The tiny nation of Brunei Darussalam is the only sovereign state located entirely on the on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Sitting 277 miles north of the equator, Brunei is bordered by the Malaysian state of Sarawak, which splits the country into two parts. It also has 100 miles of coastline with the South China sea to the north west. Around 95% of the population live in the urbanised western part of the country, with smaller communities inhabiting the towns and villages surrounding Brunei’s pristine rainforest and mountainous areas.
Brunei has one of the highest standards of living in the world, thanks to its rich oil and gas reserves. The inhabitants of this tiny state pay no income tax and healthcare and education are free to citizens. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, currently ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (crowned in 1968), the world’s second richest royal (after the King of Thailand). A British Protectorate until 1984, Brunei has since been transformed into an industrialised and developed nation. Two thirds of Brunei’s people are Muslim and adhere to strict Islamic traditions and culture, indeed Brunei was the first country in South East Asia to introduce Sharia law into its penal code.
The Sultan rules from the opulent golden-domed Istana Nurul Iman palace, located in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan, which is thought to be the world’s largest residential palace.
Brunei’s culture reflects that of neighbouring Malaysia, as its principal ethnicity is 65% Malay. The family is revered in Bruneian society and members of the extended family are expected to care for and respect each other while deferring to the Sultan and majority religion of Islam. Young children are taught to respect their elders and not question their authority. The concept of shame and honour is of utmost importance to Bruneians and they are known to be highly polite and respectful people. Islam in central to daily life and activities, although religions such as Christianity and Buddhism are tolerated among minority populations.
Brunei is an affluent country with many sites of historical interest, wonderful parks and activities which capitalise on the country’s relatively untouched rainforest. Hiking in mountainous areas or taking a stroll and some light exercise in one of country’s parks, such as Tasek Lama in the centre of Bandar, are both popular activities with locals and tourists alike. Here you will see monkeys flitting through the trees and local families taking their children to one of the many playgrounds. Sports are popular in Brunei, particularly football, golf and tennis. Marathon running is also enjoyed, with record-breaking prize money available. Shopping in one of Brunei’s exclusive air-conditioned malls or browsing the bustling local markets is also a beloved weekend activity. Alcohol is prohibited so expats will find there are no bars or nightclubs, although Brunei has a thriving restaurant culture.
Food and drink
Brunei’s cuisine is heavily influenced by neighbouring Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Food is strictly halal in and pork is avoided, though not banned for the country’s minority and expat populations. Popular dishes include beef rendang, a spicy coconut and lemongrass stew, voted one of the world’s tastiest dishes. Other dishes include nasi lemak a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves (usually served for breakfast) and ambuyat, sticky balls of sago starch which are then dipped in a fruit sauce. Bruneian staples include rice, noodles, chicken and seafood in spicy sauces.
Alcohol is banned in Brunei so locals stick to coffee, tea and a unique drink called air batu campur (known as ABC), a sweet drink made from ice, sago pearls, red beans, grass jelly and noodles.
The official language of Brunei is Standard Malay, which is similar to the standard languages of Malaysia and Indonesia. However, the local dialect of Melayu Brunei (Brunei Malay) is the most widely spoken language and is variation of Standard Malay. English is the second most spoken language and the majority of Bruneians are proficient in the language. English is used in business and courts and is taught as a first language from the fourth year of primary school, with core subjects being taught solely in English. The minority of Chinese people in Brunei speak Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese, with Mandarin being the language of instruction in Chinese schools. Arabic, the language of the Qu’ran, is also widely understood and is used by Islamic scholars.
Accents and dialects
Being a small country, accents are fairly uniform. However, there is a number of officially recognised indigenous languages still in use, such as Dusun, Belait and Tutong, although these are gradually dying out in favour of Standard Malay and English. English-speaking expats struggling with Malay will have no problem making themselves understood in Brunei.
Brunei has a tropical and humid climate with heavy rainfall throughout the year. Although it is hot all year, the driest months are between June and September, with the heaviest rainfall and monsoons taking place between October and February. The hottest months are March and April, with temperatures rising to over 45°C in some areas. Due to the high rainfall and humidity, it’s always advisable to wear lightweight clothing and rainwear when visiting Brunei. The country is largely unaffected by earthquakes and flooding and is considered to be a safe place to live weather-wise compared with neighbouring Indonesia.
Safety and security
Crime rates in Brunei are low and crimes against tourists and expats are uncommon. However, there are strict laws surrounding alcohol and drug use and harsh penalties are handed down to offenders. Travellers to Brunei should also be aware that blasphemy, homosexuality and adultery are illegal and also carry heavy punishments. Police in Brunei regularly carry out stop and searches to cars and people so tourists to the country should be aware of the strict laws before travelling. However, as there are no bars and nightclubs, anti-social behaviour is virtually non-existent so expats with young children will find Brunei’s cities and towns safe places to be at any time of the day or night.
Education in Brunei is provided by the state through the Ministry of Education and is compulsory for children between the ages of five and 16/17. Children attend primary school up until the age of 13, before moving to middle/junior school and then secondary school, after which they can choose to complete A levels at sixth form between the ages of 17 and 19. Tertiary education comprises a two-tier bachelors/masters system and is provided by the four state-run universities in Brunei. Education in Brunei is dually influenced by the country’s strict adherence to Islam and the British education system in terms of curricula and academic structure. Education is high-quality and free for all citizens. There are also a number of private, international schools available for expat children, however bilingual education is compulsory Brunei’s state schools, with both Malay and English being used as the principal languages of instruction.
The school year in Brunei comprises four terms of around ten to 12 weeks each. The academic year begins in January and ends in November, with a four-week break at the end of the year. Additional school holidays include two weeks in March, two weeks in June and two weeks in September as well as public and religious holidays.
Brunei has four universities, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Universiti Teknologi Brunei, Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali and Politeknik Brunei. There are also two further institutions specialising in teacher training and business. The University of Brunei Darussalam is the highest-ranking institution and consists of eight academic faculties and eight research institutes. Teaching and research is carried out in both English and Malay and admission to university is achieved through gaining appropriate Brunei-Cambridge Advanced Level Certificate of Education examination (GCE ‘A’ Level) grades in sixth form.
Higher education and research is funded entirely by the Ministry of Education and is free for all citizens of Brunei. However, international students and non-residents are required to pay tuition fees of approximately $3,000BND (£1,900) to $40,000BND (£20,000) per year, depending on the course of study.
Universities in Brunei follow the British two-tier system of three or four-year undergraduate degrees and one or two-year postgraduate degrees, with many degree programmes taught entirely in English. Doctorate programmes are offered by the University of Brunei Darussalam and comprise a combination of coursework and research.
In recent years there has been an increase in state-backed research funding for Brunei’s principal institutions and the country is keen to foster international collaboration in research. Due to its geology, rainforests and links to the petroleum industry, Brunei has become an attractive destination for researchers interested in biodiversity, energy and engineering.
Primary and secondary education
General compulsory schooling comprises primary school (ages five to 13, including one compulsory year in pre-school or kindergarten), middle or junior school (ages 13 to 15) and lower secondary school (ages 15 to 17). Religious primary education is also provided by the state through the Ministry of Religious Affairs and is compulsory for all Muslim children in Brunei. Pupils study a common curriculum of subjects throughout their school life and Islamic religious education is compulsory. Teaching is in both Malay and English.
At the end of lower senior school, students sit the Brunei Cambridge General Certificate of Education (BC GCE) ‘O’ level and International General Certificate of Secondary Examination (IGCSE) which can lead successful candidates to follow two-year Brunei-Cambridge Advanced Level Certificate of Education examination (GCE ‘A’ Level) courses. Expat children are mainly educated in fee-paying private schools or in schools in other countries.
Pre-school and childcare
Formal schooling begins at pre-school level (equivalent to the reception year in the UK) at age five in Brunei, where children begin their journey towards the Primary School Assessment (PSR) at the end of primary school. For childcare options prior to compulsory schooling, there are a number of private nurseries and day care centres available throughout Brunei. It is also common for expats to pay for a live-in nanny to care for their pre-school children while they are at work.
Brunei’s abundant gas and oil wealth means that residents and non-residents pay no income tax or other personal taxes, making the country increasingly popular among expat workers. High quality state-funded healthcare and education also contribute to Brunei having one of the world’s highest standards of living. The cost of living in Brunei is reasonable in comparison with some Western nations. Expats will find that food, accommodation and bills cost more in the capital, however this can be offset by a higher-than-average disposable income.
Expats are not permitted to purchase land or property in Brunei, however rented accommodation is not difficult to find and will usually be arranged by your employer, if you are moving with a company or other organisation. You will pay more for a rented house in the more upmarket areas of the capital but on the whole rents are reasonable (around $600 BND/£341 per month for a small apartment) and, as with every other purchase in Brunei, it is perfectly acceptable to haggle on rental prices with the landlord. The majority of homes are rented fully furnished and the standard tenancy agreement is for a period of six months or one year. One of the perks of a healthy disposable income is that many expat families have the means to hire a home help to assist with cleaning, cooking and childcare duties.
The amount tenants will pay as a deposit varies depending on the property. However, most tenants can expect to pay a minimum of one month’s rent up front.
Only commercial properties are liable to pay a property tax in Brunei. This is based on the estimated value of the commercial property and is decided by the local authority.
Electricity is supplied by the state-run Department of Electrical Services and landlords will usually assist tenants in getting connected. Bear in mind that there is no domestic gas supply in Brunei and most household appliances are run by electricity. Water is safe to drink from the tap and is supplied by the government’s Department of Water Services. Communications in Brunei use up-to-the minute technology and mobile phones, broadband connections and satellite and cable networks are widely available. The communications network is monopolised by the state-owned Telekom Brunei.
The basic cost of utilities (gas, water, electricity, refuse) for an 85m² city centre apartment is around $51 BND (£28) per month. Broadband, phone and TV packages start at around $124 BND (£69) per month.
There is no TV licence payment in Brunei. The media is strictly controlled by the state government, although it is possible to watch foreign television programmes through satellite and cable. Radio Television Brunei (RTB) is the state broadcaster.
Healthcare and medical costs
Brunei has one of the best state healthcare systems and one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. Healthcare, including dentistry and medicines, is low cost (around $1BND or £0.56 for a consultation with a GP) to citizens and expats alike. Treatment is free at point of contact and residents must settle their bills afterwards. The country has state-of-the-art medical facilities in all four Bruneian districts, the largest hospital – Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha – is located in the capital and there are plenty of smaller clinics dotted around the country. Health insurance is provided by employers in Brunei, so expats should check to see what their contract covers.
The Bruneian love of shopping means there is a wealth of options available. In the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, you will find a heady mix of high end shopping malls and bustling markets, such as the sprawling Pasar Gadong night market, which sells groceries, clothing, traditional handicrafts and local street food.
Shopping options are more limited outside of the capital but in such a small nation, it is easy to travel to the capital in pursuit of your favourite stores. For more convenient grocery shopping away from the markets, Brunei offers large supermarkets which are cheaper outside of the capital. You cannot buy alcohol in supermarkets, although non-Muslims are permitted to import limited quantities of alcohol for personal consumption whenever they enter the country. Expats should also be aware that cash is King in Brunei, most transactions are made with cash and many shops do not accept credit cards.
Brunei does not have a Value Added Tax (VAT) or any tax levied on the sale of goods and services.
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed November 2018)
Budgeting and saving
There is no income or personal tax in Brunei, so expats will find that they are able to save more over time. Additionally, as there are no bars and clubs and a ban on the sale of alcohol, it is easy to save money on going out. Groceries are cheaper when bought from the huge markets, rather than in supermarkets.
Brunei’s well-maintained road network links the capital with all other cities, towns and villages along the coast and skirts the large area of untouched rainforest. The coastal highway, linking the Muara district at the northern tip of the country and Kuala Belait in the south, is said to be one of the most picturesque drives in South East Asia. Public transport in Brunei is limited, so most locals choose to drive or use private chauffeur-driven cars to get around.
Cars drive on the left in Brunei, so drivers not used to this may want to hire a chauffeur-driven vehicle before hiring their own car (rental prices start at around $75BND/£42 per day). Driving is an inexpensive way to get around and see the country due to the low cost of fuel in Brunei, which is cheaper per gallon than a bottle of water. The speed limit on dual carriageways is 100km/h (62mph) and 80km/h (50mph) on single carriageways.
Taxis can be expensive and hard to find in Brunei. There is no central taxi service in the capital and it can be very difficult to flag one down even if you manage to spot one (most taxis have yellow tops). Some taxi drivers use meters but you should always negotiate a fare before starting your journey.
Buses and coaches
Brunei has a limited public bus network, which has been greatly improved in recent years. However, you will not see many locals travelling by bus as nearly everyone travels by private car. Buses run on six different routes in the capital, between 6.30am and 6pm at night. Although buses are vaguely scheduled to run every 20 minutes, there is no official timetable so planning your journey can be somewhat confusing. Coaches link the capital with the surrounding towns of Muara, Tutong, Kuala Larah and Seria and are used by tourists and to transport workers to the major oil centres. The main bus and coach terminal is located on Jalan Cator, to the south of Bandar Seri Begawan.
There are currently no rail or train services in Brunei.
Trams and light rail
There are currently no trams or light rail services in Brunei.
Brunei has one airport – Bandar Seri Begawan International Airport – located approximately ten miles from the capital. The airport serves as the base for the country’s only airline, Royal Brunei Airlines. You can fly to 19 destinations from the airport, covering parts of Asia, London and Melbourne. Being a small country, there are no domestic flights in Brunei.
Other ways to get around
Locals and tourists alike can travel from the capital by water cheaply. An efficient water taxi service links the capital with Bangar and the beautiful water village of Kampong Ayer, aptly nicknamed the ‘Venice of the East.’ You can hail a water taxi from anywhere on the waterfront in Bandar. Alternatively, you can take a speed boat to travel to the district of Temburong at a reasonable cost. There are also a number of ferry services to and from the port city of Serasa in Brunei to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.
The working week runs from Monday to Thursday in Brunei, with most businesses closing every Friday and opening again on Saturday. Almost all places of work are closed on Fridays and Sundays. Since a government ruling in 2012, all offices are closed on Fridays between 12pm and 2pm to allow employees to attend Friday prayers. Most employees work between 8am and 12pm and then from 1pm until 5pm. Some banks open seven days a week and are typically open from 9am to 3pm. Brunei is a predominantly Muslim country, therefore non-Muslim workers can expect working hours to be shortened during Ramadan to accommodate people who are fasting. There is no minimum wage in Brunei and employees must be aged 16 or over to work.
Employees must work for a company for a full year before they are entitled to 12 days of paid annual leave. This increases to 14 after five years’ service. Workers are also entitled to 11 public holidays and five sick days per year.
There are 11 official public holidays in Brunei, including Chinese New Year which is widely celebrated across the country. Chinese people make up more than 10% of the 428,697 population. The dragon dance of the Han and the lion dance of the Cantonese marks the arrival of the lunar New Year and demonstrates the close ties with Chinese cultures in Brunei. The most important date for the predominantly Muslim population is the 11th of September, which marks Awal Tahun Hijrah, the first day of the Islamic year.
Public holiday dates 2019
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Chinese New Year: 16th-17th February
National Day: 23rd February
National Day Holiday: 24th February
Israk and Mikraj: 14th April
Awal Ramadhan: 17th May
Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF) Day: 31st May
Nuzul Al-Quran: 2nd June
Hari Raya Aidil Fitri: 15th-19th June
His Majesty the Sultan’s Birthday: 15th – 16th July
Hari Raya Aidil Adha: 22nd August
Islamic New Year: 11th September
Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday: 20th November
Christmas Day: 25th December
Visas and eligibility
Brunei is well set up to accommodate expat workers, who make up 40% of the population. Workers are attracted by a high standard of living and often lucrative and tax-free salaries. People who want to work in Brunei will need to apply for a work permit, which is valid for two years. Applications will only be approved if a company already exists. After a permit is issued, expats must apply for a Brunei Identity Card, which is mandatory for anyone staying in the country for more than three months. Expats wishing to stay longer can apply for citizenship by passing exams in Malay. Applicants will also be tested on Bruneian culture and customs. You can find out more about visas and work permits at the Brunei Immigration and National Registration Department.
Brunei does not tax individuals, which makes the country attractive to expats. The tax year runs from January to December but there is no need to file a tax return. However, there are hidden taxes expats need to be aware of, the main one being stamp duty. There are two kinds of stamp duty, the first applies to property transfers and shares while the second applies to insurance policies and legal documents. The amount of stamp duty paid is dependent on the amount involved. Despite stamp duties, the country doesn’t operate capital gains tax or VAT (sales tax).
There are no schemes in Brunei to help retired expats. Retired expats can stay long term in the country, provided they can support themselves financially. The retirement age in Brunei has been increased from 55 to 60. Expats who have worked in the country for many years may qualify for a state pension if they have made sufficient payments into the government system. However, this is rare because most expats do not pay into the government pension scheme. Expats who are not entitled to a pension may be able to claim a pension from their home country on a reciprocal basis.
Only citizens and permanent residents who have paid into an insurance scheme will qualify for the excellent social security and welfare benefits available in Brunei. Unemployment benefits and maternity payments are generally only available for citizens. Expats are advised to make financial provisions and have private insurance to cover possible costs before moving to Brunei.
In December 2007 Brunei signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratified it in April 2016. Legislation to protect the rights of those with disabilities is still being written, but the ratification of the convention has raised hopes that progress is in the pipeline. A signal of Brunei’s renewed commitment to providing for disabled people has been further boosted by millions being poured into renovating buildings and improving access. A universal disability pension is available for those who have been a resident in Brunei for at least 10 years. Recipients must also be prepared to have treatment decided by doctors.
Brunei’s business model observes a strict hierarchical structure alongside modern attitudes towards international collaboration. Brunei is an Islamic monarchy and this cultural factor influences business and employment to a significant degree. The family and traditional hierarchical structures play a prominent role in business interactions and deals are carried out in a deeply formal and respectful manner.
Hierarchy is revered in Bruneian culture and those in senior and managerial positions are accorded utmost respect and deference at all times. Working culture is polite and, although everyone’s views will be listened to and considered, it is the responsibility of the senior team to take the final decisions within Bruneian business settings.
Bruneians are known to be very formal, yet friendly and polite in the professional environment. International visitors and residents are expected to show respect for both Islam and the Royal Family and be respectful of a culture of politeness and honour which dominates Bruneian society. When addressing someone, using the titles “Encik” and “Puan” (the Malay equivalents of Mr and Mrs) would be considered polite.
Cultivating the right connections is imperative before embarking on business deals in Brunei. Negotiations can be leisurely and often require more than one meeting in order to build relationships and trust. The concepts of ‘face,’ shame and honour are very important within professional and personal relationships and as a result, Bruneians are very polite and well-mannered so as not to cause others to lose ‘face’. Communication styles are indirect and can be rather ambiguous. Bruneians rarely show their feelings in public and outward shows of emotion or an over-friendly approach would be considered impolite and outright strange in Brunei. This can take some getting used to for those used to a more direct and casual communication style.
There is no formal dress code in Brunei, however businessmen are generally expected to wear a smart suit and tie. Western businesswomen are not expected to wear the traditional full body-covering garments worn by Bruneian women. However, women should aim to dress conservatively, with garments which cover the arms and legs (such as a trouser suit or long skirt).
It is normal to shake hands with members of your own sex in Brunei, however Bruneian men would rarely shake hands or touch women in any way, both in business and social situations. If your Bruneian counterpart does not extend a handshake, a nod or slight bow is appropriate. It is also considered rude to look directly into the eyes of a Bruneian for a long time, lowering the eyes on greeting is considered a sign of respect. Pointing your index finger, showing the soles of your feet and kissing would also be considered rude.
Business meetings are formal and punctuality is taken seriously. Therefore, it necessary to make appointments well in advance and to make sure you are early and prepared.
Meetings are formal and respectful in Bruneian business culture. It is important to advise everyone attending the meeting who will be present, in order that the most senior people in the room can be accorded appropriate respect. Discussions are polite and reserved and the first meeting with your Bruneian counterparts will be an opportunity to get to know each other and foster good working relationships. Speaking over others, particularly over more senior attendees would be considered extremely rude. Bruneians are not combative in meetings and will gently push their ideas. This can be disconcerting for those used to a more robust meeting style. When arranging meetings, bear in mind that most businesses close on Fridays to allow for prayers.
Brunei is an Islamic monarchy and the culture is one which adheres to strict and conservative religious rites and traditions. Although other religions are tolerated in Brunei, non-Muslim residents and visitors are expected to show respect towards Islam and the monarchy. Commenting on the Royal Family or Sultan in a negative way would be met with horror. Gender roles, the family and social interaction are strictly governed by Islamic culture and men and women are not permitted to interact in public spaces. The purchase of alcohol is banned in Brunei and consumption of alcohol is prohibited in public places. Offering alcohol to a Muslim is also a crime in Brunei so avoid this at all costs.
You do not need to be fluent in Malay to do business or work in Brunei, as English is widely spoken. Most Bruneians speak English fluently, as the language is taught from primary school and is one of the main languages of instruction at both secondary school and university.
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