Borneo: Explaining Which Countries Share the Island

Borneo's Pagan Tribes | © Internet Archive Book / Flickr
Borneo's Pagan Tribes | © Internet Archive Book / Flickr
Photo of Sam Bedford
9 March 2018

After Greenland and New Guinea, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. With unparalleled biodiversity, culture and natural wonders, this part of the world is a haven for ecotourism. The island today is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Here’s why.


The Sultanate of Brunei is one of the world’s smallest countries. It also has some of the highest standards of living. But Brunei wasn’t always like this. Jump back a few centuries and the Brunei Empire stretched around most of coastal Borneo, controlling maritime trade. After previous ties to Chinese and Hindu religions, Brunei’s Malays converted to Islam in the 15th century. The Empire boomed through trade. Internal conflicts, colonialism and piracy lead to Brunei’s fall. In 1888, the Sultan asked the British to help fight invading pirates. Brunei became a British Protectorate until their independence almost a century later in 1984. Brunei’s Sultan is good friends with the British Queen and is extremely wealthy.

Sultan of Brunei is one of the richest man in the world | © / WikiCommons


Malaysia’s story has its roots in British colonialism. The booming Spice Trade a few centuries back was as lucrative as today’s oil industry. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and later British sailed around the world to find spices such as cinnamon and pepper. In the 18th century, the British East India Company, later renamed the British North Borneo Company, arrived and exploited natural resources in Sabah and Sarawak. The company grew and ruled everything apart from foreign affairs, turning North Borneo into an economic powerhouse. Infrastructure including roads and railways were built along with a revolution in the education system. After the devastation during World War 2, the British Crown absorbed North Borneo until they joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.

Old British colonial style house in Sabah | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / WikiCommons


The islands forming Labuan off Sabah’s coast near Brunei have a somewhat unique position in Malaysian Borneo. Historically, Labuan belonged to Brunei until it was signed over to the British either under duress or as a token for protection against piracy in 1846. The island joined the British North Borneo Company in 1890, transforming into a naval base. With a duty-free status today, Labuan became a Federal Territory after ceding from Sabah in 1984. The government created the offshore financial centre in 1990.

One of the attractions in Labuan is the War Cemetery | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / WikiCommons


Indonesia’s Kalimantan covers more than 70% of Borneo. Historically, the region had strong links to India with both Buddhism and Hinduism being dominant. Indigenous Dayak tribes inhabited the land until the 17th century. Chinese miners formed a small enclave, the Lanfang Republic, just over 200 years ago after defeating local Malay Sultanates. The colonial days began with the Dutch expanding from other parts of modern-day Indonesia in the 1800s. Post War Kalimantan joined Indonesia, which was followed by bitter territorial disputes with Malaysia and ethnic groups lasting until today.

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