26 October 2016
The Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is a visible symbol of Brunei's Islamic culture. Photos: HKEJ
The Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan is a visible symbol of Brunei's Islamic culture. Photos: HKEJ

Why Brunei is full of surprises

Brunei is an Islamic nation that has adopted a strict form of Sharia law. Harsh punishments could theoretically include flogging, stoning or chopping off the limbs of those deemed to have committed heinous crimes.

It strikes me as strange that the Bruneians, instead of feeling repulsive, are more than happy to comply with the stringent regulations. After a short visit to the tiny nation recently, I discovered that the rules are not really about deterring people from committing crimes, but to remind them of the need to perform good deeds.

As a matter of fact, tourists are no exception and have to pay much attention to Brunei’s traditions, rituals and cultural taboos. While I had no intention of challenging any of them, sometimes they were a bit too much for an individual like me who had grown up in a liberal society.

Once I was wearing shorts, heading toward a mosque. But I was stopped quickly and asked to put on a full-length garment. When I went for a swim in Jerudong Park, people around stared at me stonily as I was considered to be showing too much flesh.

Once when I was overcome with excitement on seeing the Royal Regalia Building, the tour guide quickly reminded me that it was disrespectful to point at things with an index finger.

By the time I met Wilson MC Lau, I became very curious as he is one of few tattoo artists in Brunei. It took me by surprise that there are tattoo artists in such a conservative country. Lau said tattoos are simply art decoratifs and like watercolor paintings on skin. According to Lau, there is room for development as tattoos do not pose any challenge to the traditions.

Nevertheless, he also told me that the 18 tattoos on his body had only been recently discovered by his parents, as he often wears long-sleeved clothes. On top of doing tattoos, he also has to design T-shirts and host exhibitions of his works overseas to support his lifestyle.

Like any other oil-rich country, fuel is very cheap in Brunei, often costing less than water. A liter of oil costs only half a Brunei dollar (35 US cents). Naturally there is little need for public transport as every household owns three cars on average.

Brunei’s welfare system is also excellent. Take its medical system as an example. Local citizens need to spend only one Brunei dollar to see a doctor. Hospitalization, surgery, and medicine expenses are all paid for by the Bruneian government. If a patient needs to go abroad for medical treatment, the government would cover his/her flight tickets, and all medical expenses.

Every university student receives a subsidy of BN$380 each month, and would be entitled to a job upon graduation. The apartments by the river dubbed as “houses for the poor” by the locals are cheap and outrageously large. They often come with three bedrooms, a big kitchen and bathroom with a sea-view balcony, and cost just around BN$40,000–60,000.

In Hong Kong, you wouldn’t get even a cubbyhole for that money.

I couldn’t help pondering whether Bruneians would become lazy and unproductive, given their overly perfect welfare system. Henry Chan – a local Bruneian who has been a chef, photographer and now a tour guide – told me that the comprehensive welfare system and stringent laws are keeping them carefree and to pursue whatever they would like to do in life.

Following straight religious teachings, Bruneians are obedient and friendly in their nature. I was so glad that a couple shared with me their fresh butter buns for free when I walked past them on a street.

On my return journey home, the flight attendants gave me their personal email addresses, insisting I get in touch with them when I visit their country again.

All I can say is that an Utopian dream is not impossible.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 6.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Gold-plated exhibits inside the Royal Regalia Building in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: HKEJ

Apartments by the river, which are dubbed as “houses for the poor” by the locals, are cheap and outrageously large. Photo: HKEJ

According to legend, Nakhoda Manis turned his back on his mother after marrying a rich woman. He was then struck by thunder from the sky and turned into a piece of big rock, Jong Batu, in the Brunei River. Photo: HKEJ

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