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January 16, 2014

Visiting Brunei the Abode of Peace

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Several reasons motivated me to visit Brunei. It is oil rich, tiny, safe, not touristy, has a Malay Islamic culture and a beautiful nature. Two more: (1) Its head of state Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah is a graduate of Egypt's Al Azhar and (2) Brunei is ranked in the top ten of the happiest country in the world along with Canada. Literacy rate here is among the highest in the world at about 95%.

Brunei, officially Brunei Darussalam, meaning Brunei the Abode of Peace, is located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia. The remainder of the island, the third largest in the world, is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei’s coastline is overlooking the South China Sea. It is surrounded by the state of Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest province and it is separated into two parts by the Sarawak district of Limbang.

Two beautiful mosques with great architectures and a village were on my top list of places to visit: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Jame Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and the village of Kampong Ayer.

Brunei Darussalam has a population of some 400,000, 67% Malays and 15% Chinese. Indians, indigenous ethnic groups and expatriates make up the rest of the country. About 66% of the population is Muslim.

Posted on the web page of its embassy in Washington (Brunei does not have an embassy in Canada, although Qatar, a country of only 100,000 has recently established an embassy in Ottawa): “Islam is the official religion of Brunei Darussalam and has been since the 14th century. Brunei takes its religion very seriously and has developed a strong Islamic reputation around the world. However, Brunei also practices religious tolerance as underwritten by the constitution. Other faiths practiced in the State include Christianity and Buddhism.”

The Royal Regalia Museum in the capital showcases impressive royal artifacts used in the coronation complete with original gilded carriage the Sultan travelled in.

Brunei Darussalam’s judiciary system is based on English Common Law but for Muslims, Islamic Sharia Law supersedes civil law in a number of areas.

The Malay language is the official national language while English is most commonly used as the medium of instruction. Arabic is used in religious schools.

Crude oil and natural gas production account for about 90% of its GDP. Some 170,000 barrels of oil are produced every day, making Brunei the fourth-largest producer of oil in Southeast Asia. It also produces approximately one million cubic feet of liquified natural gas per day, making Brunei the ninth-largest exporter in the world. Forbes ranks Brunei as the fifth-richest nation out of 182.

Brunei has the second-highest Human Development Index among the South East Asia nations after Singapore, and is classified as a developed country. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Brunei is ranked fifth in the world by gross domestic product with a public debt of 0% of the national GDP.

More than 75 percent of Brunei is covered by rainforest. The Ulu Temburong National Park is home to colourful birds and wildlife and the Sungai Apan waterfall where your feet can by cleaned by small fish. The only thing I declined is to climb the steep steel ladder to reach a canopy walkway, 60 meters above the forest floor to get a bird’s eye view of the forest.

I visited Tamu Klanggeh, an open-air market offering fresh produce including the Borneo specialties of Durian, membangan (brown-skinned mangoes) and the olive-like kembayau. Silvery mounds of dry anchovies, golden heaps of dry shrimp and pink squid, all displayed as well as bowl of bright chilies and purple eggplants.

I also visited Kampong Ayer, a water village of about 30,000 people, the largest of its kind in the world, near the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (population 150,000). It offers answer to one important question: How Brunei lives by both tradition and modernity. The houses here are multi-colored built on stilts over the Brunei River. There are 42 separate villages with 4000 buildings as well as schools. Mosques, restaurants, shops and a police station, all connected by wooden walkways over the water. The only transportation is by foot or bicycles.

The residents of Kampong Ayer, like all citizens of Brunei, enjoy a level of social services most people can only dream of. The government of Brunei collects no taxes, but provides free health care and education, old-age pension, and financial assistance to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah once in a life time. Violence and robbery are non-existent.

The earliest known mention of Kampong Ayer by a European was by the Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the Magellan's fleet. When Pigafetta visited the Sultanate of Brunei in 1521, he described a prosperous city of considerable size built on stilts in the Brunei River and a wealthy Islamic monarchy with splendid palaces, and a people famed for hospitality.

Brunei was a protectorate of the British crown for nearly a century before gaining independence in 1984.

In today’s Kampong Ayer not only homes but medical clinics, mosques, fire and police stations, shops, schools and markets line the suspended maze of stilt-supported wooden walkways.

Beneath them run metered water mains and electrical power lines. Although Kampong Ayer enjoys modern luxuries, including washing machines, televisions, and cellular phones, fishing lines and gill nets are still strung from the pilings, and boats are moored in the cool shade underneath the houses.

In the mid-1800's Sir James Brooke, the first British rajah of neighboring Sarawak, described Kampong Ayer as "a very Venice of hovels, fit only for frogs." Brooke did not see that Kampong Ayer's vernacular architecture is supremely adapted to the tropical environment of Brunei, nor understand how this architecture has helped form the social dynamics of a village which people live in by both tradition and choice.

The most obvious benefits of living in stilt-supported buildings over the river have to do with cooling winds, defense, ease of construction and sanitation as well as access to water, fishing grounds and riverside building materials, such mangrove poles. Building materials have changed greatly over the years, but the visual appeal of an entire village on stilts remains undiminished.

Each morning as the village slowly wakened, the clattering footsteps of children going to school and commuters along Kampong Ayer's rickety wooden walkways, known as jembatan, were joined by the growing bass rumble of motorized tambangs, or water taxis, as they ferried people to the nearby shore. There, buses and cars waited to take them to schools and to work throughout Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei that virtually surrounds Kampong Ayer.

During my four-day-long stay in Brunei, the only problem I encountered was a lack of time that prevented me from accepting many of the numerous invitations to have lunch or tea with hospitable people.

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