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Brunei

Culture & Identity

Way of Life

Brunei is a fairly small and urbanized country whose economy is based on oil. In fact oil has done more to dictate the daily way of life than perhaps anything else, although religion and the urban lifestyle also take on prominent roles.

Due to the oil industry, today many jobs are in, or related to the oil industries. This has led to fairly regular working hours for the people and has given life in Brunei a fairly regular schedule for many people. Whether in the industrial side of oil, or any other occupation, or on the services side, hours tend to be consistent as many people work from about 8:00 am to about 5:00 pm. However, there are also evening and night shifts in many industries and many people also work Saturday mornings.

Religion also takes on an important role in the way of life for many people, from dress and diet (below) to schedule. Friday is Islam's holy day and as a primarily Muslim country many, but not all people take Friday evening to pray.

Since most people live in the city this contributes to the way of life as well. People live closer, public transportation is more common than private, and nearly any food or good is more easily accessible.

Leisure time in Brunei is spent in a huge number of ways. In the city there are plenty of entertainment options, but few people drink so bars are uncommon. Many people prefer spending free time with family or friends and due to relatively high incomes; many people have some discretionary income to enjoy their time off of work.

Ethnicity

The majority of people in Brunei (about two thirds) are ethnically Malay, a group related to the people of both Micronesia and Polynesia. Obviously, these people are most closely related to the people of Malaysia, Indonesia, and to a lesser degree, numerous Pacific islands. The next largest ethnic group in Brunei is Han Chinese, who are identical to the Han Chinese in China itself. There are also various other people in the country and the remaining 20% of the population is made up of people from numerous ethnic groups.

Language

Malay is the only official language in Brunei and it is the native language of most of the population. Malaysian is a part of the Polynesian language family and Malay's closest relative is Indonesian.

There are numerous ethnic Chinese in Brunei who speak Mandarin or another a Chinese language as well as numerous other ethnic minorities who have their own languages. English is the most commonly taught second language and many people, especially in the cities, have at least a basic understanding of English.

Religion

Muslim is the official religion of Brunei and nearly two thirds of the population adheres to this religion; nearly all of whom are ethnically Malay. The last third is almost evenly divided into Buddhists (primarily ethnic Chinese), Christians, and other belief systems, including indigenous belief systems.

Islam (the name of the religion, whose followers are called Muslims) is a monotheistic religion, whose holy book is called the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed to be the word of God spoken through the prophet Muhammad from 609-632 CE (Common Era is preferred over AD (Anno Domini or "year of the Lord") since the Islamic world doesn't believe Jesus was the messiah). Islam believes Muhammad was the last prophet sent to earth by God, the last in a long line of prophets, which includes Moses, Abraham, and Jesus among others.

Muslims follow five pillars of their faith: testimony, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. These pillars, and other tenants of their faith, can give great structure to their lives as some foods, like pork, are forbidden and every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day. However, the level of participation in each of these pillars and to what degree Islam influences an individual's life varies from person to person and community to community. Generally speaking, Brunei has a mix of both liberal and conservative Muslims in how they practice.

Dress

The traditional dress in Brunei is still very much alive, although some western-styled clothing has made an entrance. The dress is truly based on the people's Islamic faith, which requests conservative dress, especially among women as all women are expected to cover their hair. Both men and women are also expected to have their shoulders and knees covered at all times.

For many women the traditional dress is the baju kurang, which is similar to a dress, which is often times very colorful. The men traditionally wore the baju burung, which consists of a simple long-sleeved shirt and pants or a sampin, which is similar to a sarong worn in place of pants. While both of these traditional outfits, and others, are still commonly worn in Brunei, there is a slow movement to western-styled clothing. This shift, however, is taking place slowly and is primarily being undertaken by the younger generation.

As a visitor to Brunei, you are not expected to wear local traditional clothing, but it is required that you cover up. Everyone, including visitors, is expected to cover their knees and shoulders at a minimum. Many people will cover their elbows as well and women are encouraged to cover their hair at all times in public, but this is not required. Despite the strict dress code, few of these rules are actual laws so there is some leeway in what you can wear while in Brunei and some people do wear shorts today. However, in order to show respect to the people and their culture, it is recommended that you cover up at all times and to save your swim wear for nearby Malaysia.

Behavior

Like dress (see above), the greatest things to keep in mind in terms of behavior are based on Islam, many of which are focused on dietary restrictions. Islamic law forbids pork products and alcohol; however there is little worry about adhering to these rules in Brunei since neither is widely available anywhere in the country. Pork is available in restaurants catered to the ethnic Chinese, but not elsewhere; if in the presence of Muslims don't order pork. Alcohol is also available in limited areas, but again, don't drink around Muslims and never go out in public after having had a drink as Brunei is much more conservative than Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Also, when in the presence of the Chinese, remember that they can be very proud people and insulting them or putting a person down in anyway can be very offensive as the person will feel "shamed." In much the same way, the Chinese will rarely give you critical advice or insult you in fear of "shaming" you; this is especially true in business. Turning down a business offer in the wrong way may, unknowingly be an insult and could force your contact to feel so shamed that he will actually quit his job; if all hope is lost on a deal, allow your Chinese counterpart to gracefully exit the situation so he can save "face." However, the opposite is also becoming more common and if you do (intentionally or unintentionally) insult another, that person may defend his honor by insulting you and will pursue a shouting match.

Identity

The ethnic Malays in Brunei tend to identify as Bruneian, which is primarily a political-based definition, but one that also has strong aspects of the culture associated with it. This identity is usually associated with being an ethnic Malay, speaking Malay, and being Muslim, but it also implies that the person is a citizen of Brunei, hence excluding ethnic Malays living elsewhere. The ethnic minorities tend to identify with their ethnicity, many of whom are ethnically Chinese or Indian, but numerous smaller groups also exist, such as the Lun Bawang people.

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This page was last updated: November, 2013