Tuesday Jun 02

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Meet Jacqueline, Bruneian Fulbright scholar in New York

JackProfJacqueline Liew, 29, became the 10th recipient of the prestigious Fulbright scholarship in 2013, winning a place on the MA programme in Educational Theatre at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Jackie, who is currently an education officer at Sekolah Menengah Rimba, is no stranger to either overseas education or prestigious scholarships, having previously won the Brunei Government Special Scheme Scholarship in 2001 to pursue her A-Levels and a degree in English Literature in the United Kingdom. I talked to Jackie about her time in England, her time in America (to date) and what it means to go abroad.

You were a Special Scheme Scholar from 2001-2006. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?

It was the best time of my life! Just the opportunity to study in UK is every Bruneian teenager’s dream. I was really naïve though at that time, despite having visited UK several times before on holiday. I was certainly unprepared for life in a boarding house and being away from family for such a long period of time. Going to boarding school was stuff that I’d only read about in Enid Blyton’s “Naughtiest girl in School” series. I suffered culture shock, it certainly took some time to adjust to life in a boarding house full of girls: sharing a room with someone from another country and waking up super early so I don’t have to queue for the bathroom and getting used to listening to other people’s “business” (hahaha!).

In the months that led up to it, I was just so excited and couldn’t wait to leave. I started packing like months before, just throwing clothes into my suitcase and telling the other scholars about it and getting laughed at. But I didn’t care; I was going to study in UK! One thing I remember most clearly was filling in the form. I can still remember the three boxes we had to fill in for our choices. Initially, I had put Medicine as my first choice but after much discussion with the family and deep thought, I put Physics as my first choice, Maths as my second and English as my last one. It was after a talk with you that I changed my choice. I think I changed it quite a few times and the boxes had so many layers of Tippex on it that you could crack the paper in half if you folded it. I finally decided on English as my first choice because I believed that it would give me a better chance of getting the scholarship.

On adjusting to a different academic system.

It was a bit difficult getting used to school there, the girls were very outspoken and confident, they were brought up to be vocal and that is something I am still struggling with today. Students were encouraged to speak up in class and voice their opinions and to argue their points. Something I was completely unused to…here I was coming from a non-English literature background and I couldn’t tell my metaphors from my similes. I was quite an avid reader but read mostly for fun and would have never thought about analyzing or reading in between the lines. Or learning about the context in which a text was written or appreciate how and why it was written. I didn’t know how to ‘read’.

My forte had always been Maths and the sciences and I was suddenly plunged into the world of English literature, I was drowning in a sea of terminology. I remember breaking down in tears one time over a poem by Ivor Gurney. We had to spend 15 minutes analyzing it and nothing came to my mind. I burst into tears and ran into the toilet. My teacher had to run in after me to talk me out of the stall. What followed was extra classes with her and “Why didn’t you say you needed help?” A stupid mentality I took with me from Brunei of not asking for help from the teacher because I had too much pride. I learnt how to use a library, how to write and reference properly and to just have the confidence to ask my teachers questions after that. But I still really struggled with voicing my opinions in class or saying anything. My heart would beat fast and I would feel the words on the tip of my tongue but my lips would never move and I would always second-guess myself and then when another girl said what I was thinking, I would regret that I didn’t say it. It was so much inner turmoil sitting in class.

On the other hand, math and physics lessons were a cinch for me.

It got a bit better in university but again I would have moments where words would escape me or I would just lose all confidence because I was scared to hear my own voice. Really silly.

Boarding School Days


Picture with members from SEEDS


Receiving the Fulbright scholarship in 2013


Orientation in New York


After you graduated, you came back to Brunei to teach – and you were thrown into Sekolah Menengah Berakas. What was it like coming back to Brunei after all those years away?

It was another culture shock. It made me realize what a bubble we lived in while studying in Maktab Sains (Jackie was a student in Maktab Sains from 1996-2001). It is so detached and far away from the reality that is Brunei. We had such grand views of ourselves and then of going on to study in the UK - I never truly knew Brunei until I came back. My views or what I thought I knew about home all changed.

Looking back now, I am so glad that I was put into a school like Berakas. It made me see home so differently, the glossy picture of Brunei that I once held in mind had suddenly taken on very disturbing features. It’s also the naivety of someone who has had no experience of being a government servant, I didn’t have many relatives who worked for the government at that time, so I sort of entered the government school teaching world with zero expectations. I can still remember the conversation I had with the principal on my first day. I was unaware of the ‘reputation’ of Berakas and thought that the principal was very peculiar when he asked me “So, you have never heard anything about this school?” I guess it is very easy to become detached from the reality of home when you spend five years overseas especially when you don’t have anyone to talk to, someone to sort of give you a heads-up, who already had the experience of teaching.

Even now, I am learning a lot of things about the government school system at home. I only found out this year from my year 8 students that I was the first non-Malay, non-Muslim teacher they have ever had and up to the point when they met me, they were unaware that there were non-Malay Bruneians. At one point, I actually took out my IC to show the kids that I was a local. Now, I understand why it was so hard for them to get used to me and also helped me in understanding my peers a bit better as well.

My first year at school was very stressful to say the least, I didn’t know how to control a class, I was a young and new teacher and the students could smell that from a mile away. I sounded different from them so that didn’t help with the alienation I felt. I didn’t know how to write a lesson plan and was unaware of the many rules that come with being a government teacher like asking for permission to leave the country, not being able to leave the country during certain days etc.

Just the transition from being a student to a teacher, going into a school like Berakas without any prior pedagogical knowledge. I was expecting to teach English literature, Shakespeare, how to read a play and there I was trying to remember the rules of grammar and cope with all the responsibilities of a teacher. There is a stereotype of Bruneians who have studied overseas: kambang, macam kacang lupakan kulit etc…I can see why but it was something that I had to disprove in my school.

If you were to give advice to current Bruneian special scheme scholars who are on the verge of coming back home for good?

SS scholars should come back with a really open mind and remember that we were given an opportunity that others will never have and that we should lead by example to better the nation. Yes, things are tough at first but we just have to keep at it and put our pride aside. Things will be frustrating but never give up. Surround yourself with family and good friends, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Another thing for sure is we must make sure that we do not become ‘stagnant’ in our careers. We owe it to ourselves to keep improving professionally and do something to engage ourselves intellectually. Keep learning and contributing to your field.

My advice for SS scholars would be to always have an open mind - don’t choose what school to go to but go where you are needed. Be ready to learn but most of all, be prepared to show why you are a SS scholar.

On continuing to postgraduate studies immediately after graduating versus gaining some work experience first.

I think that if you have a clear idea of what you want to do for your postgraduate studies and that you are very sure that it will help you in your career or field of work when you return to Brunei, then by all means do continue straight away. If your reason for continuing postgraduate studies is because it’s something  you feel that you have to do to extend your stay overseas and also to just for the sake of Masters and PhD then I would say think carefully about your decision.

If I had not returned to Brunei first, I would have gone down a very different path with my postgraduate studies. I was really interested in post-colonial literature and Asian literature in my undergrad years and wanted to pursue a Masters in that field. But in retrospect, how would I have applied it at home? I was definitely going to be teaching at Secondary school level, how could that translate to me teaching English? That was how I felt with my undergrad degree, I have a degree in English literature but in seven years of teaching, not once have I taught English literature. What would I have done with an MA in post-colonial literature? Sure, I could have continued reading and maybe writing in my leisure time but it would do nothing for my career. I know of someone who has an MA in Aeronautical Engineering. He couldn’t find a job for almost two years and he finally decided to join the police force. He was pursuing his love for engineering but there was no future for it at home. We have so much to give but no one to give it to and there is certainly nothing wrong in pursuing your dreams but it is horrible to see one do so and then do nothing with it.

You are currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Educational Theatre. Would it be correct to say that your choice of degree stems partly from your involvement in SEEDS (a non-profit drama education organization in Brunei) and your work as a drama teacher at Rimba within the new SPN21 curriculum?

Oh definitely, it’s just seeing that needs of students not being met in Brunei, this huge void and wanting to fill it. I really wanted to be part of the process of diversifying education at home. It was through participating in drama workshops that I found that I have a latent passion for drama and it really fueled my desire to have an MA that is theatre-related, when I saw how it could be used in education, across curriculum, I just knew at that moment what I wanted to do.
Just the opportunity to do something different and to see students enjoy themselves in SEEDS as well really pushed me towards Educational Theatre. It would be wonderful if we could give every student in all districts the same opportunity as the kids who are now in SEEDS.

What's the biggest difference between leaving Brunei when you were younger and leaving Brunei as a working adult?

Experience. Just having had work for a couple of years gives you the edge that you never had before. You have more to draw from, more to add to discussions and a clearer aim in mind. It’s so different now as well because it’s a course of my choosing and not because I was ‘glamoured’ by the opportunity to study overseas. It’s my own decision to be here. I just feel so much more grounded and sure of myself. The opposite of how I felt ten years ago. I also find that my writing is richer and more in-depth. I must admit that there were moments in my undergrad years that I just wanted to reach the minimum number of words for an essay to get it over and done with. Now, it’s the opposite, I actually have to scale down some of my papers to stay within the word limit. What a difference.

New York! New York!







Finally, New York! You're living in one of the most exciting cities in the world. What's life in New York like for a Bruneian scholar?

Overwhelming! It’s taking awhile to adjust to the fast-paced city life of the Big Apple. And taking a bit longer to adjust to the way they teach here. Classes are all seminar-style and 10-20% of your grade depends on your class participation. I find that a bit difficult to comprehend because there are at least 20 people in a class and a lesson is a little under two hours and we meet 13 times in a semester. Not everyone is going to be able to speak in class and Americans are very opinionated so for a quiet Bruneian like me, it’s hard for me to speak for the sake of speaking, something I feel that some of the students are doing. I find myself longing for a proper lecture and then breaking into smaller groups to have a tutorial/seminar. I feel that more insightful discussions would take place rather than having my hand up in the air waiting for the lecturer to call on me. I feel a bit patronized and hate that someone else would have their hand up faster than me and say what I had in mind. Urgh! Need to work on my reflexes.

Just being here is great but finding an apartment in Manhattan was difficult, rent is pretty expensive and people seem reluctant to rent to international students. Credit checks, guarantors, sakit kepala but I finally got my own place now in Queens. Yay!

I think there is no better place than New York for theatre, the university is affiliated with quite a few theatre companies and quite a number of its alumni are also in the entertainment business so we get certain privileges. Loving it so far!

Thank you Jackie for taking the time to answer all my questions! The very best wishes for the rest of your time in the States.

imageAbout the Contributor: Kathrina is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she spends her days thinking very hard about the place of religion in popular fiction. In her free time, she rides the ferries and experiments with cooking seafood. She welcomes advice on any or all of the above topics at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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