Sunday, December 31, 2006

Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Adha

Today is Hari Raya Aidil Adha or Hari Raya Haji as we Bruneians call it. Some also called it Hari Raya Korban which is predominantly used also in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. According to Wiki, it is Eid el-Kbir in Morocco, Egypt and Libya; Tfaska Tamoqqart (see if you can pronounce that) in the Berber language of Jerba; and Tabaski or Tobaski in some parts of Africa; Babbar Sallah in Nigeria and West Africa; "Ciidwayneey" in Somalia and Somali speaking regions of Kenya and Ethiopia. In India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan it is also called Eid ul-Azha, and commonly referred to as Bakr-Eid "Goat Eid" as goat is the major sacrificial animal in those countries. In Bangladesh it is called either Id-ul-Azha or Korbani Id. In Turkey it is often referred to as the Kurban Bayramı or "Sacrifice Feast". Similarly, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania it is referred as Kurban Bajram. In Kazakhstan, it is referred to as Kurban Ait.

In Saudi Arabia, we all know that this year's Ukuf at Arafah was on Friday thus making it Haji Akbar which will give a multiple 70 times 'pahala' to the lucky pilgrims this year. Haji Akbar is special because on the day of the ukuf is the meeting of two special days - the ukuf as the day when the door to forgiveness from Allah is open and the day of Friday which is the leader of all days (penghulu segala hari). Thus in Saudi, the Hari Raya Aidil Adha prayer was yesterday.

This is always the question - why is it that in Saudi, the day for Hari Raya or Hari Raya Haji can be off from Brunei by more than one day? Even with our neighbouring countries, there is that one day difference. Obviously the answer to that is the moon sighting. Traditionally, the first day of each month was the day (beginning at sunset) of the first sighting of the new moon shortly after sunset. If the new moon is not sighted immediately after the 29th day of a month, then the day that began at that sunset was the 30th.

But the calendar used in Saudi uses a very different astronomical method which uses the age or rather the hours of the new moon. Before 1999, in Saudi, if the moon's age at sunset in Riyadh was at least 12 hours, then the day ending at that sunset was the first day of the month. In our calendar, the new month begins when we sight the new moon regardless of how old or rather how many hours the new moon is supposed to be. Because of this major difference, the Hari Raya prayers can be off by ours by about two or three days in the past. In 1970s, the difference can be off by four days in some countries.

From 1999 onwards, the Saudi changed to another method which is if the moonset occurred after sunset at Mecca, then the day beginning at that sunset was the first day of a Saudi month which makes it the same rule used by Brunei. During the new moon, the moonset can only be for a few minutes, so that's why it requires precise judgment to see the new moon.

From 2002, the rule was further clarified (when I read this, I had to laugh because I got more confused - but you read on) by requiring the geocentric conjunction of the sun and moon to occur before sunset, in addition to requiring moonset to occur after sunset at Mecca. This ensures that the moon has moved past the sun by sunset, even though the sky may still be too bright immediately before moonset to actually see the crescent.

But because the moon sets progressively later than the sun for locations further west, thus western Muslim countries are more likely to celebrate some holy day one day earlier than eastern Muslim countries. Whatever method, the more western the Muslim countries such as Saudi, the earlier will be the beginning of their new month. I am not an astronomer or a religious expert - the Brunei method looked much easier, sight the new moon - that's the new month.

There is also an added non-technical explanation as to why the beginning of the new month in Saudi can be off by a couple of days. Apparently the religious authorities of Saudi Arabia also allow the sighting of the new moon testimony of amateur observers even when no other official groups can sight the new moon. I have been told that sighting the new moon is very difficult and if one is not an experienced or trained sighters, it can be very difficult. So there is the possibility that the amateur observers may not be as accurate in their sightings.

I also wrote about the issue of identifying the beginning of the new Muslim month sometime in September entitled Moon Sighter versus Scientists detailing the argument between moon sighters and scientists about whether to use the moon sighting or to use calculations when a new month should begin.

In the meantime, Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Adha to all Muslim readers.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Brunei Haj

Alhamdulillah, by the time you read this, Brunei haj pilgrims this year would have done the ukuf yesterday at the Arafah and should be in Mina today after spending the night at Muzalifah. By now, a number would have taken off their ihram as they have either completed the first throwing of the Jumratul Aqabah stone pillar at Mina or for the more adventurous one, they would have done the tawaf and saie haji at Mecca. For the many others who went to Mina, it will be another two days before they will go back to Mecca to complete that. And with that completed, everyone would have performed the full obligations of the hajj and will soon be preparing to return home to Brunei.

What most people don't know is that prior to 1954, to go on haj means that you have to be assisted by the British Resident Office. Prior to the world war, going on haj is a more laissez faire affair. You go on your own and make all the arrangements yourself and it was a very difficult trip. My father in law who went in 1930s, I was told spent at least 4 to 5 months away just to go on the hajj and it wasn't a luxury trip like today. He spent more than a month just travelling on board ships (not just one - you probably changed ships in Singapore and other ports). Going on haj then means literally you wouldn't whether you would be coming back. It was such an ordeal that even when a pilgrim died on board the ship, his body would be lowered into the sea for a sea burial.

Nowadays, completing the hajj despite the millions of people going to Mecca is much easier because the Government has everything in place through Darussalam Holdings. Even those who went on private packages would not face that much difficulty. The Hajj Management Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for ensuring that Brunei Muslims who go on hajj will be taken care of. In 1954, the haj management was looked after by the Office of Royal Customs, Religious Affairs and Welfare (Pejabat Istiadat, Ugama dan Kebajikan). It wasn't until 1960 when the Religious Affairs Office was set up on its own was a proper haj management division formed. The Religious Department was headed by the Principal of Religious Affairs but the haj management was overseen by a Haj Advisory Body which remained till today.

Before 1965, intending haj pilgrims will go to Mecca using ships via Singapore - the most famous ships are known as the Angking and Anshon. From 1965, some pilgrims started to fly by aeroplanes but the ships were still being used. It wasn't until 1975 that the ships stopped being used to carry the haj pilgrims. In October 1986, with the formation of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Haj Management Department was officially set up.

However the management of Brunei haj pilgrims was still not as well managed as today. Until 1994, the majority of Brunei haj pilgrims will be looked after first by one of the Sheikhs of Mecca - Sheikh Ibrahim and Sheikh Ali Yassin were famous names in those days - all the pilgrims' bags would have those names written in huge jawi letters - and later by the Mausasah which is the organisation entrusted to look after all the pilgrims in Mecca. Then going on the mausasah was said to mean 'maha susah' (great difficulty) by the pilgrims. You would hear tales of pilgrims living in rundown buildings with no ventilation or extremely basic washroom facilities. The more well to do pilgrims go via private haj operators which was very expensive - even in the 1980s, it can cost more than $10,000 per person. However it wasn't until TAIB which was formed in 1991 and in turn formed the haj management agency Darussalam Holdings sometime in 1994, and only then the masses in Brunei get to enjoy better facilities as they enjoyed today.

Before our own airline Royal Brunei Airlines carry our own pilgrims, a number of airlines were used. I remembered in 1976 when my father was one of the haj officials, the pilgrims were flown using China Airlines. My wife who went in 1973 said she used a British airline and the flight attendants were all British. Nowadays, the Royal Brunei Airlines Boeing 767 are even fitted with ablution places so that pilgrims can pray on board the plane. The planes even fly direct to Medina and avoided the almost 6 hour bus trip from Jeddah to Medina.

Bruneians used to have interesting practises for pilgrims going on haj. Up to until recently, haj pilgrims would encased their bag in a net made up of ropes called the 'karut' (and the practise was known as 'mengarut bag') and I can tell you that it is very difficult to take off. This practise goes back to the days when pilgrims travel by ships and have their luggages thrown and needed the net to secure it from accidentally opening. Another practise was honouring the haj pilgrims. I remembered in the late 1960s when my late grandfather returned from the haj with his robe and igal and dark glasses, he sat on a chair and everyone else would just sit around on the floor listening to the tales from the holy land.

Other interesting practises include one where rooms of the pilgrims are undisturbed throughout the absence. In Kampung Ayer, this is taken to mean that even boats or sampans are not allowed to go under the house especially under the part of the house where the room was. The practise of building arches to commemorate the returning pilgrims was set way back and it is not a recent practise. In those days, practically all are handwritten but nowadays, some are professionally made.

Some practises which are no longer allowed include the 'puadai' - this is a long piece of uncut white cloth laid down so that the newly returned pilgrims step on it on the way to the house. There will be small scissor cuts every couple of feet or so, so that relatives can cut and keep the cloth the pilgrims step on. On the way, they will be feted with coins and rice thrown to the air and children would run to grab the coins. During the absence, their family members in Brunei would give or sedekah umbrellas, slippers and sugar canes in the hope that their relatives in Mecca would be well sheltered, shod and with ample water supply. I have also heard of practises of taking a clump of Brunei earth so that one will go back to Brunei and then the practise of taking small rocks and stones from the holy land.

There are many things related to the haj. It is after all as some described as 'small death' - you died and you are reborn after returning from the haj. Mudah-mudahan kesemua jemaah haji Brunei selamat dan mendapat haji yang mabrur. Amin.

More Brunei Words

Another example of the Brunei nationality test. As usual fill in the blanks in the sentences with the words given below. Have fun.


a. jahat ujud
b. kayu manah
c. indada
d. katupang
e. indangan
f. rambat
g. sulap
h. kulimambang
i. lampuh
j. kalakati


1. Setelah diperah santan secukupnya, ................ dibuang ke dalam tong sampah.

2. Dia membersihkan ............... untuk pergi menangkap ikan pada keesokan hari.

3. Nenek memotong buah pinang dengan menggunakan .................

4. Pagi tadi dia berasa .............................

5. Di halaman rumahnya terdapat beberapa ekor ....................

6. Dia memasukan .................... ke dalam masakan itu.

7. Beberapa bulan lepas pembedahan itu, badannya menjadi ...........

8. Awang Hamzah membeli sebuah ................ untuk anak damitnya.

9. Pada musim menuai padi, Mak Lijah sekeluarga tinggal di .............

10. Saya ke rumah Awang Chuchu, tetapi dia ............. dirumahnya.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Brunei's New $500 and $10,000 Banknotes

Starting today, Brunei will have two new currency notes replacing the old $500 and $10,000 notes. When I mentioned this to some people, they laughed. Most of them have not even seen the old $10,000 note, so it does not matter whether there is a new note replacing it or not. While it is true that not many of us will be using those but should you come across one of them, you would realise that these are new notes. The new $500 and $10,000 notes are now on the polymer series leaving only the $1,000 note which remained as non-polymer.

The new $500 has an interesting feature. It is the only note that will not have the picture of our current ruler, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Instead it will be the picture of the late His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien will be on it. This in itself is fairly unique as it is very unusual to have a deceased ruler on a current banknote.

The features on the new notes are as follows (follow the numbering on the notes):-

1. The red motif based on the design of the reverse of Brunei 5 cent coin has been shaped into a flower to form a clear window. The window pattern alternates between pink and gold when viewed at different angles.

2. The initial HB500 can be seen when viewing through the small transparent window to a point light source.

3. The crest of Brunei Darussalam is printed in vibrant red ink on a gold flower shaped patch of 16 petals.

4. The serial numbers are printed both vertically and horizontally in fonts of varying sizes.

5. When the note is held up to the light, two solid leaves are formed through the combination of printing on both sides of the note.

6. The shadow image of His Majesty's potrait and initial "HB" will appear when the banknote is held up to the light.

7. A gold patch with the numeral 500.

The new $10,000 note is much smaller than the old one. I wrote about the old $10,000 note about six months ago. The new one is much nicer and not as big as the older one. The older one I think had the size of an A5 paper and not friendly at all if you have to put it in your wallet. But then only very few people would actually go around with $10,000 notes in their wallet.

The new $10,000 note had the following features (countercheck against the numbers on the pictures of the $10,000 note on the left):-

1. The motif, based on a 10 pointed star forms a clear window. The pattern around the window alternates between green and magenta when viewed at different angles.

2. The initial "10K" can be seen when viewing through the small transparent window to a point light source.

3. The crest of Brunei Darussalam is printed in vibrant red ink on a shield shaped gold patch.

4. The serial numbers are printed on both vertically and horizontally in fonts of varying sizes.

5. When the note is held up to the light, the 8 pointed star becomes a filled in circle through the combination of printing on both sides of the note.

6. The shadow image of His Majesty's potrait and initial "HB" will appear when the banknote is held up to the light.

7. A gold patch with numeral "10000".

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sabah and Sarawak

I thought I will turn my attention towards our neighbouring states, Sabah and Sarawak, favourite holiday destinations for Bruneians especially in this month of December. I have written once about Sabah in passing when I was talking about how the name Istana Manggalela in Kuala Belait came about. I was going through my collection of books in the hope of finding something to write about today. In some days, writing comes easy but in other days, it takes a little bit of effort. I came across a book I bought many years ago entitled 'Asal Usul Negeri-Negeri di Malaysia' (the Origins of the States of Malaysia) written by Zakiah Hanum and published in 1989. I bought the book from the Times Bookstore - remember? We used to have a Times Bookstore in Brunei.

I will concentrate on the origins of the names of Sabah and Sarawak only even though all 13 Malaysian states are mentioned in the book. Sabah was originally known as Api-Api (Fire) because in the 16th century, a map described Sabah as Fire Islands - due to the existence of mud volcanoes in Pulau Tiga (near Labuan). Unlike Brunei, Sabah was hardly mentioned in ancient writings. The earliest reference to Sabah was in 1292 when a Kublai Khan emissary came to visit the Kinabatangan area. In 1365, Sabah was known as Saludang. The name Sabah became widely used in the 15th century when it was a part of Brunei. But when the British came, they renamed it North Borneo before becoming Sabah again when it joined Malaysia in 1963.

According to the book, the name Sabah came from the banana 'Pisang Saba' which grew along the coast and is very popular in Brunei too. It is said that because the banana grew very well along the coasts and that many people planted and ate it, the name Sabah was applied to the place and that subsequently became the name of the state. Though a couple of historians tried to give Sabah a more romantic origin by linking it with 'Shaba' in Yemen. The Arabic origin theory has gained popularity - when you think about it, do you want your country to be named after a banana? - but according to Tom Harrison, a famous historian, Sabah is a local name and its origins cannot be traced as are many other local names around the region.

The origin of the name 'Sarawak' is even harder to trace. Some said the origin of the name was when Pengiran Muda Hashim surrendered the early parts of Sarawak to James Brooke in 1841 - he said, 'serah pada awak' (given to you) and hence Sarawak. But the name Sarawak was already given to the Sarawak River even when the whole of Sarawak was a Brunei territory. However the origin of the name Sarawak River remained unknown.

The name Sarawak was also applied to the capital of the state, Kuching. It was known as Sarawak proper. It wasn't until 1872 that the state government decided to call the capital as Kuching and the state as Sarawak. Kuching itself was said to come from the word 'Cochin' which means 'port' and the name is also used in India. Though there are also those that said the name Kuching came from the river 'Sungai Kuching' which is a small river that adjoined the Sarawak River. The name itself came from the many 'mata kuching' trees (a local fruit that came from the same family as the lychee and the longan) that grew along the hill beside the river. The hill is known as Bukit Mata Kuching.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Bunga Telur

Someone asked what is the origin of the bunga telur - the token gift that is given to guests who come to wedding ceremonies. The giving of bunga telur was actually originally a throwback to the Hindu culture which influenced the cultures in Southeast Asia. The egg represent or symbolise a fertile union between the couple as the egg is the symbol of fertility. In some sense, by giving away eggs, it was hoped that the newly wed couple will also be blessed with fertility and thus have their own children in the future.

In the beginning, the boiled eggs would be given out as gifts without any other gifts. Slowly it evolved for the practise of giving the eggs wrapped in paper and then that evolved to placing the eggs in small egg baskets or holders - and hence became known as bunga telur. The eggs were even given wrapped in handkerchiefs and the handkerchiefs became the bunga telur. Over time, the baskets or the holders for the eggs became more elaborate. I remembered in the late 1970s and early 1980s receiving the eggs in tiny porcelain swans, glasses and even in crystal holders.

As time passes, the gifts got more elaborate still. At the same time people over time do not give out the eggs anymore. This is probably due to a number of factors. I can only speculate that one of them could be that the guest numbers for Brunei weddings had increased. It was quite cumbersome boiling some 1,000+ eggs for wedding ceremonies. I remembered because we did it for my brother's wedding - a number of eggs got broken and we had to boil more to compensate for the broken ones.

However, nowadays even though eggs are no longer given out but the practise of giving bunga telur remained but there is no egg or eggholder anymore just the gifts. Today's bunga telur has moved away from anything that resemble holders for eggs - they can be anything from prayer mats to yassins and from luxury soaps to expensive biscuits to silver trays. The more common ones are mugs, cups, glass or plastic bowls and candle holders. Some unusual ones I have come across are wall clocks and ringkat (the tiffin carrier). The costs of these varies from a dollar each to lots of dollars each depending on the financial capability of the hosts. But even a dollar each bunga telur with 500 guests mean that it still cost $500.

Surprisingly at Indian weddings, it is not eggs that are given out but those guests at an Indian wedding will receive sweets reflecting and reaffirming the sweetness of the occasion. However there are many similarities that still remained between the Malay and Indian ceremonies. Among these included mandi lulur or mandi belulut as Bruneians call it - where a special bath scrub was applied to the bodies of the brides and grooms.

Majlis berinai or berpacar is another similarity which is called the Mehndi Ceremony in an Indian wedding. Originally the application of the colourful henna or pachar as we Bruneians called them was supposed to ward off evil spirits as the colours are supposed to scare off those spirits. But in Brunei Malay weddings, it is just a tradition to be followed suit as all wedding couples have pachars to indicate that they have undergone a wedding ceremony. In fact the pachar design can be more elaborate nowadays than the traditional moon crescent, star shaped of the old days.

Another similarity is the Majlis Berbedak where guests and family members blessed the couple by mencalit or putting coloured and scented powder and sprinkling pandan potpurri on the bride and groom's hands. This is also reminiscent of the Mandapa at Indian weddings.

However Brunei Malay weddings now have other additional ceremonies which include cake cutting, sarung cincin (giving jewelleries) etc are also adopted from other cultures. Some wedding custom adoptions depend on the districts and the origin of the couples such as the basuh kaki ceremony or the makan tamuan. Most of us do not realise the origins of some of these traditions which we followed from time immemorial.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah the First

Merry Christmas to readers who are celebrating it out there. I remembered when I was studying in UK and USA, the Christmas/New Year holidays mean that no shops are open for about a week and that one better stock up for that week if one wants to eat something else other than Christmas puddings. For today I thought I will write something about how Christmas cards led me to discover something about Brunei.

When I was studying in England, I had a very good English friend. He is a pure vegetarian and would take me to the supermarkets and tell me which food product contained animal derivatives. I knew about animal derivatives sources in most Enzymes (the E in food ingredients) long before most people. In my second year in England, he invited me to spend a Christmas evening with his family. It was an interesting occassion as my friend was a mature student and his family were quite elderly. We had candlelight dinner and I know enough now how Christmas is celebrated. I still keep in touch with the family despite the fact we haven't seen each other for more than 20 years now. I told them about Hari Raya and up to now they would send me Hari Raya greetings and I sent them Christmas greetings. We even discovered something in common.

The mother of my friend in one of her annual letter was talking about one of her work which was then to help research for an autobiography of a local English writer who also designed coins, one of them being a Brunei coin. I helped her to find the coin and discovered that it is the first Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's commemorative coin. We also discovered that that coin had an interesting feature. On the coin was embossed "Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah I". At first you may not realise the implication. But if you think about it you can normally have a first, if there is a second and in this case, since there was clearly yet no visible 'II', you can't have a first unless you are so clairvoyant and be able to so far into the future. When I visited the Currency Board last year, all those coins have been sold out. The 'mistake' has not been repeated in any of the other commemorative coins. All subsequent coins have the plain 'Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah'.

I later discovered that it is not just the commemorative coin that had 'Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah I' on it. The 1970 coin series all had that same title and it wasn't until the 1980 series that the 'I' was dropped. [Click on the photo above to show clearly the 1973 coin, the 1981 coin and the 1986 coin - the 1973 had the 'I'.]

I have been told that the 'I' in the title of 'Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah I' on those coins was not a mistake but done deliberately. This happened because the previous coins were the series of 'Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III' and hence the new replacment coins should retained that 'numerical' consistency and hence the 'I' was included. Coincidentally enough, I remembered a couple of months after we corresponded, there was an article about this in the now defunct News Express. So do have a quick look at the coins that you have in your purse or pocket. If you find the one with the 'I' think of it as an interesting piece about Brunei coinage history.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Questions to ask before saying yes

Today is Sunday. I am rushing off this entry as my wife, my little boy and I have to rush later today to Sungai Liang for my cousin's wedding. Sundays are the Brunei wedding days and with many marriages especially in December, I thought I will share an article on the New York Times entitled 'Marriage is not built on surprises'. For those thinking about marriage, you might want to ponder and see whether you and your partner have discussed things thoroughly and not just look at each other with lovey dovey eyes. You and your partner once married will be spending the rest of you life together and you might want to clear certain things before you start on your marriage.

Relationship experts report that too many couples fail to ask each other critical questions before marrying. Here are a few key ones that couples should consider asking:

1) Have we discussed whether or not to have children, and if the answer is yes, who is going to be the primary care giver?

2) Do we have a clear idea of each other's financial obligations and goals, and do our ideas about spending and saving mesh?

3) Have we discussed our expectations for how the household will be maintained, and are we in agreement on who will manage the chores?

4) Have we fully disclosed our health histories, both physical and mental?

5) Is my partner affectionate to the degree that I expect?

6) Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences and fears?

7) Will there be a television in the bedroom?

8) Do we truly listen to each other and fairly consider one another's ideas and complaints?

9) Have we reached a clear understanding of each other's spiritual beliefs and needs, and have we discussed when and how our children will be exposed to religious/moral education?

10) Do we like and respect each other's friends?

11) Do we value and respect each other's parents, and is either of us concerned about whether the parents will interfere with the relationship?

12) What does my family do that annoys you?

13) Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?

14) If one of us were to be offered a career opportunity in a location far from the other's family, are we prepared to move?

15) Does each of us feel fully confident in the other's commitment to the marriage and believe that the bond can survive whatever challenges we may face?
Questions copyright (c) The New York Times.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hooked on Credit Cards

The other day I received one of those 'if you don't pay, we will take you to court and by the way your card is now cancelled' letter from a local bank. What I did not realise was that a credit card, which I signed up more than a year ago with the bank because the MD practically shoved the application form under my nose when I was their guest of honour for launching one of their products, had an annual fee due. All this while, I have never bothered much with the monthly statements as I never used the card but apparently about 2 months ago, the annual $100 fee was due. I didn't pay that until the subsequent month when a late fee and some other charges were also imposed. Anyway since it is still my fault, I paid all that but despite that the letter came. I thought that was very prompt of their credit control system and if all banks had this kind of control, there would be less people in debt.

A couple of days ago, another local bank gave me their platinum card which was recently launched, all I had to do was sign the form and the card will be activated. I read the brochure - all full of interesting stuffs like ability to play golf anywhere in the world etc. At first I thought, wow! Free card. But then I realised, it's not free money. There is a cost to this. For instance there was the $280 annual fee plus other usual credit card interest charges.

Historically credit cards started off as merchant credit schemes and first used around 1920s in the USA to sell petrol. In the 1930s, companies started accepting each other's cards and by 1950 the first Diners Club card was introduced followed by the American Express. Visa came in 1958 originally issued by Bank of America as the BankAmericancard and Mastercard came in 1966. Economically, some economists have stated that credit card use increases the "velocity" of money in an economy thus resulting in higher spending which led to higher GDP (which of course conveniently forgets about the higher credits and debts).

Many Bruneians carry them and I heard that in the past many students come back from their overseas studies carrying debts on their credit cards issued abroad. Nowadays both local and overseas students are not spared. Many people now carry credit cards as they are now easily available in Brunei and some cards are easier to get depending on which banks issued them. Many merchants in Brunei now accept them and even government departments now allow for credit cards to be used to pay for the utility bills. With the recent ruling on loan caps, a number of consumers turn to credit cards to finance their purchases including their daily needs.

Most importantly a lot of credit card users do not realise the amount of real rates which they pay for their credit cards. Even a simple $1,000 credit, if one was to pay only the minimum $50 a month and with a charge of around 2.5%, will take more than 2 years to pay off and by then the amount of interest payment would be more than a third of the original principal. Imagine if the value is higher and in the meantime the card's debts increased. With credit cards, purchases became easier. Even if it is a heavy ticket item - say a $3,000 plasma tv - a cardholder can easily justify it by thinking not in terms of $3,000 but in terms of the 5% monthly payment which is about $150 a month. Psychologically that plasma tv suddenly looked so much more affordable as the thinking is $3,000 versus $150 (never mind that $150 will be for at least 2 years plus interest). Once, used to easy credit, users find it easier to buy things on the spur and without deliberating too much. Swipe it and sign it. It's so much easier to keep up with the Joneses nowadays.

There are many other issues with credit cards. Some have argued that there should be rules on credit card limits (there is) and rules for transparency. In some countries, these existed but these still do not stop credit card users from running huge debts. Eventually it's up to the credit card users to realise and to control what they have. The most important take is that at the end of the day, credit card users have to be wary of what they have. A credit card can be such a convenience. But that innocent looking plastic card can equally ruin your life.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Brunei Words

Sometimes Brunei words are so obscure or we hardly used them that other than our elders, most younger Bruneians would be stumped. My friend showed me an example of a Brunei nationality test which I thought I will reproduce here for everyone to have a look. It looks hard at first, but it isn't really. You take a look.

Question (loosely translated) - use the following words to complete the sentences below:-

a. barambit
b. damal
c. tajulayak
d. zaman kuratu
e. malimbak
f. paspan
g. rabah rimpah
h. sindat
i. tabasan
j. mangunjar

1. Sungguh berseri pengantin itu, terutama setelah memakai ............................. di lengan.
2. Kanak-kanak itu ............................. kerana berlari di atas lantai simen yang basah.
3. Sambil menunggu waktu pekerjaan dimulakan, pekerja-pekerja itu mengadakan perlawanan ..........................
4. Ibu menggunakan ................................... untuk memasak nasi.
5. Letih saya ................................ orang itu tetapi tidak juga terjumpa.
6. Pada ........................................................, empayar Brunei meliputi seluruh kepulauan Borneo dan pulau-puala di Selatan Filipina.
7. budak-budak itu berlari .................................... kerana dikejar anjing.
8. Air di dalam gelas itu .................................... kerana tangannya ketar-ketar.
9. Pak Abu mula menanam jagung di kawasan ................................. dekat anak sungai itu.
10. "Jangan angkat kain itu dari temput jemuran kerana masih ................................. " kata emaknya.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Exam Day!

It's exam day for quite a number of government officers. The last time the figure exceeded more than 1,000 civil servants with the majority coming from Division 2 and a few holdovers from Division 1. For those not in the civil service yet, you must have heard about the dreaded 'exam' word that most civil servants have to undergo nowadays. What makes this one harder is that you don't have classes to attend apart from a few briefings given by both the Public Service Department (JPA) or given by the Treasury Department - and the syallabus is huge.

The General Orders and Service Regulations paper (more popularly known as G.O. as the paper is based on the General Orders 1961 and all the service regulations issued since then to now) was originally a part of the Administrative Service examinations set way back from the late 1950s when the Administrative Service was first formed by the then British led government. The admininstrative service formed the backbone of the government machinery then with officers taken in to administer and carry out decisions made by policy makers (politicians). The service also formed the backbone of the judicial system where these officers when posted to outlying districts and areas became part time magistrates. So the examinations which these officers had to undergo was both G.O. as well as about 5 law papers made up of the Constitution as well as the major legislations. The number of law papers have been trimmed down to 3 but in the late 1980s, an additional Financial Regulations paper was included.

The Financial Regulations (FR) is based on the Financial Regulations first issued in 1974. The regulations governed all the financial dealings in the government service from procurement to storage. The regulations are quite massive. Sometimes when a payment voucher is returned back to the department issuing it, a stamped remark will be on it referring to some regulations which have not been complied with such as 117 etc and we have to go through the FR to find out what it is that we have not complied with.

The GO and FR exams were at first selectively applied to non-admin service officers in the mid 1990s before being made compulsory to all officers in Division 2 a few years ago. Nowadays every officer needed to know service and financial regulations as practically everyone will find themselves in conducting their work eventually to refer or to do things which may involve GO and FR.

I am sure readers would have lots of comments about these exams and I won't go through them. I passed all the GO, law papers and FR in the late 1980s and I know how tough they can be. The examination questions I have been told have evolved since then. In the older days, it was much more a regurgitation of what you learned and only a few analytical questions but nowadays the more favourite questions are the scenario questions - a description of something happening more or less based on real life situation encountered by either JPA or Treasury - and for the candidate to sift through that sitution and judged the various rules and regulations etc that may be applied to that particular scenario. The skills being tested are different and requiring understanding of the regulations rather than a straight forward what a rule or regulation is for.

To all candidates - all the best for today and Saturday.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Tutong Language

Last night I was reading a 1993 Beriga - a publication of Dewan Bahasa Pustaka Brunei - which contained an article about the folks in Tutong or better known as Orang Tutong. Most Bruneians recognise that among all the various Malay groups in Brunei, Orang Melayu Tutong has an interesting language only known to Tutongians. I used to know a little bit of the language when I was staying in Tutong and attended my Primary 1 school in Bukit Bendera in 1969.

The article in fact described or to use a better word theorise about the beginning of the Orang Tutong which in itself is very interesting as well as the history of the language. According to a chart done by a linguistic expert Robert Blust, the Tutong Language belong to a family of the Northern Sarawak language which is a part of the Austronesia language. Austronesia language comprises all the Malay, Indonesian languages stretching from the Madagascar to the Pacific Islands and from Taiwan to Easter Island. The Tutong language is part of the Northern Sarawak language which is made up of languages along the beaches from Bintulu to Tutong which included Berawan, Kiput, Narum, Lelak, Lemeting, Dali, Miri, Belait and Tutong known as the Baram Hilir language.

According to the historical research, the Tutong area used to be part of the Melanau government before the 14th century, most likely the early Tutong settlers were people from the Baram Hilir area and hence the similarity of the language. It was likely that the early settlers first settled in Lurah Saban in Tutong. When the Brunei Sultanate was formed around the 15th century, the sultanate took over the Tutong area from the Melanaus and since then Tutong has become a part of Brunei.

There are a lot more in that article about the origins of Tutong and the Tutong people and I would write more about that in the future.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Boats of Brunei

When I was a young boy in the 1970s, my father was the District Officer in Temburong. Unlike today where you can drive easily to Bangar through Limbang, in those days, the road was not as accessible and there are two rivers that one has to cross using ferries. Today you still have to cross one of the river using a ferry but it is not as bad as the road has improved tremendously. We went back by boat once every week or every two weeks back to Bandar.

Being on the water at least twice a week on the journey to and fro Bangar, the boatmen always talked about boats etc. It was a fascinating insight into another aspect of Brunei which we don't normally get to hear. In those days, boats were using 'injin sigal'. It took me quite sometime to figure out that the early boat engines were made by a company called Seagull and hence 'injin sigal' (seagull engines). So much so that by the early 1980s, the then Director of Marine Department was nicknamed Dato Ahmad Sigal to differentiate him from the other 5 Dato Ahmads in the government service.

'Injin sigal' was used from the early 1950s in the water village. Before the boats used engines, they were using sails (layar) and/or huge oars (known as Awat in Brunei). The boats were known as perahu pedayung and perahu pengabat. The sailing boats were normally made up of either layar tambang (using triangular sails) or layar turun (using square sails). But with the advent of the modern engine, other boats became more prominent such as perahu kumpit and perahu pelauk.

The traditional boats are still being used today usually due to the location or condition of the river. The most famous being the 'temuai' used in Temburong to bring visitors to Belalong. Another one though dying is the 'gaman' which are rafts used by villagers who lived along the beaches. Another one which is used in Tutong is called the 'bangkar' which is used to ferry the newly weds among the Tutong people. Another boat type or boat look alike is called the 'kuntul'. However the 'kuntul' (attached photo) is used for carrying things on land rather than in water and would probably sink if taken to the water. It is dragged by a bull and used to carry agricultural produce such as fruits or rice.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wedding Costs Again

The smell of marriage is in the air. I attended a wedding for a daughter of a senior colleague yesterday at the Rizqun which must have cost a fair bit. After that I rushed off to my uncle's for my cousin's nikah and menghantar berian ceremony. The marriage ceremony will be next Sunday. And there one of my aunties told me that her daughter, another cousin, will be having a besuruh ceremony at the end of the year and I thought it will end there when my youngest aunty told me that in January, her second daughter, another cousin will be engaged too. In total it looks like despite just attending a cousin's wedding a couple of weeks ago, another one end of the month, there will be another two whose ceremonies have just started. If I was to add the number of invitation cards for the other weddings which I was invited but could not attend, the number of invitations for this month is indeed one of the highest.

I am glad I am not my uncles and my aunties as the cost of all these can be very horrendous. One jay-z asked me to write about the cost of wedding for both male and female in brunei as he noted that it seemed if you don't have a minumum of $30,000, you can't get married and that's only from one side only, and that's a typical cost - so he posed the question of what happened if the money is not available? Is it possible to make the wedding occasion as simple and as cheap as it can be?

I wrote an entry about this in May (link here) where there was a spreadsheet about wedding costs (and funeral costs) that readers may wish to use as an estimate of how much it would cost them. It can be fairly expensive and much more than expected. Other than to say, one must plan way in advance, there are ways of mitigating or lowering the costs. A lot of us tend to want the biggest and most luxurious wedding ever. Who doesn't? Afterall how often do you get to be Raja Sehari (King for the day). However we have to bear in mind that we need to look at our budget rather than have the whole wedding at a cost which we can't afford. The most important thing in a wedding is the Nikah Ceremony and yet if you were to have that only, the society goes into hyper whispering mode behind your back. So, some of us are forced to have the whole wedding ceremony just to save 'face'.

Can we economise on weddings? Lately I have seen a number of ceremonies merged or consolidated into a few ceremonies instead of many. One that I remembered vaguely was sometime last year where the many ceremonies were merged into one. At 10 am, you would have the menghantar berian, then at 11, the nikah, followed by a quick berbedak with zikir ceremoney and by 12, the bersanding. At the same time, one can economise by reducing the amount of hantaran and also the number of guests. So, there are a myriad ways where wedding costs can be brought lower. But the most important thing is that the family has to recognise that they have to balance between being lavish and being affordable.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

December Blues

This is the month of December. Two years ago when I was the head honcho of the retirement agency fund, this is the month that would see the most number of fund members coming to see me appealing if their long term retirement fund can be taken out - if not the whole amount but just a little to cover their children's school expenses and other odds and ends. I would have to explain that their retirement funds are for retirement and that they are not allowed to withdraw other than for purposes which are allowed under the law governing that fund. For most of the fund members, their retirement fund seemed to be the only savings that they have.

December can be a distressing month for many people - the cost of outfitting a child for government school despite the fact that there is no monthly fees and free text books, can still be about a $100 a child - made up of school uniforms, shoes, bags, workbooks etc. If you have more than one child, then those expenses will certainly add up. If your children go to the private schools, then there will be added costs for the coming year school fees to pay for as well as textbooks to buy. If you have other expenses such as a wedding to prepare for as December seemed to be the month when most couples marry, December will be a very expensive month indeed. The more fortunate families go away for their holidays - the expense for a week in Singapore. Bangkok or KL can be quite expensive. Whatever it is, December is expensive.

However there are also those who find practically every month to be expensive. There have been many theories as to why this is so and there has been enough entries on this blogsite about it in the past, so I would not comment further. One commentator wrote yesterday on my entry on the colours of Brunei money - '... despite the varieties of colours of money, I am sad to say that I am one of the unfortunate few to come across the majority of our common people in Brunei who never get to enjoy the colours for long. I find it sad that most people end up with few dollars in their pockets by the second week of each calendar month. Going through the means of the people I came across saddened me. To think how they can feed their children, their own being, schooling, attires, it is so stressing. I wonder where we went wrong ...'

Indeed, where did we go wrong?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Colours of Brunei Money

Without looking into your wallet or your purse, tell me what are the colours of the Brunei money? We see the notes so often that sometimes we forget the colours but instinctively we know what the colours are. It's blue for $1, green for $5, red for $10, light green for $50 and I am not sure how to describe the $100. There are of course $500, $1,000 and $10,000 notes as well but of the latter, that's seldom seen. A guest blogger wrote about the Brunei Currency Gallery and the Brunei money sometimes in September. [For the blog, link here and for the temporary Brunei Currency and Monetary Board's website, link here.]

How did the colour of the notes come about? In the past, Brunei's money were made up of many things, other than just coins issued by the various Sultans but also coins of the other other countries of which coins from the Chinese Empire made up the bulk of it. We also used among others shells, strips of irons and even small cannons. However by the mid 19th century, Brunei started to use the coinage of Queen Victoria (dated 1845) which was the currency of the Straits Settlements. Also used at that time was the coinage and paper money of Sabah and Sarawak.

The paper money and coins of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya were used before the Second World War. And of course during the Japanese occupation, Brunei used the famous 'duit pisang' which was the currency issued by the Japanese government.

On 1st January 1952, the currency of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya was reconstituted as the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya and British Borneo. This is when you see the original colours of blue, green and red for the $1, $5 and $10 come in. Though the $50 and $100 notes were of slightly different colours and the denomination of $1,000 and $10,000 were also issued.

New coins and notes bearing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II were issued and continued to be made up to 1961. In 1959, the Board had issued new designs where the portrait of Queen Elizabeth was no longer used but the colours remained.

Under the 1960 Malaya and British Borneo Currency Agreement, the Board was responsible in circulating the paper money and coinage in Malaysia and Brunei. In 1964, this agreement was terminated and the Board ceased to issue the currency to the banks and public on Saturday, 10th June 1967. The issuance of currencies were to be made by each country, in Brunei by the Brunei Currency Board, in Malaysia by Bank Negara Malaysia and and in Singapore by the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore.

On 12th June 1967, the Brunei Currency Board for the first time issued and circulated notes in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $50 and $100 in the original colours as the previous currencies of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya and British Borneo. In fact all three countries retained the same colours and maintained the same colours up to now. That's why when you hold the Malaysian notes or the Singapore notes, the colours looked quite familiar even though there are slight variations. It was the original 1952 Board which influenced what our money looked like today.

On 22nd August 1967, Brunei Currency Board issued and circulated Brunei coins of 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents to the banks and public. The coins of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya and British Borneo were then withdrawn. On the obverse of the 1967 paper money and coinage is the portrait of the late Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, the 28th Sultan of Brunei.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Brunei Haversack

Sometimes we take things for granted. Take 'takiding' which is the basket that were used to carry things in Brunei Darussalam. It is not used very much or at all nowadays but everyone knows what it looks like and what it is. It was previously used mostly in farms when farm produce or fruits are picked, they are kept in the 'takiding' carried all the time at the farmer's back.

We all know that it is made out of bamboo but not much more beyond that. According to one article I read in the Berita Muzium, one villager in 1996 described that the art of weaving bamboo into baskets was a Kedayan speciality and for the Kedayans in the Brunei/Muara District, it originated from two villages - Sengkurong and Tanjung Nangka as they formed the majority of the villagers. According to the Kulapis Village Head, another village, Mulaut was also another village where the art of weaving took place and the 'technology' was later transferred to the Kulapis villagers.

There were also other baskets weaved in other districts and there are difference between the sizes, the physical appearance as well as the names of some of the parts of the takiding. The physical parts of the takiding include the 'pusat','bisul', 'bingkai atas', 'bingkai badan', 'sirat', 'junjung', 'gariwat' and 'tali takiding'. The size of the takiding are generally sized to carry about 2 gantangs (roughly about 9 liters) of padi (uncooked rice).

To make the 'takiding', there are several materials require which include buluh (bamboo) which can be buluh tebal, buluh arnab, buluh tamiang and buluh liat. Buluh liat is also known as 'meikong buaya' literally crocodile's tail. I am not sure why. Other materials include bamban which is the bark or skin of a type of wood, rotan (mature bamboo), salingkawang (type of root - used as the rope to bind the takiding), timbaran (another skin/bark used as the harnass) and water (used to soften the other materials).

The design on the takiding is known as 'kelarai' and the kelarai have many names depending on the design. Some designs are called 'saluk kali', 'sinangkait sepanggal', 'sinangkait bulat', 'biji pelajau', 'buah bunut', 'bulan', 'mata punai', 'sayap kulimbambang' , 'tangkai gayung', 'buah bangkal', 'bisik damit', 'bisik besar', 'guramai lilipan', 'pucuk siar', 'ungsut' and 'adiemu',

The whole article in the Berita Muzium actually described the whole art of the weaving - made up of about 10 separate steps. I won't go into detail but I will make the whole article available on pdf and will post it up on main library at

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Thousand Year Old Brunei Town at Limau Manis

Sometime in July when I wrote about the Antiquities and Teasure Trove (Ancient Monuments and Historical Sites) Order that listed all the protected places in Brunei, one of the places was the Limau Manis River Site. At that time, I didn't know why it was included and one Indiana Jones commented that there is a book about it. I was too busy then to look for the book but yesterday I met with the head honcho of museums and we talked a bit about the KB2 site at Kota Batu (said to be the site of the Makam of Sultan Sharif Ali). KB2 is a newly found site near the Museum. Naturally the subject moved on to the Limau Manis site which he said is around 500 years older than those at Kota Batu and that copies of the book describing the site was still available.

After the meeting, I asked my driver to get the book from the Museums publications unit entitled "Sungai Limau Manis - Tapak Arkeologi Abad Ke 10-13 Masihi" loosely translated as "Limau Manis River - 10th to 13th Century Archaeological Site" edited by Pengiran Dr Karim (published by Brunei Museums 2004 and can be bought at the price of $19.00). So after a whole night spent reading the book, the following is the gist of the Limau Manis site.

The site was discovered accidentally when the river was widened (similar to the discovery at Tanjung Nangka). The discovery included some 50,000 potteries with the majority of them coming from China and with a few coming from Siam and Vietnam. The potteries are dated to the Song Dynasty (960 - 1296) and the early Yuan Dynasty (1296 - 1398). Chinese coins were also discovered from the earlier Tang Dynasty (618 - 906). More than 1,000 coins were discovered at the site ranging from the various Chinese Dynasties from 618 to 1117. Wooden artifacts were also found including that of a face mask. There were also many beads of multicolour, glass bracelets, stone artifacts, shells, animal bones, gold rings and bracelets, lead as well as human skulls and bones.

Based on the sizes and types of the foundation logs being found, the site was definitely a town made up of many houses - some wealthy, some middle class and some poor houses. So a proper economic and social hierarchy was set up there with trading carried out extensively. The site can be as old as 10th century which will make it at least 500 years older then the current traceable history of Brunei's first Sultan. This town looked to be a pre-Islamic town as wild boars bones were found and these were hunted and eaten by the inhabitants then. There were no burial grounds unlike those at Kota Batu. Most likely the inhabitants did not bury their dead but left the dead in open coffins before taking the bones for a secondary burial.

Due to its location which is very far inland, it was also speculated that this town though huge was not the main capital but rather served as a feeder point to the then Brunei's capital wherever that was in those years. If the server town is this big, then the actual capital must have been so much bigger. And if one feeder town existed, then several other feeder towns existed elsewhere in Brunei and in our former neighbouring states. This discovery is very exciting and really shows how extensive the rule of Brunei was in those years - rather than just as a thallasocracy (maritime empire), Brunei's rule extended inland as well.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Traditional Kuehs of Brunei

According to my gym instructor friend, one of the questions that he had to study for the Brunei nationality exam was - 'what is the difference between the wet cakes (kueh basah) and dry cakes (kueh kering)?' - and - 'name the two types'. This former is a rather tough question to answer and to find the definitive list of Brunei kuehs without knowing where to look is also equally tough. I wrote a little bit about Brunei kuehs a while ago (link here) but since I now have a book with me describing the list of Brunei kuehs, I thought I will revisit the subject.

Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka published a book entitled the Traditional Cakes of Brunei - in Malay in 1986 (which has ran out) and reprinted it in English very recently. I got my copy from s@s (thanks s@s!) very recently. The book contained all the traditional cakes or kuehs of Brunei and divided them into wet and dry ones. So you would automatically know which one is which. By the way - the answer to what is the difference between the two is that the dry ones keep for very long and the wet ones, you have to eat more or less straight away.

The book is actually a cookbook and it described how each kueh is made. Since many of the Brunei kuehs require special utensils, there is also a whole section of specialised Brunei moulds of which I have never known existed before. For instance to make buahulu (spelling as given), there are about 5 different types of moulds including big sized flower mould, sakah-sakah mould and horse shaped mould. There are other types of moulds for the other kuehs such as the madu kesirat mould, pengangan papan mould and the sapit mould. Other utensils described include the pangantulan katu mayang, palinggangan and the palitan. The descriptions of each one and the pictures are included in the book.

If you ever wanted how to make Brunei kuehs, the recipes of each and every single Brunei kueh is in the book. Though I have to admit, something got lost in the translation. For instance, to make ardam it says 'wash rice, soak in water for 2 hours and drip away' - drip away? I would like to see what the Malay version actually says. The recipes did not state how many pieces of kuehs can be made from the amount of ingredients that is stated. The recipe for Kueh Jala requires 1.8 kg rice and 1.5 kg sugar. I don't know much about cooking but 3.3 kg worth of something would make a lot of Kueh Jala!

Despite that, the book is very useful - even if you will never be cooking or making any of the kuehs - it's probably a lot easier to buy small quantites at the tamu - the book does provide wonderful knowledge about the traditional Brunei kuehs and hence the Brunei culture and heritage as well. Go to Dewan Bahasa and get a copy.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Origin of Burong Pingai

The early Bruneians used to live on the water and most Bruneians can trace their origins there. For instance, my great grandfather used to live in Kampung Saba but when he married my great grandmother, they stayed at her village in Kampung Pandai Besi. Ask many Bruneians and their story would be more or less the same. How did I get to dry land? In my case it was my grandfather who joined the Royal Brunei Police Force and was posted to Panaga in Seria where he was a Sergeant Major when the station defended itself against the rebellion. Our family had never returned to the waters ever since my grandfather made a living on dry land.

One kampung which kept their identity despite moving to dry land was Kampung Burong Pingai. I think this is the only Kampung which has both the water version Kampung Burong Pingai Ayer and the dryland version Kampung Burong Pingai Berakas. The migration took place around the mid 1950s when several families moved inland from the water village. Kampung Burong Pingai Berakas can be seen on the left hand side of the highway from the Airport. In the 1970s and 1980s, this low lying village used to suffer from frequent flash floods that the government had to build a flash control water storage. Now with the river widened, floods no longer occur.

Kampung Burong Pingai was originally named Kampung Ulu-Ulu. This is because of its location which is at the Hulu (the interior or the beginning) of the Brunei River. It became Kampung Burong Pingai when according to history, one villager (said to be a Pembalat - one who catches fish using a basket made from bamboo or makes fish traps made from bamboo) from Kampung Saba who made a living at Kampung Ulu-Ulu found a white bird making the sound 'pingai, pingai, pingai.' The man knew that the Sultan Muhammad's wife had lost the bird named Si Pingai. He caught the bird and presented it to the Sultan. Ever since then the kampung became known as Kampung Burong Pingai. Sultan Muhammad's wife was said to be a Johor Princess and this was said to be around 1368.

In 1956, the Brunei government offered to resettle Kampung Ayer villagers on dry land. The first group of villagers moved to Kampung Bunut and Kampung Burong Pingai was the second group. Each family was given one acre each to start their new life. Up to now, Kampung Burong Pingai Berakas more or less retained the families of the original settlers and numbered no more than 70 houses in total. In 2003, the Kampung celebrated its 50th Golden Jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of Kampung Burong Pingai Berakas.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Marathon

Just got back to work this morning and found that my in-tray is not only full but overflowing and my diary is pepppered with appointments and meetings. I am also covering for my colleague who is on leave for the next 2 weeks and with the reshuffling of our directors, I also have to cover for one of them until we find his replacement - so altogether, with mine, that's 3 persons' work that I had to do. So apologies for those expecting to read a new entry about something factual about Brunei this morning - I am doing work marathon today with work way up to my neck and can't reallly think of much outside work this morning.

And since I just got back to Brunei yesterday afternoon, I can't join in the comments for Brunei's biggest event - the Brunei Marathon. My family and I were on the road early yesterday morning heading towards KLIA when the Brunei Marathon was held. The Brunei Marathon from what I have read had many problems - that's what most of the major bloggers had said and even my driver mentioned it to me this morning on the way to work. However I am quite surprised to hear about it considering this is not our first time organising it and secondly, from what I have discovered, organising events is Brunei's speciality. So, what happened?

Hopefully, I have an answer tomorrow. Or at the very least a new daily entry on something about Brunei. Apologies for to everyone.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Bruneian in Kuala Lumpur

Spend a long enough time in any one place, you will always see something interesting. One of the interesting shops I saw along Jalan Pudu (or was it the Jalan before that?) in Kuala Lumpur was this shop selling coffins. That's pretty unusual - of course when compared to Brunei - but what interest me more is not that shop but the shop next to it. It was a fastfood restaurant. My uncle was zooming a little bit fast and I wasn't able to catch a photo of it. Imagine the conversation you would be having after passing by the coffin seller on your way to the restaurant and being reminded of your mortality - "...maybe I will just drink water instead of this fat ladden fastfood stuffs - maybe I just want to live that much longer..."

Another thing I learned is just how bad KL is trafficwise during rushhour. I know some Malaysian MPs have described certain parts of KL as the next Patpong but I can assure them that the whole traffic system in KL have almost matched if not exceeded the Bangkok traffic jam. On the way back from KLCC to Times Square, it took us almost 2 hours to get from one place to another. I thought Bangkok was bad but this is worse. So the next time I am caught in the traffic jam at Jalan Tutong at the Bunut/Medewa area, I am going to say Syukur Alhamdulillah, the Brunei traffic jam is still manageable compared to the snail like pace we went through trying to get back.

I saw a road named Jalan Brunei also in the Pudu area. According to my uncle, Pudu is sandwiched between Bukit Bintang and Cheras. For an area which is in the middle of the city and adjoining that of the brightly lit Bukit Bintang - it has not seen much development. Pudu is more famous for its Puduraya bus station as the centre of all buses coming to KL. Jalan Pudu stretches from that bus station all the way to Cheras.

Pudu is known for its wide variety of Chinese cuisines and a number of restaurants are found there. Jalan Brunei however is famous for Pudu's other well known business which is printing. There are a number of printing shops along Jalan Brunei. Surprisingly the Malaysian JKR map of KL labelled the road as Jalan Berunai whereas the road signage says Jalan Brunei. That seemed to be an interesting quiet tussle between the JKR, a federal agency versus DBKL, the local authority with regard to the naming of the road. There is a whole bunch of other Bruneis off the proper Jalan Brunei. There is Lorong Brunei Selatan, Lorong Brunei 2 and Lorong Brunei 3; and Jalan Brunei Barat and Jalan Brunei Utara. I would really love to know how that road and all the other roads get their names.

A Bruneian is always good at ferretting out good places to eat. The one haunting area that a Bruneian - at least those in the know - must go to is Syed Restaurant in PJ. This restaurant served the one and only Nasi Briyani Bukhara. I didn't know about this particular restaurant but three years ago, my principal, then the PS of PMO asked me to search for it. He said that during one of his trip as part of the royal entourage, he was served this briyani. Apparently this is a favourite among the entourage. So we went to search for it - it's in front of PJ Hilton, if anyone wants to know. Since then I have always drop in there to have it everytime I am in KL. The restaurant tells me that every once in a while, a Bruneian would drop in and order like 50 packets to bring home to Brunei. The other famous food is the Satay Kajang - the famous one obviously is the Satay Samuri Restaurant which have grown so much larger since the last time I came here. With that kind of crowd, I would happily leave my job and open up a satay place.

It's time to say goodbye to KL and it's been an interesting week here and hopefully my mind will be refreshed for work starting Monday.
PS. All the best to the Brunei Marathon Runners!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The 2006 IMF Report on Brunei

In my entry on Brunei and the IMF, I promised that I will inform readers when the 2006 IMF report on Brunei will be released - yesterday IMF has finally released the summary report and it is now available on their website on this link. The 2006 statistical data for Brunei is available on the same website on this link.

I will not say much about the IMF report but suffice for readers to click on the two links above and read for yourself what is the economic outlook for Brunei. For those too lazy to read the full report, here is a short summary.

The Government has continued to reap benefits from the high oil and gas prices and this still continue to dominate the economy. The government has saved those windfall profits for future use. Expenditure has remained constant despite the higher income from the high energy prices. And on the monetary front, situations have improved slightly with lending to businesses strengthened and lower private loans. IMF expected the growth in GDP around ½% previously to be around 3¾% in 2006 and 2½% in 2007.

What does the IMF Executive Board think? They have praised the government for the sound economic management but they also emphasised the need to progress towards economic diversification and a fiscal strategy to handle the depletion of hydrocarbon reserves. They also recommended taking additional steps to strengthen short-term revenue volatility and welcome MOF's strategic long term plan for fiscal sustainability. On the macroeconomic front, they agreed that the currency board arrangements (our link to Singapore Dollar - link here to my May posting to read more) has helped to promote financial stability. They welcomed the move for Brunei to establish a new monetary authority.

Above all, they stressed that economic diversification is key to Brunei Darussalam's medium-term growth prospects. Even though the various RKNs have been aimed at promoting diversification but progress has been slow. They also recommended that economic activities to be better carried out by the private sector, reduce administrative obstacles for business start-ups, better align education and training with the demands of a diversified private sector, and study further options to increase value added in the energy sector.

In the past, the Directors have often chided the government for the poor stastical base but this time they welcomed the important steps taken to improve Brunei Darussalam's statistical databases, and stressed that reliable and timely data reporting will enhance effective monitoring and planning.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Airconditioning System in Government Buildings

On Monday morning at our international airport, my better half and I went to get two baggage trolleys - there were only two left - and we found out why there were these two left. There was something wrong with the braking system with both and we had great difficulty pushing the trolleys towards the check in area. These trolleys are relatively new. The older ones have been kept aside and you can see them stacked under Gate 7 and Gate 8 whenever you dine at the Airport's restaurant. I have been told that these 'older ones' are much better than the new ones but are not used because they needed maintenance work. However money is available to buy new ones but not available to repair old ones, so that's why you can find new trolleys at the airport and older ones being kept aside. This is one of those things which we in government seemed to be pretty good at. Though I noticed the airport had finally managed to get its aircond in working order.

I was at my uncle's the night before at the Beribi VIP housing. We were talking about his aircond bill which even though free but up to a point and he still has to pay the excess amount. He told me that his bill came to about $2,000+ a month. He said this is a complete waste of money as the official house he is staying in is fitted with a central aircond system and this was fitted more than 20 years ago. Even though there is only him and my auntie staying there, the entire house including the empty bedrooms are airconditioned. It was only last month after more than a year there that he managed to change the aircond system to one that has separate units. His bill came down dramatically from a four figure to a low three figure.

There are many government buildings where the central aircond has many problems. Fixing them are costing a lot of money. Even though the beneficiaries are the aircond service companies, the eternal problems that some of these buildings have with their aircond system makes me wonder whether we ought to abandon the central aircond system in any government building.

I also read BB yesterday about its "hot news" during the long drawn out trial of Brunei's ex-development minister and a contractor both accused of corruption. The hot air was due to the court's air conditioning problems. According to BB, the court's technicians informed them that the cooling tower had gone bust whereas some months ago it was the compressor. The whole article read like a comedy of errors with court interpreters not available and one that was dozed off. But of course the main issue was the aircond system packing up in the courts.

There are many nagging aircond problems like these throughout the government departments and government owned buildings. The buildings are nice to look at and nice to work in. But when there are intermittent problems like air-conditioning failures, the heat can be very unbearable. I don't know whether we have a serious problem with airconditioning systems or maintenance or have no idea how to take care of them or as some would like to argue, the finance people didn't give them the money.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Are we in recession?

In a previous entry about Kedai Tutup, a number of commentators, especially those in the private sector argued that there is an economic problem. I argued that problems in one particular sector does not mean that the overall economy is in trouble. But then again after sitting immersed in the jacuzzi in the Times Square swimming pool, my mind starts wondering again and I have to rethink my earlier position and reevaluate the situation from the point of view of an impartial economist.

Actually it's very hard to tell if a country is in recession or not especially if there are no high-frequency indicators like in Brunei.

Technically speaking, a recession is called that when we have two straight quarters of negative GDP growth. And the calculation must be done by using the seasonally-adjusted quarter-on-quarter growth rates. The problem is that our statistics do not show current quarterly GDP data. JPKE is currently in the process of developing quarterly data and until then we cannot really tell with confidence what economic situation we are in currently.

Alternatively, as some analysts would do, we can use Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) -- such as industrial production, business confidence index, retail sales index, consumer confidence index. We can make some infererences from such data. But again, Brunei doesn't have such data. And again we are in the process of developing some of the indicators.

Unlike other countries, Brunei does not have policy institutes or think tanks which can develop a third party statistics. Brunei's many Chambers of Commerce or even the Banks Association do not commission or own full time agencies which can carry out those work. So, everything is left to the government and to JPKE. It is also high time that for businesses to band together to get the studies done and not rely fully on JPKE.

So, in the absence of such data, technically we don't have much basis to claim whether we are in recession or otherwise.

Can we speculate based on the annual data? The answer is maybe. Based on the annual growth rates of 0.5% y-y (in 2004) and 0.4% y-y (in 2005) there ARE reasons to suspect that we MAY be in recession. But such suspicion must be confirmed by: (1) data from corporate levels; (2) some analysis on the sources of monetary growth.

(1) If private sector (based on their knowledge about their own balance sheets) says that revenue and income are indeed declining (and continuously declining) in the past 4 (four) quarters, then it MAY be true that we are in recession.

(2) If monetary growth in Brunei in the past 8 quarters (or two years) is determined by factors other than domestic trade (or economic activity), then we can SUSPECT that economic activity indeed weakens.

In short, at this stage we cannot tell with full confidence about the state of our economy. All we have is only a hunch, at this stage.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Brunei's New Export

I read in the New Straits Times (December 5, 2006) the report of one parliamentary debate on the situation of Bukit Bintang in KL. According to the paper, last week, one Malaysian MP described the place as becoming like the infamous Patpong area in Bangkok.

Yesterday, Bukit Bintang was described as a vice den. One MP said pimps ruled in Bukit Bitang and were blatantly offering p* to passers by. According to him ".. he recounted being approached by a transvestite from Brunei who told him that Malaysian laws were more lenient on soliciting than in his own country. To the amusement of fellow MPs, Yusop said, " He (the transvestite) said one could be whipped in Brunei for soliciting. He said all he had to face here was a fine." .."

There are many ways we can read into this news article. If the Malaysian Parliament opreate the same way as the British Parliament, if I am not mistaken the MP's speech is protected by parliamentary privilege and these members of Parliament cannot be sued or prosecuted for anything they say in debate in parliament. That's assuming he said something which in the ordinary sense can be sued.

The question is - did he say something bad about Brunei? He did imply that the Brunei laws are stricter when it comes to transvestite, depending on your point of view that could either be good or bad. Though honestly speaking I have not heard much about anyone being whipped because of being a transvestite in Brunei. What the MP also indicated is that there are Brunei transvestite who now operate in the BB area. Again that's something we can't do anything about. I don't know whether they travel with their dresses or in ordinary clothing or whether we could have stopped them from going to KL.

What's today's point? Nothing really, other than to highlight that particular news that I read in yesterday's newspaper and that even a single news item can have many takes. By the way, it's not available on the internet. Maybe just something for everyone to ponder upon. That kind of problem tended to be below our radar screen but we don't know the long term implication of it.

Anyway, I am in KL on a week's leave. I don't have access to my usual research material and hence, my postings for the rest of the week will be on the very bland side - perhaps at least to cool down from the previous few serious postings.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Where are we heading?

A couple of people asked me to comment on John Perry's resignation. In fact I have already heard about it a couple of months back and I started composing something which I thought I may want to post one day should the announcement came. So I prepared a long entry about it and about the economy etc. Last night, I started to think - put us in his position, would we have done any better? Would we have done thing any differently? We might and again we might not. Would we be able to change anything? And given all that, do I really really really want to post something? What good would it do? So I decided Naah.... and I deleted it not without regret. I think it would be best for all of us to look ahead rather than look back. We have to move on. I saw s@s has written a more succint post which I thought is more reflective of what a Bruneian would be thinking about the whole thing. Go and read it here. (Thanks s@s).

Sometime in September, I posted an entry about a book written by a Harvard Professor entitled "As the Future Catches You" which has a few interesting comments about Brunei. I also mentioned in the same entry about an email which I received talking about the differences between rich and poor countries. In the light of talking about the economy etc the book and the email might perhaps give us some pointers as to where we should be going.

"The Future of Brunei" was the title of an entry I wrote in August. The entry unfortunately was not as good as the title and all I did eventually was to point to the fact that our over reliance on the diminishing oil and gas reserves will create problems for us in the future. One Aaron John commented the following - ... we must start to open our eyes. We have to diversify our economy and not be wasteful. We have to start educating our children and youths about the seriousness of the situation. Teach them about our history. Enlighten them about other countries' success stories or failures. In the words of that politician character from The Manchurian Candidate "We must secure tomorrow today!

So, where are we heading? Over the years, the government has given us practically all the basic stuffs that we need to succeed - free education, free medical, free healthcare, subsidised housing, subsidised services, no personal income tax etc. The problem is we have become too reliant on all these. We don't know how to look after ourselves anymore. A lot of us, yours truly included, have always instinctively turned to the government when we started work. All the perks are there, so why worry - even though deep down we all know that we have to do something different - collectively. And we all know that our oil and gas will not last forever. We all know diversification of the economy from oil and gas is the answer. The question has always been - how do we get there?

Some argued that we should take full advantage of what we have the most at the moment and that is oil and gas. Use it to create subsidised industries to create businesses and jobs. This in a nutshell was BEDB's approach. Create an area - Sungai Liang was one such site - and turn it into a free trade zone area where everything can be created and manufactured within that area without being affected by the other laws of the country. In that area, it was envisaged that plants will be built run by the energy resources as well as the local raw materials needed to produce something else - the energy and the local raw materials to be sourced at a lower than world price - hence subsidised. The end results was supposed to be the creation of new jobs, new industries, new services, transfer of technology etc. How does that sound?

It sounds good, does it not? On the other hand, some also argued that our oil and gas is our lifeline. We must sell it to the world's market at market price and maiximise revenues out of it. To start any industry using subsidies from this must take into account the loss of revenue which may jepordise the future of the country. The loss of revenue if it is not equal to the job and business creation that was supposed to be generated would mean that the county might as well tolerate unemployment and probably lower growth in the short term as long as the state's coffers fill up. At the same time, it is also argued that using up the oil and gas resources for any subsidised industries would use up our reserves that much faster. And our economy is still not diversifying away from oil and gas. Once the resources get depleted, we are back to square one. How does that sound?

It sounds scary, does it not? What do we do? Some have argued the 'middle way' - given that no matter what we do, there will be great difficulty in creating subsidised business or creating subsidised jobs, so why not just maximise the sales of oil and gas and then used the proceed to provide unemployment benefits. That way everyone gains. How does that sound?

Sounds heavenly. (By the way, ever heard of what happen to the people of Nauru?) But what happens when the oil and gas runs out? In the older days, I remembered our elderly saying Brunei is a very lucky country. They used to say we have these three natural resources. Once the oil runs out, we rely on our sands, said to be the finest in the world (though I think the authorities have run some test and said that's not exactly true). Once the sands run out, we exploit our forests (in those days, the word environment does not exist, and not to mention in the 1960s, our population was barely 100,000 - any size forest was good enough). The thing was nobody ever mentioned, what happened after we run out of that too. So, back to what happens when the oil and gas runs out. Income from the sands and the forests, assuming we are exploiting them in a big way, will be way too small for it to replace the oil and gas income. Not to mention, we would also have a population base of people who have never worked but reliant on unemployment benefits.

So, what do we really do then? In a way we have already begun our journey to diversify the economy. MIPR has, whether impressive or otherwise, depending on your point of view, managed to increase a number of activities in the agro-fisheries areas. Our fisheries activities has increased in leaps and bounds. Our agriculture has incrased its production. We are self sufficient in chickens, eggs and vegetables. There are some industries, not as much as one like, but still there. Other aspects of the economy such as our financial centre has started to operate. Not many Bruneians have realised it. Brunei now host some of the world's biggest banks operating under the international finance center - Societe Generale, Royal Bank of Canada, OCBC of Singapore and CIMB of Malaysia, to mention some of them and a few more are expected very soon. Asset management companies are also here. The latest to open is the Singapore based UOB Asset Management. So there are already opportunities in the financial sector. Microsoft too will be opening its office soon in Brunei and hopefully this will spearhead the information technology sector.

We have begun the journey. Though the speed admittedly, not as slow as glacial speed, but definitely not rabbit fast either. Some economists say because we are suffering from 'Dutch disease' so trying to move away from oil and gas will be a difficult journey. For the non-economists, 'Dutch disease' is a theoretical concept where it is argued that a nation with natural resources will cause movements away from the non-natural resources sector (such as other industries and agriculture) by making them less competitive as resources move to the natural resources sector due to the natural resource boom. This is caused by a resource movement effect which causes the demand for labour for the natural resource sector to increase; as well as a spending effect as the extra revenues allow for employment in other sectors thus moving labour away from the 'lagging sectors'. In Brunei's case, the spending effect is more visible as the government sector is so much bigger than any other sectors combined. The size of the Brunei government in terms of proportion to the size of the population is bigger even when compared to countries in the middle east with similar economic activities and sizes.

One solution would be to reduce the size of the government. I am pretty sure you can think of all the implications for doing that. At the same time, are the private sector ready to take up the role of the government? So, would such a policy create more employment in the private sector or would it create more unemployment? What would more unemployment mean? We have in effect an interesting conundrum. You are on a log in a river. There is a tiger waiting for you on the river bank but there is also a crocodile waiting to pounce on you should you turn back. There are solutions to our problems but they are not easy ones.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Brunei and the International Monetary Fund

I was reading the BB (again!) about two recent articles - one appeared sometime during the week when I was away in Korea and the other one on Saturday about the IMF report. I was in the office about 20 minutes after arriving at the airport and I imed (instant messaged) my officer for not informing me about the release of the 2006 IMF report as I had left instructions for me to be informed when it was going to be released. He told me that the BB report about the IMF was not this year's IMF report. He said that this was last year's! So, this year's report had not been released yet. But he argued that even if anybody was to read it, nobody would knew what the context of the IMF's report was and let alone realise what year it was. So I thought I will spend a bit of time today to do a little education about the role of IMF and how that affects Brunei.

Have you ever had the experience when the ATM spat your card out with the screen flashing "INSUFFICIENT FUNDS". Surprised? Did you forget to top up your account? If you think running out of money is an inconvenience, imagine the same problem on a national or even global scale. Investors, bankers, and government policy-makers all hate these kinds of surprises, too. Without up to date economic data, a local problem in one country can cause trouble for other countries that have financial dealings there.

One of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) most important jobs is to conduct an annual "checkup" of the economy of all the IMF's member countries. These checkups help uncover issues in a country's economy that other member countries may be unaware of. Sharing accurate, objective information avoids nasty surprises in international trade and monetary exchange.

The annual economic checkup is called the Article IV consultation. The name "Article IV," comes from the IMF's rules that all member countries have agreed to. These rules direct the IMF to keep tabs on economic policies in each member country where a group of IMF staff visit a particular member country and will collect economic data and statistics and meet with various government and banking officials. They will prepare a report for the IMF Executive Directors and also use the information when they discuss the country and offer it advice. If it has an economic problem, it could grow to hurt other countries. IMF also functioned as a lender of last resorts. If a government is bankrupt or unable to pay for its operations, they can turn to the IMF for financial assistance. However IMF will impose many conditions for that loans which may be painful to the countries concerned such as the need for increasing revenues (taxes), reducing expenditures (less subsidies etc). It is better not to be in that position.

The IMF collects among others, these three main data:
  • The values and amounts of the country's imports and exports - This can help tell if the country's international trade is healthy.

  • The amounts of government tax income and operating expenses, including civil service wages - This can confirm whether the government is allowing its debts to grow too much to be good for the economy.

  • Interest rates and currency exchange rates - These figures help tell if there is enough money available for investment and whether the country's exports are competitive on the international market.
The IMF Executive Directors upon discussing the report will also advise the country on their current economic policies and policies going forward. These measures can hopefully prevent future economic and financial crises.

The same Article IV mission was here in Brunei Darussalam last July. In fact the IMF missions have been coming almost every year to Brunei Darussalam since we became the 180th member of IMF in 1995, conducting a 'checkup' on our economy and the government finances. One of the least known fact to most Bruneians and in fact to almost most citizens of the various countries in the world is that their country is being checked, inspected and audited. The Brunei government has to tell IMF everything and the IMF gets data on everything they wanted and if they don't like the data or think the data is suspect, they can get their data elsewhere. The mission produced a confidential staff report telling the government what's wrong and what needs to be done. Even though the report is confidential, a short executive summary called the Public Information Notice (PIN) is always made public. As usual this year's PIN on Brunei will be made available on IMF's website for you to read (I will inform you once IMF releases it) and you don't have to wait to read it in BB next year. So, if you are under the impression that the Brunei government is not being scrutinised, think again.
PS. The following are links to the IMF website containing documents on Brunei Darussalam if you are interested to follow up further:-

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