Living in Brunei through the eyes of expats

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei.

MUARA, Brunei - BRUNEI. Long before it was the Kingdom of Unexpected Treasures, it was first the Abode of Peace.

Peace hasn't made many countries its home in our troubled world but it would be difficult to argue against the Brunei sentiment of a peaceful country.

Crime rate, especially that of violent ones, is one of the lowest in the world. Its people have never known hunger, famine, drought, plague, economic meltdown.

Nestled within a bay in Borneo, its neighbours have sheltered it from the worst effects of natural disaster. Its last and brief period of conflict was over half a century ago.

Peace is the long-term vision too.

The National Development Plan 2007-2012, with the nation's Vision 2035 in mind, had placed a mere 12.5 per cent of its budget on security, police and its armed forces, while almost a third of it went to social services and over 40 per cent was spent on education, medical services, housing and public utilities.

Such is the inertia of history, preventing the country from losing its hold on such a coveted label. Such is the momentum of current trends, continuing to build up the image of a safe and secure Brunei. A peaceful Brunei.

It comes as no surprise that many people who've come to Brunei have chosen to settle down.

"I worked before in New Zealand with an NGO in management, my husband with a large engineering firm. I thought it was a great chance to travel with the children. We knew a couple who were here and we tried to find something in Brunei," said Zoe Burkitt, who's yet to complete a year in Brunei.

Has it been a smooth experience so far?

"We were told that we'd have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy here. But once we found work... people wanted to help," said Zoe, as she spoke of how helpful Bruneians made the tedious process of paperwork and documentations relatively stress-free.

"It's relatively easy to settle into even with the language. Once you find people in common, they're generally very keen to settle. There's a lot of social activities with adults," added Zoe.

When asked if she'd found Brunei to be as safe as it's reputed to be, Zoe draws a perspective: "It's relative. I've lived in South Africa where I felt quite safe. I feel safe at home and in a car... I don't feel personally threatened. I've been burgled in New Zealand and the UK but that's pretty standard."

"Road safety though, walking children outside malls and parks, busy places, can be tricky," she added, noting the lack of proper walking areas for pedestrians in some public places near traffic.

Jane Sheehy, head of the Parents Teachers Association at the International School Brunei, moved to Brunei four years ago with her husband and had her twins born in the RIPAS hospital.

"I feel I can let my kids out of sight in the supermarket, which I wouldn't do back in Britain. I can let someone else take my kids home," said Jane. She also thinks Brunei is ideal to raise a family.

"It's a great place for young children, except the weather can be a hindrance. We like spending time in the jungle... the boys running around the sandpit in their underwear, in the rain children are enjoying themselves. It's a luxury to have good health and a huge home, unlike in the UK."

She also expressed comfort with the Muslim culture in Brunei, a modern legacy of the country's Malay Islamic Monarchy philosophy. "It's reassuring in a way. Our amah (domestic helper) is very religious. There's a moral compass in a lot of people here."

Dr Kamal Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, an Arabic lecturer from Egypt, is spending his tenth year in Brunei and described it with a reverent air. "Brunei is a mehboob (beloved, favourite) country for everyone in the world. She is a peaceful country, a treasure of good morals and good Islam. The people are nice, with good education."

Brunei's Sultan evokes his best memory of Brunei: "I have never seen in any country, a king greeting people by hand, praying with them, similar to our Rasul." When asked if he had been to many countries, he exclaims,"I am Sinbad (mythical Arabian sailor adventuring throughout Africa and Asia)! Where haven't I seen? I can compare Brunei to Sierra Leone, Yemen, Pakistan. Brunei was the best, after Pakistan."

Despite being alone, returning to Egypt twice a year, with his family visiting every two months in the past, Dr Kamal maintains a light social life, especially with fellow Egyptians in Brunei. "We meet sometimes for tea or coffee, but there is no community as such. We keep in touch by mail or phone."

Diallo Faiza, a student from Burkina Faso has a lot to thank Brunei for. "When I arrived, I didn't know anyone, not even the country. The first thing I learnt here was English and Arabic from local teachers, so I am very thankful. I even understand a little bit of Malay now.

"I will say Brunei is very peaceful and not like any other country, very quiet also. It is generous, I came here on scholarship."

However, even Paradise has its troubles and Brunei does have trade-offs, besides the hot tropical weather that seems to be on every visitor's list of gripes. There's a sense, for those who've spent the longest time in Brunei, that they've run out of things to do.

"It's perhaps not so interesting culturally and there is a limited variety of restaurants," Jane remarked. "My eldest's greatest obsession is with trains so we tried to take him to KK (Kota Kinabalu). He also goes back for six weeks (to the UK)."

"You don't meet anyone new after a while. It's the same faces at social gatherings, and they're from a limited bunch... the expats are from oil and gas, or engineers, or lecturers. Brunei just isn't interesting enough for different types to want to come visit," moaned an educator who declined to be named.

Despite its obvious prosperity and enviable stability in an environment of peace, Brunei can leave an impression of unfulfillment.

"Perhaps there is no need to compete or struggle, and that's why you don't see the best out of people here," said a local student who admitted that she wasn't willing to give up her various benefits in financial support which she enjoys as a Bruneian.

"I hope for Bruneian students to be more active, seek more education, more interesting because Brunei gives them everything to be good," wished Dr Kamal.