According to You must accept that this is a conservative, Muslim country, where the people are very proud of their flag, their Sultan and their country. Their faith governs everything and they do not compromise it for anything or anyone. Things are done at a slower pace with much form-filling and red tape. The Government structures and hierarchy work, so don’t try to change them or get impatient – it won’t help anyway. In general, the people are very tolerant and will never cause confrontation. They will not address an issue immediately, like in the West. They will tend to smile and you will think that you are “getting away with it”, but suddenly you may find that you have been transferred or that your contract is not renewed, because you did something to offend. Just stick to the rules, be sensitive about the culture and do not offend. Yes, do not offend. [Source:]

According to “The role of face, shame and honour is crucial to Bruneians. Consequently they are very polite and well-mannered. Maintaining face is of upmost importance and they do their best not to cause issues or problems which could jeopardize this. In order to maintain face their communication style is very indirect and can come across as somewhat ambiguous to those from a culture where direct communication is the norm. By being indirect Bruneians avoid embarrassing another person, which would cause that person to lose face. Most Bruneians find emotions such as impatience, anger, or irritation embarrassing and try to avoid them since expressing them could result in a loss of face and disharmony. [Source: ***]

“Bruneian communication is formal and respectful, especially to those senior in age or position. Hierarchy is revered, so older businesspeople should be greeted before younger ones. As in much of Asia, group harmony is vital. Therefore, the communication style tends to be indirect and somewhat ambiguous. This is done to avoid embarrassing someone or causing either party to lose face. If you are from a more direct culture, you may find the use of evasive responses or insincere yeses frustrating. ***

“Most Bruneians find emotions such as impatience, anger, or irritation embarrassing and try to avoid them. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the foreigner to refrain form showing his/her inner feelings. Bruneians commonly ask what would be considered intrusive personal questions such as about wages or the like. If you are uncomfortable discussing such matters, it is important to handle the matter diplomatically so neither party loses face. Such conversations are meant to get to know you as a person, they are not meant to make you uncomfortable. Tone of voice, body language, eye contact and facial expression can often be more important than what is actually said. Therefore, it is important to observe the person as they speak.” ***

See Malaysia

Customs in Brunei

Bruneians are generally very tolerant and will understand that visitors are not familiar with all of their customs and Islamic traditions. Nonetheless, keeping these few things in mind will go far in showing the Bruneian people that you respect and appreciate their culture, enriching your experience:

Tourists should observe the local dress code and dress modestly. Clothing comfortable for hot weather is acceptable, except when visiting places of worship or for social and business functions. You should not point with your finger; instead, use the thumb of your right hand with the four fingers folded beneath it.

Do’s and Don’ts: 1) Smile when you greet people. It is normal to see people in the tourist industry to greet visitors by placing their right hand over the left breast. This gesture means: “I greet you from my heart”. 2) Dress neatly when entering places of worship. It is advisable for ladies when entering places of worship to wear long sleeves and loose pants or long skirts. 3) Pay careful attention to your attire if you’re female. At mainland beaches, bring a wrap-around as well as a swimsuit so you won’t feel conspicuous; Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on.

4) Don’t bring up the topic of the scandals involving the Bruneian royal family or the political system: They are both sensitive subjects. As a tourist, it is best not to criticize the government or the royal families. You may hear Malaysians criticize their own government, but you do not need to take sides; just listen and feel free to talk about your feelings about your own government. 5) Do be wary that same-sex relationships are a taboo subject in Malaysia. Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward signs of affection, including holding hands in public. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.

Greetings in Brunei

Bruneians shake hands by lightly touching the hands and then bringing the hand to the chest. Some people do not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.

According to “ The common greeting depends upon the ethnic origin and the age of the person. 1) In general, many men you meet will have adopted the western concept of shaking hands, although this is not always the case with older Bruneians or with women. 2) Ethnic Malay men shake hands with one another, but men and women do not traditionally shake hands. 3) Younger Bruneians may shake hands with foreign women or they may merely bow their head in greeting. 4) It is considered respectful to bow your head when someone who is senior to yourself in age or position. 5) It is considered disrespectful and rude to stare into another person's eyes, particularly those of a person who is senior to you in age or status. [Source:]

Muslim Customs in Brunei

When visiting a mosque, all visitors should remove their shoes. Women should cover their heads and not have their knees or arms exposed. You should not pass in front of a person in prayer or touch the Koran. During the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, Muslims do not take food from sunrise to sundown. It would be inconsiderate to eat or drink in their presence during this period.

In deference to the Muslim majority, alcohol is not sold in Brunei, but private consumption by non-Muslims is allowed. Non-Muslim tourists are allowed a generous duty-free allowance of 2 bottles of alcohol (wine, spirits, etc) and 12 cans of beer per entry, and may consume alcohol with sensible discretion in hotels and some restaurants.

Mosques and shrines are often not open to non-Muslims. Those that do welcome them expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosque provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.

The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreigner visitors s can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf with a number.

Inside a mosque don't walk in front of someone who is praying, don't touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don't cross your legs in front of an older people and don't step over someone who is sitting down Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.

Home Customs and Gifts in Brunei

Shoes are generally removed before entering a house.

For the most part, Bruneians do not invite foreigners into their homes. If you are invited to a Bruneian home, consider it a great honour and testament to your personal relationship. Punctuality is not strictly adhered to. You may arrive a little late without causing offense. Greet the eldest person first. Wait to be told where to sit. [Source:]

According to “1) If invited to someone's home for dinner bring good quality chocolates or fruit. 2) Do not give toy dogs to children. 3) Do not give anything made of pigskin. 4) If giving foodstuffs ensure there is no gelatine or anything else which is not ‘halal’. 5) Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning. 6) Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large. 7) Gifts are generally not opened when received.”

Eating Customs in Brunei

It is polite to accept even just a little food and drink when offered. Turning down hospitality may be viewed as personal rejection. When refusing anything offered, it is polite to touch the plate lightly with the right hand.

Many Malays eat with their fingers. They may serve utensils to foreign guests, usually a fork and a tablespoon. Do not eat with the left hand, as it is considered unclean. Eat or pass food with your right hand only.

According to “1) Wait to be invited to eat before starting. 2) Food is often served buffet style or on a revolving tray in the centre of the table. 3) The guest of honor may be served first or the eldest person may. 4) If passing a plate that is heavy, you may use your left hand to support your right wrist. 5) When you are finished eating, place your fork facing downward on your plate with your spoon, also facing downward, crossed over the fork. [Source:]

Eating with Your Hands in Brunei

Bruneians often eat food with their hands. Some restaurants don't have any utensils at all to give their patrons. Instead each table comes with a water pitcher that is used to clean the hands after the meal. Most meals come with pancake-like bread that is used to scoop up the food which is usually something that resembles stew.

Malays eat with only the first two of their fingers, not their entire hands. Muslim Malays have traditionally used their left "dirty" hand to take care of wiping their dirty and other "unclean" bodily functions. As a result, Muslim Malays never eat or touch someone with their left hand.

People are generally served a plate with rice on it. Using a serving spoon they dish themselves food from serving bowls at the middle of the table. Don't touch the serving spoon to your plate and pass dishes by holding them with your left hand and supporting them with your right hand palm down.

Westerners are often offered forks, spoons and knives. When Bruneians eat with Western utensils they usually hold their spoon in their right and hand and fork in their left hand and push food with the fork onto the spoon and eat with their right hand using the spoon. People often sit on the floor when they eat and wash their hands from a bowling before starting to eat. Don't blow your nose, clear your throat loudly. Refusing food is considered bad manners. Chinese in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia have the custom eating any time they feel like it.

Marriage Customs in Brunei

The grooms parents inquire about the prospective bride's status for matrimonial alliance if she is still uncommitted to any other alliance. After this meeting between the parents official engagement ceremony is held for commitment for marriage.This is called "Berjarum-jarum" After this, the groom side offers two rings one is called pembuka mulut and other is the official engagement ring.There is extensive discussion over the manner is which the event would be managed and wedding date is decided.The groom's side puts some requests which are called " hantaran". Though this is generally done by the parents and groom does not have a say in it.This is called Bertunang. [Source:]

The period between the engagement and wedding varies quite significantly depending upon their own planning. It can vary from weeks to some years. This is called Megantar Berian which basically means the giving of gifts which had been requested earlier. Lot of preparatory phases go in this and elaborate arrangement is made.

Legal requirements non-Muslims getting married in Brunei Darussalam: An applicant must: be more than 18 years of age, reside in Brunei Darussalam for a minimum period of 14 days (this condition may be satisfied by one of the couple), not to be married to any other third party, not to be related to the other party to the marriage, be of sound mind and not be of Muslim faith. [Source: U.S. Embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan]

Marriages are solemnized on Thursday mornings only in Kuala Belait and on Saturday mornings only in Bandar Seri Begawan The date of solemnization will be fixed on a Thursday for Kuala Belait or Saturday for Bandar Seri Begawan after at least 14 days from the date of filing of the Notice of Marriage Upon filing a Notice of Marriage, a Guide on Solemnization will be issued to the applicants. Applicants are strongly advised to read and follow to this guide carefully. Marriage fees at the registry are: Stamp Duty: B$10.00; Filing a Notice of Marriage: B$100.00 Solemnization of Marriage: B$100.00;

Guide on Solemnization. On that day, please bring: 1) Two non-Muslim witnesses, 21 years of age or above (these witnesess must produce their identity cards or passports); 2) The identity cards (or passports) and birth certificates of the marrying couple; 3) Wedding rings for exchange during the solemnization of the marriage (optional); 4) B$100.00 for registration of marrige fee

Note: You and your guests are advised to be punctual and arrive at the courthouse at least 15 minutes before the appointed time. This should allow you and your guests to settle in before the marriage ceremony starts. The Marriage Registry may refuse to solemnize the marriage, if the marrying couples, the witnessess and their guests attend the ceremony in improper and casual attire such as jeans, shorts, singlets, tee-shirts and slippers. the Bride, female witnessess and female guests must attend the ceremony in dress or skirt (with sleeves abnd beyond knee-length). You are advised to treat the ceremony with dignity and respect by coming to the registry properly dressed. The marriage declaration can be read in English, Chinese or Malay as required by the marrying couple. If any other language is requried, the parties to the marriage are responsible for providing the interpreter. Use of cameras and video camera are permitted during the ceremony. Confetti, petals, rice however, are NOT permitted in the building or on the pavement outside.

Bruneian Wedding

The Bruneian wedding ceremony is usually held in a community hall or a mosque. The sermon is delivered and the matrimonial contract is accepted in front of guests and all by the bridegroom with witnesses and bride's father. There is huge turn out of guests and an elaborate arrangements are laid out.The reception is hosted by the bride's side with lot of fervour. [Source:]

On the day of wedding the bride wears a long gown which may be white or some light colour with prominent lace work at the border of the head scarf. The dress usually has a lot of flower designs and bright colors and worn with a fancy head scarf. This is the traditional dress for women. The groom wears a knee length jacket and pants of light fabric. They are bright and sober. Along with it goes cap or a traditional turban. Some couples wear western-style clothes.

Wedding dishes include bak kut, made of mutton or beef, murtabak meat crepes, kurma (a kind of rich curry with lot of spices), special kind of cutlets, vegetarian dishes like brown rice and sesame vegetables, noodles and tofu, salad with spicy peanut sauce, veggies with coconut and a spicy eggplant dish.

Bruneian Wedding Parties and Ceremonies

Mengagai or Berjarum-jarum: In the old days when men and women did not openly court each other, this ceremony was meant to be an opportunity for the guy's representative, such as his parents, to find out whether the girl is still available for marriage. Nowadays, it signals the start of the whole process, when parents from both sides first meet each other. This is also when they discuss when they can send a proper entourage to seal the formal engagement. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Menghantar Tanda Pertunangan: This is when the proper entourage comes to the bride side. The groom side will usually offer 2 rings. One is called the "pembuka mulut" to signify the groom's real interest to ask for the daughter's hand in marriage. The other is the official engagement ring. Both sides will also discuss details on the upcoming wedding, particularly the date, as well as the "hantaran" or lists of requests (wedding gifts) by the bride. +

Menghantar Berian: Menghantar Berian means delivering gifts which consists of all the requests during the engagement ceremony, and may also include additional gifts by the groom. The bride would also, if she so wishes, respond in kind. The delivery of the gifts is usually a grand affair, with an entourage of men or women carrying silver trays adorned with beautiful cloths on top of which would display each gift. +

Berbedak Mandi is a ceremony to bless the soon-to-be groom and bride by close family members especially the parents, siblings and elders in their own homes. Here, they are scrubbed with traditional body-scrub powder which is applied to the whole body by the close family members. It symbolizes fertility and wealth. +

Akad Nikah is the solemnisation ceremony. It is presided over by a religious official and only involves the groom. the bride is not usually present but she will be represented by her father or a "wali" (legal family representative). Here, under the grace of Allah (God), the groom vows to accept the bride's hand in front of witnesses. +

The Malam Berbedak or Night of Powdering is a ceremonial event where family members and friends/family are invited to 'bless' the Bride/Groom by anointing the Bride/Groom with an ointment made from colored rice flour and scented oils. The Bride and Groom are dressed up in traditional Berbedak attire which is different for each one. The Bride has on a heavy brass (sometimes gold plated) headgear that has either a symbol/statuette of a chicken (called Ayam-ayam) or dragon (Naga) and is surrounded (wrapped) round with scented flowers. The groom has on a songkok (Muslim hat) or Dastar (crown made from songket cloth). Both are adorn with brass/gold plated arm bands, wrist bands, ankle bands and necklace. The Bride is also wrapped around her waist with a kain songket (usually red) that was given by the groom as part of her dowry (hantaran). +

The Berinai / Berpacar is an event usually attended by close family and its also commonly known as the Henna Night. Here, the Bride, dressed up in attire similar to the Malam Berbedak sits on the 'throne' with her hands on her lap and family members apply a pinch of 'pacar' (Henna) on the palm of her hand. Bunga Rampai (fragrant shreddings of pandan and flower petals) are also scattered over her hands signifying a blessing. Some weddings, these may be carried out on the same night of the Malam Berbedak whilst others keep them separate. This tradition is mostly practiced by only those in the Brunei Muara District and not in Tutong or the other districts. +

Pengganggunan: at night, after all the guests have left, the elders of the family then bring the bride to her bridal room where the Penganggun (Wedding Attendant) then lights 3 candles and passes them to one elderly lady sitting on the bride's bed and to another who follows behind her. The Bride then puts her arms around the Penganggun and is led around the bed behind her three times. The Bride then proceeds to sit on the bed and blows out the three candles ending the initiation. Again, this practice is only carried out in weddings from the Brunei Muara District.

Traditional Bruneian Wedding

Kim Low wrote in the Brunei Times: “One of the best times to witness some of Brunei Darussalam’s unique heritage is in its traditional wedding ceremonies. Consisting of several rituals – mengagai or berjarum-jarum; menghantar tanda pertunangan; menghantar berian; berbedak mandi; akad nikah; malam berbedak; malam berinai, also known as berpacar and penganggunan; bersanding and culminating in malam ambil-ambilan and muleh tiga hari – the Brunei Malay wedding is truly a Bruneian splendour. [Source:Kim Low, Brunei Times, March 9, 2014 +++]

“Mengagai or berjarum-jarum is when the man’s side expresses his interest to marry the woman he has chosen. The practice follows that there is no free intermingling between the sexes. Hence, the potential groom would send representatives, usually his parents, to enquire of the woman’s hand in marriage. Today, this ceremony is also when the wedding process is set in motion, with both sides of the families meeting and discussing the other events to follow. +++

“The next ceremony is when the groom sends a proper entourage to the bride to menghantar tanda pertunangan, that literally means sending along the engagement gifts. This would be followed by the delivery of the gifts, or menghantar berian, where the groom’s side would deliver all the requests given by the bride during the engagement ceremony. It is not unusual for the groom to include additional gifts alongside the bride’s requests. During this phase, the bride may also respond by sending gifts over to the groom as well. This part of the ceremony is usually carried out in pomp, with an entourage of men or women carrying each and every gift sent on silver trays covered in intricately patterned cloths. +++

Close to the wedding date, the soon-to-be groom and bride go through the berbedak mandi. Here, they are given a scrub down with a traditional body scrub by their close family members. It is both a fun and jovial affair that lets everyone celebrate the impending union. The akad nikah is the ceremony that solemnises their marriage to each other and is presided over by a religious official, or a kadi. It is during this time where the couple becomes lawfully wedded husband and wife. +++

“During the Night of Powdering, or malam berbedak, family and friends are invited over to bless the bride and groom in their respective homes with coloured rice flour and scented oils. The couple would be dressed in beautiful traditional attire for the ceremony, highlighting Brunei’s rich fabric heritage. Bunga rampai (a potpourri of finely shredded pandanus leaves mixed with flower petals and perfume) are also scattered over the couple’s hands to bless them. +++

“An event attended by close family members, the malam berinai or berpacar is a ceremony where the bride is dressed in an attire similar to malam berbedak. She sits on a dais before family members take turns to apply a pinch of pacar (henna) over her palms. For some weddings, this ceremony is carried out on the same night as the malam berbedak, while others prefer to keep it separate. +++

The wedding culminates in the bersanding ceremony, where the bride and groom are recognised as husband and wife in the eyes of a wider circle of family and friends. The bersanding is a grand and lavish event and includes a sumptuous feast. The last two ceremonies that take place after the wedding include the malam ambil-ambilan and muleh tiga hari. The first of the ceremony is held in the evening and is similar to a wedding reception, where the family members of both the bride and groom come together and celebrate their union. The final post-wedding ceremony, the muleh tiga hari, marks the event where the groom moves into the bride’s family home, until the couple chooses to move out and live on their own.

See Royal Family Weddings Under the Sultan of Brunei

Families and Women in Brunei

The family is the focal point of the social structure. The Bruenian family is the extended family and includes aunts, un-*cles, and cousins as well as close friends. Members of the extended family are expected to remain loyal to each other and the family. As a result of this Brunei is a hierarchical culture. Age and position are revered. From a young age, children are taught to subjugate their own desires for the good of the entire family and to respect elders without question. In addition they also learn that it is through family support that they accomplish goals. [Source:]

Women in Brunei enjoy equal status to men. Many women hold senior posts in government and commercial enterprises. No special restrictions on women’s freedom or dress code exist, although care in attire should be taken to observe local sensibilities. The majority of Muslim women wear ankle-length caftans (loose dresses), often made from shimmering materials, and tudungs, pharaoh-like head scarves that are fastened below the chins with a pin and sometimes hang down like boy-scout neckerchiefs. Others wear head coverings that are wrapped around the head and are not pinned under the chin and look like head scarves worn by women in the Middle East.

In 2006, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “ At the University of Brunei, women outnumber men. Women here drive, fill senior offices in government and the private sector, serve as ambassadors and are pilots for the national airline. “Young women have equal opportunities now — it’s up to your capability,” said Lisa Ibrahim, president of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Brunei. [Source: Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, December 10, 2006]

Circumcision in Brunei

Rozan Yunos wrote in the Brunei Times: “Circumcision is the procedure that removes the foreskin of the boy's organ. The word is derived from two Latin words meaning 'cut around'. In the earlier days, bersunat is considered as the mark of a true Muslim. Immediately just before the circumcision, the boy would be asked to recite the ‘kalimah sahadat’ which is recited by every Muslims declaring themselves Muslims – and by saying it before the circumcision, made him a true Muslim. [Source: Rozan Yunos, Brunei Times March 24, 2007 /*/]

“But in Brunei there was a variation to this more than fifty years ago. During the ceremony the ‘penyunat’ – the circumcision master would go to the base of the organ and snip a little nerve which connects to the foreskin. The foreskin as a result would ‘pull back’ thus ‘circumcising’ the boy. Some say this is not true circumcision. However it is ‘bersunat’ as you reached the same objective of not having the foreskin. There were many variations to the ceremonies. In some, the boys would take a bath where someone would pour scented water over them. In others, the boys would be undergoing a ‘lulut’ - scrubbed with scented powder and water. /*/

“After that, the boys would be dressed in ‘baju melayu’ with a ‘kain pelikat’. They might also wear songkoks with decorative motifs known as ‘kopiah berpisnin’. They would be taken outside to straddle banana tree trunks - the trunks supposedly make one feel cool. In Kampong Ayer, the boys would sit in the lap of their fathers. On some of their foreheads would be smeared a white powdered ‘lulut’. /*/

“The penyunat at first would use a ‘sembilu’ which was sharpened bamboo but later on, a sharpened folding type knife to do the procedure. There was no anesthetic. The boys were held by other people so that they could not move. The skin would be stretched out and cut. If the knife was very sharp, there was hardly time to feel pain. Though there have been cases where the boys screamed in pain. In Temburong, the pulled skin will be held by a piece of split bamboo before being cut off. /*/

“The cut would be bandaged leaving it to heal. Sometimes powdered coffee beans supposedly with faster healing abilities would be placed on the wound before being bandaged. In most cases, the bandages would only be taken off in a few days time. For the Kampong Ayer boys, they would be asked to go into the water for the bandages to come off. The cut skins were dealt either by being buried in a piece of cloth with ashes or for Kampong Ayer, the skins were kept in an ash filled coconut shell and floated down the river. Why ashes? It was said that the many instances of people suffering from inability to urinate was due to their skins being ‘disturbed’ by pontianaks. To avoid this, the skins must be in ashes. /*/

“After the circumcision, there would be a berzikir ceremony. For the boys, it would be particularly painful as they have to walk around the berzikir crowd getting ‘blessed’ by them. As usual there were many restrictions. One could be not to step over a ‘lesong’ (stone pestle) fearing the organ would be that size. One practical pantang was not to have ladies walk in front of the boys. In those days, most boys were around 15 before they were circumcised. At 15, the last thing they needed was to have stimulating thoughts when recovering from a circumcision.” /*/

“Fast forward to today. My seven year old son went through the procedure in a very clinical but sterile surgery and done by a doctor. Like three quarters of all boys he had a local anesthetics. He could have chosen a general anesthetics. He recovered in two days compared to my father who took a month. Unfortunately my son did not go through any of the traditional ‘manhood’ rites but then the chances of his circumcision turning septic is almost nil which is a fair tradeoff. /*/

“But it does not mean that what our elders went through did not teach us anything. Firstly there is the advancement of technology. From crude implements – a ‘sembilu’ to today’s ‘surgical knife’. From no anesthetics to today’s choices of anesthetics. From an ordinary ‘penyunat’ to a ‘doctor’. From being done outside in the open to a sterile operating room. Many things have improved as a result of lessons from the past. The most important thing our elders left us is the legacy of being a Muslim. No matter how difficult and terrifying it was, the procedures and ceremonies must be undergone in order to comply with the sunnahs. Our elders were brave and they lived in a difficult time. We learnt a lot from what they had undergone. /*/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Fortune magazine, Vanity Fair magazine, Brunei Tourism, Prime Minister's Office, Brunei Darussalam, Government of Brunei Darussalam, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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