The Tobacco Smoking Tradition in Brunei

[Note: I wrote this for my Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times' Sunday 17th February 2008 edition. No wonder sometimes it is a uphill battle for the health authorities to eliminate smoking.]

IN DAYS of yore, a Brunei man sat on the steps of his house on the Brunei River rolling a piece of leaf with tobacco, lighting it and inhaling the smoke without a care in the world. In those days, the scene was one of tranquillity, about Brunei being quite literally an abode of peace.

Today, such a scene is no longer tolerated. Health concerns have taken such a serious turn that even Friday sermons at the mosques cite the dangers of smoking as well as the sins that one may be committing by unnecessarily endangering oneself by inhaling all the poisons from cigarettes — and endangering others by exhaling them. With such high levels of warning, the Brunei "sigup" or cigarette is almost nowhere to be found.

But then, the Brunei "sigup" has disappeared many many years ago. It was put out of circulation due partly to the importation of the multinational brands of other cigarettes.

Soon after the end of World War II, the international brands became popular and became in fact a part of Brunei's culture.

Names such as Capstan, Players, Rough Riders — better known as "sigup timbak" because of its rifle icon — and Torch Light — better known as "sigup lampong" — are better known. Other later known brands include Diamond, better known as "sigup kucing", Camel — better known as "sigup unta" — and Lucky Strike.

Smoking in Brunei in the days of old was seen as a cultural thing. The saying went, kalau balum pandai besigup belum lagi bujang tu — if you do know how to smoke you have not grown up yet.

So in order to become grown up, one must first learn how to smoke or "pandai besigup". The ability to smoke was equated with adulthood. Being able to smoke was not the only criterion — there were other criteria as well — however, it was the more visible one, at least according to this cliche-esque attempt to pass off toxicity for maturity.

A Brunei "sigup" was considered different than other cigarettes. Even the word used was a Brunei Malay word which singled out Brunei's cigarettes from any other. Non-Brunei cigarettes were known as "rokok", the Malay word for generic cigarettes. "Rokok" refers to the foreign brands.

A Brunei "sigup" was hand-made.

At first it was made out of a leaf called "daun kirai", the tobacco leaf which acts as the outer layer to hold the tobacco. The tobacco was placed inside it and the leaf was then rolled up, much like today's cigarettes.

The "daun kirai" and the tobacco provided a combined taste to the smoker. In order to have a good smoke, one would need to know what kinds of leaf and tobacco to buy.

Smokers praised the tobacco's good quality if it was "licak" or smooth when held tightly in one's palm and if the ash it produced was white and did not fall on its own.

Later, the "daun kirai" was replaced by a piece of paper. Despite this substantial difference, this kind of hand-made cigarette continued to be known as "sigup Brunei".

Bruneians not only smoked "sigup Brunei" but also used a smoke pipe to inhale their smoke. In Brunei, the pipe was better known as "pasigupan". This pipe was held in such high esteem that it formed part of Brunei's wedding culture. It was included among the accoutrements a bride was expected to present to her prospective groom.

The better tobacco that one used in the "pasigupan" or pipe left a better residue known as "liru" and a better ash. When lit and inhaled, the tobacco became white and, together with the liru, made the mouth of the pipe smaller. This was considered to provide a saving to the smokers. One did not have to keep stuffing the pipe in order to have a good smoke.

The long-burning pipe was especially appreciated during the war, when tobacco was not easily available and the pipe was one's handy companion on many a sleepless night.

The liru was also used as medication. It stilled tooth ache, was used for ointment against itch and also as an anti-termite repellant. The ashes were also rubbed against one's teeth so that they become whiter.

During weddings in Kampong Ayer, the pasigupan pipe was part of the groom's dowry. He would hold the long pipe during the wedding ceremony and it would be especially decorated for the circumstance. The pipe would have a holder decorated with flying butterflies (pemigangan berhias kupu-kupu terbang) which was made out of gold or gold plated metal. The pasigupan would not be lit, though some would light it symbolically — without inhaling — during the wedding. This ensemble became complete with the groom donning a "kris" tucked into his "sinjang".

Unlike today, cigarettes were served during wedding ceremonies.

This practice went on until at least the mid 1970s then fell into disuse, most probably due to better health education. The wider availability of cheap cigarettes had partly contributed to this smoking culture.

Cigarettes were not only served during wedding ceremonies but were also served during other social events as well, even strictly religious ones such as "tahlil" and "doa selamat" ceremonies, as well as circumcision events and the likes — in fact at any social gathering. Without cigarettes being served at the end of the meal, the event was seen as incomplete.

Today, when someone is invited to a social event, he or she has to make his or her own way there. In the olden days, someone would be sent to fetch the guest using a sampan. When the guest came down into the sampan, he would be served a cigarette either with a "daun kirai" or a branded cigarette.

Today, the Brunei sigup has completely disappeared and there are tales that there are still pockets of elderly Bruneians enjoying their hand-rolled Brunei sigup, but they are not easily found. The pasigupan, however, remains part of the royal regalia either during wedding ceremonies or for other ceremonies. The "pasigupan emas" or royal golden pipe is made out of gold and is usually carried by two sons of a Cheteria during Royal Wedding Ceremonies.

The Brunei sigup also lived on as part of the dressing of the Royal Groom.

The last item that he must have on his ensemble is segolong sigup berbujungkan emas dan bujungnya itu berkepalakan kalimambang yang dipegang oleh pengantin which is a roll of cigarettes with a golden tip decorated with butterflies to be held by the groom.


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