CULTURE AND CRAFTS IN BRUNEI: FOLK STORIES, TRADITIONAL DAGGERS AND MICHAEL JACKSON

CULTURE AND LITERATURE IN BRUNEI

Somerset Maugham spent quite a bit of time in Brunei playing bridge. When he arrived there there were only four white men in Brunei and because of an argument over bridge one pair wasn't speaking to other pair . Maugham spent his time playing with one pair then the other until everybody was friends again. Some of Maugham’s stories took place in Brunei.

Brunei Darussalam is richly endowed with a cultural heritage that the government and the people have worked tirelessly to maintain. The nation’s Arts and Handicraft Centre, for example, is a living testimony to the preservation and the proliferation of the arts and crafts for which Brunei was once renowned, including boat making, silversmithing, bronze tooling, weaving and basketry. Visitors will also find Malay weaponry, wood carvings, traditional games, traditional musical instruments, silat (the traditional art of self defence) and decorative items for women to be some of Brunei’s most unique cultural offerings. [Source: Brunei Tourism ~]

The introduction of Islam, of course, also dramatically changed Brunei’s cultural landscape, adding its own distinct artistic forms. The nation’s mosques and other Islamic sites of importance are all works of art in themselves, and many contain some of the most striking examples of Islamic arts that can be found outside the Arab world. Examples include gilded Holy Korans, ceremonial items and the intricate mosaics that adorn several monuments throughout the nation’s four districts. ~

Brunei's culture mainly derived from the Old Malay World, which encompassed the Malay Archipelago and from this stemmed what is known as the Malay Civilisation. Based on historical facts, various cultural elements and foreign civilisations had a hand in influencing the culture of this country. Thus, the influence of culture can be traced to four dominating periods of animism, Hinduism, Islam and the West. However, it was Islam that managed to wound its roots deeply into the culture of Brunei hence it became a way of life and adopted as the state's ideology and philosophy. The setting up of the Arts and Handicraft Centre in 1975 is a living testimony as to the preservation and the proliferation of the arts and crafts of the bygone days. Some crafts are kept in the Brunei Museum and the Malay Technology Museum. [Source: Prime Minister's Office, Brunei Darussalam]

Tale of the Unfilial Son and Its Bruneian, Malaysian and Indonesian Variations

Much of Brunei’s literature consists of folk stories. On a take called Nakhoda Manis (Brunei's Si-Tanggang, Tale of the Unfilial Son), Rozan Yunos wrote in the Brunei Times, “Once there was “a local boy, who went away to better his and his family’s lot in life. After many years, he achieved success and wealth, married a a noblewoman and became the owner of a huge ship, forgetting his humble roots in the process. One day, in order to take shelter from an impending storm, his ship happened to berth near his birthplace. His ageing poverty stricken mother recognising him rowed out in a canoe calling out to her long lost son. In front of his beautiful rich wife, he was too ashamed to acknowledge her as his mother and threw her overboard. She was shocked and very depressed and placed a curse on her unfilial son whereupon a storm suddenly appeared capsizing the ship and transforming it into rock. [Source: Rozan Yunos, Brunei Times, March 31, 2007 *-*]

“Another variation to the story was that he was well to do but went away just the same, to find out what the world can offer him. His mother in the meantime became poorer as she spent quite a large sum of money searching for her long lost son. But the result ended in the same way, he refused to acknowledge her and she cursed him in the end. Sounds familiar? *-*

“In Malaysia, this tale is known as the tale of Si Tanggang, in Indonesia as Malin Kundang and in Brunei as Nakhoda Manis. Each and every single country has natural proof of the legend. Malaysia has the Batu Caves in Selangor where the caverns of the caves are said to resemble the cabins of the ship. Indonesia has the pieces of the ship in rock forms including that of a rock which resembled a man prostrating for mercy along the beach in Air Manis, Sumbar about 20 kilometers from Padang in Sumatra. Brunei too has the Jong Batu, a small island which jutted out of the water in the Brunei River which resembled the keel of the ship jutting out. So, who is right? *-*

“What is interesting is how the stories can be made to fit into each other regardless whether one is in Brunei or one is in Indonesia. The Brunei and Indonesian versions have natural rock formations which look fitting as well. The Malaysian one is more interesting as the story was originally an Orang Asli’s story namely the Temuans who lived near the Batu Caves. Even in print form, the story first appeared in print form in a text book in the early 1960s, the story was that of an Orang Asli. However by the 1970s, the Tanggang story became an all-Malay story and has remained so until now. The Batu Caves was discovered by an Indian in the early 1800s and by the 1890s, Hindu devotees began making pilgrimages and slowly turning the caves into a huge shrine attracting some 1.5 million Hindus every year. *-*

“Similarly the Indonesian rock formation is easily visited as it is by the beach becoming a shrine or an attraction of some form. However the Brunei’s Jong Batu is fairly inaccessible. It is some distance away from the nearest residence being a small little island out in the waters of Sungai Damuan. Thus it is rarely visited as compared to the ones in Malaysia and Indonesia. The few visitors who do manage to get there note the striking similarity of the keel of ships and that of the Jong Batu. What is interesting is how the same story albeit with slightly different variations has survived through the various countries and the various generations. *-*

“It begs the question whether we come from one origin and as our ancestors migrated, they carry with them the legend of the unfilial son. And whenever they stop and started a new community or settlement, they try to find the geographical formation that best fit the description of the legend. Not surprisingly, even in Tutong, a similar legend was passed down through the generations. The only difference is that the name of the perpetrator is Si-Untak. The ship that was cursed by Si-Untak’s mother sank in the Tutong River and up to now, the rock formation known as Batu Ajung Si-Untak that resembled the ship is still there near a place called Telting in Pekan Tutong. Maybe it does matter to some, in the end, it does not really matter who owns the story - we don't even know our own origins. *-*

“In the mist of time, it is possible that all of us all come from the same stock and therefore share the same stories passed down through legends. But what is more important is the lesson that the legend offers. In our Asian society where filial piety – serving one’s parents and elders - is important - the unfilial son's great sin for being unfaithful to his mother was considered unnatural. That great sin was punished with him and his ship being transformed into rock forms forever to serve as a reminder, a warning and a lesson to all of us. The fable served the most important lesson that we should never be unfaithful to our parents no matter what the situations are and that we should always remember the sacrifices that they made for us.” *-*

Tales about Lumut Lunting and Pilong-Pilongan

Rozan Yunos wrote in the Brunei Times, “There are two islands on Brunei Bay which are more interesting than all the others. One is called Pulau Pilong-Piolongan and the other very much smaller, more like a raised sandbank called Lumut Lunting. Lumut Lunting is situated in between Pulau Sibungur and Pulau Berambang and is located at the mouth of the Brunei River whereas Pulau Pilong-Pilongan is out in the sea nearer to Muara. The origin of both islands have been chronicled in the Syair Awang Semaun, which is equivalent to the local folklores or in English known as the oral tradition of Awang Semaun’s epic poems. The story was said to have taken place in the early days of the first sultanate of Awang Alak Betatar around the 14th century. In those days, Brunei Darussalam was still a vassal state of the Majapahit Empire. [Source: Rozan Yunos, Brunei Times, April 28, 2007 ^*^]

“Awang Alak Betatar was the first ruler of the new Brunei Sultanate and as a vassal state, Brunei pays an annual tribute to the King of Majapahit. The tribute was made up of 40 ships laden with camphor to be paid to the Majapahit Empire from Brunei. Brunei’s camphor was considered to be among the best in the region then. Though some legends talk about a much smaller amount of 40 kati (roughly equal to about 24 kilograms). During that time, a rooster owned by Awang Senuai, a nephew of Awang Alak Betatar was known for its ability to win all the cockfights that it competed against. A cockfight is of course a fight between two specially trained and conditioned roosters with spectators betting on the outcome of the fight. Most fights end up with the death of one or both roosters.^*^

“This came to the attention of Raden Angsuka Dewa who also owned another rooster named Asmara which is said to be equal to Mutiara. Asmara was well taken care of by his owner – eating from a golden plate that was hung high and given a special coop. Asmara was said to be strong, smart and possessed a special power. When he crowed upon entering Brunei, the local cocks were so terrified that they did not crow for several days. ^*^

“The King of Majapahit dictated that should he lose he will give the 40 ships laden with goods to Brunei; but should he win, he will gain more territories of Brunei which it owns and controls then. Another version talked about should Brunei lose, it will continue to be a vassal state of Majapahit. Both Asmara and Mutiara were both meticulously trained for the cockfight in front of the Sultan’s Palace. ^*^

On the day of the fight, many people came to watch it. The fight commenced with the roosters pouncing, pecking, attacking and kicking each other cheered on by the excited spectators. Suddenly Asmara flew out of the ring followed by Mutiara. Asmara had been stabbed during the fight and was seriously injured. Asmara fled out of sight and succumbing to his wound, fell down into the sea turning into a rock becoming an island (Pulau Pilong-Pilongan). Mutiara who tried to give chase, fell into the river cursed by the King of Majapahit. He too turned into a rock and became an island (Lumut Lunting). It has been said among the elders in Kampong Ayer dwellers that Lumut Lunting will never be under water no matter how high the water level rises. If it does, then that signals a bad omen such as the death of a king or the occurrence of an untoward incident. ^*^

“This tale chronicled the earlier days of the current Sultanate. According to historical sources, the reign of Awang Alak Betatar who eventually became Sultan Muhammad, the first Sultan was from 1393 AD. If this tale is true, then it must have occurred around that period. Before Sultan Muhammad, not much is known about the previous Brunei rulers even though in the Chinese annals, Brunei had contact with China as early as the 5th Century. Most likely this tale is a symbolism of what happened in those days. There could have been a struggle between the new rulers of Brunei and Majapahit. There could have been an actual battle, or at least a struggle of some sort by the new rulers trying to overthrow the yoke of the oppressing powers of the Majapahit. As by the time of Sultan Abdul Majid, who is the immediate descendant after Sultan Muhammad, whose tomb is found in China, Brunei had already turned its allegiance back to the Chinese Empire. The cockfight tale signifies the beginning of the ‘new’ Brunei Empire and it marked the existence of the country we lived in now.

Crafts in Brunei

Traditional handicrafts of Brunei includes: 1) silverwork; 2) weaving (Tenunan); 3) kris making (making of the Malays' unique and ancient weapon); 4) songkok (Malay-style caps): 5) tudung dulang, a dish of a cover; 6) Anyaman weaving, the hobby that became a traditional art; and 7) brasswork.

In the villages in Kampong Ayer (Water Village) several other age-old crafts such as gold, copper, brass and bronze works, cloth-weaving, wood-working as well as cannon- and weapon-making have been practiced a long time. Records show that these handicrafts were already flourishing at the height of the Brunei Empire in the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

Until recently knowledge of many crafts had been a closely guarded secret that was handed down through the generations from father to son. Attempts by others to penetrate this cloak of secrecy were always met with resentment. Thus the number of craftsmen was small and restricted to certain family circles within the confines of Kampong Ayer. In the early fifties, the government, in an effort to perpetuate these handicrafts and make them more prevailing in the country, gave the artisans, notably the silversmiths, a building where they could display and sell their products.

The facilities were expanded in 1975 when the government built the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Center (BAHTC) at Berakas, about eight kilometers from the capital and recruited some of the artisans as instructors. For the first time young men and women received formal instruction in the art of silverware and brassware crafting; kris making; cloth weaving as well as mat and basket plaiting, among other things. With that the survival and widespread knowledge of the crafts were guaranteed.

In 1984, the BAHTC moved to an elegant new multi-storeyed building along the bank of the Brunei River at Jalan Residency in the capital. The new building affords the instructors and trainees alike more pleasant and modern facilities, including a plush display area, to indulge in their crafts.

This is a far cry from the old days when craftsmen worked in groups with their respective trades in a a balai or workshop, using traditional tools. It is a source of wonder that despite the seemingly less favourable means, these artisans managed to produce superior workmanship as evidence in surviving relics and the skills they had passed on to their descendants. The silversmiths, for example, could turn out exquisitely-handicrafted articles that are unique in their design and refinement.

Brunei Silverwork

The genesis of silver-crafting in Brunei Darussalam is not clearly known but it is believed that the craft is an ancient one, having been in existence in the country for centuries. According to stories the early silversmiths began their art around Kampung Pandai Mas (Goldsmiths' Village), one of the villages in Kampong Ayer (Water Village). [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

One of the state's top silversmiths, Awang Haji Mohin bin POKD Haji Ahmad, who was also head of the Silvercraft Section at the BAHTC before retirement in 1989, acquired his skills from his father while still at school. He began when he was about eight years old by helping his father to polish newly-crafted silverware. He learned in stages until he was an expert like his father before branching out on his own. Haji Mohin said silver-crafting is simpler today because the silver used is imported in the form of sheets ready for use. In the old days the silver was obtained by meling old silver coins, bracelets and pieces of unwanted jewellery and then making them into sheets involving a lot of heating and hammering in the process.

Although the availability of processed materials and modern tools has made things easier for the craftsmen as a whole, traditional method and design remained basically unchanged. To make silverware, for example, the procedure is fundamentally the same. The silver sheet is measured, cut and fashioned into the shape of whatever the silversmith has in mind. He then draws an outline of his intricate desing on the article before filling every cavity with hot liquid resin. The resin, once hardened, acts as a cushion when the delicate process of chipping the design using tiny hammer and chisel begins.

The design is usually based on local plants and flowers, which are patterned according to the artistic skills and imagination of the silversmith. The most commonly used is a pattern called Bunga Air Mulih in which a creeping flowering plant is depicted in an unbroken chain covering the whole or certain parts of the silverware.

Local smiths have for centuries created a wide range of silver articles for use by royalty as well as the ordinary common folk. Some of these items such as pasigupan (smoking pipe), cupu (vase), kiap (fan), kabuk panastan (jar with cover), kaskul (bowl with cover) and tumbak (spear) today still make up part of royal regalia. Their other creations include ornamental articles such as cannon replicas, dinner gongs, flower vases and those traditionally worn by Malay brides and grooms.

The largest silverware ever crafted by a group of local smiths are the two Perabahan or giant incense burners at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the capital. Each of these burners stands more than 1.4 metres and weigh many pounds. The Perabahan is another example of Brunei Darussalam's exquisite hallmark of silver craftsmanship.

Silver crafting has not only been a means of preserving family traditions but also a profitable cottage industry in Brunei Darussalam. A Silverware is valued according to the amount or weight of the metal used. A silver tea set for instance can cost up to $3,000, and the demand for it and other silverware is always high. The popularity of silverware among the locals and tourists alike will further assure the survival of this cultural heritage and at the same time continue to provide a source of income for those willing to learn this delicate but beneficial craft.

Malay Kris (Traditional Malay Dagger)

The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Both weapon and spiritual object, the kris is considered to possess magical powers. Since time immemorial no weapon has been made renowned and revered in the Malay world as the kris. With its razor-sharp blade, which is usually wavy, the kris was in former times the favourite weapons of royalty and commoner alike. In the hands of a skilful exponent of pancak silat, the Malay art of self-defence, it was, and can still be, a deadly weapon in close combat. As recent as the beginning of the century, no man felt safe and secure leaving home without one tucked in his waistband, ready for the unexpected. Such confidence in the kris was a tradition made antiquated only by the passage of time. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

Clearly the kris is very unlike other daggers or knives in origin and appearance. Almost all krises have lok or waves, the total of which has always been an odd number. Another unique feature is the widening of the blade just below the hilt, and one side of this part is usually found a small ornament that may take the form of an elephant's trunk, a snake's tongue or other objects according to the preference of the kris-maker.

The blade is normally covered by a damascened pattern called pamur or kuran depending on the composition of the metal used to fabricate the patterns. The ris maker believes that the pattern stengthens the blade and make it more lethal. Some krises like Kris Sula, which was used in the old royal courts to execute wrongdoers, or Kris Palembang are without the lok. The hilt of such a kris, however, is more often than not still resembles a bird's head.

Kris were worn everyday and at special ceremonies, and heirloom blades are handed down through successive generations. Both men and women wear them. A rich spirituality and mythology developed around this dagger. Kris are used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, sanctified heirlooms, auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, accessories for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, a symbol of heroism, etc.

History of the Kris

Although mystic stories emanating from the Indonesian archipelago - where the original kris was believed to have been created - suggest that it has been in existence since time unrecorded, the kris became especially prominent both as a weapon and symbol during the Majapahit Empire in the thirteenth century and later at the Malaysian royal court through the exploits of its legendary warriors, such as Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and their companions. The krises were also the weapons of the famous Bruneian warrior Bendahara Sakam and his men when they drove off the Spanish invaders from the country in 1578.

The earliest known kris go back to the tenth century and most probably spread from the island of Java throughout South-East Asia. Kris blades are usually narrow with a wide, asymmetrical base. The sheath is often made from wood, though examples from ivory, even gold, abound. A kris’ aesthetic value covers the dhapur (the form and design of the blade, with some 40 variants), the pamor (the pattern of metal alloy decoration on the blade, with approximately 120 variants), and tangguh referring to the age and origin of a kris. A bladesmith, or empu, makes the blade in layers of different iron ores and meteorite nickel. In high quality kris blades, the metal is folded dozens or hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. Empus are highly respected craftsmen with additional knowledge in literature, history and occult sciences. [Source: UNESCO]

The Indonesian kris was inscribed in 2008 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Over the past three decades, kris have lost some of their prominent social and spiritual meaning in society. Although active and honoured empus who produce high-quality kris in the traditional way can still be found on many islands, their number is dramatically decreasing, and it is more difficult for them to find people to whom they can transmit their skills. [Ibid]

Kris Myths

To this day no one is sure when exactly the first kris came into being. There are many tales, virtually all preternatural, relating to the genesis and exploits of the kris. One story concerned two brothers who went on a journey. One had a bamboo staff and the other a crude blade. Both these weapons, given to them by their father, possessed supernatural powers and could turn into anything the brother wished. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

One day they came upon a palace where they saw a beautiful girl weaving a piece of cloth on a bamboo loom. The first brother, desirous of knowing more about the girl, commanded his staff to turn into a bird. The second brother willed his blade to change into a tiny venomous snake that entered the loom and shortly after bit the girl, who immediately fell into a deep coma. It turned out that the girl was the daughter of the King who owned the palace. The King tried everything in his power to revive her but without success. After severl efforts failed he became desperate and proclaimed that he would give his daughter in marriage to any man who could bring her back to life.

The brother who owned the blade-truned-snake being the only one with the antidote, which he obtained from the magical blade, succeeded in saving the princess, who subsequently became his wife. According to a belief, craftsmen of that period drew inspiration from the story and so created a weapon with the deadly blade sinous like the snake in motion, the hilt taking the form of the bird's head and the sheath representing the loom into which the snake slithered before it delivered its coma-inducing bite. Thus the kris was born.

Like the magic blade-turned-snake, the earlier krises were usually endowed with mysterious powers by their makers who were not only exceptional craftsmen but were some kind of occultists as well. The powers could be either good or evil, depending on the propensities of the persons who had them forged. Hence there are numerous stories about what such krises could do for their owners, like making them invincible; warning them of approaching dangers; saving them from sudden attacks; flying out at night to seek and destroy their enemies and other equally fascinating tales. Stories like this add to the mystique surrounding the kris, which to the Malays is not only an ancient and unique weapon but also a treasured ornament and heirloom.

Kris Making

Making a superb kris requires great skills that come from years of learning and practise. The knowledge of making this covetous weapon was once hard to come by as it was a closely guarded secret passed on from one generation to another and was taught only to a few selected family members. A person who was expert making kris and other weapons was known as Pandai Besi. There is a village in Brunei's centuries-old Kampong Ayer called Kampong Pandai Besi, where obviously the country's ironsmiths once lived. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

Quite often the blade, hilt and sheath are nowadays made by three separate craftsmen. The experts who can fashion all three as in the old days number a mere handful in the Malay world today. The procedure of making the kris is basically the same as in the past, the only difference being the availability of modern tools. A peice of metal is repeatedly heated and hammered until it is flat. The next steps involve shaping, sharpening, filing and polishing. At some points along the process, the puting kris or shankdpin, onto which the hilt is to be fitted, is drawn out, and traces of impurities are removed from the blade.

The finished blade is then immersed in home made vinegar for at least twenty four hours to bring out the panmur or kurau. The hilt and sheath are usually made of hard fine grained wood that is both durable and attractive. In Brunei Darussalam, the two types of wood popularly used are obtained from the kulimpapa and hasana trees. In the old days horn and ivory were rarely employed. but lately as the kris is becoming more of a decorative object than a weapon, the use of horn or ivory for the hilt and sheath has been more common.

The art of kris making will live on in Brunei Darussalam as it has been revived at the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Center where young men and women formally undergo a three-year course. The kris may no longer be seen inside a man's waistband, except perhaps during ceremonies, but the awe and fascination for this extraordinary weapon will never cease.

Tenunan (Bruneian Cloth Weaving)

The earliest recorded mention of cloth-weaving in Brunei Darussalam can be traced to Sultan Bolkiah's reign from 1485 to 1524. Magellan visited Brunei sometime during this period and his official chronicler,Antonia Pigafetta, reported seeing beautiful examples of Brunei handicrafts in particular the woven cloth. It was common cottage industry even in those days so it is clear that woven cloth can be dated earlier than the 16th century. Like most proud traditions the art has been preserved through the centuries by the age-old system of father teaching son - only in this case, mother teaching daughter. The technology is much the same today as it was then. You will see no expensive sophisticated automatic weaving machinery; only a hand loom operated by highly skilled, artistic and patient women. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

The designs too have also survived many centuries. The most well-known and famous is the Jongsarat. It is generally acknowledged to be the design that above all others reflects the skill, artistic beauty and fine workmanship in which a quality cloth possesses. It is well-known in this region because more people see Jongsarat being used than any other design. It is worn on royal and state occassions, worn by brides and grooms for marriage ceremonies and is also sometimes used as elaborate and decorative wall coverings. Such is the high regard people in this region hold for the Jongsarat that is also given to visiting foreign dignitaries as souvenirs. Of course there are many other designs. The Kain Bertabur, Sipugut, Sukmaindera, Silubang Bangsi and Arab Gagati are but a few of the many examples of patterned cloth available today in Brunei Darussalam.

Cloth-weaving in Brunei Darussalam undoubtedly originated within the confines of Kampung Ayer. Apart from the indigenous Borneo tribes and nomadic hunters, the majority of Brunei's population lived on the waterfront. It was in their homes that the women - perhaps many of them living closely together - perfected their skills. They probably exchanged patters and equipment, helped each other when difficulties arose and generally operated within a tightly knit cooperative. It was from this beginning that the art flourished and it is not difficult to see where the inspiration for the designs came from. Living in harmony with their natural beautiful surroundings and their deep faith in Islam inspired many of the designs, which have survived to this day. Thus the popular creations of yesteryears, incorporating nature's abundant source of idea such as leaves, local flowers as well as Islamic patterns, make up the majority of designs one can see today.

Tenunan Cloth Weaving Process and Preservation

Before cloth can be produced obviously the thread has to be prepared first. Nowadays much of the thread comes from Japan. After selecting the base colour of the cotton, the weaver prepares ten bamboo spools of thread and then sorts it to a required length, depending upon how many pieces of cloth she intends to weave at one time - it could be one or even four. Once this has been completed she calculates the number of strands of thread she intends to use but this is usually dependent on the size of cloth to be woven. It can number anywhere between 1200 and 1500. The process of weaving starts as soon as the thread has been affixed to the loom and the pattern or design selected. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

It is in fact the gold and silver thread that makes up the design so a good deal of attention is paid to this detail. The actual job of weaving thread into cloth is a complicated one and would be difficult to describe step by step. It is generally considered however that a good coordination between hands, arms and feet is necessary, coupled with inordinate amounts of skill, patience and, of course, craftsmanship learnt over many years of practise. The finished standard piece of cloth measures about 2.2 meters by 0.8 meters and can take anything from 10 to 15 days and sometimes even months to finish depending on the intricacy of the design and the speed at which the woman works.

One of the sadder aspects of modernisation and development is the inevitable loss of interest in the labour-intensive craft industries in preference to working in better remunirative office jobs in the capital. This has also been the case in Brunei Darussalam and had the government not taken steps to preserve the traditional arts and handicraft industry there is no doubt that very little would remain of it today. Prior to 1975, skill in weaving was certainly on the decline and the government, recognising that this most important aspect of the country's heritage was in danger of dying out, took active steps to preserve and promote it.

In September 1975, the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre (BAHTC) was opened and took in its first batch of 24 trainees, including eight in cloth-weaving. Designed as a temporary facility, it moved in 1984 to a purpose-built edifice that is situated on a prominent site overlooking the Brunei River and Kampong Ayer. The centre is now the premier teaching facility for Bruneian arts and handicrafts. In the 1990s there were 86 students at the BAHTC, who are taught the whole range of local handicrafts. Of these, 70 students were attached to the cloth-weaving section and are supervised by nine instructresses under the leadership of the chief instructress, Hajah Kadariah binti Begawan Pehin Udana Khatib Haji Umar. Since 1975, more than 364 students have been trained in the art of cloth-weaving, and it is hoped that if as many students enrol at the BAHTC in subsequent years then cloth-weaving will once again flourish in Brunei Darussalam.

Anyaman (Basketweaving or Plaiting)

Menganyam, which can be translated as plaiting or weaving certain parts of bamboo, rattan and the leaves of other plants into a variety of articles is one of Brunei Darussalam's traditional handicrafts. Like any art, plaiting requires skills, concentration and patience. It was started in Brunei Darussalam a long time ago by housewives as a hobby to pass away the time while their husbands, who were either farmers or fishermen, went about their works. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

As time passed they became skillful and creative, turning out beautiful finished products that those not blessed with the know-how were eager to buy them or trade something valuable in their possession for them. Thus what originally began as a pastime became a sideline income earner for the diligent housewives. In those days skills of any kind did not come easily and nor were they eagerly divulged. What one learned one usually kept to oneself and passed on only to members of one's family. Plaiting was no exception. It joined other crafts, the secrets of which were jealously guarded by those in possession of the knowledge.

Some of the more popular items still plaited today are tudung dulang or dishcover and bakul or basket and other related articles. Basket-weaving is believed to have originated from Sengkurong and Tanjung Nangka, two villages about 17 km southwest of the capital, and dishcover-making had its roots in the Kampong Ayer or Water Village half of the capital.

Basket and other related containers come in many sizes, shapes and colours. They include the ordinary baskets with or without covers; takiding which is taller and wider at the top and is borne piggy-back fashion for carrying fruits, vegetables and harvested rice; nyiru which is tray-shaped and used for drying foodstuffs and winnowing paddy, among other things; takung, a square sieve-like container used in the kitchen mainly for washing thngs like vegetables and fish; and tapisan, another strainer but smaller and finer than the takung.

To make a basket or any related containers, bubuh liat or flexible young bamboos are used. Each stalk is cut to the required length and split into eight equal parts. These are then scraped until smooth and painted in different colours according to the kind of design the weaver has in mind. The process of weaving begins as soon as the paint is dry. The rim and the framework, which are made from rattan dahanan, are double-layered to act as grip for the edges and other parts of the plaited bamboo strips. The grip is further secured with rattan paladas or rattan manuk. Nowadays some weavers break with tradition by using strong strings like tangsi or catgut.

Moreover, the weaver's skills are no longer confined to producing traditional household-type articles but a host of other things as well, including hats, purses, handbags, tissue boxes and decorative miniatures. The skills, which were once hard to get hold of, have been formally made available to school leavers since 1975 at the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre. The instructors are from Kampong Ayer, who acquired their skills the traditional way and thus with their help another cultural heritages has been assured of survival in Brunei Darussalam.

Songkok and Malay Headgear

Generally the man's headgear in Brunei Darussalam can be categorised into three kinds: dastar which is a piece of cloth tied around the head; songkok or kopiah, a type of cap made from velvet; and tangkolok or serban, which resembles a turban and is a typical headdress in the Middle East. Unlike the dastar, which is also known as tanjak and has existed in Brunei Darussalam since time unrecorded, songkok and serban were introducted to Bruneians by Arab traders - some of whom doubled as Islamic missionaries - more than six or seven hundred years ago. While the origin of the serban has never been doubted, much speculation has been made about the songkok simply because it is no longer seen among the Arabs. Nevertheless according to a research it did originate from the Middle East and was later brought to India, where minor improvements like putting papers inside to make it firmer were made. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

The songkok became a familiar sight in the Malay archipelago around the 13th century when Islam began to take roots in the region. The rise in popularity of the songkok were apparently viz-a-viz the propogation of Islam, and this was quite logical because the religion encourages it followeres to cover their heads. In fact it is considered sunat (voluntary good deed) for the Muslim males to don a headgear provided that is is done in good taste. The serban was also very much in evidence at about the same time but was worn more by the ulamas (Muslim scholars) rather than by man in the street.

Malay craftsmen of that period started to improve on the original kopiah, which was somewhat round, and came out with a slightly oblong songkok with horizontal top. Their creation served as the model for songkok makers that followed and survived to this day, albeit with some modifications along the way such as sewing pieces of paper between the linings, which are always satin to make it sturdier. After a period of time the wearing of songkok became a tradition and synonymous with being a Malay. Thus a symbol was born. Gradually it replaced the dastar as part of the Malay's national dress on most formal occassion.

Traditionally songkoks are worn with the national dress, which comprises a loose, long-sleeved shirt with unfolded collar or without collar, a pair of trousers and kain samping (a type of sarong tucked around the waist, over both shirt and trousers). Today, like other gears, the songkok comes in many colourful variations to suit individual tastes and styles. It is not, therefore, unusual for a man to have ate least two different shades to go with his equally colourful national dress and other attire. Some men like to have their songkoks made to measure - even if it means that they have to pay a little bit more - so that they can incorporate their own innovations as well as select the type and colour of the velvet to mirror their individuallity. Others who are more economy minded, prefer to choose from the wide variety of ready-made songkoks available in many of the shops in town.

Songkok sales are normally high at the approach of Hari Raya, which is the festival celebrated to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, as parents upgrade not only their own wardrobes but also those of their children. Because of the religious significance of Hari Raya, the songkok is worn by practically everyone, young and old. The value of songkok-wearing are communicated to the young both at home and at school. An adult may not want to put the songkok on all the time but he will certainly wear it on various important occasions including religious activities and state functions. Naturally there are people who habitually wear the songkoks most of their waking hours. In former times such act was usually associated with piety but nowadays people put the songkok on merely out of a desire to fulfill traditional religious requirements or both. Some government servants are given songkoks with the appropriate decorations as part of their uniforms.

Songkok Making

Besides skills, patience and an eye for details are two important assets a songkok-maker should have as the various parts are sewn separately. The main ingredients of a songkok are cardboard, velvet and stain. The cardboard has replaced the old method of using pieces of paper as stiffener. When all the parts are sewn they are then assembled and knitted according to the shape, height and head size required before the velvet is stitched on. Songkoks with horizontal or level top remain the leading choice among the majority of people but there are others who like to have a bump that resembles a far-away-mountain in the middle of each side of the top. In addition, there are songkoks without the stiffener and can therefore be folded up or flattened.[Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

The art of songkok-making had not been quite as well established in Brunei Darussalam as those of Bruneians' ancient arts and handicrafts. Thus in 1975 the Government set up the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre (BAHTC) where young school leavers learn from the master craftspersons themselves. With that the survival of one facet of the country's cultural heritage was assured.

One of the more senior students, Dayang Hajah Asnah binti Haji Mudin, rejoined the BAHTC in 1983 as an instructress. Her skills and experience have enabled her to produce up to three songkoks a day. But she pointed out "this depends on the intricacy of the designs. For example, the more the patterns or decorations the longer it would take to finish a songkok." To meet the increasing needs of Bruneians and make the distribution of its products easier, the BAHTC plans to open up branches in the country's other main towns. It also keeps up with advances in technology and will soon introduce songkoks made of plastic, which are expected to be more durable than the present type.

Kikik (Bruneian Kites)

In Brunei Darussalam, kite flying has for centuries been a popular traditional game, both with adults and children. The kite, which is called kikik in the Bruneian dialect, consists of a wooden or bamboo framework covered with paper, clothing or synthetic material. Bruneian kite enthusiasts prefer using bamboo, particularly one species known locally as buluh temiang because of its greater flexibility. The other components of a kite are paper, string and gum. Before commercial gum came into the scene, kite producers used cooked rice or sago, known locally as ambuyat, to make the paper or clothing stick to the framework. However most kite makers still prefer the traditional sago to the modern day gum. The various parts of the framework are tied with string in accordance with the kind of shape and size of the kite. Once it is completed, a long string is attached to the kite, which is sent aloft by the action of wind on its surfaces. The height or distance can be determined by manipulating the string from the ground. [Source: Bolhassan bin Haji Abu Bakar, Brunei Today, Brunei Information Department, June 1994

In the old days kite-flying was more than just a game. It was more often than not a duel among friends. It was for this reason that each kite player was always on the alert by having several feet of the top part of the string coated with ground glass and cooked tapioca flour, making it quite sharp and stiff. The idea was to entangle and sever an opponent's kite string. Once could recall that sometimes about a dozen or more kits were seen flying in the sky, attacking and trying to cut one another out of circulation. The one that survived the ordeal was declared the winner of the eagerly fought battle. The vanquished were never disheartened by the experience. Each was even more determined to become the victor in the next encounter.

Various names are given to kites, which included bilis, siar manjar, sijulak, lasik, jangkang and lipat. Why a different title is assigned to each kite, only the kitemaker can fully comprehend but the design, shape and size of the kite have a lot to do with it. Although kite enthusiasts have not yet come close to forming a club or a society, there is some sort of a national committee in existence, which organises a kite festival at least once a year during the birthday celebrations of His Majesty the Sultan and selects participants to kite events overseas.

To make a kikik: 1) Bamboo is split, pared and smoothened until the desired size is obtained. Once all the required bamboo parts are ready, making the framework follows. 2) Using the forefinger the gum is evenly spread on the paper to make it stick to the framework. 3) Pieces of coloured paper are measured and cut against the framework. The variety of Bruneian kites, each with a name of its own. 4) A few more of the vital ingredients of akite, namely glass, tapioca flour, which has to be cooked first an then mixed with ground glass to make the top part of the kite string stiff and sharp; and cooked sago or ambuyat to gum down the paper as above. 5) Once completed the kite is tested to make sure that it can fly. A giant kite such as this requires a few people to make it airborne.

Michael Jackson’s Concert in Brunei and Getting Drunk with the Prince of Brunei

Micheal Jackson performed a free concert at the Jerudong Park Amphitheatre in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on July 16, 1996. The concert was in celebration of the fiftieth birthday of Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei and was attended by the Brunei royal family.Much of the concert resembled Jackson's Dangerous World Tour, including his outfit, stage, and the setlist, keeping the details of the upcoming HIStory Tour a close secret. This concert was not part of the Dangerous World Tour nor the HIStory World Tour. The concert also marked the debut live performance of "You Are Not Alone" and "Earth Song" as well as the last performances of "Jam", "Human Nature", "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "She's Out of My Life" at a Jackson concert. This concert was also among the last performances of "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" being sung fully live; most subsequent performances have been partially lip-synched. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Before he was well known ‘Breaking Bad’ Aaron Paul got drunk with Michael Jackson and a Prince of Brunei. Zayda Rivera wrote in the New York Daily News, “The 34-year-old actor opened up about an unforgettable drunken night with Michael Jackson and the Prince of Brunei on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" Thursday. "It was just a very long weekend with Michael Jackson," he recalled. "My buddy got invited to the Prince of Brunei's birthday party outside of London at this castle and I was his plus one." Surprisingly the prince recognized the young actor at the time, which was before his "Breaking Bad" days. "He said, 'Oh my God. You played Floyd in 'Whatever It Takes,' it was one of my first movies," he described. "He took a liking to me and we just sort of ran around playing with sheep." Paul continued enjoying the party when someone called for him to join the prince again. "So I go down to this giant library and the prince is inside the library with Michael Jackson," he detailed. "It was just Michael, the Prince and I talking for about an hour." [Source: Zayda Rivera, New York Daily News, March 9, 2014 */*]

“It was hard to deny that his circumstances were "so weird," but as time went on it got even stranger. "Then that night, Michael, myself and the Prince and about 10 other people got pretty drunk in the library bar," Paul said. "It was so bizarre." An intrigued Kimmel asked what the King of Pop was drinking and the "Need for Speed" star revealed "we did shots of Tequila all night." In their intoxicated state, Paul recalled having deep conversations with the late singer. "We were talking about life and growing up," the award-winning actor said. */*

“But it wasn't the shots or the random conversations with the multiplatinum selling recording artist that was the biggest distraction of the evening for Paul. He remembered admiring Jackson's crisp, clean shirt, but his eye kept focusing on the "M" sticker that stood for "medium" that was still stuck on the pop star's top. "I just wanted to take it off so bad!" he said. "But no one wanted to bring it up." "Maybe it was for 'Michael,'" Kimmel suggested. While Paul and Jackson's introduction didn't turn into a flourishing friendship, he did stay in touch with the Prince of Brunei, who later invited him to a sweet 16 party for his little brother.” */*

Media in Brunei

The media in Brunei is controlled or owned by the royal family. Borneo Bulletin and Brunei Times are English-language daily newspapers. Media Permata is published daily in Malay, and BruDirect is an online news service. Radio Television Brunei provides radio and television services, broadcasting in Malay, English, Mandarin Chinese and Gurkhali. Foreign TV stations are available via a cable network.

Broadcast media: state-controlled Radio Television Brunei (RTB) operates 5 channels; 3 Malaysian TV stations are available; foreign TV broadcasts are available via satellite and cable systems; RTB operates 5 radio networks and broadcasts on multiple frequencies; British Forces Broadcast Service (BFBS) provides radio broadcasts on 2 FM stations; some radio broadcast stations from Malaysia are available via repeaters (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Maureen Callahan wrote in the New York Post: “According to a 2013 report issued by the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, journalists face up to three years in jail for “reporting ‘false and malicious’ news.” Any criticism of the Sultan or the royal family is also criminal, and the government retains the right to shut down any media outlet they like. As for the Web, only 60 percent of the population has access, and it’s both restricted and monitored. [Source: Maureen Callahan, New York Post, May 10, 2014]

According to expat-blog.com: “ASTRO is the satellite service. It costs a fortune to install (about $300) and $54 a month for the top package.BUT you can only understand a few channels. Most are in Malay or Chinese or have English sub-titles.The best news channel is Al Jazeera – no kidding! BBC Wold Service sux in comparison. The good news is that they do have some pay-for –view sports and other packages and you can get cricket tournaments like the ICC Trophy or the Ashes etc. (You can also get these and many others on your PC for free…IF the internet is working properly!). The Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) shows the Tri Nations rugby and there is wide coverage of football with repeats from all over the world….many, many repeats. Espn and Euro Sports are free as well. Movies are limited, but there are varied entertainment progs and Discovery. I would advise you to get a good dvd player that can record on long play. That way you can set it to record programmes that are on while you are asleep. Remember that Brunei is 7 hours ahead of the UK during summer and 8 in winter. That also means that when the sport is on in the UK (8pm) it is 3am here. [Source: expat-blog.com ^+^]

Internet and Communications in Brunei

Internet users: 314,900 (2009), country comparison to the world: 128. Internet country code: .bn; Internet hosts: 49,457 (2012), country comparison to the world: 96. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Telephones - main lines in use: 70,933 (2012), country comparison to the world: 154. Telephones - mobile cellular: 469,700 (2012), country comparison to the world: 170. Telephone system: general assessment: service throughout the country is good; international service is good to Southeast Asia, Middle East, Western Europe, and the US domestic: every service available. international: country code - 673; landing point for the SEA-ME-WE-3 optical telecommunications submarine cable that provides links to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe; the Asia-America Gateway submarine cable network provides new links to Asia and the US; satellite earth stations - 2 Intelsat (1 Indian Ocean and 1 Pacific Ocean) (2011). =

Country code 673; internet domain ‘.bn’. Coin- and card-operated public telephones are available throughout the country. There is good mobile phone coverage in and around the main towns, particularly in the north-west. There are 172 main telephone lines, 1,139 mobile phone subscriptions and 603 internet users per 1,000 people (2012). [Source: thecommonwealth.org ^^]

According to expat-blog.com: Internet – If you have ever moaned about BT and the poor connections you were getting, write them an apology letter. The maximum speed you can get here is 1meg – 1000kbps! That will cost you $128 a month, but it is worth it. You can talk on SKYPE and connect to everything back home. ^^

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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