Sunday, July 29, 2007

Memukun - Brunei's Unique Tradtion

[Note: The following article was published in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times under the Golden Legacy column on 9th June 2007.]

One of the unique features of Brunei Darussalam's many ethnic traditions and cultures is 'memukun'.


It is fairly hard to describe to an outsider unless one has actually listened to it.

‘Memukun’ is a very Bruneian tradition where a group of people (usually elderly) will sing accompanied by guling tangan (Brunei’s traditional musical instruments) or a small drum and sometimes accompanied with a dance.

Some have likened memukun to a 'quatrain singing to the tune of traditional hand drums'.

Normally it is a duet with one gender 'selling' pantun verses to the other 'gender' and the other side is supposed to ‘buy’ or reply with another set of pantun verses.

In the 1960s and 1970s memukun was very popular during weddings and memukun sessions can go on from evening until dawn the next day - this was called 'memukun kesiangan' (memukun until the daylight) or 'mukun menyubuh' (memukun until dawn).

There are still many households in Brunei especially in Kampong Ayer where memukun continued to be popular and remained a feature for evening entertainments during wedding ceremonies.

Even though memukun is said to be owned by Bruneians especially the native Brunei Malays, Brunei Kedayans, Brunei Belaits and Brunei Tutongs but surprisingly memukun is not unique to Brunei; a number of Brunei Malay origins who lived in the neighbouring state also practice it especially in the Limbang, Miri and Lawas areas of Sarawak.

It was said that in the 1960s, the experts of memukun were from Limbang and the good ones were always invited to Brunei and paid a token sum to perform at wedding ceremonies.

It is not known whether memukun is originally from Brunei or whether there is a mixture of culture between the two countries.

But what is important is that the memukun tradition is a traditional communication tool used by the Brunei Malay society and which also function as an entertainment during wedding and other social events and can go on for seven days and seven nights continuously.

During wedding ceremonies, the memukun session can be heard during the wedding itself or other functions during the ceremonies such as on the night of the wedding and on the third day of the wedding (muleh tiga hari).

Sometimes, memukun session can also be heard during circumcision ceremonies.

In the older days and even nowadays, memukun was carried out by two groups of people - one group made up of female and the other, male though two groups of the same gender singing to each other is also not unusual.

The two groups are separated by kain batik strung across the two groups.

The two then take turns at 'selling' and ‘buying’ their pantun verses.

If the lady is single and the male is single, normally if they are able to sell pantuns successfully, according to some elderly stories, the chances of them marrying each other are very high indeed.

So memukun is also part of a mating ritual of getting to know each other.

That is not very surprising, if you listen to some of the verses, they can be very suggestive indeed.

However to be successful, memukun sessions can not be carried out by just two people.

It requires more than the two (called ‘pelaku’) who will be the main actors selling and buying verses (pantun), a third will be drumming the hand drum and a number of dancers accompanying the session.

Another group of people known as the ‘pengunjak’ will also cheer those who took part either in the memukun or in the dance.

Memukun is always accompanied by a musical instrument.

Sometimes the accordion or the guitar or the full guling tangan set but the simplest is just a 'gendang' or drum.

The drum can be made up of deer’s skin or goat's skin or cow's skin and is known as ‘tambur’ among the Brunei Malays but the Kedayans called it the ‘dombak’.

The drums will be held in place by pins and always held on the laps of the drummers.

Memukun sessions are normally held at the balcony of houses and done simultaneously with the drums, the selling and buying of pantun verses and with the spectators dancing to the tune of the music.

The pantun verses are unlike the normal pantuns with some words or verses repeated and the additional of words such as –lah, - hai, -aduhai, -ya and –nya.

Memukun became mainstream when Radio Brunei broadcasted live memukun sessions in the 1980s.

When it was first broadcasted, the elderly vendors at the Tamu taped the sessions and replayed the memukun over and over again during the daytime.

Today memukun aficionados can even do a phone in during one of these live radio memukun sessions and sing through the telephone.

Every time the program is on, there will always be a number of elderly Bruneians taking part in the sessions.

Despite the seeming popularity, there is a worry that this unique tradition will slowly die.

Already not many people seemed to have spotted that most of the memukun lovers or those taking part tended to be more elderly.

If the tradition is not kept alive, it may not last and with that Brunei will lose another of its unique cultures.

For the time being, if you want something very Bruneian, memukun it is. Nobody else have it now. Just us the Bruneians.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Role of "Pengalu" in Brunei History

[Note: The following article was published in the Golden Legacy Column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times, on 2nd June 2007]

History sometimes overlooked the small people. Yet these are the people who mattered.

In the Brunei history too, one of the overlooked group of people are the 'pengalu'. Among Bruneians, some of the words used extensively in its old history have been forgotten. Most might remember the more colourful 'padians' - the group of women vendors who used to ply goods from house to house on the Kampong Ayer.

But with the word 'pengalu', most might not even know what the word stands for. Some mistakenly called them the male version of padians which could not be more wrong. It is a pity that many Bruneians have forgotten that 'pengalu' played a very important role in the Brunei commerce as well as in the development of Brunei history.


In the old days, Brunei among others exported camphor, tortoise shells, sandalwood and wild bees' honey. It is obvious that a number of these exports have to be obtained from the interior part of the Brunei Thalasocracy on the Borneo Island. Camphor can be gotten from the area around the Sabah hills and was said to be among the best in the region.

Those who lived in the interior would have to trade them with those who are able to export them by getting some of the things that they needed. A group of middlemen appeared bridging the gap between the exporters and the producers. These middlemen are known as the ‘pengalu’ – but pengalus are more than just middlemen.

They would venture into the interior through the Brunei rivers in their boats and bring whatever goods the natives living in the interior needed and exchanged them for the exportable goods. They would then bring those goods and produce outside and would trade them with the captains of seafaring vessels or with the padians.

Pengalu became the most important people in the whole trading chain. By having them as middlemen, they became the focal communication and transportation link between the various groups and between the coastal business and the interior business. By being the middlemen too, they also unofficially became the communication point between the government in the coastal areas and those in the interior.

Unofficially they also functioned as the agents in bringing communication between families, given the trust to deliver news and to bring information in many aspects from the government to those in the outlying districts.

The padians on the other hand concentrated in their water village areas but as we have seen, pengalus go further than that. Pengalus were not just limited from those in the Kampong Ayer area which was the seat of the central Brunei government then. But pengalus also operated from other Brunei government representatives in the coastal areas at the mouth of the major Borneo rivers then which included those in Limbang, Lawas, Terusan and Awat-Awat as well as other areas in the Borneo Island.

Those in the interior would normally use an area by the river waiting for the coming of these pengalus. These waiting areas eventually became villages in their own right. Kampong Kilanas was one such area.

One of the produce of the area then was pineapple or in Malay ‘nenas’. Pengalus would paddle up the Brunei River, down the Damuan River and enter the small Kilanas River and there the villagers would be waiting for the pengalus with their produce including their pineapples. Eventually that area became known as the present Kilanas Village.

A number of such villages have their origins from these river trades and pengalus played a major part in obtaining produce from these villages. Among the major inland centres that have been identified to be used by these activities included Limau Manis, Lugu, Menglait, Kiarong and Tungku.

Pengalus played an important part in the Brunei economy up to the 1970s before they disappeared from the commercial world. They usually practice barter trading rather than pay for the goods with money. In the 1950s, it was said that one gantang of rice can be traded for three katis of salted dried fish or two katis of smoked fish.

Traveling by the rivers and depending on the distance that these pengalus have to go to, a journey took more than a few days. After a few days, these pengalus would return back to their bases and most often they would stop at the place where both the pengalus and padians would meet to trade their goods with each other.

These places included the Labuhan Kapal (where the Bandar Seri Begawan wharf is currently), Kampung Kuala Peminyak, Kampung Saba and Kampung Lorong Sikuna. Kampong Lorong Sikuna is said to be named after the English word Schooner as British ships would use that place for berthing. The padians would then take the goods and would peddle them among the residents of Kampong Ayer.


One of the interesting developments of the tools of the pengalus was the boats that they used. Some pengalus travel far and wide and so they would be using small sailing boats but those that did not, would use a small paddling boat instead. With modernization in the 1950s, the pengalus began using small engine boats to enable them to travel further and faster.

But by then it was the beginning of the end for the pengalus.

Roads were being built into the interior parts of Brunei thus enabling those living inside to be able to come out and sell the goods for themselves for the first time without relying on the pengalus. Shops run by Chinese businessmen began to be built in the new towns and being on dry land, becoming better stocked than what any pengalu boats can bring. Tamu or places where goods and produce are allowed to be sold began to appear in town centres.

Both Pengalus and Padians were slowly becoming anachronistic and by the 1970s and the 1980s, both had disappeared after a few hundred years of being the prominent players in the Brunei commerce.

But what is important was the legacy these Bruneians left us. They were traders.

They were willing to do hard work. And they clearly obeyed the Al-Mighty as in Verse 29 of Surah An-Nisaa “… O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will ...”

Monday, July 16, 2007

History of Brunei's Musabaqah Tilawatil Al-Quran

[Note: An edited version of the following article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 26th May 2007.]

Like many Muslim countries, Brunei Darussalam treats the annual Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran or the Al-Quran Reading Competition with great respect. The winners will be given the honour to represent Brunei Darussalam in international Musabaqah competition as well as given great prizes.

But then Brunei had been holding its annual Musabaqah competition almost continuously since 1948. Before 1948, there must have been other competitions but those were not recorded and the recorded ones began soon after the war in 1948.

By 1948, Brunei Darussalam had lost its main mosque, the Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal right at the edge of Brunei Town due to extensive bombing during the battle for Brunei during the Second World War.

By then a relatively large temporary prayer hall which can cater to about 500 people was built made completely out of timber with thatched roofing and thatched walls. It was known as Masjid Pekan Brunei or Masjid Kajang and is located where the TAIB Building is currently on Jalan Sultan.


Musabaqah at Masjid Kajang


The first competition was for Bruneians who resided near the capital. The roads to the towns of Tutong, Seria and Kuala Belait were not yet built. Competition in the other towns began a few years after that.

The first competition was organized by the mosque committee members at Masjid Kajang. The main aim of the competition was to commemorate the new hijra year or the new Muslim years. It was also held only for men. It would be a few years later before competition for women and children were held.

The first competition was so successful that it was decided that a competition be held annually after that.

A few years later, it was also decided that for the management of the competition to be better organized that a proper association would be set up.

In 1953, an association called Persatuan Kesatuan Islam Brunei (Brunei United Islam Association) was set up. It was the only welfare organization that was registered with the government then.

With the association being responsible for the organizing of the competition, the competition was now organized at national levels with representatives from all the five Brunei districts (Muara was considered a separate district in 1950s).

In the 1950s, every district was allowed to send as many competitors as it wanted to.

Every competitors would be competing in one major competition.

But by 1956, the number of competitors increased that preliminary rounds at district levels had to held to reduce the number of competitors during the final.

The Brunei District itself divided the competitors into two groups – one comprising those who had been in the top 3 of previous competitions and another comprising those who have yet to win.

From these two groups, a final group of 6 was chosen to compete at the national level.

Today the competitions are funded by the government but then the competitions were funded directly by donations.

It was quite expensive too.

Due to the number of readers, the competition can take place for a whole day and lunch and dinners had to be served.

Despite that, there were sufficient donations by the public to enable the competitions to take place.

By 1961, Brunei received its first invitation to compete in the International Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran in Kuala Lumpur.

To enable the proper selection of Qari to take part in the competition, the Brunei Government decided that the organization of the national level competition to be organized by the Department of Religious Affairs taking over from the association.

Up to then, the competitions had always been held to commemorate the new hijra year and always took place on the 10th Muharram (Asyurra Day).

By 1961, it was no longer held for that event.

The international competition takes place around Ramadhan, and the national level competition was moved to one or two months before the international competition took place.

Brunei’s first international competitors were Awang Yusof bin Abdul Latif (now Begawan Pehin Khatib Awang Yusof) and Awang Haji Sabtu bin Haji Ahmad.

By 1961, the format of selection from the various districts had changed. The Brunei-Muara District (the Muara District was merged in 1961) sent four Qaris and four Qariahs as compared to the other three districts which sent two Qaris and two Qariahs each.

In 1965, the international competition was extended to Qariahs and Brunei’s first competitor was Hajah Aminah binti Siling. In 1973, Brunei’s Qari, Awang Haji Masud bin Haji Awang Damit won 3rd place in the international competition placing Brunei in the international quran limelight. He finally won the international competition in 1977.

The Astaka or the stage for the competition were pretty lavish in the old days.
Nowadays with the competition held indoors at the International Conference Centre in Berakas, the magnificiently built Astakas of the past are too big for the centre.

The competition was originally held inside the mosques at Masjid Kajang and later on at Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien when that was completed in 1958.

But by the mid 1960s, the Astakas were beginning to be built on the Padang at Taman Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien, each year’s design outdoing the previous year’s.

In 1967, to commemorate the 1400th year of the revelation of the Al-Quran, the artificial ship the Mahligai Bahtera built on the lagoon of Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien was used.


Many spectators sat on the steps of the lagoon to watch the competition.


Many were enthralled by the beautiful recitations of the Qaris and Qariahs then as they are now.

Aishah (radhiallahu anha) narrated that the Prophet SAW said, “Such a person as recites the Qur'an and masters it by heart, will be with the noble righteous scribes (in Heaven). And such a person exerts himself to learn the Qur'an by heart, and recites it with great difficulty, will have a double reward.” (Bukhari 6/459)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Padians: Women Vendors on Brunei Waters

[Note: An edited version of the following article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 19th May 2007.]

“When the tide rises, the women go in boats through the city selling provisions and necessaries,” Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler with the famous seafaring adventurer Magellan wrote this of Brunei way back in 1521, almost 500 years ago.

As late as the 1980s, every early day along the Brunei River, a visitor to Brunei can see a number of small Brunei sampans called ‘bidars’. These boats were rowed by women vendors with their extra large circular hats moving along up and down the houses along Kampong Ayer. Some of them also plied their wares along the jetties near the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. These women vendors were known as Padians.


However by the 1980s, the Padians were already a dying breed. In the next 10 years, none would be seen and today, the Padians have become completely extinct only remaining in the memory, paintings and photographs.

Yet the history of the Padians is the history of the Kampong Ayer itself. The method of vending along the Brunei River from one house to another has probably remained unchanged ever since the existence of the Kampong Ayer itself.

For historical reasons, Brunei has remained a seafaring nation and has never colonized much of the dry land. Even the thalasocracy that Brunei created in its heyday was concentrated on controlling trade to the interior at the mouth of the rivers, the entrance to Borneo’s interior parts and backed up by a powerful naval fleet of ships.

The Padians were said to be created by Pateh Berbai who eventually became Sultan Ahmad, Brunei’s second Sultan. In Syair Awang Semaun, Brunei’s contemporary epic poetic legends, it was said that Pateh Berbai got the idea of a floating market selling all sorts of foodstuffs, vegetables and commodities.

With such a big population (even in the 14th century, Brunei’s Kampong Ayer was estimated by Western travelers to consist of some 30,000 households), a big market on land would be difficult to manage. It would be more convenient for the wares to be sold on the boats on water and easier to disperse should there be any troubles or disputes.

However history indicated that it was the pattern of society that led to the development of the Padians. In the Brunei Malay society then, women were prohibited from wandering around freely and it was strictly applied. However food still needed to be purchased and this in turn led to the existence of the Padians. But with women unable to go out, it was a different class of women that did the plying of wares on water.

It was most likely that the first women vendors are indentured slaves (hamba) as only slaves had the liberty to go around at will, rowing a boat from one house to another.

At the same time, stratas in the Brunei Malay society also played an important role. These are in fact reflected in the names of the various villages in Kampong Ayer. The settlements reflected the status of the person as it also indicated the occupational activity of that person. For instance towards the lower part of Kampng Ayer would be mostly fishermen. It was the marketing of fish that most probably contributed to the existence of the Padian. The Padians would be selling their fish and other wares to the other Bruneians.

As time passed, more and more people took up the trade especially widows who quite often had to maintain large families. These women wore large head gear measuring some three to four feet across; although it was umbrella shaped as described by a British writer in 1848. But there were developments too even with the boats changing from a gubang to a bidar.

The Padians declined due to a number of factors. By 1906, the government had opened up the dry land and encouraged many Kampong Ayer residents to migrate to the interior parts. The development of the dry land and the capital brought about the existence of markets and ‘tamus’ or smaller markets. The Padians failed to continue serving as the centre of trade as the markets on dry land developed.

Padians were generally middleman – making a profit from the suppliers by marking up their prices and pocketing the difference. But by then, many of the suppliers brought their wares directly to the markets without going through the Padians.

The Kampong Ayer itself too has changed. Previously houses were isolated and one has to use the small boats to visit each other. However many houses were beginning to be connected via walkways called titians that are built on the river. That made the lanes in between the houses which can be navigated by the Padians becoming too narrow to navigate and some no longer freely available.

Proper shops too were built either on Kampong Ayer itself or in the newly developed town. This is not helped by prices being charged by the Padians not cheaper than in the shops. The high prices were necessary as the cost of their businesses may be higher.

Chinese Hokkien male hawkers were also taking the business away from the padians. These hawkers competed by having larger boats and therefore wider varieties.

The demise of the Padians was in some sense, expected to happen. They just disappeared one by one and eventually today, we don’t see them anymore. But what’s important we should remember that they played an important role in the lifeline and the development of the economy of Brunei over the last 500 years.

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