Rediscover Brunei Darussalam through the eyes of the People
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Tieng Chwei Peng, who goes by Peng, is a 22 year old MINDEF scholar from KB. Currently Peng is in her final year of an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. I spoke to Peng recently about her time in the States, as well as the website she founded for Bruneian students who are considering applying to the US for further study (Bruneians Guide to US Education - http://bnguidetousedu.wordpress.com/).
On choosing to pursue a degree in the States.
For years, I pictured myself pursuing higher education in the United Kingdom. It was not until a year before I had completed my A-Levels that I considered attending a college (university) in the United States, an idea espoused by the Ministry of Defense at the time and supported by my family. After hearing positive experiences from people who had studied in the United States, and after days – if not weeks – of extensive research, my decision was made. Ultimately, my decision to steer off the tracks that I had built up in my mind for years and to study in the States boiled down to three things:
1. Years after being primed as a “science” student, I yearned to fill gaps in my knowledge, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.
2. I liked the idea of building my own curriculum, to have the freedom to choose my classes and which semesters to take them.
3. I wanted to diversify my experiences and was intrigued by “the road less traveled”.
The fact that the United States is sparsely peppered with Bruneians and the inconvenience of starting over in a new place inevitably crossed my mind but I saw these as minor setbacks that were far outweighed by the benefits that I would reap from an American education. Safety, especially with regard to gun crimes and natural disasters, did not weigh heavily in mind but I was sure to look into campus safety during my research about colleges.
National Day Dinner
Oakland Bay Bridge
In New York City with other Bruneians
What kind of support did you receive during the applications process, and what do you think would have been helpful, in retrospect?
The Ministry of Defense was very supportive and had arranged a workshop on the SATs, a US college admission exam, for its scholarship recipients. This helped me hit the ground running. Some of my friends were very encouraging of my endeavor in different ways, from giving me a written guide, to proofreading my essays, to accepting that I was going to be a hermit for a while as I labored over my application. Although my teachers were not too familiar with the US college application process, they put in effort to learn about it and helped me refine my application.
One of the challenging parts of applying (while having to study for the A-Level modules at the same time) was dealing with the uncertainty of it all – the uncertainty that I was doing things right, or that any of my efforts would pay off. With so few in the same boat, navigating the college admission process under the guidance of an experienced peer or mentor, or knowing some alumni (if there were any) would have been helpful. Additionally, earlier exposure to and awareness of the United States as a higher education option would have been beneficial.
What has your experience in the US been like? What do you think is unique about US higher education, and what kind of student would benefit the most from a US-style education?
My experience has been great so far! Despite not conforming to the tree-hugging Berkeley hippie stereotype, I have been fortunate enough to have found myself on a campus whose culture resonates with me. As I had expected prior to college, I am enjoying the freedom of tailoring my degree based on my interests and am participating in a flurry of club activities
One of the unique aspects of US higher education is the opportunity it presents for students to interact with people across different majors (degrees), enhanced by the fact that students are not confined to classes specific to their degrees. The liberal education system also encourages students to acquire and indulge in eclectic interests. Five years ago, I would never have thought that I would learn Irish dance from a professor or build a canoe...out of concrete.
A student who appreciates breadth in knowledge as well as research and networking with professors and professionals would benefit from a US-style education. US education is also great for those who would like to build on skills such as initiative, independence, and resourcefulness, derived from living in an individualistic society with relatively far and few Bruneians.
Occupy Movement at Berkeley
The concrete canoe
Tell me about the Bruneian's Guide to US Education!
The Bruneian’s Guide to US Education is an online resource designed specifically for Bruneians who are interested in learning about higher education in the United States and the college application process. The website contains a growing repository of information on the college admission process, student guides on living in the US, and -- hopefully in months to come -- stories from Bruneians in the US and a public database of students and alumni.
The idea was first developed on my first summer away from Brunei in the sweltering Texas heat. Perhaps I saw it as a way to reconnect myself with Brunei at a time when I would usually be at home with my family, devouring char kuay tiao purchased from my favorite noodle stall. More importantly, I was compelled to build this online resource because I had been approached by several Bruneian students over the past few years who were considering studying in the United States but lacked information and/or had already missed the SAT exam deadlines.
I was also inspired by the comprehensive online guide set up by the Singapore Malaysian Student Association on my campus that helped me immensely in adapting to life in Berkeley and the US college education system. Having had a positive experience studying in the United States, I was set on making information on pursuing college education in the US more accessible to Bruneians, be it prospective applicants, parents or teachers who want to help guide students.
In the years to come, I would like to see this resource grow to become more comprehensive, detailing information not only regarding undergraduate colleges but also those pertaining to community colleges and graduate schools. Ideally, the website will garner contributions from Bruneians with a variety of educational experiences in the US, be filled with stories of student life in the US, and have a fleshed-out public database of current Bruneian students and alumni of US colleges. Ultimately, this website will not just be informational tool but also a platform to help build a more robust Bruneian network in the US.
The physical distance between Bruneian students in the US (and their scarcity!) means that it's virtually impossible to have the same kind of support system/community that is available in, say, the UK. How important do you think this kind of community is?
The Bruneian students in the US have started finding ways to touch base with each other, be it through the Facebook group dedicated to Bruneians in the US, group travel during breaks, or if we are lucky, casual meetings on weekends. However, there is still plenty of scope for this community to be more cohesive to be able to provide the support system that we might need once in a while.
I do think it is important to build and maintain some sort of Bruneian community in order to alleviate any sense of detachment from our own home country and culture that may develop. Nothing beats the comfort of being able to roll out Malay words that form naturally at the tip of our tongue or being able to talk about matters that are local to us. That being said, I do think that the lack of a community on the scale found in the UK or Australia may provide more room for students’ personal development and pushes students to meet more people.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Peng! All the very best for the rest of your time in the States.
About the Contributor: At her day job, Kathrina thinks and talks about books at UBD. At all other times, she can be found reading books, being a nosy parker (resulting in interviews like the one above), and daydreaming aggressively and voraciously. Occasionally she likes to pretend she doesn't hate exercise and can be seen moving sluggishly around Shahbandar.
Kathrina likes cake and always welcomes book recommendations, and can be reached at
(Or in other words, When are YOU getting married?)
If you’re a typical Bruneian, you probably get invited to wedding, tahlil, doa selamat functions at least once a week. You’ll probably run into people that you see on an almost daily basis, people you haven’t seen in a while and people you have to suffer politely. You’ll exchange news about who just came back from university overseas, who bought a new car/house/phone and whose mother is worried they are still single at the ripe old age of 27. You’ll find out who got married and who’s pregnant and who just gave birth. And if you are single, female, and in your late twenties, the chances are you will be asked “Bilakankaukawinni?”
As a single woman (30 going on 31. Ouch!), can I just say, on behalf of all my fellow sufferers out there, how irritating and hurtful this question can be?
There are likely two scenarios here:
One. I would like to get married. In fact, my sole goal in life (now that I have a good degree and a cushy job) is to settle down and make babies. But for some reason, I can’t. Perhaps I am repulsive to the opposite sex. Perhaps I have not been lucky enough to find someone. Perhaps there are private obstacles I have yet to overcome.
Asking me pointedly when I am getting married while you hug an adorable (so cute that my ovaries ache in envy) child in your arms while exchanging texts with your adorable husband about how much you love each other is just cruel. After all, would you go up to a man with no legs and stretch for your 15km marathon all the while asking him when he was going to get off his butt and make an effort?
Two. I am actually fine being on my own and do not need to be convinced that I am wrong. I enjoy coming home after work to a quiet house not covered in toddler drool and filled with the bickering of spoiled and ungrateful teenagers and a husband that needs some attention. I like being able to go out at any time of day without worrying about who will breastfeed the baby if I step out.
If you ask me when I am getting married, I am going to tell you some lie about how I am not ready or that it’s not for me. The chances are high that such a response will subject me to a lecture about how I shouldn’t wait to long, time and tide wait for no man (or the Brunei equivalent) or that I shouldn’t think so negatively. Alternatively (if you are the tenth person to broach the subject that day and I am sick of being polite), I tell you that I think people are stupid to give up their independence for marriage and the shackles of parenthood and you are offended because you feel that your life choices are being attacked. After a few awkward “Hmm”s and “Uh”s, we find an excuse to go talk to someone else.
I hope you will agree that neither scenario is particularly desirable.
Dear Brunei, I would like to make a simple request. Let us eradicate this question from the social sphere (unless, of course, the single lady in question is sporting an engagement rock that she is flashing in everyone’s faces). Let us respect each other’s privacy. Let us stop putting single women on the spot by asking them when they are FINALLY going to get married.
Fed up with having to think up witty answers
About the Contributor: Joyce is a dedicated teacher at a Sixth Form centre in Brunei where she daily entreats, begs, threatens, cajoles and teases her students in an attempt to develop their skills in the English Language. She is a self-confessed bibliophile and excessive book addict who enjoys doodling, diving once every school holiday, messing about with bits of paper and string, and dancing in her car at traffic lights. In her free time, she annoys her fighting fish and long-suffering hamster who oversee her day to day adventures. She plagiarises from the Pixar cartoon “Up” to remind everyone that, “Adventure is out there!” and from Tae Joon in “A Beautiful You” to say, “Miracle is just another word for effort.”
Winnie Cheng, the artist behind the minutely detailed, whimsical Timeless Realm (http://www.timelessrealm.com/) was born in Kedah and has been drawing since she was five (“Nothing much has changed since then, expect the papers have gotten larger and my art instruments have gotten more numerous!”).
A working artist in every sense, Winnie completed a BA in Fine Art at the University of Toronto, holds a Diploma of Studio Arts from the Sheridan College School of Animation, Arts and Design, Canada, and received an MA in Art from Universiti Brunei Darussalam in 2013. She has previously worked as a graphic designer at the GTE Yellow Pages, andhas taught classes at Jo’s Art Gallery in Batu Besurat.
Winnie accepts commissions for papercuttings, and sells prints of her illustrations online through Society9, Stew, and Threadless.
In this interview, I talk to Winnie about life as a working artist in Brunei, the Bruneian art scene, and a very little bit about Bruneian art history.
The work you did on your MA at UBD was, if I remember correctly, an analysis of the history and development of modern Bruneian art. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
For my MA I researched the development of the Bruneian painting style from 1970 to 2010. I chose this 40 year time period as this is when Brunei as a country was also being formed.
My research focused on the art and style development of four Bruneian artists, Pg Timbang b Pg Hj Tuah, Zakaria Omar, Hj Yussof b Hj Matzin and Pg Kamarul Zaman b Pg Hj Tajuddin. I chose to focus my research on these four artists as they were actively producing paintings in that time frame and their art has been acknowledged by the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards.
I collated each artist’s body of artwork to gain an understanding of the development of their personal style. Through that I was able to select a painting from each of the four artists to do a comparison study by analysing each piece formally and informally. I looked at aspects of style such as use of colour, composition, subject matter.
My study found that each artist had developed a strong individual style but as a whole do not define a strong national style that depicts the character of Brunei.
Great River City
On current trends in Bruneian art.
In my opinion based on personal observation the art currently being produced in Brunei is a mix of realistic paintings and contemporary art, which includes modern paintings and art installations. Realistic paintings refers to the more traditional themes of Brunei's landscapes and landmarks, and are usually produced by artists of an earlier generation (around 50 years and above). These artists are sometimes referred to as the 'Veteran Artists', though it is unclear how the term came to be applied to them. These paintings are usually idealistic depictions of life in Brunei, for example scenes of Kampong Ayer, and should not be considered Realist, just realistic.
Younger artists such as students from sixth form centres, UBD or those who have returned from studies overseas tend to have an expanded view of art and produce contemporary art. These young artists experiment with different styles from cubism to surrealism, but predominantly contemporary art in Brunei tends to have an expressionistic character to it. For example I have encountered three artists who use techniques similar to Jackson Pollock's action painting to create abstract paintings which are totally different in character. Pg Kamarul uses splashes of paint to create a sense of movement in his paintings based on traditional Bruneian stories, while Sam Siren uses her hands and feet to create her own style of action painting that carries the energy of her emotional state.
There are also a small percentage of artists in the older generation who produce modern art. In the younger generation this ratio is reversed and more young artists create contemporary art compared to the traditional themes of Kampong Ayer.
As for common techniques there does not seem to be a particular technique which Bruneian artists favour; instead each artist experiments with multiple techniques and styles to suit their purpose.
On being a working artist in Brunei.
In Brunei whenever people hear that I am an artist or doing something art-related, the most common reaction is that the Brunei market is “too small” to make it as an artist here. There is some truth to this as the standards for art appreciation and the development of art institutions is relatively low when compared to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia or Hong Kong. There are also restrictions in Brunei in that all public exhibitions have to be cleared by a censorship board, and that can influence the kind of art being created and shown in Brunei.
In my opinion the main difference between being a working artist in Brunei and another place, for example Singapore, is the level of exposure, influence and the availability of materials and resources. Level of exposure relates to how readily an exhibited artwork can be seen by an audience, and in Brunei the lack of public gallery space is a big issue for an artist.
Artists are inspired to experiment with new styles when we see other artists’ works. In Brunei this influence is to a lesser degree as there are not many opportunities for artists to meet up, see each others works and have a critical discussion on the piece. So the community in Brunei is still developing.
When I say resources I also refer to the availability of creative and artistic workshops – even if there are workshops they are not well-publicized.
Artists in Brunei are continually trying to get exposure for their work but the lack of public facilities such as exhibition spaces, and lack of art professionals including art curators continue to hamper the growth of art in Brunei. The Bruneian public is more enamoured of consumer and entertainment culture and art appreciation in Brunei could be improved.
However there are groups of younger artists, such as Arttralia led by Erne Zainal, and Kaleidoscope Studio by Nur Khalisah Ahmad, who are continuing to redefine the art landscape in Brunei.
The Sky Whale
The Spider Cafe
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