It has the power to excite you, or to threaten your constitution. Violent physical reactions can result from the mere memory of the food.
Ambuyat is the only uniquely Bruneian contribution to international cuisine. It is also found, under various names, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the island of Borneo with Brunei.
Popular Bruneian food is essentially Malay. Most Bruneians are Malay, and this is reflected in their language, customs and cuisine. Ambuyat, however, is uniquely Bruneian.
What is it, and why does it repulse or delight people?
Ambuyat is a gooey, runny colourless and tasteless substance which is placed in a bowl in the centre of the communal table, and extracted with a bamboo fork called ‘chandas’. Non-Bruneians like me are known to struggle to attach the ambuyat to the chandas. Ambuyat has the consistency and texture of the substance that starts in the nose, travels through the throat and is expelled via the mouth – much to the disgust of onlookers.
Bruneians love it.
Ambuyat is not the extent of the dish, though. The table is filled with other meat and vegetable stews, such as Tempoyak sauce. The ambuyat is dipped into the sauces, and these provide the taste to the dish. The stews and sauces can be delicious and even quite spicy. The issue for many non-Bruneians is not the taste but the texture of the ambuyat, the feeling of it running down your throat is like being forced to swallow the substance which starts in your nose…
If you can force it down, you can savour the taste of the accompanying sauces.
Can’t I just eat the sauces alone?
You could, but then you’re not eating ambuyat, and not immersing yourself in the cultural experience. It would be cheating.
What is it made of?
Ambuyat comes from the interior trunk of the sago palm. The dish is compared to tapioca starch, and to okra. It is relatively easy to prepare. Take the starch powder and add some water, before stirring. Then prepare the sauces for dipping.
What makes Ambuyat even more appealing is that it can be served with a side of durian, a fruit so smelly it is banned from public transport in countries like Singapore.
A Bruneian friend had ‘encouraged’ me to try it, just as I’d encouraged my friend to try vegemite. Our respective reactions were similar.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force down more than one or two mouthfuls. My friend was initially put out, before declaring with glee:
The staff meeting this afternoon is compulsory. It is expected to last for about three hours and it will cover the implementation of the new IT program and resources. All staff must be confident in the use of the new software and to integrate it into every aspect of their work. Staff do not need to bring their own devices to the meeting, but will need to install and run the new software on their devices, so attendance at the meeting is very important. If any staff member has other plans or commitments this afternoon, please cancel those commitments or communicate your absence, and the reason for that absence, to your Head of Department, before arrange for an alternative time to undertake the training. Could all staff ensure they arrive promptly so that the training can begin at precisely 3.30pm.
The staff filed in at 3.20, 3.25. They found a seat, deposited their notebooks, phones and pens, then made their way to the buffet. Rice, noodles, beef, chicken, stew…cupcakes, biscuits.
At 3.30pm, they began eating.
Eventually the meeting began, at some point after 3.30pm.
Parcels can be collected between 9am and 12pm, and then from 1pm to 4pm. This includes international parcels. Please be advised that parcels will not be issued outside of these hours, and that all parcels can only be given to the recipient after passing through every stage of inspection, including customs, which takes place at the central post office. Appointments may not be made. Recipients may only arrive at the post office during official hours and take a number. Remember to bring multiple forms of valid identification, and dress accordingly. Women must wear modest clothing and men must wear long pants. Men with long hair below the collar will not be served, in line with official government policy. Flip flops are not acceptable, neither are singlets or torn clothing. Standards of acceptable clothing are at the discretion of the postal staff.
Recipients rushed to reach the post office between 12.30 and 1pm. They took a seat, and duly waited for numbered tickets to become available. Then they waited. 12.30, 12.35, 12.40. Nervous eyes twitched before focussing on the prized ticket dispenser. 12.45, 12.50. The redundant ceiling fans squeaked in a forlorn attempt to dissipate the stifling tropical heat. 12.55, 1pm. Recipients rose to grab their prized ticket.
Staff waited, and took another mouthful. 1.05. Staff waited, and took another sip, under the gaze of the recipients. 1.10. Staff digested their lunch and chatted nonchalantly with their colleagues. 1.15, recipients grew impatient. 1.20, staff started dessert while the hordes waited hungrily for their parcels.
Sometime after 1.30, staff wiped their plates clean, dabbed the corners of their mouths and strolled over to the ticket dispenser.
Students mulled around the basketball court, as teenagers do. Dressed in their sport uniforms and their best running shoes, they waited with nerves, excitement, trepidation or reluctance for the start of the school fun run. About 5km was the estimate. No one really knew how far it would be. No one expected to have to ratify world records with the IAAF, so it didn’t really matter. Something else mattered.
The school had a coloured house system, but most students didn’t know much about it, nor what house they were in. It was even harder to tell when every student was wearing exactly the same school sports uniform, of exactly the same colour. Long sleeve sports shirt for boys and girls, tracksuit pants for boys. Tracksuit pants or leggings for girls, plus appropriate head dress in line with religious and cultural mores.
Mulling continued, in the playground and in the staff room.
Eventually the sports teachers stirred. A warm up must be conducted before any vigorous physical activity could take place. Thus, a CD was thrust into the player, and dance music floated across the school via the speakers.
Students filed over to the basketball courts and followed the teachers in their warm up. Boys less so than girls, but smiles found their way onto everyone’s faces eventually. Zumba over, the fun run could now take place. Ready, set…NO.
Something else mattered.
How can we tally house points if students are all wearing the same colours?
Ummmm – how about we pin a piece of coloured fabric onto the shirt of every student in the school? So they did.
The benefits of the warm up were starting to wear off, though ‘warm up’ was a pejorative term in the incessant tropical heat. Warm up completed; fabric affixed, now they could start the race. Not yet.
Teachers returned to the staffroom and heard their assignments – marshalling, first aid, water station, timekeepers…done.
Now there was nothing impeding the start of the highly-anticipated fun run. Ready, set…NO.
The aroma of heavy, fried, fatty, salty food wafted through the windows of the staffroom to the basketball court, to be inhaled by the students who were just about to set off on a gut-busting 5km run in stifling heat and humidity.
The teachers piled their plates with rice, noodles, stew and other tasty treats.
Run that red light. Speed. Ignore the road rules and never sit in traffic. Do it all. Get away with it, day after day after day…
You’d love to wouldn’t you. You could, if you were the Sultan of Brunei.
In his tiny, oil-rich Sultanate at the top of Borneo, the Sultan and his family never stop at a red light or obey any of the road rules that are imposed upon every other occupant of the South-East Asian nation. The Sultan drives gleefully behind two police outriders who clear traffic from his path and assure him safe passage.
The police motorbikes speed into traffic with sirens blaring, and gesture violently to every motorist to pull over- immediately. Drivers screech and swerve to the side of the road in an attempt to stop just 100 metres after the arrival of the police, lest they incur the wrath of the royals.
Motorists are more scared of the government than they are of crashing.
The Sultan and his family then fly past with their foot firmly planted on the accelerator. Danger matters not to the omnipotent ruler. His outriders clear traffic from expressways even when that sends motorists into the path of merging traffic. The police part motorists as Moses parted the red sea, and the Sultan’s loyal disciples obey.
If they don’t?
For a Bruneian, the consequences could be disastrous. The Sultan controls every aspect of their lives and could easily cut financial support. Malay Bruneians essentially exist on a subsidised lifestyle and a welfare system disguised as public service employment. Locals get out of the Sultan’s way.
That’s easier. The government could cancel their work visa and give them 48 hours to leave the country. Expats get out of the way.
Do Bruneians resent the Sultan?
They don’t appear to. They gaze respectfully at their glorious leader as he smiles and waves back from behind the tinted windows of his bullet-proof black Mercedes SUV.
Does it cause accidents?
Yes, but no more than the everyday driving habits of Bruneians. Locals speed, tailgate and fail to indicate. They nurse their kids on their laps while driving and use their phones. They let their kids run around the car without seatbelts. They don’t understand merging and they honk like mad if they’re made to wait half a second after a traffic light turns green, even though they have nowhere important to be – there’s not much to do in Brunei. This despite the fact that honking the horn is considered very rude in Brunei.
Another peculiarity of Bruneian motorists is their habit of waiting in the shade. They will seek out any form of shade while waiting at the traffic lights, even if it’s a full 15 metres back from the lights. Brunei is always hot. If you’re four or five cars behind the person in the shade, you might miss the green light altogether. Furthermore, every Bruneian knows someone who has been badly injured or killed in a road accident, but this doesn’t alter their behaviour. The Sultan is just setting a good example.
Strangely, Bruneians also run out of petrol a lot. Strange because Brunei is a very small country and one end of the country to the other is only a two hour drive. Strange too because petrol is cheap. It’s an oil nation. Cars are often abandoned at the road side with a small branch sticking out of the window – the universal sign of an empty tank.
What about the police?
The police rarely enforce road rules on a daily basis in Brunei. Police exist to serve the royal family.
What happens when the royals travel?
What happens when they go overseas? How do they react when they’re forced to wait at a red light or sit in traffic? They must go mad. It must frustrate them enormously, or remind them that they are big fish in a very, very small sea.
Once the Sultan has flown by, the outriders trailing his car give motorists permission to resume driving. This causes more potential carnage as drivers set off without indicating or waiting for other drivers. Worse still, some canny locals will speed after the Sultan’s entourage like loyal devotees following Moses.
Next time you’re tempted to run a red light, remember you’re not the Sultan of Brunei.
National anthems stir emotions in us all. They evoke national pride and a sense of belonging. They can inspire international athletes, and persuade patriots to lay down their lives. Anthems can make grown men cry and create incomparable life-long memories.
So which is your favourite anthem? Is it the anthem of your nation of birth, or the nation you now call home? Does your country have an anthem, and what does it mean to you? Perhaps your favourite anthem belongs to a foreign country.
I have heard a number of national anthems during my travels and I’ve listed the songs which created the strongest impression on me.
I like multilingual anthems. I like the interchange between the languages and the recognition of the multicultural composition of the country. Multilingual anthems acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants of the country and attempt to unite every citizen, at least symbolically.
South Africa – Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica translates as God Bless Africa. The anthem features Zulu, which is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, as well as Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The anthem moves seamlessly from one language to another and encompasses the contrasting cultures which make up the rainbow nation, which actually has 11 official languages.
New Zealand – God Defend New Zealand
God Defend New Zealand is another bilingual anthem, which is sung in English and Maori. Now, as an Australian, I’m not supposed to like the New Zealand anthem, nor their Rugby Union team, nor their cricket team. I’m also not supposed to admit that anything from Aotearoa is better than anything in Australia, but NZ gave women the vote before Australia, signed a treaty with their indigenous population, and gave us Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks…
A national song featuring Maori lyrics is also a perfect precursor to the Haka, performed by many New Zealand sporting teams. Needless to say, I enjoy watching rubgy games between the Springboks and the All Blacks.
Ireland – Ireland’s Call – Amhran na bhFiann
Ireland does not have a bilingual anthem, it has two. Amhran na bhFiann is the official anthem, with Irish Gaelic lyrics, while Ireland’s Call is sung for the Irish Rugby Union team, because the team is comprised of players from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland’s Call is said to promote a greater sense of unity.
Spain – La Marcha Real
The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, sparked a social media meltdown during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The Spanish players did not sing to their anthem before their first game against Portugal, and people blasted them for being unpatriotic, pampered, unworthy and disloyal, and demanded the entire team be dropped before the next game. People unleashed their own fury on La Furia Roja until one informed user explained;
The Spanish national anthem has no words.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino also have no words to their anthems.
Sport, religion and war
A pattern exists in national anthems. Most of them reference war and religion, and they provide an effective backdrop to sporting contests. Most anthems pay tribute to the country’s most prominent deity, and encourage loyal citizens to give their heart, their soul or their lives for their country. Anthems of colonised peoples honour battles against oppression, and anthems of the colonisers praise the might of the nation, normally referred to as the Fatherland.
Was any national anthem written by a woman?
Sporting competitions are obviously the most visible expressions of nationalism, and anthems are central to that expression.
Australia – Advance Australia Fair
You’ve already realised that I’m not very patriotic; after all, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand. And no, I don’t love my own anthem. The tune is boring and uninspiring, and the words are equally tepid, as well as being problematic.
I’m not the only Aussie who doesn’t love their anthem. In fact, custom dictates that any Australian who knows all the words to the anthem is UnAustralian. Anyone who sings with their hand on heir heart is pretentious and trying to be American. The phrase ‘girt by sea’ confuses most citizens and even the most patriotic locals sing ‘let us ring Joyce’ instead of ‘let us rejoice’. No one knows who Joyce is and why we should call her – maybe she knows what girt means.
Advance Australia Fair is problematic. The opening lyrics tell us that ‘we are young and free’. Calling Australia young ignores the indigenous history of the country. Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest living civilisation, having occupied this land for about 60,000 years. Calling Australia young recognises only the history of the country since colonisation in the late 1700s – i.e. White Australia.
Using the word ‘free’ also ignores Australian history, and the fact that Aboriginal people were enslaved (yes, slavery existed in Australia) were stolen from their families, were denied the right to vote and were not even counted as people until 1967. For these reasons, and the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, many indigenous people disapprove of the anthem, and many indigenous athletes refuse to sing it while representing their country.
Many Australians find little inspiration in Advance Australia Fair, and often look to pop songs for patriotic stimulus. I am Australian by The Seekers is a popular substitute.
I’m also not a fan of God Save the Queen, because England is ‘The Old Enemy’, and because I despise royalty. I also dislike the Star Spangled Banner because the only thing worse than losing to England is losing to The United States of America, and because the anthem usually accompanies chants of “USA!!, USA!!…” I found the national anthem of Brunei so uninspiring that after three years of living and teaching in the ‘Abode of Peace’, I don’t remember a single word.
I’ve never heard the national anthem of Cyprus, but not because I’ve never been there. Cyprus has no official national anthem.
Mexico – Himno Nacional Mexicano
Invoking war and warriors is a common theme in anthems, and this is true of Himno Nacional Mexicano. The stirring tune begins with:
“Mexicanos al grito de guerra…” which translates as “Mexicans to the cry of war”. It ends with “un soldado en cada hijo te dio,”, a promise that every son or daughter is a soldier for Mexico. It is one of the more passionate anthems, expect when mumbled by a bunch of teenagers at 7am on a Monday morning.
A legend also accompanies the creation of the hymn. According to historical accounts, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra wrote the lyrics after being locked in a room. His girlfriend encouraged him to enter the competition to devise the lyrics and when he refused, she locked him in a room full of patriotic images and only released him once he slid the ten-verse piece under the door.
France – La Marseillaise
I nominate La Marseillaise as my favourite national anthem. I know I’m not alone in this choice. I’m not French, I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile and I don’t speak French, but I was moved most by this national anthem.
I experienced a rousing rendition of the anthem on two occasions at the Stade de France in Paris in 2003. After Eunice Barber won the long jump, and her compatriots won the Women’s 4 x 100m relay at the World Championships in Athletics, I witnessed a stadium full of French patriots belting out their anthem with unbridled passion and raw emotion. I felt goose bumps and the hairs stood on my neck. It was so moving that I stopped working. Most reporters at international Athletics competitions don’t stop working during medal presentations because they’re too busy. When the French filled the stadium with their patriotic fervour, however, we all savoured the sound of thousands of patriots singing one of the world’s most inspirational anthems.
Teachers and staff rushed madly around the school trying to fix a failed institution in time for the visit of the man who had raised himself to the status of a god among his own people.
Bruneian teachers dashed madly this way and that for weeks in order to impress a man they regarded with an equal amount of reverence and fear.
“Kieran, you’ll be in the official welcoming party for his majesty,” I was told upon arrival.
Oh no, I thought. I Immediately knew I would be the only ‘orangputih’, or foreigner, in the welcoming party and the Sultan would never pass up a photo opportunity with one of the white people who gave his country’s education system the semblance of professionalism.
I also felt like death warmed up after a fitful night’s sleep which ended abruptly at 4.30am when the daily ‘reminder’ blasted through loud speakers. What’s more, I’d been required to arrive at school before 7am, knowing that my afternoon teaching shift wouldn’t start until 12.30, and would end at 5.30pm.
This meant that once the Sultan’s flying photo opportunity had finished, I’d be forced to twiddle my thumbs at school for hours. A morning teacher was occupying my ‘hot desk’, and I was only allowed to physically leave the campus if I got a permission note signed by my head of department and the Principal. On the day of his majesty’s visit, signing a form for a random English teacher would be the last thing on their mind.
In fact, I was more worried about the Sultan’s entourage. From all reports, the Sultan himself was quite a nice, friendly, amiable person – he can afford to be when he enjoys unlimited wealth and power. I was afraid that one of his entourage, including a sycophantic representative of the education department determined to assert their authority and improve their status in the eyes of the Sultan, would ask me a genuine question, and that I would offer a genuine answer. If they’d asked me what I thought of the school, I don’t think I could have resisted saying,
“It’s a joke. It clearly exists to corral teenagers and teach them nothing but obedience to religion and the royal family, and is deliberately underfunded to ensure that the students remain uneducated, because an uneducated population is easier to control”
I don’t think I would have kept my job.
I’d be the only white person in the line up because the only other ‘orangputih’ had drawn on his many years of experience in Brunei and called in sick that day, just as he’d called in sick the previous Thursday when the Sultan was originally supposed to visit. Funny that.
There was no way I was going to risk my job, so I snuck away to a place that I knew no one would find me. How did I manage to avoid any contact with the ruler of the tiny nation and his sizeable entourage?
I went to one of the normal classrooms. One of the classrooms in which I taught. A classroom with peeling paint, an old blackboard, cracked cement floors, a broken clock, a broken window, no internet reception, no technology, no air conditioning and fans that may or may not work, despite the incessant tropical heat.
Most government schools are like this, and I chose this as my hiding place because the Sultan was never shown the reality of the schools he visited. He was shown the few classrooms with paint on the wall, tiles on the floor, a working computer and functioning air conditioning.
This despite the billions of dollars in oil revenue circulating the Sultanate.
Another peculiarity of the Sultan’s visit was the disappearance of the recycling bins. The coloured bins had been brought to the school only a few weeks earlier. They weren’t really effective because their purpose hadn’t been explained to students who grew up in a country with no recycling and not even local council rubbish collection. In Brunei, if you want to dispose of your household or business rubbish, you pay a private contractor – or just throw it in the bush.
The day before the Sultan’s visit, the bins disappeared. I asked a local Teacher why this happened, and he said it was because they didn’t look nice.
I was thus able to hide out and ignore the Sultan. Despite my thumping headache, I got through marking some homework tasks. Every so often I would poke my head out the door and watch the smiling Sultan being politely gestured towards another polished classroom or polished student.
I noticed some of the other foreign Teachers lining up for selfies and thought about the reaction of some foreigners to the Sultan and the royal family. Many expat Teachers sought selfies for fun. They thought it was a laugh to score a photo with an obscure world leader and share it on their socials. Others, however, seemed to genuinely respect the Sultan. How is that possible? How could an intelligent, educated person from a democratic country genuinely respect a man such as the Sultan? Everyone had to respect him publicly, it was too dangerous not to, but some of them also spoke of him in glowing terms privately.
Why do I dislike the Sultan so much?
I dislike all royalty. Not just because they live a life of luxury off the public purse. Not just because they are born into privilege and never have to work a day in their lives. It’s also because I am a keen student of history and I know how they achieve and maintain power: through cruelty and propaganda.
There are a few specific situations which reinforced my disdain for the Sultan.
The state of the school
As mentioned above, the school was falling apart. It was poorly maintained, it lacked technology and teaching resources, many Teachers are not actually qualified, and it was poorly managed. Bruneian children are not supposed to learn, they are supposed to obey.
The school was also dirty. The cleaners were employed during school hours, so the most they could do was drag a dirty mop around sections of the staff room, before they retired to one of the storerooms for their tea and cake. We would see them huddled together, sharing stories over tea and cake, and they would smile and wave at us without a care in the world. Meanwhile, the dirt and grime festered in the tropical heat.
The cleaners didn’t clean the classrooms. That was the student’s responsibility. The philosophy of inculcating civic responsibility may succeed in Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but not in Brunei. Classrooms were filthy.
Plus, the male students and Teachers shared a bathroom.
Oh, and the sick bay was in the staffroom. Of course, the Sultan was never alerted to these facts on his visits.
The Sultan the Saviour
One story appeared in the national newspaper during my stay. The Sultan was praised for funding the travel and medical expenses of an elderly Bruneian man who needed major surgery in Singapore. The man apparently lived in a squalid shack by the beach and could not afford to pay for the urgent surgery. The newspaper article extolled the virtues of the Sultan who covered the cost of the successful surgery, and showed a photo of the grateful and loyal subject on post-operative recovery in his squalid shack.
Why couldn’t the Sultan pay for the man to live in a decent house after surgery, and why was a Bruneian citizen living in a dilapidated shack in the first place?
The Sultan is one of the richest people, and richest monarchs on the planet, he lives in the world’s largest residential palace, but he hasn’t redirected any of the nation’s oil wealth to a man and his wife who live in a shack.
The reluctant princess
Another story which was told to expats was the story of the reluctant princess. According to popular knowledge, Princess ‘Sarah’ was one of a group of virgins presented to the crown prince Al-Muhtadee Billah for marriage. Apparently, the crown prince chose Sarah who is undoubtedly beautiful and apparently quite intelligent, but is also his cousin. The bride to be, however, did not want to marry the prince or enter the royal family. Thus, her parents tried to whisk her away to Switzerland where she has residence/citizenship courtesy of her mother Suzanne Aeby. The attempt failed, however, when the princess was greeted by security staff at the airport and escorted back to her home, then down the aisle to marry the crown prince. She remains in loyal service to the royal family to this day.
The Sultan is one of the world’s richest men and one of the world’s greatest religious hypocrits. He introduced Sharia law, a strict Islamic law, into his country in 2013, but lives the playboy lifestyle of the rich and famous. He drinks alcohol, he owns a hotel chain which profits from the sale of alcohol and non-halal products, and he is famous for adultery. Details of his encounters with prostitutes are now well known, especially after a member of his harem, Jillian Lauren, revealed secrets in her book Some Girls: My Life in A Harem.
What’s more, Sharia law classifies homosexuality as illegal and punishable by stoning, but it common knowledge that one of the Sultan’s sons, Prince Abdul Azim, is gay. Abdul Azim spends most of his time partying with celebrities in London and protected by his father.
Prince Abdul Azim was the ‘patron’ of the school at which I taught, and I remember being told once that my teaching programs, lesson plans and reports must be completed to the very highest standard, because Prince Abdul Azim would review them personally. The Principal struck fear into the hearts of many of the local staff who slaved away for hours of their reports. I made sure I used pink highlighter on mine.
Lauren’s book also details how the Sultan and his brother, Prince Jefri, would swap women in their harems. Prince Jefri is a famous sex addict and is currently estrnaged from the royal family because he wasted away much of the country’s fortune on women and parties.
What happened to me?
The commotion subsided, so I emerged from my hiding place to discover that the visit was over. A few days after the dust had settled from the Sultan’s visit, the Principal called me into her office.
“I notice you are not in any of the photos,” she said.
“Ah, yes, I was feeling sick, I know I looked sick and I didn’t want to embarrass the school in front of the Sultan,” I explained.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me but she was diplomatic enough not to take the matter further. Our Principal knew the expat Teachers worked very hard to improve her school and her reputation. I was given a perfunctory slap on the wrist by my employer, a British organisation contracted by the government, and life at the school returned to normal.
The staff at the school had endured weeks of extra work, long hours, stress and panic so that the Sultan of Brunei could breeze through one of his schools and pretend that he is educating his loyal subjects.
I was leaving Brunei and I knew I wasn’t coming back – so did my landlord. A few days before I left the country for good, the landlord messaged me and asked if he could have my SIM card.
Why did he want my SIM?
He didn’t say. But amid the mixed emotions of leaving a country I had lived and worked in for three years, my mind did begin to wander. The landlord clearly wanted access to a SIM that was not registered in his name.
Did he have a mistress?
This is certainly common in Brunei, despite, or because of, the country being a strict Muslim nation under Sharia law. Many married men are known to have mistresses and many of the girls were apparently quite young. In fact, one of the girls I was teaching, who was 14 or 15, suddenly disappeared from my class and her name was removed from the class roll. I was informed, quietly, that she would not be returning for some time as she had been sent to an establishment for ‘re-education’ after being caught in a relationship with a married man. According to my source, the girl’s behaviour would be ‘corrected’, while the adult male in the relationship would not suffer the same consequences.
I was also informed that men would lure girls into relationships with nothing more than a SIM card or the promise to pay for their phone credit.
Was he a criminal?
I don’t know, but that was another obvious assumption. Maybe I’ve watched too many gritty crime dramas in which the criminals have endless access to burner phones and new SIM cards, but I couldn’t help assuming that he wanted a number that wouldn’t be traced back to him because he was involved in some shady business.
My suspicions grew because of what happened before I moved into his house. It was offered fully furnished, but when I moved in, there was no furniture in it. I was told that he could not arrange the furniture, despite having more than a month to do so, because he was still overseas on business.
“He can’t get a visa”
This is the reason I was given for his delay. He apparently hadn’t returned because he was waiting for the Bruneian government to grant him a visa, to return to Brunei.
My landlord was a middle-aged Malay, Muslim Bruneian citizen, born and bred in the country, yet he needed to apply for a visa to come back into his country. I had never heard of this before and I don’t know if any other country applies this condition to their own citizens.
I had been told, however, that the Bruneian government (the royal family) pays particularly close attention to any Bruneian citizen, or long-term resident, who accumulates a significant amount of income. I had also heard that the government will stop anyone from earning more than a certain amount of money because money equals power.
It was suggested to me that his business was quite successful, and his new-found wealth may have attracted the attention of government officials.
He’s not Chinese.
The threat of a wealthy citizenry prevents many Chinese Bruneians from earning full citizenship. Many Chinese Bruneians are technically stateless because, despite living in the country for many generations, they are never granted full citizenship. Chinese people, and those from the sub-continent, run the day to day economy of the country, and some are so successful that they accumulate considerable wealth.
However, their businesses are fully or partly owned by a Malay Bruneian, because the Chinese do not have full citizenship. The royal family knows that if Chinese Bruneians enjoyed the same rights as Malay Bruneians, their superior business acumen of the Chinese would erode the power of the government.
What was his business?
I don’t know. I never found out.
Why did your landlord have your number?
It’s a peculiarity in Brunei that real estate dealings for rental properties are normally conducted directly between the landlord and the tenant, even though the property is rented through an estate agent.
What do estate agents do?
Apart from listing rental properties and organising the initial meeting between the two parties, not much. If you’re looking for an easy, well-paying job, become a real estate agent in Brunei.
Did I give him the SIM card?
No, I needed it up until I checked in for my flight in order to hand over some items to a staff member from the company with which I had been working. I didn’t realise at the time of the request, but I also needed it after the flight home was cancelled and I was trapped in the country for one more night – and put up at a dodgy hotel not 200 metres from the house I had just vacated.