Hari Raya in Brunei (past and present)

[Note: I wrote the following piece about Hari Raya present and past, in yesterday's Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times (28th September 2008)].

On Tuesday night, everyone in Brunei would be glued to the radio and television waiting for the announcement whether Hari Raya will be the next day or to continue fasting. This has been the practice in Brunei for as long as it has its own radio service and surveyors to look out for the new hilal or new moon.

Up to the 1960s, there were small groups who would not be following the rest of the country. They followed the decisions of the neighbouring countries arguing that we are on the same island, obviously not realising the different interpretations of determining the sighting of the hilal. But nowadays, everyone eagerly awaits the results of the sighting.

Eid ul-Fitr had its beginning when in 624 CE, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) with his companions and relatives celebrated Eid ul-Fitr for the first time ever after winning the Battle of Badr. This battle was the first large battle between the Muslims in Medina and the Quraish in Makkah and the victory was considered as decisive. Ever since then Eid ul-Fitr has been celebrated throughout the world.

In Brunei, over the last week or so or what is known as ‘malam-malam lekor’ many would already be lighting up their kerosene lights lighting up the lawns. Nowadays, everyone switched on their decoration lights but in those days, kerosene lights would be used. Though these old lights retained their popularity with a number still being sold and used.

Bruneians would start the day by performing the Eid ul-Fitr prayers in mosques. When the SOAS Mosque was not yet completed, prayers were held in the open field with His Majesty Sultan Omar Ali himself praying with the public.

When the mosque was completed in 1958, it attracted many Bruneians. Up to the 1970s, the mosque would be filled to overflowing and many would be praying in the concourse outside and even some would spill over to the pavements and streets outside.
After the prayers, there will be visits to departed loved ones. Though there is no change in the visits to the cemetery and the reading of the yassins and tahlils, there is a change in the scented air asah-asahan poured on the gravestone and the grave of the loved ones.

In the past, one would have to prepare it and bring the water to the graveyard. Nowadays, the water is purchased already made at the tables outside the cemeteries. In the past too, not many people know how to read the yassin or lead the tahlil. Imams are often asked to lead the recitations.

Brunei Malay males would be wearing 'baju cara Melayu'. In the past, the colours tended to be white or simpler colours and with a simple skirt-like adornment called the 'sinjang' or samping. The ‘cara Melayu’ would be baggy and there was a preference for the 'baju' or the shirt to be worn on top of the 'sinjang'. Nowadays, most would wear the sinjang outside and would tuck the shirt in.

The ‘sinjang’ too has become elaborate with some wearing the Brunei 'jong sarat' or hand woven sinjang with gold threads. Even those who cannot afford the 'jong sarat' would be using commercially available woven sinjang. ‘Songkoks’ or head covering would be worn. Tilted to one side was the fashion in the older days but straight is today's fashion.

For a time, the Brunei cara Melayu would have a small handkerchief like piece of cloth. Now, ‘cara Melayu’ has changed to the more simpler ones with just buttons or ‘studs’.

Whereas for the ladies, the kebaya was worn much more than today's baju kurung. Not many realised that the kebaya originated from the Arabic region with the word ‘keba’ or ‘kaba’ meaning clothing'. It is more than 400 years old. Nowadays, the kebaya is hardly worn and it is the baju kurung which is used widely.

Hari Raya is a joyous occasion and is celebrated by everyone. Houses are open to anyone who comes to visit the family. Though nowadays only children go to houses whose owners they do not know. But today their objectives tended to be collecting money given out.

In the past, it was not just children but adults too who go out visiting and dropping by to any houses in the kampong that they want to visit. Of course, in those days, there were hardly any strangers. Families do not own cars and cannot travel very far. Visits are confined to houses around the area. Those with members of their families living elsewhere or working elsewhere would not be able to visit them. Hari Raya was indeed a sad time for some people as their loved ones were not around.

In the 1950s, children visit houses and collect sweets. The number collected indicated how many houses they visited. Hardly anyone gave money in those days. By the 1960s, those who are better off started giving small change. A child would get up to 50 cents from the wealthier families. It was the 1970s when green packets containing dollar notes was adopted from the red packets that Chinese hand out during their New Year celebrations.

At the houses too, today’s many multicoloured cakes being served are the norm but in the past, the food served would be much simpler. Local food such as dried agar-agar, kueh Mumbai, kueh sapit, kueh bahulu was the norm. Instead of soft drinks, black coffee with sugar will be served.

Soft drinks would come in the 1960s with two major suppliers, one in Bandar called the Chop Seng Guan and another in Kilanas. Another famous drink was the Snowman from Labuan. These came in small bottles with the Chop Seng Guan selling theirs in a 72 bottle casing.

What every house would have is the ‘kek kepala meja’. These are cakes with very thick icing with decoration adorning it. These are not eaten but remained as the major decoration on the table throughout the festivities period. It is said that if a visiting young man was interested in one of the ladies of the house, he would indicate it by cutting this cake.

Another interesting practice is covering the food on the table. Four bottles would be placed on the table forming a square and a piece of linen would be placed on top of the bottles to cover the food on the table.

For the children too, today’s widely commercially available ‘bedil’ or fireworks are a far cry from the handmade bamboo cannons built by the children of the old days. These cannons would make really loud sounds and children would ‘shoot’ them competing against another from nearby villages.

But despite the differences between the past and today, Hari Raya Aifil Fitri remained for Muslims to spend the day thanking the Al-Mighty for all the blessings that we have received. It is a time to reflect on one’s victory having gone through an entire month of fasting but it is also a time for reconciliations, to ask for forgiveness, to enhance the relationship ties with one’s families and friends as well as to give and to share.


I remember fondly of "laminit" from Kilanas, it was a luxury drink for us and had it only for Hari Raya. My father had to drive to Kilanas from Seria to get it straight from the factory. Of course, the laminit with the ice cream soda flavour was an old time favourite !

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