In the 15th century, a sultanate from Malaya was established in Brunei. At the time, he controlled almost all of Borneo. The sultan followed the national philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja, guiding principles which stretch back to 100 AD. The Brunei Malay monarchy was first established around the 5th century when Islam began to spread around the Malay archipelago, though Islam didn’t become the official state religion of Brunei until its first king, Sultan Muhammad Shah, assumed power in the 15th century.
By the 19th century, the sultan’s power had waned to the point where Brunei declined into a haven for pirates and other miscreants. The British established a protectorate over the sultanate in 1888, and the sultan retained his formal authority. When the Japanese invaded during WWII, Brunei’s modern government began to take its current shape.
A written constitution was drafted in 1959, creating an absolute constitutional monarchy. The sultan remained in charge, but a nominal government consisting of a chief minister, council of ministers, and an elected legislative council advised him. This legislative council was disbanded in 1962 following antimonarchist election victories and a failed military coup.
Brunei signed a treaty with the British in 1979, which led to full independence in 1984. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah then became the country’s absolute monarch. He used the blend of Malay culture, language, and customs of his predecessors, along with the teaching of Islamic laws and values, to create the core philosophy of his new country. A tolerant approach to other religions has allowed Brunei to develop a unique form of constitutional monarchy, which seems to go over just fine with its residents.
In 2004, the sultan appointed a 21-member legislative council to keep up with the changing times. He signed a constitutional amendment allowing a partially elected council, though these men are still essentially advisers to the sultan. The sultan remains the highest authority, appointing the Supreme Court judges and most of the legislative council. Sharia courts follow Islamic law to settle most matters concerning Muslims, while a more British-style judicial system deals with non-Muslim matters. The sultan is also the self-appointed defense minister and prime minister.
The present sultan is part of the same lineage which was established in the 15th century. He is advised by a number of different councils, and even has a cabinet of ministers to help run the various parts of his country. But in effect, he is the supreme ruler of Brunei, both the head of state and the head of the government. Brunei’s media is very pro-sultanate, and the royal family is treated with extreme veneration within the country. As a part of ASEAN, Brunei keeps good relations with neighbors Singapore and Malaysia.