Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Origin of Brunei Darussalam

I did not realise that there would be a big debate on what an 'empire' is when I stated that Brunei lost its huge empire. Of course in comparison to the Roman Empire or any of the other 'Empire', the Brunei Empire was relatively small. But at its height, it is said to have covered the whole of Borneo Island and all the islands in the Southern Philippines and some have said the empire also included parts of the Indonesian Java Island as well. How the empire was ruled in those days would also be subject to question. At its height even the Roman Empire was not in total control of some of those areas supposedly within their empire. Short of being a time traveller, there is no way we would really know. However amazingly enough, most of the historical data that we used to derive all these information are not ours. It's always written by other people, other historians. And other people will not write your history well.

All the arguments heighten my interest to delve into further readings of Brunei History. I found an article written by one of our historians at the History Centre who wrote about the origin of the name of our country, Brunei. Most of us were brought up (those who were lucky enough to be brought up with Brunei History - I was using the Malaysian History Book when I was at school in Brunei) knew of the story of a group of 'sakai' led by Pateh Berbai to search for the new capital. When they found the present location to be very strategic, it was said that they said 'baru nah' - finally we found it. Eventually 'baru nah' became Brunei. I thought when I first read this years ago, it was plausible but there was a sense of doubt there. It does stretch your imagination how 'baru nah' can in the long run become 'Brunei'. What kind of conversation were they having in those days?

I quite like the second explanation from another school of thought - more scholarly - and hence less fun, which stated that the word Brunei comes from the Sanskrit word 'Bhurni Karpuradvipa' - 'bhurni' means 'land' dan 'karpuradvipa' which means 'camphor land' as in those days, Brunei produces a lot of camphor (kapur barus) said to be among the best in the world. Some have also speculated that another Sanskrit word 'Varunai' which means 'seaborn' as Bruneians in those days are said to be great and brave sailors. Again this relates well to Bruneians who lived in Kampung Ayer.

In the Chinese Annals from the years of 518 to 1370 CE, Brunei was known as either Poli, Polo or Poni. It changed to Brunei in about 1397 CE during the reign of Chien-Wen when Brunei sent its emissary to China. The Europeans called Brunei as Borneo as one historian writes '... the islands of Borneo which is given its European name to all the rest, is correctly pronounced by the inhabitants of the country itself 'Brunei'...' The Arabs know Brunei in those days as 'Dzabaj' or 'Randj' and surprisingly it is the present South China Sea which was then called the Brunei Sea. In fact there has been many spellings of Brunei in various historial literatures such as Buruneng, Bornei, Burneu, Borney, Borneo, Bruneo, Burne, Bornui and Burni.

The word 'Darussalam' was said to be used from the third Sultan, Sultan Sharif Ali. This was the days when Brunei was very famous and visitors from the Islamic Middle East would come to Brunei to trade and they found the country so prosperous and peaceful that they called it Darussalam which is the Arabic word for peace and prosperous.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Brunei's Kampong Ayer

Brunei has a very long history. In the Chinese historical records, Brunei has already existed by 518 CE (Common Era - the new replacement for AD which stands for Anno Domini - the year of the Lord, CE is supposedly neutral) and known as Poli. By the time of the Sung Dynasty in 1370 CE, Brunei was known as Puni. History suggested that when the capital of Brunei was moved from Puni to the present area, the name Brunei came into being with some suggesting that when the founders found the capital they declared it as 'baru nah'literally translated 'now we found it' which eventually became Brunei.

Kampong Ayer would have existed as early as the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah who ruled from 1363 to 1402. It was described by Pigafetta, an Italian traveller that the water village made up of about 25,000 households with a palace built in the middle. The water village was a major port with Brunei exporting a variety of goods. However the fortunes of Brunei declined with the loss of of its huge empire. By 1840, it was only a shadow of its former self with a population of about 15,000.

The water village remained and is still full of history. Most outsiders and even Bruneians assumed that the water village is only one village. Most do not realised that the water village is divided into 6 mukims (or counties) and made up of many villages. In general, the village names are based on the VIP who lived there, the specialist trade of that village, the place where it located or on a famous occassion or celebration. For instance, Kampong Sungai Kedayan, Sungai Asam, Pekan Lama, Sungai Pandan, Lurong Dalam, Lurong Sikuna, Sungai Si Amas, Ujong Klinik, Sungai Kebun dan Bukit Berumput are names based on local places or rivers. Kampung Sultan Lama, Pengiran Bendahara Lama, Pemancha Lama, Bakut Siraja Muda, Pengiran Kerma Indera Lama, Pengiran Tajuddin Hitam , Setia Negara, Setia dan Setia Pahlawan are based on the titles or names of VIPs. Kampung Peramu, Pekilong Muara and Pandai Besi are named after the craftsmen of the villages. So is Kampung Saba which is originally Kampung Pabalat.

The oldest kampungs include Kampung Sungai Kedayan, Burong Pingai, Saba and Tamoi. Kampung Sungai Kedayan used to be where the rich traders stay and most senior government servants come from there. It still retained a certain aura even today when some seniors would describe that village as their 'origin'.

Some names have changed over the years, Kampung Sungai Pandan used to be called Sungai Kuyuk. Bakut China is now Pekan Lama. Interestingly Lurong Sikuna is derived from the English word schooner as this is where in the old days ships were anchored. There used to be called Kampung Antarabangsa (International) but renamed as the less upmarket Ujong Kelinik. Some kampungs were absorbed and their names disappeared. These include Kampung Kandang Batu and Alangan. Some have changed names because their craftsmen changed, for example, before Pandai Besi, it used to be called Padaun and Pemeriuk. Some kampungs have disappeared completely. An English Historian in the mid 19th century wrote about some kampungs such as Kampung Saudagar, Pasir, Belanak, Panchur Berasur, Tekuyong, Pengiran Daud, Pengiran Ajak, Jawatan Jeludin which till now nobody can trace and place them.

With the current efforts of rehousing and resettling Kampung Ayer residents on dry land, we are losing our history and the original culture of Brunei. I guess we have to progress and to find the balance between preserving the history and the culture and the need of a modern population.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Brunei Bank Debts

When I first started working in the mid 1980s, I was already fully exposed to the British banking system. I came back from England loaded with credit card debts and assumed that with my new salary as a newly appointed officer in the Brunei Government, I should be able to pay back the debts easily. I did pay it back but it wasn't as easily as I had imagined it to be. Because of that experience, for the first few years, I didn't open a new bank account or credit card account in Brunei, preferring to use the same bank account that my parents had kindly open for me when I was younger - even using some of the money that was already in there. After being in debt, I thought there and then, I am not going to apply for a credit card in Brunei, no siree, no...

It wasn't until I applied for a Yaohan card (anyone remember Yaohan used to be in Brunei? What do you mean you don't know what a Yaohan is?) that I was forced to apply for a credit card with my bank, the red and white hexagon logo - H***. And I was told that before I could apply for a credit card, I was required to have a current account. I didn't know that. In those days, credit cards and current accounts are not something people in Brunei used much. To open a current account in those days is not very easy. I cannot just go to the counter and ask the counter staff that I want to open a current account. I have to bring an introductory letter from someone who already has a current account there and the bank will check to see whether you should be given one. It was a very difficult process. In a way it was good, all these are self controlling methods and if you don't want to go through them, means you really won't be able to build up any debts.

Fast forward to today. You can go to any bank's counter and open any account that you want. You can apply for any credit card of your choice. Every bank has one or even two or three different ones. It's up to you. So much so, that practically everyone has a personal loan, mortgage, hire purchase and credit card debts. The total loan in the country is some $5 billion. It became a headline after I gave a speech about it last year. That is roughly the equivalent of about every single household in Brunei owing $100,000 and that I tell you is a lot of money. It is very worrying. For example, a lot of us assumed that an interest rate of 6% per annum for a car costing $20,000 is not much. It's only $120 a month. But $120 a month for 7 years just for servicing the interest payment means your $20,000 will cost you $28,400 which is 42% more than the original value of the car.

When MOF restricted the amount of undefined personal loan (you can still go for education, mortgage loan, or any other type of loan etc without the same restriction), a number of people complained saying that it is their business if they want to go crazy on loans as long as they are willing to pay the moon for it. It is their personal thing. At the end of the day, I have to say that it is not a 'personal thing' - as experiences have shown that in most cases, debts spiral out of control especially when you spend a lot of the money in servicing the debt rather than lowering the amount of principal that you borrowed. Families have been known to break up because of financial difficulties. Children unable to continue their education. People go into drugs tyring to escape from their problems. Crimes rise. So it is not a 'personal thing' anymore once personal debt problems become social problems. And social problems have costs - affecting the development of the country. However the restrictions imposed by our MOF are still very lax and still insufficient compared to the ones in our neighbouring countries. That to me should be reexamined again and see whether not going into a more strict personal debt regime might cost us dearly in the future.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

50 Years Ago

Last night, I was browsing through my library, that does sound a bit pretentious, doesn't it? Let me start again. Last night, I was browsing through my little collection of books and I come across this book which I 'borrowed' from my dad's collection of books - the "State of Brunei Annual Report 1961-1962" (printed Brunei Press, 1964). For some of today's blog readers, that could be the birthyear of your parents, so it is a bit ancient.

This book is interesting as it reports events of 1961 and 1962. Brunei Annual Reports in those days were published by the Broadcasting and Information Department which was just merged in 1961. Prior to that it was two separate entities known as the Brunei Information Service and Radio Brunei Service. In 1975, the department has gone full circle to be separated again as Radio Television Brunei and the Information Department which remained till today. Back to the book. What I found interesting about the book, it reports things as a matter of fact. The book actually reported events of December 1962 in the first chapter entitled 'General Review of 1961 and 1962' as follows "... an insurrection broke out on the 8th December, 1962, which seriously affected the manpower situation in the State and, in turn, the economic situation..." The other 16 paragraphs talked about the what has been done in the country.

Many things were done and many things were not done, some sounding as if it has not changed till today. That first chapter talked about the elections for the District Councils and the Legislative Council; the granting of scholarships; expansion in the medical services; the Brunei Malay Regiment was formed; the General Orders (regulations concerning the Civil Service) was promulgated (and up to now unchanged); the Public Service Commission (PSC or more commonly known as SPA) was set up; Malay language was being encouraged by having Language Week and the Language and Literature Division was set up. Many things were not done or not undertaken including - very little building works were undertaken, in forestry, large area was under licence or little or no work was done, there were many outstanding land applications, many of which dated back to pre-war years; PWD unable to do work due to lack of staff; and more water was needed because of the presence of troops in Brunei due to the revolt.

Among the statistics included the population of Brunei at that time. In 1960 there were 83,877 people in the country of which 59,203 are Indigenous (which I presumed are Malays and the 7 puak jatis), 21,975 (Chinese) and 2,879 (others). There was comparison to 1911 when there was only 20,916 (Indigenous), 736 (Chinese) and 66 (Others). There was a whole bunch of other statistics, all equally interesting to know what happened in those years.

One of the changing feature I find is the attitude of Bruneians. Nowadays, there is a growing trend towards welfare, like it or not. The figures I get and the stories I hear from the Community Development Department indicated that Bruneians are getting too 'dependent' on welfare. But in 1962, the Annual Report pointed out that "... it is necessary to point out that the Malay, Dusun, Murut and Iban social structures are such that applications for assistance are rare, members of the family considering it their responsibility to take care of relatives who are in need..." and "... there are also a number of Chinese charitable organisations which cater for destitute members and in particular, arrange for funerals and give assistance to dependents of sick members of the various Chinese communities..."

Many things happened in 50 years. Developments were made. Progress attained. But worryingly attitudes also changed. We can make the difference in the next 50 years. Think about it.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Mystery of the Brunei Missing River

Ever since I read the "Wanderer in Brunei Darussalam" which I blogged sometime last month, I was piqued with curiousity with regard to one of the stories in the book - the Sungai Katam Project. I have been asking a few people what happened to Sungai Katam? The Sungai Katam Project in the book referred to the Apartment Block at Taman Puri - that's the huge residential park along Jalan Tutong just off the Jalan Tutong/Telanai traffic light, owned by the Association of Malay Teachers (PGGMB). Anyway, I am curious as to where Sungai Katam is and what happened to it. I know Bruneians despite of our country's dimunitive size are capable of many things but to make a whole river disappear does take a bit of skill.

A few days ago, I happened to meet the Penghulu of Mukim Kianggeh (to the non-Bruneians, a Penghulu is probably the equivalent of the Head of a County, so county means Mukim). Mukim Kianggeh covers an interesting area - all the way from the Kianggeh river in Bandar Seri Begawan including the Old Airport and Government Complex area on the northern side to Jalan Telanai on the western side which included the Damuan Recreation Park. He told me that the present Sungai Damuan was previously named Sungai Katam. According to him, before the Damuan Recreation Park was built, it was just a riverside full of mangrove trees. So when the park was named Damuan, the river was officially changed as well because Damuan sounded better than Katam. I thought that was the answer.

Yesterday when I was at my dad's, I asked him whether that was true. My dad, a retired Ambassador, used to be in the District Office before he was appointed as a diplomat, said that was wrong. He said there used to be a small river or a riverlet that used to run off to the Damuan River and that was called Sungai Katam. You see, in Brunei, the word Sungai (River) is used for both big rivers and tiny little streams. In the English context, small rivers are known as streams. But in Brunei, even tiny little streams are called sungai thus leading to confusion. A number of these so called 'sungai' have actually been turned into huge monsoon drain. The nearest I can find in the Bandar area is the concrete drain along the Jalan Kubah Makam Diraja which is actually officially labelled as Sungai Telaga Tiga. It just looks like a huge drain to me and to about 99% of the people who passed along that 'river'.

I still cannot find that small river but what I was able to find that if you walk along the Damuan Park, there is actually a runoff running under the park. When the Park was built, the runoff was diverted under the park so that the run off has more or less disappear from public view.

How did I know my dad was right? He said not because he was a former Assistant District Officer, but because there used to be a relative of ours who lived next to the runoff, so that's why he knew that used to be called Sungai Katam. So, that's the answer to the mystery of the disappearing river.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Brunei Road Names, Again

A lot of readers seemed to enjoy the recent blog on Brunei Road Names. I have dug out my 'Road Map and Street Index of Brunei Darussalam' published by Brunei Shell with the Brunei Surveyor General and having to relook at all the road names all over again. The book is a little bit old but still worthwhile to look at. It is the only one there is anyway. So it's not as if you have too many choices about it.

One of the feature I love in Brunei is the changing names of the same road you travel on without you realising it. I asked in my previous blog as to when does Jalan Haji Basir end, Jalan Kumbang Pasang begins and ends, Jalan Berakas begins and ends, Jalan Pasir Berakas begins and ends. Jalan Haji Basir started at the top of the road from the Bandar Fire Station along Pusar Ulak/St Andrews and at the four way junction, if you go straight you will be on Jalan Kumbang Pasang and this goes on despite several traffic lights in between all the way to the entrance of the Old Airport goverment complex. There Jalan Berakas begins and it goes on all the way to the roundabout to the airport. If you go straight (you have to go round the roundabout to go across), you will be on Jalan Pasir Berakas.

Here's the interesting bit. Jalan Pasir Berakas now only exist on land titles but the official road name label says Jalan Berakas. Someone made a mistake sometime in the past and the 'new' name remain. At the traffic light junction, if you go straight to the Lambak Kanan area, you are actually on an unamed road officially. It is called the berakas link road, linking that area to the highway. If you turned left at the traffic light, you remain on Jalan Pasir Berakas until you reach the Berakas Camp where the road again changes name to become Jalan Pasir.

One of the longest roads, if not the longest road in Brunei is the road from Bandar Seri Begawan to Tutong and to Kuala Belait. This road also changes names several times. Most people would just call it Jalan Tutong, except that it's not Jalan Tutong all the way. Supposing you start from Mile 0 (outside the General Post Office in the capital). You are still on Jalan Sultan and Jalan Tutong only starts at the intersection of Jalan Stoney. Then you travel for about 15 miles or so until you reach Sengkurong. Briefly Jalan Tutong becomes officially Jalan Sengkurong before becoming Jalan Tutong again at about the petrol station at Sengkurong. Then it's Jalan Tutong all the way to Tutong and when you reach Tutong Town itself, it changes name to Jalan Enche Awang. At the junction to the Highway, you have a choice of going straight through and joining Jalan Kuala Tutong. Same road for about 30 odd miles but that road has several names.

I supposed it does not really matter but it is quirky and feels as if someone somewhere who is in charge of road names could not care less what happens to the names of these roads. But that is the character of the road and road names in Brunei.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Life and Death

How many of us are really prepared for the cost of organising weddings and the cost of a funeral? Weddings we can prepare for and we know tentatively when to hold it and in some ways we can always try to save up for it. Even if it's a shotgun wedding and totally unexpected for the other family members (if not to the bride and bridegroom) - it normally won't cost as much as a normal wedding. So wedding costs are fairly controllable in that sense.

But funerals? We don't know when it's time for us to go. If we go, are our families prepared psychologically or financially - that is, have enough money to even hold the ceremonies? I know some people said the ceremonies are sunat (non-obligatory) but we do want our dearly departed to be remembered and cared for even when they are no longer with us. And if it's us that are departing, I am sure in our after life we want our family members to remember us by holding tahlil and other religious ceremonies. Our spirits and our souls need to be remembered, no matter what religions we profess. But here in Brunei, especially for Muslims, there are costs to holding the nightly tahlils and other ceremonies including during the day of the burial.

Mr. Z*, a reader of this blog who was 'devastated' after an incident in which he was nearly hit by a car when he crossed the pedestrian crossing near PGGMB Building in Bandar last week decided to work out the costs among others - how much would it cost a Brunei family financially to set out on up to a full 100 days tahlil ceremony. In fact, he has prepared two Excel worksheets containing the costs of both holding a wedding and a funeral which I have put up on my website and you can download the templates (i. Wedding Cost; and ii. Funeral Cost). The wedding cost excel sheet was his response to a number of colleagues who said that he should not be too focused on the morbid side of life but also to look at the bright side of life. Anyway, the worksheets are in template forms and you can change some of the numbers and the costings to your liking and you can see the changes to the total figures that you or your family have to prepare for.

Before seeing the costs, I had a tentative idea how much either wedding or funeral costs are. I know wedding costs in Brunei can be quite prohibitive in some sense and I presumed there may have been times when parents secretly wish their children eloped rather than trying to organise wedding ceremonies! But you will be quite surprise how much it cost to organise funeral ceremonies as I was. The lesson here is that we should all be prepared both spiritually and financially for the time when we are no longer here on this earth. It's a sobering thought.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Brunei Government Gazettes

The first legislation to be approved by the new Legislative Council has been gazetted and bootleg pdf copies are available at www.bruneiresources.com. For the official and clearer copy, please pay $5 to the Brunei Government Printing Department or to the Attorney General's Office. The legislation is called the "Supply (2006/2007) Act" - the one that allows the Brunei government to spend for the 12 months from April 2006. It's a worthwhile read to know how much each ministry and department gets. It might give you a surprise too. It's published as Government Gazette Part I No.1 as the first law that actually went through the legislative council process. Most other legislations are approved through the power of the Constitution and are gazetted in Government Gazettes Part II.

For readers who did not know the existence of the government gazettes before, it's something you need to know but you don't really need to buy. You can always get hold of it in the library. Though the entire set of the Brunei Government Gazettes are fairly useful but of course it does take a bit of time to enjoy it. Somebody likens it to watching paint dry or going to the dentist. But it's not really as bad as that. The gazettes are part of the Brunei legal process. It gazettes or announces the laws and regulations that have been approved. Appointments that have been made. People who have been sued especially for bankruptcy. Lands that have been acquired, military live firing exercises and other sorts of legal mumbo jumbo. So if you are in the legal or financial services profession, the gazette is the first thing you turn to.

The gazettes obviously are important to the government and governments like it or not at the end of the day can make or break anything. Let me share this updated tale should Noah be asked to build his ark today:-

And the Lord spoke to Noah and said: "In six months I'm going to make it rain until the whole earth is covered with water and all the evil people are destroyed. But I want to save a few good people, and two of every kind of living thing on the planet. I am ordering you to build Me an Ark," said the Lord.

And in a flash of lightning He delivered the specifications for an Ark.

"OK," said Noah, trembling in fear and fumbling with the blueprints.

"Six months, and it starts to rain" thundered the Lord. "You'd better have my Ark completed, or learn how to swim for a very long time."

And six months passed.

The skies began to cloud up and rain began to fall. The Lord saw that Noah was sitting in his front yard, weeping. And there was no Ark.

"Noah," shouted the Lord, "where is my Ark?" A lightning bolt crashed into the ground next to Noah, for emphasis.

"Lord, please forgive me," begged Noah. "I did my best. But there were big problems. First I had to get a building permit for the Ark construction project, and your plans didn't meet Code. So I had to hire an engineer to redraw the plans. "

"Then I got into a big fight over whether or not the Ark needed a fire sprinkler system. "

"My neighbors objected claiming I was violating zoning by building the Ark in my front yard, so I had to get a variance from the city planning commission."

"Then I had a big problem getting enough wood for the Ark because there was a ban on cutting trees to save the Spotted Owl."

"Then the carpenters formed a union and went out on strike. I had to negotiate a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board before anyone would pick up a saw or a hammer. Now we got 16 carpenters going on the boat, and still no owls."

"Then I started gathering up the animals, and got sued by an animal rights group. They objected to me taking only two of each kind. Just when I got the suit dismissed, EPA notified me that I couldn't complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on your proposed Flood."

"Then the Army Corps of Engineers wanted a map of the proposed new flood plain. I sent them a globe."

"And the IRS (The tax authorities) has seized all my assets claiming I'm trying to avoid paying taxes by leaving the country, and I just got a notice from the state about owing some kind of use tax."

"I really don't think I can finish your Ark for at least another five years," Noah wailed.

The sky began to clear. The sun began to shine. A rainbow arched across the sky. Noah looked up and smiled. "You mean you're not going to destroy the earth?" Noah asked, hopefully.

"Wrong!" thundered the Lord. "But being Lord of the Universe has its advantages. I fully intend to smite the Earth, but with something far worse than a Flood. Something Man invented himself."

"What's that?" asked Noah.

There was a long pause, and then the Lord spoke:

"Government."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Future of Water and Electricity in Brunei

I was in the Kiulap area last Sunday when this water truck passed by. It was very colourful and not the normal khaki/gray colour of the Public Works Department. The tank had cartoon images and slogans about saving water. Unfortunately, the truck zoomed very fast (which it shouldn't) so, I only managed to get a shot of the back of the truck. The message on the truck is for us to save water.

I am not sure which building is short of water in that area. But the way we Bruneians used our water - the possibility of running out of water is a real possibility. I remembered sometime last year, the Minister of Development stated in a speech that each of us Bruneians consumed almost 400 litres of water per day or the equivalent of about 300 bottles of SEHAT water every single day. What is that in comparison to our neighbouring countries? In Singapore, each Singaporean only consumes 160 litres a day, in Hong Kong 203 litres a day and in Tokyo, the Japanese only consumed 260 litres a day. So 400 litres is a lot of water to be consumed by us Bruneians. You may want to ask yourself why that is so. Is it any hotter here compared to Singapore? Or are we any cleaner, say, compared to the Japanese?

And it's not just water. At the same time, the Minister also indicated that even for electricity, we are pretty wasteful - Singapore used 7,778 kilowatt/hour per capita per year compared with 7,316 kw/h for us here Brunei, 5,612 kw/h for Hong Kong and 2,882 kw/h for Malaysia. It means 20 kw/h per day per capita is used in Brunei. This level of consumption was equal to the consumption levels in Japan and Taiwan and the rest of the Asean countries, where in the context of energy used in those countries - they are utilised more for the productive use in industries. However in the context of Brunei the main users are not our productive industries but us residential users.

Some have blamed that this situation is not entirely the fault of the Bruneian consumers and are actually influenced by the current water and electricity tariff structure which has been in place since the 1960s thus making the prices charged in Brunei the lowest in the region. This in turn has encouraged people to consume water and electricity excessively. The tariff structure is designed in such a way that big users are rewarded and low usages are not encouraged.

Even if this true, we should never forget that the prosperity that we have may not last. If this persist, one day we may find ourselves to be a net importer of oil and gas instead of importing it. If our population and economy continues to increase and develop at the current rate, the demand for energy will increase by about 3 to 5 per cent every year. We will have greater difficulty sustaining our oil and gas exports to earn income for the country but we will instead be squandering it to generate energy for our airconds, our decoration lights and other wasteful use.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Brunei Education Debate

When I was doing my teaching practise in England (no, no, unfortunately I am not a member of that honourable profession of teaching - I took education as a subsidiary subject - my university had this policy that you must take additional subjects completely unrelated to your principal degree so that you have this more rounded education - and yes, there's only one university in England that does that) - anyway, back to my teaching practise, I got to teach at a few primary schools in England.

The first one was at a little coal mining village and that was the first time I have ever seen British working class children in their surroundings. The British has this social classes - not visible - but clearly identifiable if you go deeper enough and in education this is clearly visible. I was really moved by the 3 week experience I spent in that school. I enjoyed the school and the 100 odd children. The children I met have never met an Asian before, the only Asian they probably have seen in their short life was the Chinese counter girl and the Chinese cook at the Chinese Take-Away nearby. I had great novelty value.

The second one was at a much larger primary school near the university. The catchment area for the school is the middle and upper middle classes and the contrast to the first school I taught was really breathtaking. From the dresses and the uniforms to the way they studied and learned and talked, you can tell that these are two different worlds. Yet the schools were only about three miles apart at most. It really set the setting for one of the interesting things that you learn in Education psychology - that is the debate between 'nature' versus 'nurture' - in short, is intelligence inherited?

I presumed a lot of people reading this blog are fairly well educated and fairly well to do - Well, you do have access to internet facilities, otherwise you won't be surfing. The question is were you born clever or did you have to work at it? Therein lies the answer to our education policy. If intelligence is inherited, then we won't have to pour in that much resources into education but to do it more efficiently and effectively - however, if intelligence is nurtured, then we have to pump into so much resources to make sure that everyone is up to scratch. Whatever it is, we know, there is no way we can help everyone. Some will still struggle by the wayside. But we can't do that, there is just too little Bruneians to do all the things we want to do.

The government spends roughly $470 million for the entire school system comprising of about 250 schools of all levels and types and more than 100,000+ students from primary up to pre university level and yet for the 1 single university catering to about 4,000 students, the government spends about $50 million. I am not an education specialist to decide whether the distribution of that amount is equitable. I leave that to you to judge.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Brunei Road Names

Jalan Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Abd Halim and Jalan Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Hj Abd Rahman - how many blogreaders would have any idea where these roads are? How about Jalan Dato Abas Al-Sufri? How about Jalan Maharaja Lela? Maybe you know Jalan Lintang? Jalan Simpang? How about Jalan McArthur? Jalan Cator? Still no? Jalan Sultan? Finally, a name you know. These are all roads within a 2 mile radius of Bandar Seri Begawan. It's amazing sometimes most of us drive around the Bandar area without realising the names of the roads. Honestly speaking, I have not been paying that much attention either if not for the fact that for the last 10 months I have been sitting at the back of my official car and watching road signs everyday.

From sitting too long at the back of the car, I have worked it out - roughly the naming of official roads in Brunei Darussalam stopped somewhere in the 1970s and roads are named sparingly over the last 20 years or so. I divide the naming of roads into about four time zones. The first part is when Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait and Seria were developing. Every little nook and cranny was named. You even get backalleys with names - if you don't believe me, drive around these three places and go to the back of the shop houses etc - you will find names for everything. Some of the names really require deep knowledge of Brunei history. I know most of the English names are from the then British Residents and British High Commissioners. Most others come from historical figures though I am still tyring to figure out who Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Abdul Halim or Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Haji Abd Rahman is.

The second is when roads are being developed further inland. The naming authorities used whatever names that were used for that particular place. Hence you get names like Jalan Madewa, Jalan Telanai, Jalan Bengkurong, Jalan Tanjung Bunut etc. Nothing significant there. Some original names are used like Jalan Haji Halus in Bunut - which I presume is named after someone. Some names are used for convenience. I remember there used to be a road called Jalan Kustin somewhere in Berakas because that was when a construction company called Coastin or something similar was based there. That is probably one of the few roads which was renamed. I think it's called Jalan Terunjing Baru or something. Another recent naming convention was to used the new linking road. Hence you get the Berakas link road, connecting Jalan Pasir Berakas to the highway. Technically speaking this should be renamed and not to be left as a link road. Some roads started as two separate roads and meet somewhere - Jalan Subok is such a road, it started from one end and Jalan Sungai Akar started from the other end. Half way they met and the names remained. Jalan Haji Basir meets Jalan Kumbang Pasang meets Jalan Berakas and meets Jalan Pasir Berakas. Tell me where each end and each started.

The third is the new housing resettlement schemes. The latter ones are less imaginative. The earlier housing resettlement areas such as Kampung Anggerek Desa has got nice names like Jalan Delima Satu or Jalan Anggerek Desa or those in the Perpindahan Berakas area called Jalan Durian, Jalan Rambutan, Jalan Belunu and the likes. The newer housing areas such as Lambak Kanan and Rimba are very Spock-like (cold and logical) and are numbered - Jalan 1, Jalan 10, Jalan 60, Jalan 77 etc and those in Mentiri has Jalan A, Jalan B, Jalan C etc. Though the confusing bits are some road numbers disappeared and are replaced by simpangs. So you would get Jalan 1 and Jalan 10. Search as you might, Jalan 2 to Jalan 9 have disappeared as they became converted to a simpang numbering. The more enterprising residents kept the old names like Jalan 98 and put up their own label even if the official label is no longer there.

The fourth is the usage of simpangs. The simpang numbering is probably one of the more innovative scheme the Brunei government has ever come up with. I think we should export this idea to other countries around the world. I have to say that despite my extensive experience in other countries, I have not seen anything as ingenious as this. The only problem is that this scheme became too successful and used all over despite the fact that some simpangs have grown so large that they became whole new roads by themselves. Some of these ought to have names otherwise you get more confusing addresses like Simpang 89-98-8-9-18.

To me, someone should relook back into all this and start to name some of the bigger numbered roads. If you go to Jalan 77 at the Lambak Kanan area, that road deserved a proper name when it has more than 200 houses in the few miles length of that road. In fact, I would even argue that Jalan 77 which is probably about 50 times longer than Jalan Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Abd Halim (200 meters long) ought to be renamed. I guess if you have nothing to do on a Sunday and you really want to fulfill your time. Drive around and just look at road names. It's fun.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Brain Scram

Exercise of the brain is as important as exercise of the muscles. As we grow older, it's important that we keep mentally alert. The saying: "If you don't use it, you will lose it" also applies to the brain.

Below is a very private way to gauge your loss or non-loss of intelligence. So take the following test presented here and determine if you are losing it or are still a MENSA candidate. OK, relax, clear your mind and . . . begin.


Question 1. What do you put in a toaster?

The answer is bread. If you said "toast", then give up now and go do something else. Try not to hurt yourself. If you said, "bread", go to question 2.


Question 2. Say "silk" five times. Now spell "silk". What do cows drink?

Answer: Cows drink water. If you said "milk", please do not attempt the next question. Your brain is obviously overstressed and may even overheat. It may be that you need to contend yourself with reading something more appropriate such as "Children's World". If you said, "water" then proceed to question three.


Question 3. If a red house is made from red bricks and a blue house is made from blue bricks and a pink house is made from pink bricks and a black house is made from black bricks, what is a greenhouse made from?

Answer: Greenhouses are made from glass. If you said "green bricks", what the heck are you still doing here reading these questions? If you said "glass", then go on to question four.


4. Twenty years ago, a plane is flying at 20,000 feet over Germany. If you will recall, Germany at the time was politically divided into West Germany and East Germany. Anyway, during the flight, TWO of the engines fail. The pilot, realizing that the last remaining engine is also failing, decides on a crash landing procedure. Unfortunately the engine fails before he has time and the plane crashes smack in the middle of "no man's land" between East Germany and West Germany. Where would you bury the survivors - East Germany or West Germany or in "no man's land"?

Answer: You don't, of course, bury survivors. If you said ANYTHING else, you are a real dunce and you must NEVER try to rescue anyone from a plane crash. Your efforts would not be appreciated. If you said, "Don't bury the survivors" then proceed to the next question.


5. If the hour hand on a clock moves 1/60th of a degree every minute then how many degrees will the hour hand move in one hour?

Answer: One degree. If you said "360 degrees" or anything other than "one degree", you are to be congratulated on getting this far, but you are obviously out of your league. Turn your pencil in and exit the room. Everyone else proceed to the final question.


6. Without using a calculator - You are driving a bus from London to Milford Haven in Wales. In London, 17 people get on the bus. In Reading, six people get off the bus and nine people get on. In Swindon, two people get off and four get on. In Cardiff, 11 people get off and 16 people get on. In Swansea, three people get off and five people get on. In Carmathen, six people get off and three get on. You then arrive at Milford Haven. What was the name of the bus driver?

Answer: Oh, for heaven sake! It was YOU, Read the first line!!!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Make a Shay Day

What would you do? You make the choice! Don't look for a punch line. There isn't one! Read it anyway. My question to all of you is: Would you have made the same choice?

At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves learning disabled children, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question:

"When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do.

Where is the natural order of things in my son?" The audience was stilled by the query. The father continued. "I believe, that when a child like Shay, physically and mentally handicapped comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes, in the way other people treat that child." Then he told the following story:

Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they'll let me play?"

Shay's father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.

Shay's father approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shay could play, not expecting much. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning."

Shay struggled over to the team's bench put on a team shirt with a broad smile and his Father had a small tear in his eye and warmth in his heart. The boys saw the father's joy at his son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.

In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.

At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible 'cause Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.

However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing the other team putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay.

As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.

The game would now be over, but the pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the head of the first baseman, out of reach of all team mates. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, "Shay, run to first! Run to first!" Never in his life had Shay ever ran that far but made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.

Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to econd base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball, the smallest guy on their team, who had a chance to be the hero for his team for the first time.

He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions and he too intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.

All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay"

Shay reached third base, the opposing shortstop ran to help him and turned him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third" As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams and those watching were on their feet were screaming, "Shay, run home! Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the "grand slam" and won the game for his team.

That day, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.

Shay didn't make it to another summer and died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making his Father so happy and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!

AND, NOW A LITTLE FOOTNOTE TO THIS STORY: We all send thousands of jokes through the e-mail without a second thought, but when it comes to sending messages about life choices, people think twice about sharing.

The crude, vulgar, and often obscene pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion about decency is too often suppressed in our schools and workplaces.

If you're thinking about forwarding this message, chances are that you're probably sorting out the people on your address list that aren't the "appropriate" ones to receive this type of message. Well, the person who sent you this believes that we all can make a difference. We all have thousands of opportunities every single day to help realize the "natural order of things." So many seemingly trivial interactions between two people present us with a choice: Do we pass along a little spark of love and humanity or do we pass up that opportunity to brighten the day of those with us the least able, and leave the world a little bit colder in the process?

A wise man once said every society is judged by how it treats it's least fortunate amongst them.

May your day, be a Shay Day, sunny today tomorrow & always!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The buck stops where?

Someone commented that I should write something about road traffic in Brunei Darussalam. That brings back old memories. The first ministry I worked for was actually responsible for the Road Safety Council and I was in the secretariat and at a time was the officer responsible for land transport department's policies. I remembered being on radio announcing the first traffic light installed at the simpang going into the present Centrepoint/Mall area from Jalan Gadong. At that point in time, the Centrepoint was not yet built and the only shop of note was the Hua Ho Gadong. For some reason for the radio interview, I was advised not to say the simpang leading to Hua Ho, so I had to say the simpang leading to Hasbullah complex. It confused a lot of people as that complex even though many people passed by it everyday, is not particularly well known, even now. (The next time you passed by, the Million Goldsmith is in the Hasbullah Complex.)

During my stint there, I realised one of the major difficulties about roads and traffic in Brunei Darussalam are the many different authorities running it. For instance, the construction of roads are undertaken by the Roads Department of the Public Works Department with money provided for under the 5 year National Development Fund whose development plans are prepared by the Economic Planing and Development Department. The Land Transport Department is responsible for the registration and licensing of cars including their safety as well as the licensing of all drivers including ensuring their ability to drive on roads. The enforcement unit of the Land Transport Department has authority over commercial vehicles and can pull them over if they commit violations on the road but does not have the authority to stop private vehicles. But if the cars are brought in for licensing or any other purpose, they have the authority not to license the car. The Police is responsible for the enforcement of road traffic laws including speeding and stopping cars with safety violations. The Electrical Department is responsible for the traffic lights. Anyway, by now, everyone gets the picture.

So, when certain problems arises, such as the huge roundabout at Beribi/Kiulap - who should be responsible? The issues include construction design of the roundabout, the ability of drivers and in some cases the technical capability of the cars. In an ideal situation, none of these should arise - most of us who have been abroad can see the various spaghetti junctions in UK - the one on M6 leading to Birmingham is particularly confusing. But in Brunei, problems arose and the difficulties were made acute because there is no one central agency overseeing it. In 9 out of 10 cases, issues are discussed at the Road Safety Council but the council is an advisory agency which has no legal authority on its own and can only ask or advise individual departments to carry out whatever recommendations the council agrees upon.

I have not even brought in issues of attitudes of drivers and so forth. The three areas of concerns which road safety specialists always allude to are the 3 Es. Education, Engineering and Enforcement. These three have to be coordinated and attitudes of drivers come under Education. However if that is lacking and compounded with poor road designs (Engineering) and lax policing (Enforcement) - then you can have a catastrophe in waiting. The many literatures I have read include how to deal with the way institutional responsibilities are assigned for managing different parts of the road network and how each part of the network is managed. Institutional responsbility include establishing the legal status of roads and the assignment of responsibility for designated and undesignated roads. Management arrangements deal with restructuring existing road agencies, centralizing management of small road networks, contracting out planning and management of roads, and dealing with undesignated roads. There is therefore a need to sort out these issues. However, to be fair, this situation happens all over the world. Though a number of them try to sort out things through the creation of central agencies such as the Federal Highway Authority etc. To talk properly about road traffic and road safety, you have to understand the underlying complexity of the issues under it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Right of Reply

For today, I will concentrate on replying and making comments on several issues being raised in this blogsite.

First and foremost, my blog on "Practise makes Perfect", I have to slightly disagree with Professor Anders Ericsson that you not only need to practise and have to have the love for the subject but most importantly you got to have the skill as well. 3 months of practising playing golf and time spent at the driving range have shown me that without skills, no way you will be able to do well in the game. This was brought home when I came bottom of the table after a tournament at the Empire Hotel with a nett score of 110. I must be the only one who enjoyed the scenery of the entire course at the Empire Hotel as I visited every little nook and cranny of the course and its surroundings including the streams that flow through it as I follow my little golf ball who refused to listen to whatever instructions I gave it.

Second, on my blog "Facts about Brunei-Singapore Currency Arrangements" someone asked why are Singapore coins especially $1 coin not accepted in Brunei? The answer is, legally there is nothing to stop Singapore coins being used in Brunei. I have checked with the Brunei Currency and Monetary Board just to get an official answer and their response is that the Board will accept Singapore coins if someone presents it to them to be converted to Brunei coins (by the way, the Board will also accept mutilated Singapore notes just as they do mutilated Brunei notes - the value of the exchange is to be determined by what's physically left of the mutilated note - half a $1 will get you 50 cents). However it seemed that there is a perception or reluctance among businesses that Singapore coins should not be used; and apparently in Singapore, the reverse applies - Singapore businesses do not want to accept Brunei coins and in some cases, do not want to accept Brunei dollar notes because of rumours that the currency will no longer be of par value. To digress, this observation is actually important for students of international financial economics. Public perceptions are important in the acceptance of currencies. No matter what the official value is, if the public is not comfortable with it, then no matter what the country will do, then the public will not accept it. Hence, the difference in value of the official rates and black market rates of some currencies in the world. Perceptions play a very major role here.

Third, there is a correction to be made on my blog on "Brunei's Wedding Practices" where the 'sirih pinang' should correctly read as 'lapik pinang' - lapik meaning something to cover - in this case, to cover the bed. Someone cheekily asked me what is the size of this piece of cloth - I have to answer I don't know. I have never seen it myself though a colleague of mine messengered me and said she knows of it being practised still. Anyway even if you missed the cloth, you can always show off the bedsheet or the actual mattress, worse come to worse. A lot of people argued about the differences between the Malaysian and Brunei weddings. I am not advocating a change to Malaysian practices - but it is more comfortable to attend weddings when the sun is not directly overhead. Someone remarked why must it be at lunchtime - I agree, there are 24 hours in a day, surely there must be a time which is more comfortable and if I dare to say it, more humane.

Lastly, on my blog on "what do you know about rice in Brunei" - someone remarked why not import rice from Vietnam? The answer I get has something to do with quality, consistency and security of supply but it does not mean that the authorities are not looking at the possibility. Rice comes in many varieties. The Thai rice which the government supplies are the 'beras wangi' of class B variety and also the beras biasa long grain. The authorities do allow imports of other rice which is not imported by the authorities but can be imported direct by the seller from many countries and not limited to Thailand. This includes the basmati rice, the American long grain, some par boiled and quite a number of other varieties - these you can find in the major supermarkets. For most of us who do not really shop for rice only know of the existence of the Thai rice.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Work Attitude

Let me share this which I received yesterday from my usual supplier, Dr M* through chain e-mails (caveat - strictly for amusement only!):

From a strictly mathematical viewpoint, what makes 100%? What does it mean to give MORE than 100%? Have you ever wondered about those people who say they are giving more than 100%?!? We have all been to those meetings where someone wants you to give over 100%. How on earth are you supposed to be able to achieve 103%?

Here's a little mathematical formula that might help you answer these questions:

What makes up 100% in life?

If:
A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4 and so on until Z=26

Then: H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K
8 + 1 + 18 + 4 + 23 + 15 + 18 + 11 = 98%

and
K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E
11 + 14 + 15 + 23 + 12 + 5 + 4 + 7 + 5 = 96%

But,
A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E
1 + 20 + 20 + 9 + 20 + 21 + 4 + 5 = 100%

However:
B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T
2 + 21 + 12 + 12 + 19 + 8 + 9 + 20 = 103%

AND, look how far ass kissing will take you!
A-S-S-K-I-S-S-I-N-G
1 + 19 + 19 + 11 + 9 + 19 + 19 + 9 + 14 + 7 = 118%

So, one can then conclude with mathematical certainty that:
While "Hard Work" and "Knowledge" may get you close, only "Attitude" will get you there.

But more importantly – never forget:
that "Bullshit" and "Ass Kissing" will put you over the top.

PS. For students and the academics amongst readers, "Studying Hard" will always beat all the above as "Studying Hard" will get you 150%!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Unhealthy Bruneians?

The Minister of Health was talking about the wastage of medications last night on the news. The government spent some $27m on medication for heart diseases, $5m on kidney treatments and another $5m for cancer and about $40m on medications. That is a large sum of money for Brunei and when payment is minimal, it does create burdens for the country. However what is sad is the irresponsible behaviour of those given the medications where they do not take what's given and the medications are either wasted, thrown away and improperly stored.

Prevention however can be better than being cured. I read that the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports has a compulsory program where everyone is required to attend an exercise session every Satuday morning before work at the Ministry begins at 9.30 in the morning. The activity included a 'heart pumping aerobics' session followed by a brisk walk in the stadium's premises. The exercise was supposed to enhance work productivity through exercise activities as well as promote the culture of a healthy lifestyle in Brunei.

I have no complaints about forcing people to exercise. I think the health statistics speak for itself - heart diseases are the leading causes of death in Brunei. I go to the gym every Friday and Sunday (if I don't play golf which is more fun than the gym but less strenuous) and to be told even that is not enough. When I first started going serious into the sports/gym activities about 3 years ago, I remember most literature would say exercising about half an hour a day 4 times a week is sufficient. Latter literatures indicate 45 minutes a day EVERYDAY is the right target. I am really looking to find that extra 45 minutes everyday. So the MCYS' once a week is really just an introductory rate, if you ask me.

I remember visiting a Mitsubishi Heavy Plant industry in Kobe, Japan quite a long time ago, 1989, if I am not mistaken and I found it interesting that during lunchbreaks, the workers don't go home for lunch or go out for lunch. Most of them will change into a tracksuit and started running up and down the company's yard or do anything to keep moving. The yard was literally full of tracksuit clad workers and supervisors and senior staff all doing their activities. It was a corporate culture and everyone followed suit. The early morning exercises are another one where everyone exercised being led by instructors.

The only problem is that our culture is not geared to this. For instance even if we were to have morning exercises as part of our routine, you will find that there is absolutely no way you can take a quick shower and change unless you want everyone to go to work all sweaty. But cultures can be adopted. We should all go out and find some ways of keeping ourselves fit to avoid becoming another health statistic.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Vacancies in the Private Sector?

A couple of weeks back, I was sitting on the stage at ICC watching about 500+ young Brunei students get their vocational and technical diplomas and certificates - one of the duties of being a member of the Technical and Vocational Education Council. I did not envy the guest of honour, he had to stand the entire time. For the rest of us, it was not that easy either sitting up there looking very serious and very official and remembering not to fidget too much as the entire hall is looking at you. Though you do develop a technique of doing your sms without being spotted by the 3000+ crowd or the RTB cameras.

The vocational or technical awards are interesting. The subjects covered include automotive engineering, building services engineering, business and finance, computer studies, construction, communication engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, fabrication and welding engineering, geomatics (you have to open a dictionary here), hotel and catering management, instrumentation and control engineering, interior design, manufacturing engineering, marine engineering, mechanical engineering, plant engineering, property management, radio, television and electronic technology, science (I am not sure what they specialise in), carpentry and joinery, electrical, electronics, furniture and cabinet making, heavy construction machinery mechanics, machining, motor vehicle mechanic, plumbing and pipefitting, vehicle body repair, basic cookery, basic food and beverage studies, dressmaking and tailoring, accounting clerk and general office clerk. Certainly an exhaustive list.

What is interesting is that we produce these 500+ people every time (two ceremonies a year - 1,000+) - I have never really met them in real life. Some wise joker told me, you are too high up to see them. In a way that's true, most of us don't really work in those industries and only need to go to workshops etc if you need to. But generally all the workers and the mechanics and the tailors and the whatever you name it, I met are always non-Bruneians or tend to be non-Bruneians. Coincidence? Or the Bruneians are just not in the job market once they got this piece of paper and use that to get other jobs not related whatsoever to their qualifications? I have met government clerks with carpentry qualification and other qualifications as well. So there is also an element of truth there. The other explanation is that most of these do join Shell, the Army and the various government and semi-goverment technical services. Okay that explains why I don't see them. But to me, that raises another important issue - they are not in the private sector and the private sector's vacancies are filled by non-Bruneians. So if there are vacancies, why are then about 6,000+ job applicants registered at Labour Department?

Education and skill demands do not always match. We produce so many people with so many qualifications and try to match with the labour market demands. It ain't as easy as they say. Market demands changed fast. Education syllabus changed slow. Signals from the market take a while to make the policy changes. Nobody can really blame the students for taking jobs not related to their skills - wanting a better life - why not? - that's what everyone aimed for. The salary gap between the government and private sector is a major factor. Job preferences. Even family expectations. There are also family members who even noted that if you are only going to earn that little doing that menial job, you might as well stay at home. All in all, it's a fairly complex world. I am not out to prove any points whatsover but merely to point out to the difficulty in making policy changes as this type of problems tend to be multi-faceted.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I am already married

I was doing some reading and I came across this book which I bought way back sometime in 1984 entitled "Our cheque is in the post" (publisher Pan Books, 1982) that contained a myriad of humorous excuses that you can use. I came across one for calling off weddings. Since tomorrow is a Sunday - another day for weddings in Brunei - these excuses might come in handy someday to someone somewhere out there (though I am not taking any responsibility whatsoever if you are going to use any of these!) -
  • The best reason for calling off a wedding is the one that is preferably given by telephone from a very great distance. It is: "Darling, I probably ought to have mentioned this before. I am already married."

  • An equally compelling argument against walking up the aisle, or signing the book in the register office is, "I don't love you."

  • If you want to sugar the pill, however, you could say this: "When I collected my birth certificate today I discovered that the couple I have always called Mum and Dad all my life aren't my real parents at all. My real father was hanged for murder and my real mother was a concentration camp guard who died after the war in an asylum. They never married, so I am also illegitimate. I need some time to think, to discover who I really am now that I know that I'm not the person who I thought I was." No one will try to talk you out of that one.
These were all written pre-sms days. So I guess there will be a few more excuses that people can come up with. Have fun.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Donuts or Doughnuts?

My 6-year old son loves Supasave donuts. Supasave supermarkets sell their donuts ball-style and not the traditional ring-donut style - you know, the ones with holes in the middle. For some reason, my son likes to eat his donuts whole rather than biting into a ring-type donut. As for me, I got bitten by the donut bugs when I was studying in the States. I have to go pass this Dunkin' Donut place everyday and every so often I would drop in there. At that time it has this offer of a free donut for every 5 that you buy or at some other time of the day, it would have this buy one get one free offer. The donuts are not just round but filled with many fillings such as custard, chocolate etc. Man, those were the days.

Incidentally, a plain donut contains around 300 calories. On average, it takes about a mile walk to burn off about 100 calories. So 300 calories is about a 3-mile walk and half a dozen of them donuts, are ....(ehem).... By the way, a sugared donut is only about 305 calories! So you might as well sugar them. It does not make that much of a difference. I have not tried out our local Dunkin' Donut at Batu 1, Jalan Tutong. I went there once I think, but the atmosphere was a lot different than the ones I often go to in the States.

How do you actually spell Donut? And where does the word come from? Who invented them? Why do they have holes in the middle? So many questions. But I have the answers. The correct spelling is 'doughnut' but Americans spelt them 'donut'. Donuts apparently are not recent creations and archaeologists in the American Southwest apparently found 'fossilised' fried cakes with holes in the centers dating back to prehistory. The modern donut form actually comes via Holland where they are called olylkoeks (oily cakes). The Dutch made them by frying left over bread dough in hot oil. The Dutch pilgrims took them to America in the 19th century. However in America, at that time, the dough were made into little 'knots of dough' or 'nuts of dough' to be fried in oil - and that's where the name 'doughnuts' came from.

So, why the holes? The oil cakes apparently being thick are always a little uncooked in the cente, so a hole was made so that the doughnuts will cook all the way through. Some say that this was started by a seacaptain in Maine USA who asked his mother to remove the centre so that he can keep the cakes on the handle of his ship's wheel. This was around mid 19th century. Though there have been many arguments about that version. But Whatever it is, by the First World War, American troops fighting in France loved the holey donuts as they can carry them on their gun barrels to keep their hands free. In some stories, this is why the soldiers were known as the 'dough boys'.

Since donuts are just plain dough deep fried, any fried dough theoritically belongs to the same donut family - so, by extension, our beloved 'chakoi' is a donut. You can just about imagine it, chakoi slopped with margarine and kaya is always a local favourite. However the more familiar looking local donut is the the local Brunei donut called 'kueh keria'. It has the same shape as the donut but the major difference is that the American donut is made from dough, the local Brunei ones are made from mashed sweet potatoes and mixed with dough. This is also fried and rolled in sugar. The only difference is the taste. But whatever it is, the calories count in them is still high! So, given the choices between donuts from Dunkin' Donut and donuts from Krispy Kreme - which are nicer?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Brunei Health Situation

The Brunei Government spends around $244 million annually to provide medical and health services to the people of Brunei Darussalam. This pays for everything - all the doctors, the nurses, the free hospital care, the free surgery, the free medications, the free trip to Singapore (for the patient and the accompanying family member) - you name it, it's all there. How much does the government get from the public for registration fee and some charges to non-citizens and services charges? Only $5 million - around 2% of the total expenditure. We are one of the luckiest people on the face of this earth. Other people will gladly give an arm and a leg just to be in this country to enjoy all the medical and health benefits.

What do we do? It's free, everything is free, medication is free, consultation is free, so why not use it? Even the littlest headache which can be cured by lying down, people go to the hospital. It's true, it happened at our hospitals. Hmm, tomorrow is a workday, but the next day is not, if I was to go to the A&E tonight to get me an MC, maybe I can get tomorrow off as well. It's true, it happened at our hospitals. Actually I don't really need this medication. All I want is this MC. I will just collect the medication, and I will throw it in the bin later. It's true, it happened at our hospitals. Hey, doctor. Don't give me any aggro, I want the vitamin c tablets. The hospital can give me free, so please put that in my prescriptions. It's true, it happened at our hospitals. I am not worried about eating too much and smoking too much. The hospital will take care of my heart, kidney and lung treatments. It's free, so why worry?

These all happened at the hospitals and the health centers in our country. Medications have been fished out of rubbish bins. People who are not so sick, or pretend to be sick are the bane of the medical officers. If they feel poorly, we'll just give them an MC. What happened as a result? The queues at the hospital and health centres get very very long. Two years ago, I queued up for 2 hours at the Sengkurong Health Center - it was my first and my last trip there. Costs are rising annually, so many people flood the system that no matter how much the government improves its services, there will be more pepole. More improvement, more efficiency, more people, and more costs. Singapore described this as the buffet mentality and with kiasu attitude, nobody wants to lose out. Hey, it's free, if I don't take, the person next to me take. So I take firstlah. (In 2001, 283,000 people went to the hospitals and health centres for outpatient treatment - a number almost equal our population; if you include all visits including ante and post natal, children health care, the total will reach 497,000 - more than the entire population of Brunei went to the hospital in 2001! The figure for 2005, I have been told is equally high.)

Just a thought, what happened if we don't improve the services, do you think people will stop coming? Or maybe the hospital should charge everything? I am not advocating that the government start charging everything. What I am advocating is responsible behaviour from everyone of us including me. Medical costs are rising. Every month another 5 Bruneians will have kidney failures. Their treatments for the rest of their lives will cost the government about a hundred thousand a year. The health authorities need more funding for the more catastrophic illnesses. Shifting in funding has to happen, otherwise costs will just continue to escalate. We have to be ready to bear our share for the small costs or otherwise we have to shoulder all the costs in the future. We have to play our role - take care of our own health - prevention is better than cure - that phrase is truer now than at any other time in the past.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Practise Makes Perfect

Remember when you are younger, your mum or your teacher keep on telling you to practise as the more you practise you will become better at whatever it is you are doing? I did. But I also remembered that no matter how much I practised my football, I never can ever be on anybody's favourite list of players. When my mates go on choosing sides, there will be a few of us left behind and are put on 'reserves'. That's when I remembered thinking, this practise thing doesn't work all the time.

I read an article recently on the New York Times about a study conducted by a psychology professor at the Florida State University in America. Professor Anders Ericsson who is a leading proponent of a movement known as Expert Performance Movement argued that the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, was a process known as 'deliberate practice'. Deliberate practice is more than simply repeating a task — going to the driving range and hitting 1,000 golf balls until your back hurts to make you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame don't count. What is required is the setting of specific goals (you have to decide what you want to get out of it), obtaining immediate feedback (get someone on hand to observe you) and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

How did the professor come to this conclusion? Apparently he studied top peformances in all manner of sports and occupations including golf, chess, surgery, investments etc. He gathered all the data on their performance statistics and biographical details and combined them with laboratory experiments. This study compiled into a book to be published next month entitled "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance" will make your mum and your teacher giddy in going round telling you "I told you so, practise makes perfect". Apparently, according to the professor - expert performers - are made and not born. Practise really makes perfect. However you can still argue about not wanting to play that violin which your mum insists because the professor's research also argues that you will want to work hard at something if that something is what you love. So practise will make you good at something you love.

If this theory is right, we should encourage our young Brunei ones to follow their interests very early on in life so that they can build up their expertise and their skills (we should get our MOE to follow up on this report). It works for the senior ones among us too. Given that expertise is not inherent but made, therefore most of us still have the chance to improve on what we love doing especially our interests as there is still time to 'practise' and become better at it. I really hope so, as my golf game really really need improving! Watch out, Tiger Woods, here I come.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Facts about Brunei-Singapore Currency Arrangement

2007 marks the 40th Anniversary of Brunei-Singapore Currency Board arrangements - establishing currency parity between the two countries' currencies. These two currencies are probably the most unique in the world where you do not have to change currencies when travelling to either country. Malaysia used to be part of the original tripartite but left the arrangements sometimes in 1970s. Lately only the Euro is one of the other currencies which actually can be used in a number of countries in the Euro Zone.

One question that people who realised what's going on - is this good for Brunei? To answer that question, we have to do a short course in post-graduate financial economics. But I will try to lay out the salient points. Most countries in the world established either a flexible of fixed exchange rate. A fixed rate mens that government set a rate for the value of the currency and that currency can only be traded or exchange at that particular rate. A flexible rate means that the rate is dependent on the market rate. More demand for that currency means that the exchange rate will be higher. In practise most countries practised a controlled or managed flexible exchange rate meaning that the country decides roughly how much it wants the rate to be and will get the Central Bank (monetary policy) to intervene either by selling or buying the currency in order to affect the supply of that currency until the exchange rate is where they want it to be. Why is this important? A stable exchange rate is important for businesses and even personal. Think how much you have to save for your children's education in the future - you have to know roughly how much the rate would be so that you can save the right amount now.

What happened to the financial crisis in East Asia in the late 1990s? Exchange rates are dependent on how much people want to keep your currency. They will want it if they think that it will be stable - by looking at the country's economic fundamentals - interest rates, inflation rates, political stability, debts, GDP, income etc. Or if they think something will happen to the country eg. political crisis, lower income, they will speculate by 'attacking' it, that is, by selling the currency in droves. For example should a crisis happen (think Brunei - circa 1998 - crisis, low oil prices etc), had Brunei been on a flexible exchange rate, confidence may have suffered and Brunei's currency value in the eyes of the world would be lower and could be 'attacked'. One way to protect against being attacked is to defend it by the Central Bank intervention. But when the whole world is against you, there is no reserves large enough to defend it. Thailand and Indonesia tried it but did not succeed, wasting billions of dollars intervening in vain. Their currencies slumped during the crisis.

A currency board system is an alternative to either fixed or flexible. By tying the Brunei currency to the Singapore currency, Brunei is protected from such attacks on our currency. The downside is that if someone attacks the Singapore currency, ours will be under attack too. So far Singapore has managed to keep its currency fairly stable and hence ours too at the same time. Brunei does not have to spend billions intervening in the market protecting the Brunei currency. But the downside is that we cannot have any monetary policy. We can't control the interest rate through financial tools and we are dependent on Singapore for the actual value of the exchange rate. Given our dependent on oil income, our currency could be stronger now with the high oil price but equally could be weaker when oil prices go down but with a currency board in place, that does not happen.

So far it has been good for Brunei. However, by now you would have realised that this is a difficult policy issue and has many sides to it. So if you are in favour of one argument over the other, please consider all the alternatives and look at the economic fundamentals in Brunei before you jump into any conclusion.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Japanese Food in Brunei

Hands up! How many of you out there eat Japanese food? For the Brunei blogreaders - how many Japanese restaurants are there in Brunei? If you shouted anything above 5, well done. But, there are a couple of things you did not know about Japanese food in Brunei but of course not being Japanese speakers, we don't know all there is to know about Japanese food.

I remember in the late 1990s, the now Head Honcho of the IT at our agency was sent to Tokyo to attend a seminar, he wasn't the head honcho then. It was his first ever trip to the country of the rising sun and he told me he wanted to taste the tiramisu in Tokyo as apparently that was his favourite food at one of the Japanese restaurants in Brunei then. A lot of Bruneians associated tiramisu as being a Japanese dish because of that restaurant. He came back after the trip and told me that the Japanese didn't even have it. Tiramisu which is a sponge-based desert that contains chocolate and amaretto (an almond liqueur) is actually an Italian dish which means "pick me up" in Italian.

Another food served at Japanese restaurants other than sushi and sashimi, which people consider as Japanese is the tempura. But amazingly enough, tempura is not even an original Japanese dish. For those unenlightened ones, tempura is a dish of batter-dipped, deep-fried pieces of fish, seafood or vegetables. But what you don't know is that tempura is a Portuguese dish and the word 'tempura' comes from the Portuguese 'temporras', which means Friday, the day when deep-fried fish was eaten. It was introduced to Japan by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century.

Even some food we consider as pure Japanese may not be so. For instance, Udon (wheat based noodle) is Chinese and was said to have been imported from China to Japan in the 6th century. Sashimi (raw fish) is not uniquely Japanese. The Finnish has something called 'Joulupoyta' made from raw salmon, whitefish or pikeperch, the Peruvian has 'Ceviche' (made from chunks of faw fish) and the Swedish has 'Gravlax', also raw salmon. Even the Brunei's food budu can be considered as raw and uncooked.

The ultimate error in the usage of Japanese is here in Brunei. I was invited by an Audit firm for dinner at the newly established 'Kaizen Restaurant' in Kiarong a couple of weeks ago. It was my first time there and its main feature is this toy train which brings sushi dishes around the bar. You just take whichever plate you want and you will be charged accordingly at the end. I guess the owner couldn't find a conveyor belt in Brunei and substituted it with the train. The error is in the restaurant's name. In Japan, 'Kaiten-Zushi' is the Japanese term for Conveyor belt sushi and not Kaizen. The restaurant should be called Kaiten. 'Kaizen' means 'improvement' and hence the QCC (Quality Control Circle) and the JIT (Just-In-Time) concepts are based on Kaizen - continuous improvements. I guess the owners do not want to call the restaurant Kaiten thinking that it might not sound Japanese enough and hence called it Kaizen which means continuous improvement. Hmm, I am not sure I want to go there now as I got this impression that I am being practised upon everytime I go there.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Brunei Wedding Practices

Today being Sunday means someone somewhere (or rather in Brunei's context) a lot of ones are getting married in a lot of wheres but what gets me is that it has to be held at the height of noon. I have mentioned this once in a previous blog on spaces.msn about why must Brunei Malays have wedding ceremonies at the height of the day when the sun is right on top of us and the temperature is at its highest? For crying out loud, this is Brunei - a country smacked in the middle of the tropical equator with sunshine second to none. Maybe one day, one day, we will change the time of the ceremonies. I will start when my 6 year old son finally gets married in about two decades from now.

Two years ago, I was in Johor for my Malaysian cousin's wedding. It was a different wedding compared to the Brunei wedding. The jemputan (guests) were invited to come from about 10 am to 5 pm, so guests can actually choose to come at whatever time that suits them. You can come late if you have another 10 weddings to attend before that or come early if you have another 10 to go to. My uncle only had to prepare four tents instead of the 50 tents that we have over here in Brunei. We only served food to the guests when they come. But what I love is that we can avoid the hot noon sun if we wanted to. All in all, I thought that wedding ceremony was a lot more flexible than ours compared to the ones in Brunei.

Presumably the Malaysian wedding ceremony styles have changed to suit their culture and social changes. Our wedding ceremonies too have changed tremendously. For instance our tents which we now used are metal and can be dismantled and reused. About 25 years ago, I remembered if you want to hold a wedding ceremony, you have to construct your own tents or rather construct the frame complete with wooden or bamboo chairs and tables. You have to go rent the canvas for the top covering from someone; and before canvas arrived, you have to get coconut leaves as the roof covering. The food served too have changed. At the weddings, guests used to be served together with food, cigarettes (555 brand) and bananas. Prior to that, guests were even fetched from their houses. This was a Kampung Ayer practise which made the rounds even when our people had moved to the ground when guests were invited using perahus and on dry land, guests were invited by cars.

One practise which has disappeared is the 'sirih pinang' - this is when during the first night the groom and the bride retire together, they are asked to take with them a piece of white cloth. The purpose of which is to prove the existence of virgin blood to the family the next day. Hmmm. The first time I heard that, I have always wondered if whatever reason there was no blood. You better retire with a needle to get some spots on that white cloth! There are a number of other practises which remain but maybe I will reserve that for future blogs.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP)

I read sometime last week somewhere in BB, I think, that the next Youth Ship Program is advertising for participants. It brings back memories as I was the Brunei Group Youth Leader for the 1990 program - full title "Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP)". For those who have no idea what SSEAYP is - it is a youth program fully sponsored by the Japanese Government where they take a group of Japanese youths (18 to 35 years old) and 10 groups of ASEAN youths on this grand cruise ship and go cruising round selected ASEAN ports and Tokyo. Activities will be held during the cruise on board the ship as well as when at the ports of call where all the youths get the opportunity to stay at foster families to experience family life in those countries.

During my time, we were the first to use the new Nippon Maru (replacing an old vessel) and since there were only 6 ASEAN countries then, we get to visit all the 6 ports as well as get to stay for about a week in Tokyo and a few days at various cities in Japan (for me it was at Fukushima). I remembered my foster families - in Penang was a caterer (lavish meals), a reflexologist in Singapore, a devout Buddhist family in Bangkok, a businesswoman in Jakarta (enjoyed durian juice by the roadside), a very wealthy Filipino in Manila (originally placed with the Mayor of Quezon City but he did not turn up to pick me up - turned out that his house got bombed! - shudders - one day earlier, I would have been at the house!) and an apple farmer in Fukushima (very delicious Japanese apples served at every meal and help pick the apples as well).

When I first applied, I thought it was just a cruise and all I had to do was mingle. Nobody told me that the 6 weeks I spent on that ship plus the 3 months preparation time was the most hectic I had undergone in those days. The 6 weeks on the ship were spent doing cultural presentations at every port, discussion forums, sharing of social and cultural activities, national information days, sports days, debates, flag raising ceremonies, aerobics etc. At the ports, same thing, cultural performances, singing, dancing, talking, mingling with other youths - in short we become ASEAN youth ambassadors to other youths. We spent literally a few months preparing for all these. We had with us a complete pelaminan (wedding dias), all the paraphanelia, all the clothings, costumes, musical instruments, tons of books and leaflets, presentation materials plus all sorts - all representing Brunei. And yes, we know all the dances, music performances and all the songs etc. If you are not multiskilled, don't even bother to get that application form. Or be like me, be the manager and get all the planning headaches.

There is an upside. You get to mingle with people of the same ages. People who can talk your language and really, you will never ever have such an opportunity to meet people. During the cruise, you don't feel lonely. There will always be someone who you can share with and really really feel that you belong to this group of youths of the world. The other thing too - you really feel Bruneian - that was the first time in my life that I have known all the traditional songs of Brunei, be able to sing them too, and sometimes be able to dance to some of the Brunei dances and really really know so much about Brunei. You get to know about other countries as well. So, if you are thinking of applying, by all means go ahead. But be prepared, it is not a cruise. Take the pportunity, it will be one of the best things you would have ever done in your life.

Inspirational Quotes

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