How I became a journalist in Brunei!

First, sorry for being on radio silence for so long, but my internet access at the moment is the worst it has been since I was in Yemen.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my presence at Brunei’s National Day did not go unnoticed and I was interviewed by two newspapers. After the second interview, I decided to take a break from the heat and grab an ice coffee at some sort of local Starbucks-like shop. The journalist did the same thing and asked me to keep her spot in the line. She came back with the head scarf stashed away in her purse. “I have to wear it for work”, she said. Brunei was getting more intriguing by the minute.

We both ordered and, as she opened her wallet to pay for her coffee, she noticed she had forgotten to go to the ATM and only had $2 on her. To her great embarrassment, she asked me for $3. While waiting in the long line, she had been going on about how safe Brunei was, except at the floating village, where people would try to vastly overcharge me for water taxis, and other such minor scams. Still blushing from having to ask a stranger for money, she offered to take me there after the parade. I accepted with pleasure the offer of some local guidance.

Apart from what I am about to tell you, I also have to thank her for the pictures I got of the schoolchildren’s mass celebration in the stadium. I was going to look for a vantage point around the stadium, but she told me: “Just go inside and climb up the stands”. I probably would not have tried that. The event looked very formal, but there were no ticketing system, no security checks.  In laid back Brunei, I wondered how busy the riot police I had seen on parade usually is!

This short guided tour proved very informative. On the photo, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, built in 1958. Guess what? That’s not gold paint on the dome!

We walked to the floating village and that is when having the company of a local became very useful. Looking at these very modest houses in the foreground of a sumptuous mosque and a very large, modern shopping centre, I would have assumed a typical case of massive income disparity, with poor rural people living in urban slums. As it turns out, this is not the case at all. People are quite attached to these homes, often where their family has lived for several generations. Even if they move on land, they often make sure the home stays in the extended family.

Walking inside the “village”, you can tell people make an effort at embellishing the place. Considering they are not much to look at, the houses actually sell for quite a bit of money.

Speaking of money, I also learned, a bit to my surprise, that most Bruneian people don’t earn large salaries. Many public servants earn salaries in the range of $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Obviously a huge amount by South-East Asia standards, but I was expecting Singapore style salaries. At the bottom end of the pay scale, a water taxi driver may make less than $6,000. However, apart from hotels and taxis, the cost of living is cheap for such a developed country. Real estate prices are reasonable, gas is under $0.50 a litre and you can eat out for $1. More importantly, the vast oil wealth is redistributed in the form of services, making Brunei a “nanny state”. Everything is free: healthcare, old age pensions, education… even school cafeterias are free. Mortgages are subsidized, as is rice. And, as far as I could tell, there are no taxes of any kind: no income tax, sales tax, excise tax, property tax, nothing.

Back to the floating village. It is not only constituted of little family houses, this massive thing is the high school!

After walking around the village Kimy (the journalist), had to go back to work, but she offered to drive me back to my hotel. Given the heat and humidity, I accepted with pleasure. That’s her with the ice coffee I purchased 60% of, on the water taxi taking us to where she had parked her car (because of the National Day parade, downtown was closed to traffic for the morning).

I’m not sure why, but water taxis seem to be the only popular form of public transportation in Brunei. Because of the weather, nobody walks. All Bruneian citizens seem to have cars, and there is nothing like trams, subways or rail. The few buses I saw were hard to understand and reports I read say they are hard to use. Basically, in the morning they take unskilled foreign workers from their residence to their place of work, and they go the other way in the afternoon. No buses run past 6:30 pm. In a country of about 400,000, there are only 50 registered taxis and hailing one on the street is impossible. Foreign workers can’t afford them and locals don’t need them. So, in a nutshell, if you go to Brunei, rent a car (or buy a journalist a coffee).

The next day was an amazing day for me; the kind of travel adventure that keeps me on the road. But be forewarned; for you reader, it might sound boring. No spectacular picture of bubbling lava lakes, no encounter with kidnappers, angry hippos, or illegal crossing of boundaries. However, it was a unique experience for me. Kimy had journalistic assignments and she asked me if I wanted to tag along. Talk about a genuine chance to really experience a country!

First stop was a festive “family day” in some nearby village. Although small, Brunei is not a one city country. The main city is Bandar Seri Bagawan, but there are also many small municipalities around the country. This event could not possibly have involved more than 200 people, and I am being generous, as I saw far fewer. But, as soon as she showed up she was handed a press release, and throughout the water based activities, the police rescue boat was close by. It made me think Bruneian journalists and cops probably have one thing in common: most days are quiet days.

It took a while for us to find the place (“us” means I sat in the car and she asked for directions). But we eventually got there. Despite a little drizzle, the event was not cancelled. I am 100% certain I was the only non-Bruneian there.

The first event was a canoe race. A lot of atmosphere from the crowd, but I don’t think there were any Olympic hopefuls in the race.

Followed a while later by a canoe tug-of-war. I must say, a first for me.

This I cannot explain. A few old guys tossed a net into the water and the others applauded. I think Kimy was too urban to understand either. Maybe a display of skill of some kind?

On the way to another event (which I did not attend because it was basically a short interview in someone’s residence), Kimy hit a curb that was hard to see in a parking lot and slashed her tire. The conversation that followed was a totally stereotypical example of “boys-know-about-cars-and-girls-do-not”.

Kimy: – “There’s a garage somewhere over there. Let’s walk and ask them.”

Me: -“We could put the spare and drive there.”

– “I don’t have a spare.”

– “Are you sure? That’s very unusual.”

– “I don’t have one.”

We walk. Two blocks later: -“Are you really sure? Let’s go back and you show me inside the trunk.”

I then proceeded to install the spare, which was in fact not an emergency spare, but a full-size wheel.

We then drove from sea to sea, North to South, completely across the country. It took 20 minutes! There, the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, had a massive, $1.1B five star hotel built a few years ago. It seems excessive for such a small country, not known as a touristic destination, but that was not the Prince’s first grandiose project. He also had a massive amusement park built, which ended up costing a fortune to maintain and, of course, never made any money. Eventually the major rides were sold off and the park now sits in a state of semi-abandon.

On top of these apparently over-the-top projects, the Prince was also accused of inappropriate spending. In an absolute monarchy where the same family has ruled for 600 years (the oldest continuous dynasty in the world), the line between public funds and Royal Family funds is not necessarily clear, but apparently, it exists, and it was crossed. The Sultan himself is not exactly known for being frugal (his house, the Istana Nurul Iman, is about four times larger than the Palais de Versailles), but these repeated offences were too much for him and he exiled his own brother abroad. A series of lawsuits ensued and as far as I can tell from a short internet search, the brother has been ordered to return to the State a ridiculous amount of stuff, such as 9 planes (including a Boeing 747) and 500 properties, some on them 5 star hotels in European capitals.

This might seem like a typical tale of waste of public moneys, but there is much more to it. The hotel is actually popular among the locals. They seem very proud of it. I must say it is quite spectacular, if a little underused. Bruneian people even use the hotel themselves. It has a resort feel to it that is very different from the rest of the country, so on special occasions they will book themselves a room, drive there from their homes (20 mins away!) and pretend like it’s a vacation abroad.

The same goes for the amusement park. A Bruneian quoted in Lonely Planet said “It was the highlight of our youth”. Since the Prince’s exile, the country is a little boring, someone said to me. From what I gather, Prince Jefri is a bit of a bandit (and a playboy), but it seems some of the population misses the excitement their favourite bandit use to bring to the uneventful nation.

A final note on my perception of the complexities of Brunei. While adhering to the principles of what it calls Malay Islamic Monarchy, which deals with culture, religion and politics – all in a very conservative way – the country is also modern and tolerant at the same time. Sharia Law seems to be superseded by Common Law most of the time. Unlike countries that call themselves democratic and brutally oppress their people, Brunei is the very opposite. It is an absolute monarchy, technically under martial law since a colonial revolt in 1962, but all of it seems mostly notional in everyday life (although the self censorship in newspapers is very obvious). And while women, especially public servants, seem to all wear a scarf to work, the sport pages had this picture of a Royal princess playing softball in tights, hair flowing in the wind. Not exactly Saudi Arabia.

All and all, Brunei was the best unplanned adventure I had in at least a couple of months. Thanks for showing me around Kimy!

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