One of the most charming customs in Brunei, and a true sign of the family-like nature of the kingdom, happens during Hari Raya. This is the Islamic new year, held after the 40 days of fasting that take place during Ramadan. It is a time of open houses, loads of visiting and general feel good vibes. At this time the main palace, as large as a town itself, is open for visits for three days. The first day is reserved for invited guests: diplomats, military personnel and high ranking government officials. As many as 20,000 people visit each day on the second and third days and each one has their hand shaken by royalty.
We started out early. Around 8 a.m. I had parked the car across the river and was making my way over the bridge and up the hill to the main entrance in the deliberate stroll adopted by Malays. En route I met some Australian backpackers, who were thrilled to have arrived in the country in time for this once a year event. As arranged, I waited at the main steps for a friend. Together, we moved into a reception hall, where a buffet breakfast was available. As it was still early we even found a place to sit while snacking, then filed through to the women’s waiting hall.
For the occasion I had borrowed a handpainted silk batik outfit in the traditional Bruneian style. My companion had her own. It was at this point that the women and men diverged. We would not see the Sultan, they would not see his two wives.
While seated here, fortunately in front of a fan and with a good view of the Indian dance videos being played by four monitors around the room, we had plenty of opportunity to observe the crowd. We stayed there for two hours. Eventually the elegant rope barrier was removed and row by row people went ahead. A group of tourists from Hong Kong managed to fast track their way to being among the first to proceed. Good luck to them. We followed the queue, into a hall I had once seen in a documentary. Italian marble slabs, pristine white, covered every metre of the floor. Steps went down, steps went up, we wended our way through gardens and alongside fountains and rockeries. On and on and on.
Finally we made it outside the sanctum where six female members of the royal had been standing and shaking hands for about an hour and a half. Their day had barely begun. On entering the room I was struck by the refreshingly cool feeling of its royal blue walls. A lady in waiting passed down the line, instructing the crowd not to shake hands too strongly. There they were, first the queen, then the second wife, followed by more royals, the last of whom was an unfortunate young lady with an intellectual disability.
“What lovely batik!” exclaimed the queen as she greeted us warmly “Where are you from?” We had time to give brief replies and wish her “Selamat Hari Raya”.
After leaving their royal highnesses every member of the crowd was given a yellow plastic lunch box decorated with the national coat of arms in gold. Inside were snacks and chocolate. Children received $10 each. In which other country of the world would the head of state be so hospitable?
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity! Celebrating Christmas in a tribal village in the upper reaches of the Baram River in Sarawak, Malaysia. I grabbed it with both hands.
For the past fifty years the area had been logged so what was lost for the villagers in terms of environmental diversity was partially compensated by a serviceable road and better access to goods and services. Before the road there had only been the river. My friends would tell the story that when they were children their father announced one day that he was hungry and returned ten minutes later with a deer.
Those times had long gone and few of the younger generation stay in the kampong. They have spread out all over Malaysia and indeed to other parts of the world, with professional jobs in the oil industry, education and health to name a few. Those who do stay have the chance to compare the two worlds, and in some cases have returned to the village, having made their choice.
Still, it was not easy to persuade transport companies to deliver building materials for instance, and after the fire which destroyed the largest longhouse two years earlier ceilings were not yet installed in many rebuilt homes.
There is a primary school, but for later studies all children must move elsewhere, at least for the school term. Typically they stay with relatives in towns or go to boarding school with other tribal Sarawakians. The woman who invited me, Ann, came from a fairly prominent family in the village, her father had been the local headmaster for thirty years. With little more than a primary education himself, this gentleman, affectionately know as Cekgu (teacher) spanned the two worlds with ease. The very same man who had hunted the deer in record time in Ann’s childhood days had also gone on a fact finding mission to Australia, visiting some of our remote schools.
I was taken on a tour of the school. With its timber walls and iron roof it was situated in lovely grounds near the river. I could imagine many a longing look was cast at its waters on a hot tropical day by the young charges in this venerable institution. Frangipanni and orchids graced the schoolyard and I wondered where most of the children had gone now, with the families spread far and wide.
By this stage there were so many of the nine children in Ann’s family plus their children and even a great grandchild in this section of the longhouse that cooking and washing up became an ongoing event. Grandma had a brainwave. Instead of plates we would use banana leaves. From then on kitchen duty was significantly simplified.
One of the highlights of Christmas was the children’s song competition. This started typically late, around 9 p.m. and as just about every child in the village participated the judges didn’t announce their verdict until 1 a.m. Most of the kids sang the same song, one about baby Jesus. I happened to be invited to be a judge, which was a great honour but it also meant that there was no escape. I had to laugh the next day when one of the family said it made it easier to judge because everyone was doing their own version of the same song.
Another great privilege was being invited to sample some Christmas cheer (much of it homemade) at various women’s houses. They asked me about my life. I asked them about theirs. Ann’s niece Shirley acted as translator when necessary. They said the kampong nowadays offered the best of everything, with easy access to town (just a day’s drive) but without the time driven pressure or the anonymity of urban life.
We sipped our rice wine and I asked them how they made it. Each had her own style of course, but what was common to all was that every ingredient was organic. Even the catalyst to set off the fermentation came from a local tree in the forest.
The final day of our stay was cut short because if we hadn’t taken the 4 wheel drive truck then we would not have been able to get one again for several days. In the morning the older people came out decked in their traditional finery… including intricately embroidered hats woven from palm leaves.
One older fellow went around the village playing a flute… through his nose. Other ancient instruments were produced and strummed. One or two women were bare breasted, many were bare backed.
That was just a glimpse of how things used to be, and as we were waved off Cekgu told me “Please come again”.
The bottom of the South China Sea off the coast of Brunei is the final resting place of many ships, due to war or weather. Some were traders, with cargoes including gold, others were military vessels, laden with guns and ammunition. Now they are homes to a myriad of tropical sealife. Colourful fish drift and dart around them. Anemones wave their graceful fronds in the current. Octopuses, eels, cuttlefish and stolid groper can be found, to name but a few.
I relearned scuba diving in Brunei. The attractions were many and also the dangers. Sometimes the current was extremely strong. This is the story of one of those times.
My diving buddy was a Chinese Malaysian called Eng. We had both taken the same course and were pretty much novices. Eng is a very plucky soul. She had only just learned how to swim a few months earlier.
Every time the diveboat anchored near a wreck two of the most experienced divers would swim down first to tie a rope from our ship on top to the one underneath. This particular day all the way from the surface to the wreck below (about 28 metres) we were hanging on to the rope for dear life. The current was extremely strong and the water was filled with silt.
We made our way around the outside of the wreck, and Eng was too scared to venture in. She was having trouble with her mask, a new one, which didn’t seem to fit properly. It was fogging up so she couldn’t see well. I suggested that she take it off to clear it. Reluctant at first, she did so while I hung on to her. The trouble was, I wasn’t hanging on to anything on the wreck. After what seemed like an incredibly short time, with Eng’s mask in place again we found ourselves completely alone, surrounded by brown water, a pale light filtering down to us from the tropical sky above.
I checked my depth gauge. Thirty five metres. Eng pointed upwards. I knew if we swam for the surface the current would shoot us too far from the boat. We would probably come up too fast anyway, without a rope to hold on to for a decompression stop.
The answer was very simple. Grabbing Eng’s arm I faced the current and began swimming back into it. And swimming. And swimming. I knew there was no point in panicking, it would only waste air. So ignoring the beginnings of self doubt I turned to Eng and smiled. Though she couldn’t see my mouth because of the breathing apparatus the message was clear in my eyes. And so we continued finning. Then we saw it. It looked like some sort of post, about a metre high sticking up out of the mud. We grabbed on, pushed practically horizontal by current and regained our breath. We knew we were somewhere near the wreck. To our right a ghostly grey shape loomed out of the murk. The wheelhouse!
As we approached it we started to make out the other divers. Some of them were waving at us. So relaxed. They hadn’t any idea what had happened. Until we told them later.
They say experience is the best teacher. I don’t think I will ever forget to hold on again.
Brunei is a medieval kingdom with a veneer of modernity so thin it is practically transparent. There are no elections. The one attempt to introduce them is remembered as an insurrection and there are still some inmates in Jerudong Prison suffering the consequences of their political beliefs, some 40 plus years after the act.
Jerudong prison was on a hill that I passed every day of my working week. I remember once reading an article vindicating Brunei’s political freedom. It began with the comment that 20 years ago if you had told your mother you had mentioned politics in a coffee shop you would be picked up. It then continued by singing the praises of the Brunei Islamic Party, the only official political party Brunei boasts.
Jerudong is an odd choice for a prison location, as it is graced by a number of palaces, including that of the Sultan’s second wife. My house was also there, and it would not be at all unusual to see the sultan (driving himself) in one of his hundred odd cars as he made the trip from his office to her home. In this peaceloving little country, a mere speck (actually two, as some of Malaysia happens to be in the middle of it) on the world map, security is pretty relaxed. Formerly the richest man in the world, the Sultan is accompanied on the road by two policemen on motorbikes at the front and two at the back. He is quite used to waving at the crowd, as befits a head of state, and I was surprised once as I pulled over to let him pass that he even waved to me while looking in his rearview mirror.
An entire month is dedicated to celebrating the Sultan’s birthday. Every district in the country puts on performances of song and dance in his honour by schools and community groups. There are banners and posters on the main streets and nightly festivities in the center of town.
The preparations for the day the Sultan visited our district were many and varied. Some schools had their students standing in the ever increasingly hot sun from 7.30 a.m. lining the roadway. He was due to show up at 9.30 (i.e. some time after 10). We fortunately were not among them, and could while away the time sitting under canvas shelters or strolling around the displays and special stalls representing different groups and organisations.
He arrived by helicopter at a spot near the police station and then was driven in state for about a kilometre to the festival site in his gold plated Rolls Royce. This was a carpark and field next to one of the local schools. For the past half hour a contingent of local male dignitaries had lined up in their best traditional finery, black shirt and pants and a highly decorative cloth tied around their tummies standing in the carpark facing where he would sit. They must have been boiling.
Smiling and waving as ever the Sultan settled himself in his makeshift throne on a shaded dais to view the performances. One of the most impressive was by a group of soldiers who culminated their marching in a display of combat moves, running from here to there in attack formations and positioning themselves to shoot. As they pointed their rifles at an imaginary enemy they shouted in unison “Bang! Bang!”
Apart from police and military use, guns are illegal in Brunei Darussalam, the Abode of Peace.
Some of the girls from our high school had been chosen to perform a dance, in combination with girls from another school. This had meant daily rehearsals for weeks, with them being bussed to the other school’s practice hall, never mind about revision for exams thankyou. On the day of the performance I couldn’t imagine a more miserable lot. As they wheeled in their perfect formations, repeating the same dance step endlessly, they were scared stiff of making a mistake. So much for the pride in one’s cultural heritage… maybe they knew how much this had cost them in precious class time as they were revising for their mid year exams, for some of them so crucial in placing them in the eternal pecking order of forms to come. How noble of them to have given their time so generously to the Sultan and to have sacrificed their grades in consequence of having been tribal girls, dancing for him.
Towards the close of the day’s events, people gathered to line both sides of the path the Sultan was going to take. After some time policewomen insisted that everyone should move to one side only. As the Sultan walked by hands were outstretched, some men insistently pushing them over the heads of ladies who had been patiently waiting in the front row. I remember the delight of one such fellow whose thrust hand was duly shaken. As the Sultan passed on he turned away, crowing with ecstasy.
When I mentioned this again at a private party to one of Brunei’s favoured international set he replied that people were very nationalistic. Why would it be so lucky for him, I wondered, to have touched the Sultan’s hand, thrust as his was over the crowd?
For all this adulation, for all this easygoing familiarity, for all this exposure, there are still some important taboos regarding the Sultan, as you would imagine. We must never mention that word in emails, in case it is picked up by the security section that monitor electronic traffic through the one and only internet service provider. Most colleagues are very careful not to mention it in a public place, such as a club or place of work. One way out is to speak in a normal tone of voice except for that word, which you would let your listener lipread.
It is not what you say that is at risk, it is the fact that you are saying anything about him at all. You might be overheard, and this can easily lead to someone inventing an interpretation of what you had said. I remember marveling at the range of synonyms used by a history teacher as we were strolling up the stairs one day at school: regent, monarch, king, ruler. All of these were fine, just don’t mention the S word.
In Brunei it is more the form, rather than the substance that is important. And I will leave it to other writers to talk about other aspects of how absolute rulers live in a place like Brunei, for the bottom line is the national accounts, and who is going to talk about them?
There isn’t any. No bars, no nightclubs, no theatres, yes there are restaurants and the occasional karaoke lounge. Selling alcohol is banned. At a very few locations you can be served illicit beer in coffee mugs. At some restaurants you can bring your own bottle of wine and keep it under the table. An allowance of two bottles of wine and twelve cans of beer per adult can be brought into Brunei from Malaysia any time you cross the border. Expats in high profile jobs use “the milkman” to avoid suspicion.
People make their own fun. Potluck dinners are a favourite. The Brunei Nature Society is another strong contender for weekend entertainment, though with six a.m. starts on a Sunday morning for their excursions most partygoers are by necessity excluded. Occasionally dances are arranged at one of the clubs, there are choirs and a dramatic society. Sport is huge.
The closest border crossing to the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is at Kuala Lurah. This is a ramshackle collection of makeshift bars and beer halls that huddles to the right and left of the main highway. Some of the least salubrious are tucked at the end of dirt tracks and here “hostesses” can be found in abundance.
On a Thursday night, at the end of the working week, Kuala Lurah is jumping. The delicious smell of fried chicken wings wafts through the smoke as sellers invite you to their stall. Cars are parked on either side of the border, with many people preferring to cross on foot. It is much quicker due to the congestion. Sometimes the queue to enter Malaysia can be an hour long. Why? You figure it out.
Brunei boasts five different Hash House Harrier groups. People either run or walk following a paper trail in the jungle. Once everyone has returned, beer or soft drink is laid on, which people buy with prepaid tickets. The larger hash groups have their own website, but you can also find out this week’s starting point by word of mouth.
As housing developments encroach on the landscape, some of the runs in town have become pretty confusing with two or three different sets of paper to be found in the same area, each setting a different run. Since the Temburong Hash disbanded, some of the most majestic forest can be found west of Tutong. Here you can scramble over moss covered tree trunks, slosh your way through creeks and enjoy splendid vistas from mountain ridges before a campfire in the evening. It does make a change from the joys of suburban living in Brunei, which I have neglected to mention as I cannot scratch my head that hard.
Most times I discovered something new, a plant, tree or insect. There was a true family atmosphere about the Hash group at Tutong, with the campfire under a full moon and a down to earth atmosphere. We were all foreigners, somehow in this land, mostly from Malaysia and a mix of Chinese and tribal people. This group avoided a lot of the silly banter in the tradition of British boarding schools which dogged the hashes in town.
One of the biggest advantages of the hash, the nature society or any other club is meeting new people. You can gain a lot of information, hear about house parties and maybe even find a mechanic for your car. Because of its particular style of Islam, although Brunei lacks a lot of facilities, your social life can be as busy as you want it to be. And as hollow and empty as rumour can exclude you to be, so beware.