Thoughts on Brunei

Most recently, I had the once-in-a-young-lifetime opportunity to participate in the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) in Brunei Darussalam, that tiny country which shares Borneo with Indonesia and Malaysia. I don’t quite have good or bad things to say about Bandar Seri Begawan, the capitol city, where I spent my time. It’s a heavily ironic place and I can’t put my finger on it, but something is just off about the city – it’s eerie. It could be the lack of people out past 6pm, the oddly empty “popular” town square, the muezzin’s long mesmeric call to prayer, the unexpected California-esque highways, the buildings with beautiful outsides and decrepit insides, or the edgy 20-somethings at bars lookin’ like they’re about to start a gang fight, but only chugging root beer because Brunei is a wholly dry state.

The popular Yayasan square, on Sunday.

The popular Yayasan square, on Sunday. Maybe they’re all inside?

At USD $70 for a 30min. cab ride, do I recommend you spend your money on Bandar? If you’re limited on time, No. You can get the same in other countries for next to nothing. Rather, you can vacation in Borneo, then pop into Brunei’s 1% on the way out. Now, onto the APF/ACSC conference…

Forewarning: This is a rant-ish type post and in no way reflects Brunei as a whole, but I must say, my points are valid.

I’m not entirely sure what resulted from the APF/ACSC conference besides a lot of squabble and realization of disorganization. The Brunei Women’s Council took the lead on running and coordinating the international conference and I give them a D- grade, mainly for their unprofessionalism, apathy and disrespect.

A few of the myriad of issues I encountered:

  • The Youth Speakers discussed the need for increased meaningful child participation in vain. As I sat upon the stage with my Youth Speaker, Aun, and looked out at the crowd, what I saw was depressing to say the least. The National Organizing Committee leaders sat in the front rows and during each of the 5 Youth presentations, and not one of the leaders paid a bit of attention. What I observed was complete disinterest from many of the ladies of the Brunei Women’s Council as well as from certain APF leaders. Talking on their phone, laughing with each other, reading their Kindles, etc. were just some of the distractions coming from the very first rows. Hypocritical much? If child participation is an emphasized focus of the conference, it is minimum that ASEAN leaders respect the invited youth on stage and set an example for the rest of the attendees.
  • During question and answer sessions, the Women’s Council appeared to be more concerned with their images in media photos than with the question at hand. Example, as an attendee inquired about a particularly challenging issue, the lead speaker became distracted by a photographer, so turned and posed for him (in the middle of someone speaking to her!).
  • Attendees harboring valuable insight and analysis on topics were snuffed due to extremely late start times (up to 1.5 hours after scheduled start!). The first day, the Minister of Culture was scheduled to open the conference, but the audience was left waiting for an hour because “he [was] downstairs shopping” at the vendor booths. Come again?
  • Transportation was non-existent. My conversation with the Front Desk at Asma Hotel:
    Me: We’d like a shuttle bus to go back to our hotel, The Jeruton, please.
    FD: Sorry, there are no shuttle buses until the last session is over.
    Me: oh…
    Me: Well, we can just take a taxi. That’s fine.
    FD: There are no taxis.
    Me: Sorry?
    FD: Taxis will be too expensive and maybe take 30minutes to get here. And they are not answering their phone.
    Me: Okay, so what are the options to get back to my hotel? (My foot is sprained, so I dread the 30-40min. walk)
    FD: Sorry, I cannot help you. You should call your own hotel.
    What a lovely 1st impression of Brunei hotels! This issue became a major source of frustration for many in the conference staying at distant hotels. Brunei, if you are going to host an international conference with busy professionals and prominent leaders from around the world, please at least set-up some type of transportation system.
  • The Final Concluding Statement debacle. The 2nd night of the conference, the Drafting Committee created a Word document outlining plenary and workshop statements. During the final Plenary, the attendees as a whole were to agree on  the final concluding statement. In a lapse of common sense, the NOC decided to project the Word Doc. on a whiteboard and invite the audience to edit the entire draft line by line, without even first reading the document to us. Not one attendee had seen the Draft beforehand, and the concern was raised to deaf ears. The NOC proceeded to read through the first paragraph and ask for edits, which many attendees responded to, leading to absolute chaos. None of the edits were being saved, similar lines were being added, removed, added, and I can go on about the inefficiency of this “process,” but you get my drift.
    Finally, I had had enough (it was a 1.5 hour session and we had gone nowhere in 45 minutes). I walked up to the microphone and suggested the NOC “track changes” on Word and gave alternatives to the current process. The response? “Ok, well, we need to continue.” :/  5 more attendees came up after me and requested the same to much applause, but again to deaf ears. (At least they ended up tracking changes.) I was flabbergasted (not a word I use lightly) and appalled by the general disregard the NOC had for respected conference attendees and invited guests. The conference was to end by 12:30pm and instead ran to 5pm with most of the exasperated attendees already having flown out by mid-afternoon.

Note: It took me a while to speak up because I feared the “White Man’s Burden” stereotype. I don’t want to be THAT Westerner because I understand there are different methods of operation, which are culturally sensitive. However, there are some situations that in no way relate to culture and are just plain inane. As I became aware of the similar sentiment I shared with those around me (and no one else wanted to walk to the microphone), I decided to express my thoughts (in the most polite way possible, of course!).

The reigning theme of APF/ACSC 2013? Confuddlement! The attendees and I made numerous suggestions and voiced our opinions and ideas to no avail. While there are few (or no) major conflicts in Brunei and the population is generally content, to seemingly discount the hardships of your ASEAN peers is incredulous.

Next year, APF/ACSC will take place in Myanmar. For the sake of ASEAN, I want the future conferences to be effective, a platform for best ideas and practices to be shared, a jumping board for those ideas to be implemented, and a source of knowledge sharing and critical discussion. Myanmar, listen to the People and learn from this year! Make APF/ACSC what it set out to be!


Wish I had more time to make the day boat trip to Temburong, which I hear is vast in its pristine forests, but maybe next time…or not.

A beach with a wondrous sunset!

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  1. It’s true there’s not much to do in Bandar, but I agree – if you want to basically have a beach to yourself and chill out, Brunei is great, particularly the Empire Hotel! In general, not very tourist friendly as there’s not a tourist market there. Wish I had time to go to Temburong Forest or the Black Lake (and get out of Bandar)! Have you been to those spots?

    I’ve definitely gotten used to the laid-back attitude of SE Asia, which I love (mostly, hahah), though for major international and political conferences, a degree of professionalism is required.

  2. Brunei is unappealing to most foreigners…but if you like peace and quiet, this is the place 🙂 Unprofessional attitude is quite common here but it’s usually like that in Southeast Asia, except in Singapore. The Empire Hotel is awesome!

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