibits strikes, and the law makes no explicit provision for the right to collective bargaining. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers in connection with union activities, but it does not provide for reinstatement for dismissal related to union activity.
All workers, including civil servants other than those serving in the military and those working as prison guards or police officers, may form and join trade unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements. The only active union in the country, which is composed of Brunei Shell Petroleum workers, appears to have had minimal activity in recent years. There are no other active unions or worker organizations.
Various domestic laws prohibit the employment of children under the age of 16. Parental consent and approval by the Labor Commission are required for those under the age of 18. Female workers under 18 years of age may not work at night or on offshore oil platforms. The Department of Labor enforces laws related to the employment of children. There were no reports of violations of child labor laws.
The law does not set a minimum wage. The public sector pay scale covers all workers in government jobs. Wages for employed foreign residents are wide ranging. Some foreign embassies set minimum wage requirements for their nationals working in the country.
Government data indicated approximately 94,200 foreigners live in Brunei, although government officials have publicly stated the number exceeds 100,000. Foreign workers receive a mandatory brief on labor rights from the Department of Labor when they sign their contract. The government also inspects workplaces and maintains a telephone hotline for worker complaints. Immigration law allows prison sentences and caning for workers who overstay their work permits and for workers who fall into irregular status due to their employers’ negligence.