Welcome to my private journal generally on Brunei issues. Any opinions expressed are in my personal capacity. All rights to the articles are reserved.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brunei: A Safe Haven

[This article is from Oxford Business Group (OBG) which reported about Brunei dated 19th December 2008.]


19 Dec 2008 - At a time when a majority of asset classes and countries look vulnerable to yet unforeseen financial shocks, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam provides plenty of compelling reasons for foreign investors looking for a safe financial haven.

While not immune to the global economic slowdown and falling oil prices - its main export commodity - the Sultanate appears to have very little exposure to toxic financial instruments and enjoys a stable financial sector.

Even before the global financial crisis began, the banks and local authorities were mindful of improving the quality of banking assets and promoting a culture of responsible borrowing and saving. The level of new Non Performing Loans (NPLs) is therefore quite low by regional standards.

As of 2006 a new Banking Order ensured that the local banks were well capitalised, with minimum capital requirements raised to BN dollar 100m. The local banks thus entered the global financial crisis in much better shape than many regional peers.

Yet, it is the macroeconomic story that is a source of confidence. The ongoing financial crisis tends to hit the countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios and significant external financing needs. These are usually countries which have balance of payments problems, with high currency account deficits. The case in point is Pakistan which was on the verge of financial meltdown due to the lack of external financing.

Brunei Darussalam is fortunate to have none of the difficulties experienced by highly leveraged countries with external imbalances. It has traditionally been an exporter rather than an importer of financial capital and has been running high current account surpluses, which were saved in strategic reserve funds.

Its debt-to-GDP is one of the lowest in the region and its consolidated fiscal position provides plenty of room for expansionary government spending policy. The existence of clearly formulated government spending plans is a bonus at a time when most countries are forced to improvise their fiscal stimulus.

In monetary policy, too, Brunei Darussalam looks like a better bet than most countries in the region. Brunei dollar's hard peg to the Singapore dollar does raise concern in some quarters, but in relative terms the Singapore dollar is less vulnerable given Singapore's large foreign currency reserves and well managed monetary policy.

As a place to store liquidity, Brunei Darussalam is therefore one of the safest locations in the region, which gives it an opportunity to establish itself as a financial offshore centre. However, that goal will also require attractive returns on capital, which in its turn requires healthy economic activity.

For now at least the focus is on the central government to inject new momentum into the slowing economy. The challenge is that the public investment has to come at a time of low oil prices and therefore lower government revenues.

The authorities are expected to be very cautious in prioritising their investment to preserve some of their strategic reserves against further external shocks. However, the fall in oil and gas prices might come as a blessing in disguise if the government is able to finance new projects in non-oil and gas sectors.

Even in hydrocarbons downstream space, there could be signs of new developments. When the oil prices were very high, the main issue was that the opportunity cost of using domestic oil and gas to develop new downstream sectors was quite high. That was the main sticking point in rolling out such high profile projects as the Brunei Methanol Company.

The correction in oil prices thus indirectly favours diversification, which has long been Brunei's top strategic economic goal. But as some industry players point out, the key issue is financing. Although the logic of diversification has become far more compelling, banks are reluctant to lend to corporations and financial institutions in a downturn, no matter how safe and liquid they are.

This is particularly true in so-called risky sectors such as small and medium enterprises which lack good quality collateral to raise the necessary financing. It therefore falls on the government and the public sector to play the role of financial intermediaries to get the economy back on solid footing.

Despite the challenges, the economic slowdown in Brunei Darussalam is expected to be much milder. The country may even come out of the crisis ahead of its regional peers with the strong comparative advantage of being perceived both politically and financially stable by foreign investors - a rare asset in these troubled times.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Brunei and the Clinton Foundation

The Voice of America reported about the donations that former US President Bill Clinton received for his foundation on 18 December 2008. This was part of the deal to avoid conflict of interests that he had to make so that his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton can become the next Secretary of State. The news report run as follows:


Foreign States Among Major Donors to Clinton Foundation

18 December 2008. The foundation run by former U.S. President Bill Clinton has received donations from several foreign governments that his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, might have to negotiate with as secretary of state.

President-elect Barack Obama has nominated Senator Clinton to the top diplomatic post and requested the list of donors to her husband's charitable organization to avoid conflicts of interest.

Some of the biggest donors on the list, released Thursday, are the Australian government and Saudi Arabia, which both gave between $10 million and $25 million. Norway donated up to $10 million, while Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Brunei each gave up to $5 million.

The charity's list of donors also includes the controversial Blackwater security firm, which provides protection for U.S. diplomats in Iraq. U.S. prosecutors have charged five Blackwater security guards with unlawfully killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last year. As secretary of state, Senator Clinton may have the final say on whether the State Department will renew its contract with Blackwater.

One of the leading private donors on the list is Amar Singh, an Indian politician. Singh met with Senator Clinton in September while on a trip to Washington to lobby for a controversial agreement for India to obtain civilian nuclear technology from the United States.

The William J. Clinton foundation funds his presidential library and humanitarian projects around the world, including initiatives to prevent HIV/AIDS, to fight climate change and to promote education. The foundation says it has received over 200,000 donations, 90 percent of which were for $250 or less.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Kampung Ayer offers watery window on Islam

John Henderson wrote for the Dallas Morning News (12th December 2008) as follows (including the spelling error of Bensar instead of Bandar):-

BENSAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei – It's sunset in Brunei, and schoolchildren are jumping from their front porches into water that engulfs their floating city. Their laughter and splashing are the only sounds I hear, other than the slow puttering of our motor boat as it negotiates around houses, walkways and schools, all balancing over the water on wooden stilts.

They call this place Kampung Ayer. It's better known as the Venice of the East. This conglomeration of water villages is home to more than 17,000 people, all viewing the Brunei River as their front and back yards, main drag and supermarket.

I viewed it as one whale of a boat ride, filled with wildlife, sun-flecked views and insight into a peaceful Islamic culture few Westerners ever see. I come to Brunei to see life in a stable Islamic kingdom, where the streets are clean, the jungles are alive, and the people are happy.

In Brunei, where Shell discovered oil in 1921, there is petrol in every pot. The shell flag flies next to the Brunei flag. It's where housing complexes have roofs in Shell's red and yellow colors. But the sultan of Brunei, worth an estimated $22 billion, is trying to diversify the economy and is putting an emphasis on tourism.

That's a challenge in today's warring world, but tourism is up 7 percent from a year ago.

"We're struggling to understand the people who practice Islam at the same time they're trying to understand us," says Justin Friedman, who just finished a two-year stint in Brunei as the American embassy's deputy chief of mission. "Brunei offers a window into the mainstream of the people who practice Islam."

Mr. Friedman is sitting at one of the many sidewalk cafes dotting this sparkling capital. Bensar Seri Begawan is squeaky clean in more ways than one. You can eat off the hot streets, but you can't wash it down with a beer. The sultan banned alcohol in 1991.

Instead, we sip fruit juice made from durian, Southeast Asia's pungent fruit. About 300 yards away, Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque's gold-plated dome glistens in the sun. Women stroll the quiet main street in full head scarves and stylish robes.

Mr. Friedman is Jewish, and even his world travels as a diplomat didn't prepare him for the homes that welcomed him in Brunei.

"People here are very tolerant of all forms of religion," he says. "You'll find they're sincere about religion and practicing faith as it is important to many, many Americans."

Brunei made for a terrific side trip for my trekking adventure to the Malaysian side of Borneo. Shaped like two hanging Christmas ornaments, Brunei occupies a space not much larger than Rhode Island on a corner of Borneo's northwest coast. The population of 375,000 has free medical care, free education and a strong welfare system. Poverty is low. So is crime. Restaurants of Indian, Malay and Chinese cuisines, specializing in Brunei's luscious prawns, are thriving.

Bruneians thank the benevolent Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, whose family has ruled this land since the 14th century, the world's longest hereditary monarchy. But the real hero is Shell, which not only has enriched the people but also the land.

"Oil money keeps it up," says Ignatius Stephen, a veteran journalist for Brunei's Borneo Bulletin. "Brunei should've disappeared a long time ago."

Oil is the main industry, not forestry. On an island where 60 percent of the forests has been logged, my bus ride north from Malaysia went past lush, unspoiled jungles. No crude roads led to swaths of bare land as I saw in a flight across the island.

For a Borneo jungle adventure, Brunei's Ulu Temburong National Park may top them all. It's 77 square miles of forest, lined with trails and topped by one of the world's longest canopy walks high in the trees. A two-day trip with an overnight stay in a jungle village runs about $200.

Brunei's uniqueness, however, lies in its water villages. At the capital's busy but amazingly clean port, I meet Markim Bin Haji, my boatman for the water tour. He takes my girlfriend and me out of the city where we pass the 24-carat gold minarets of the sultan's $400 million palace, with its 110-car garage and 257 bathrooms.

Soon we float past thick jungle where a Chinese egret flies overhead. A venomous, yellow-ringed cat snake stares at us from a tree. Nearby, a 4-foot-long monitor lizard rests in the shade. A big-nosed proboscis monkey looks our way with curiosity.

As we cruise, Haji tells us about the freshwater crocodiles. "Keep your hands in the boat," he says.

There is no danger back in the water villages where the only thing separating them from normal suburbs is deep water and no chain restaurants. We pass a fire station, a gas station, a hospital. The maze of catwalks makes Kampung Ayer look more like science fiction than modern Islam.

Mr. Stephen says locals worry about the water pollution and a recent trend for water villagers to move to dry land. I contemplated that as we ended our day at the luxurious Empire Hotel. I sat at a table overlooking the South China Sea, sipped my Coconut and Mango Bomb and thought the world has more serious problems than Brunei. If only the world would look.

Friday, September 26, 2008

$3 billion Brunei Oil Refinery

[Reuters reported on Thursday, 25th Sept 2008 that Brunei is building a refinery expecting to cost around $3 billion]

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The expected cost of a proposed refinery project in Brunei could rise from an initial estimate of $3 billion due to rising steel prices, the chief of PetroBru said.

Mohd Zaman Noordin, chief executive of the small, privately held firm which won approval last November from Brunei to do a feasibility study on the project, said PetroBru was in talks with potential customers from Kuwait and China to take products from the refinery.

"Other than these two, we are also in talks with a few other parties. None of these have been concretely finalised yet, because I think to an extent some of them are waiting for the results from the detailed feasibility study," he told a news conference.

Steel prices peaked in July at above $1,000 a tonne for Chinese hot rolled coil, but has since retreated to around $825, tracking losses in other base metals prices.

If it is built, the plant on Pulau Muara Besar -- earmarked as Brunei's new deepwater hub for regional markets -- will have a preliminary capacity of 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) and a maximum capacity of 500,000 bpd.

PetroBru has appointed consultancy Wood Mackenzie to lead a detailed economic feasibility study for the project and construction would begin in 2012 or 2013, depending on its outcome.

The project would be the first world-class refining complex in the oil-rich sultanate, which now has a 10,000-bpd plant run by Brunei Shell Petroleum (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz).

PetroBru, 26 percent-owned by Malaysia's TRC Synergy (TRCG.KL: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), has completed an economic viability study for the refinery which will produce jet fuel and diesel. (Reporting by David Chance; Editing by Ramthan Hussain)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Claims in Jersey

[Note: This article written by Ben Quérée was published in the Jersey Evening Post on 20th September 2008]

ATTEMPTS to reclaim billions of dollars worth of assets allegedly stolen by the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei have reached Jersey’s Royal Court.

The case involves the Sultan – one of the world’s wealthiest men – and his younger brother Prince Jefri who used to be the oil-rich country’s Minister of Finance.

The Prince has been ordered by the court to hand over shares in Karinska Ltd held by Fidelis Nominees Ltd and Rostand Nominees Ltd, and shares in Greencap Ltd held by Premier Circle Ltd, Second Circle Ltd and Third Circle Ltd.

Prince Jefri was accused in February 2000 of ‘misappropriation and misapplication’ of more than $15 bn worth of state assets.

But he agreed a deal in May that year to return the assets in return for immunity from any criminal or civil action.

However, although some assets were returned over the following year – and some valuable diamonds were handed over in 2007 – there are still many billions worth of assets outstanding.

Monday, September 15, 2008

BIA's Hotel Expansion

Note: Dominic Walsh in the UK Times (15th September 2008) wrote this article.

After years of talking about expanding its luxury hotel business, the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) is finally investing. Having recently added the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the New York Palace in Manhattan to its exclusive chain, it is preparing to invest almost £100 million converting two more landmark properties in Britain into hotels for the rich and famous.

Christopher Cowdray, the man charged with overseeing the BIA's hotel expansion plan, is casting his eye over trophy hotels throughout Europe and North America with a view to persuading their owners to sell to the BIA or hand over control under a long-term management contract.

Last November, Mr Cowdray, a former managing director of Claridge's, was named chief executive of the Dorchester Collection, the BIA's hotel management business, with a brief to expand from five hotels to fifteen by 2015. “There's an enormous opportunity to grow the Collection,” he said.

Management contracts are a departure for the group, which until now has run properties owned by the BIA, itself ultimately controlled by the Sultan of Brunei. The Bel-Air and New York Palace were both seized by the BIA from Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the Sultan's brother, after a legal battle over state-owned assets.

As well as planning a $200 million (£112 million) revamp of the New York Palace, Mr Cowdray is starting plans to convert two Brunei-owned properties in London and Berkshire into the next part of the Dorchester Collection. The first, due to open in 2010, is the former Playboy Club, next door to The Dorchester itself — but forget the Bunny Girls. The 50-room hotel envisaged under the proposed £40 million refit will create a sophisticated look a million miles from the casino that was closed down in 1982 over suspected gaming irregularities.

Mr Cowdray said that although the hotel, to be called 45 Park Lane, would be run as an adjunct to the Dorchester, it would have a more contemporary feel. “The price-point will be very similar — at the top end — but it will have its own personality. It will be modern rather than traditional and will appeal to a different audience.”

The other project occupying the Zimbabwe-born hotelier's time is Coworth Park, a stately home and 200-acre estate near Ascot acquired by the Sultan a few years ago. Subject to all necessary planning consents, the Georgian house will provide 35 bedrooms and suites and a further 35 rooms will be created from the stables and various cottages.

The Coworth polo centre will become an equestrian complex and polo will still be played. “Most hotels of this sort have golf, but with Wentworth near by there's no point developing a golf course. I want to keep the polo aspect to it because polo tournaments are great fun. It's becoming very popular and brings a unique aspect.”Despite the Dorchester Collection's royal connections, Mr Cowdray rejects any suggestion that it is merely a rich man's plaything. “The hotels all make a good return. You have targets and measurements and staff respond to those. When businesses become very soft and fluid, they lose direction and when you get economic downturns they are not able to respond.”

Despite the economic climate, Mr Cowdray claims that the company has been unaffected so far, with earnings in the first half up 15 per cent at £35.5 million. “We don't seem to have been affected by recession,” he said. “The difference is that the market we deal in is a bit more resilient. It's also shifted, so while the UK and US economies are a bit down, we've got economies such as Russia, the Middle East, China and the Far East that are up.”

The nature of the company's clientele — guests at the Dorchester include Nelson Mandela, Nicole Kidman, the Hollywood actress, and numerous heads of state — mean that even a full recession is likely to have a relatively limited impact as the super-rich and super-famous continue to seek out the most exclusive hotels in the world.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Ambuyat - not the Mat Salleh's Sweet Sago Pudding

[Note: I found this article on our national food 'Ambuyat' written for Denver Post by John Henderson and syndicated on the The Times of Zambia (of all place!)]

If Bruneians want to expand tourism, they’ll need to hide their national speciality.

I saw the sultan of Brunei the other day. He walked right by me as he entered a national Qur’an reading contest.

I wanted to ask the sultan a key question about his country’s cuisine: Hey, sultan, why can’t a man worth 22-billion, whose 400-million palace has a 110-car garage and 257 bathrooms, afford a better national dish?

It’s called ambuyat. Don’t look for it at an ethnic restaurant near you soon. It’s not going anywhere, and it’s here for reasons only historians and the streets’ starving cats can appreciate.

After four days in Brunei, I’d describe ambuyat (pronounced om-BOO-yacht) as a big pile of gelatinous, transparent goo dipped in coagulating blood.

First, a little background. During World War II occupation, the Japanese controlled Brunei’s rice paddies and cut off the food supply. One of the lone food sources was found inside the sago trees that fill Brunei’s jungles.

For centuries the Penan people, an indigenous, nomadic tribe who roam the jungles of Borneo, have lived off the sago tree. They still do. During a three-day trek through the jungles of Malaysian Borneo, I came across a Penan family squatting next to a stack of sago pulp.

They put what looked like leafy sawdust in a wooden bowl the size of a rubbish bin and pounded it into small chunks. They then mix it with hot water and the result is a starchy mass that has all the daily nutrients of raw lard.

Brunei, however, has advanced a bit since World War II. With the discovery of oil in 1929, Shell and the beloved sultan have put petrol in every pot. Shaped like two humps on a camel and occupying a small corner of Borneo’s northwest coast, Brunei has gone from a backwater British protectorate to a thriving Islamic republic of 375000 people with a glittering capital and prosperous economy.

Don’t believe me? What’d you pay for petrol this week? Exactly.

The sultan wants to expand tourism, and while he won’t open Hard Rock Brunei any time soon, he is promoting his country’s history. Part of that history is ambuyat. Tourism has grown 7% a year. I’m assuming ambuyat has nothing to do with it.

To try ambuyat, I went to a food-court stall where it was not pictured among the 31 dishes on the menu. No wonder. A picture in focus would scare off wharf rats.

Two young female cooks invited me into the kitchen to watch the process. It was little different from how the Penans make it. Ema poured a bag of sago that looked like blue-cheese crumbles into a pot of boiling water. She stirred for 60 seconds.

She handed me the result and the necessary dipping sauce, binjai, a gross mixture of chillies, salt and what looked like last week’s tomato soup. Hunks of bulbous matter floated in an orange- brown sea of repugnant fluids.

I was handed chopsticks , around which I was to twist the gooey ambuyat and then dip into the sauce.

The slimy mess slid down my throat like crushed, larvae-coated insect embryos. The sour binjai made my face wrinkle as if I woke up in a dairy farm. I looked over, and a young woman in a head scarf couldn’t stop laughing.

I tried it without the sauce and the ambuyat had no taste. None. But without the lubricating sauce, it nearly stuck halfway down my throat.

So hats off to Brunei for surviving World War II, where ambuyat was probably a tougher obstacle than the Japanese. But if the sultan invites you to the palace, forget the five swimming pools and 564 chandeliers. If ambuyat is on his menu, don’t go.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Brunei on the Bounding Main

[Note: The following was reported on Asia Sentinel written by John Berthelsen, 19th June 2008.]

The oil-rich sultanate is trying to sell 3 modern warships its navy can’t use .

Want to buy a high-speed warship, cheap, never used, bristling with some of the most advanced weaponry on the high seas? Three of them, in fact? Call Brunei. They can’t use them.

Ever since the sultanate settled a confidential contract dispute over the vessels in the International Court of Arbitration in June 2006, its navy has been trying to get rid of three 95-meter-long corvettes, built by BAE Systems of the UK. Since July 2007, they have been parked in Walney Channel near BAE’s shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England while Brunei seeks a buyer. The price for the three is ₤600 million (US$1.71 billion).

They are now in the hands of the German luxury yacht builder Fr. Lürssen Werft GmbH & Co. KG, which has been looking for a buyer for more than a year, rather than a military broker. A Lürssen Werft spokesman, asked about the three ships, said he would inquire and get back to Asia Sentinel, but so far hasn’t done it. One source said the three ships are being offered to the United Arab Republic, possibly through sources in Singapore. Malaysia also is believed to have looked at them briefly.

“They have been taken away by the customer,” said a spokeswoman for BAE. “As I understand it, they are somewhere in the northwest, but they are not with BAE Systems. As far as the business is concerned, the customer took delivery. They are no longer moored with us.” She would not comment further.

The story began in 1995 when Brunei, which has only 66 miles of coastline, went looking for advanced protection for its 313,000 citizens, its oil reserves and its fabulously wealthy royal family. Brunei declines comment on its military affairs. But one source with connections to the Brunei government said that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is believed to have been swayed by a desire to project Bruneian naval power in an effort to hold the country’s portion of the much-disputed Spratly islands.

The Spratlys are a string of 51 small islands and reefs, 44 of which are claimed or occupied by every country contiguous to the South China Sea including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, in a bid for fishing and energy rights. Brunei only recently became an active player in the Spratly dispute by claiming the Louisa Reef adjacent to its coastline in an apparent attempt to forestall any claims on its coast or its nine oil fields in the South China Sea, which average about 143,000 barrels per day.

Already protecting Brunei’s coast, according to some reports, are the Royal Brunei Navy’s three guided-missile patrol craft armed with MBDA Exocet antiship missiles, three smaller patrol boats, two amphibious craft, two landing craft, 17 small armed river boats used by the Special Combat Squadron, a support launch and 23 Marine police patrol boats.

The armaments aboard the three corvettes appear to be sophisticated enough to chase some of the other countries off whichever Spratly Brunei might decide it wants, let alone hold off any attackers likely to show up in Bruneian waters, situated as they are on the north coast of Borneo on the South China Sea. Aboard each of the three are these systems:

- NAUTIS II command and weapon control system;
- MBDA VL Seawolf point defence missile system
- Oto Melara 76/62 Super Rapid gun
- MBDA MM40 Block 2 Exocet anti-ship missiles
- two MSI-Defence single 30 mm REMSIG gun mountings
- two sets of triple torpedo tubes
- BAE Systems Insyte AWS-9 surveillance and target indication radar
- Ultra Electronics System 2500 electro-optical tracking system
- Thales Cutlass 242 electronic support measures outfit and Scorpion jammer
- Thales TMS 4130C1 hull-mounted medium-frequency sonar.

The Royal Brunei Navy’s current strength is about 750 personnel. Each of the three corvettes would require a crew of about 100 personnel and normal naval practice is to train at least two full crews per warship. The new ships would have required at least another 600 men for even the most basic operations, not to mention shore-based support personnel, according to a military analyst based in the UK, effectively requiring almost the doubling of the country’s navy.

“Operating and maintaining this kit would absorb much of Brunei’s small cadre of technically proficient workers, few of whom would be remotely interested in bobbing around the South China Sea being shouted at by people considerably less competent than themselves,” the analyst said.

Brunei refused to accept the ships in 2004, saying they were not up to specification, and attempted to return them to BAE systems. They were forced to take them in the wake of the court case.

But, said the military analyst: “Recognition (that the ships were too complex) came slowly to the sultan and his people, and when it did they first sought a face-saving deal – perhaps calculating that they could arbitrage the three patrol vessels against a possible order for jet aircraft also built by BAE. This clearly did not work and the issue went to law – with the outcome described above.”

Brunei, with its vast oil wealth, has always gone first cabin for military equipment, partly because of the sultan’s personal proclivities. A trip to the Singapore Air Show or other military hardware fairs by the sultan can turn into a show itself as various gun-runners, quick-change artists, armaments dealers and military attaches from countries trying to sell the sultanate hardware cluster around him like bees to extremely lucrative honey.

The sultan himself, educated at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, pilots his own helicopter. His air force consists mainly of helicopters -- six Sikorsky Blackhawks, five Bell JetRangers, 10 Bell Twin Hueys, six German MBB Bo 105 utility helicopters and a flock of other gear. Plans for fighter capability through the purchase of BAE Hawks apparently are off, presumably after the attempt to trade them for the corvettes fell apart.

The three ships may be hard to sell. According to a July 5, 2007 story in the Times of London, they were designed with doors and beds constructed for smaller, Asia-size sailors. Because they were designed for duty in the warm waters of the South China Sea, they also lack heating. Strategic considerations could also limit their sale. Given their state-of the art missile guidance and target-tracking systems, Exocet mountings and other hardware, the western alliance would frown if buyers from, say, North Korea, Burma or Iran were to express an interest.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Housing Woes

Sometimes I feel like kicking and knocking some heads together. Just because you are old, you think you are wise. The other day when we did the rounds after handing the keys, you would think these 'old' people would be grateful to the government. No siree...

Each of those recipients received a house for $41,000. It's a terrace house because Brunei, believe it or not is running out of land. So the land is around 0.12 instead of the old 0.25 acres which the government gave out in Lambak Kanan in 1980s or even the 2 acres that was given out in the 1950s to Bunut. Nevertheless those recipents do not have to pay for all the infrastructure - the water, the electricity, the roads, the sewerage, the road lighting etc which if divided equally would cost each of those recipients about $100,000 each. So the house that those people get is worth $140,000. But they only have to pay the cost of the house and nothing else. And they get 30 years to pay for it which if you work it out is worth almost nothing.

What are the things they complain about? These are real answers. The house is too small. I am retiring next year, who will pay for my house. The government does not provide us with a flagpole or a flag. The government does not cut the grass in front of my house often enough. The government does not clean my longkang. The government does not ...

What do our people want? For the government to spoon feed them? The government has taken care of building the house, take away their sewage, cut their grass and they still complain. My driver pays $500 a month to rent a small house and I can assure you he would like to trade places with those people anytime. And I can assure you I can find another 16,000 people on the list who would give an arm and a leg to receive those houses.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

School Punishments

I was reading the letters page on BB the other day. In fact I read them everytime the letters are published. Letters about services provided by agencies under my ministry formed quite a large portion of the letters. That's why I take a keen interest.

One letter in particular stood out, not about services, but about a parent writing that a teacher had knocked his or her child's head with a pen arguing that the child did nothing wrong. I am not arguing with that story or the writer's rights but what I would like to bring up is the changing attitude about just how protective are we about our children.

I am a father to a 7 soon to be 8 year old boy. I was also a child once and I am sure we all remember what our childhood was like. I was not exactly an angelic child, I did well at school but it does not stop me from being a naughty child at times. Maybe the years are different compared to most blog readers. I did my primary school in 1969 and early 1970s.

During my time, punishment meted out included being hit by the giant wooden ruler use for the blackboard, being pinched in the stomach (pulas parut) until you literally stand up on your toes, picking up rubbish with your mouth etc. And you know what? I never said a word to my parents. In those days you don't exactly want to tell your parents that you were punished as they will be on the teachers' side. But I grew up fine and so did my classmates. We had a healthy respect for teachers as disciplinarians and we listen to authorities. We may not agree with their method but if you don't do anything wrong, you will not get punished. Most people I talked to, those of my age or older grew up with this system.

When I did my secondary school in Singapore, they even had public canings as the ultimate form of punishment! Imagine doing that here in Brunei.

I am not a teacher, of course you already know that. But teachers I talked to, talked about the lack of discipline among our students. One teacher I talked to was worried about the National Day rehearsals. The teachers have to count the students as there are cases where the students don't turn up and disappeared with their boyfriends or girlfriends. This is crazy. Are we too soft on our children?