Rediscover Brunei Darussalam through the eyes of the People
Editor's Note: When preparing features, I usually stick to a balanced ratio of words to photographs. Photographs help us put ourselves into the story. They supplement the images we paint in our minds about the narrative. However, every now and then, it is good to break with convention, especially with a storyteller like Shalani.
I know Shalani personally. (He's a fun guy to be around; people who know him would agree 100 percent.) He's involved with HeartKids Australia, and I am pleased to share a snippet of his journey with you through this Q&A. Find out more about HeartKids Australia here or connect with them on their Facebook page.
What do you do?
Sorry to open this with a statistic, but the easiest way to explain this is by using one: Childhood heart disease is the single biggest killer of kids under the age of 1 in Australia. That’s a fact that not many people know. Now officially, I’m a Fundraising Manager for HeartKids Australia, a charity that focuses on fighting this disease by funding vital medical research and providing much-needed support services for these kids and their families – in a nutshell, I do what I can to raise as much money and awareness, so that I can help the real passionate heroes and geniuses to deliver these services and medical advances.
Describe yourself in a few words.
I rarely get asked that question, so I’m not really sure how to answer that. I guess, I am what I love. Which would make me: My Family & Friends. Thien-Thien. KFC. PS4. Friday nights. My hair. Batman. Oh and KFC. (all to varying degrees but that’s pretty much it)
Would it be fair to say you are involved in 'Charity' work? Or is there now new market terminology for the work that you do?
I would definitely say I am involved in charity work. Neck deep in it in fact. But to be honest, I don’t care what people call it, there’s always going to be a bad stigma associated with it, whether it’s “look, it’s those annoying people on the street asking for money”, or “I bet you THEY take most of the donations anyways and almost none of it goes to the beneficiary”…or even “Soooo, do you like… even get paid??”
But the way I see it is that, if I can get paid just enough to live and be directly involved in becoming ‘the change you want to see in the world’ (I wish I invented that quote but I didn’t), then I’ll be doing alright.
How did you get started in charity work?
I’ve been in the charity sector about 9 years now (Writing that out sounds very scary to me). After I finished my Masters (incidentally, that’s like the 3rd(?) time I’ve ever actually mentioned to anyone I have my masters, so me just dropping that point right now is definitely on purpose - gotta use it sometime right?) I was feeling a little disillusioned with life in general. I’m sure a lot of kids and younger adults who finish school go through a version of this in their lives, and I was no different. Mine was specifically about heading in the direction of having a desk job that didn’t matter. Not that I dreamt of being a famous food blogger, or rock star, (or batman) or whatever else I thought would be along the lines of “do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life’, I just felt like there was no direction in my life. Like what I was going to do did not matter.
I met with a job recruiter anyways, ready to face my fate, and he who was feeding me all these mundane jobs: one was for a marketing coordinator for a signage shop. Another was hotel liaison (not sure what it involved really but I’ve never liked the word ‘liaison’ :p) can’t remember the rest but that goes to show how boring they were.
Then the recruiter dropped some papers and a fundraising role fell out of it. I just saw ‘charity fundraiser’ on the job role, and I was intrigued. In a about a millisecond, I weighed the options in my head and the one that stood out the most was “I can do my bit for social responsibility and all that crap, and even go home and feel better about the work I did that day, and even be a douche and tell my friends “I saved a life today, what did you guys get up to today??” … AND get paid for it??” – So I went for the interview and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s not the noblest of reasons and I will always be the first to admit that – in my industry, there are a lot of super passionate people, and I would be at the lower end of that scale if I were being brutally honest - but sometimes, even the most un-noblest reasons, for the noblest of causes, is still a lot better than most things I could be doing.
Three life-lessons learnt from your involvement in charities so far.
Damn. That’s a tough one. I just find life lessons and experiential advice is tough to give when sometimes words don’t really do justice compared to experiencing it yourself. I’ll always be the first to say that I’m the last anyone should be taking advice from … But that being said, I would say:
If you’re going to do it, do it because you want to. And in some cases, because you need to. No one is going to thank you for it more than the guy who gave them a discount on the second hand barely used new iPhone that they just sold you. You are always going to meet more people who are sceptical of what it is you do, than people who admire and respect (or even I daresay are inspired by) what you do. And if you think making money for big name brands was hard, it will never be as hard as doing it for a ‘good cause’ so you need to do it because you actually do give a shit. There are of course other reasons and other things you could do this for, but without you wanting to do it to change a few lives or do a little good in the world, then you’re just going to hate it.
One of my biggest ‘irks’, is when people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for the third TV they don’t use, or thousands of dollars for a hand bag, or a new phone, that’s never going to see the light of day …. And not many people bat an eyelid (that’s not what irks me – what people buy is their own business.) – What really irks me is the level of scrutiny people give when they support or donate to a good cause. Like, I would rather give $10 to a homeless guy where there is the chance he or she will spend it on drugs instead of food, instead of a Chanel hand bag where I know it isn’t going to feed a starving baby. (although I’m sure a Chanel bag would definitely complement my style) – I guess what my life lesson here is, even when you do it because you want to, or you have a calling… Remember most people don’t have the same level of passion as you do. And that is usually followed by people who are always trying to find a reason to not give. Which is ultimately followed by the same people trying to diminish what you do. Not all people are like this, but a fair few are, enough to get on your nerves and make you question what you’re doing.
This is cliché (but clichés are clichés because they’ve been true so many times after all), don’t ever give up. The rewards aren’t monetary, they’re not even usually associated with career progression, but you do go home reminded in the fact that the world is in some way a little bit, even in the tiniest way, better with you in it. It does wonders for your soul and confidence. And as I mentioned before, you get to say outrageous things like you saved someone today and not be a complete liar (still makes you a douche but after the long hours with no monetary or career acknowledgments, all you have sometimes is the douche comment.)
When it comes to giving to charities, are people generally open-hearted? Or have you found that the opposite is true? Is there research to back this up?
People, generally speaking, are open hearted and good. Essentially we all want the same thing. Walk around and ask anyone if they would pay $100 to save a life, and you’ll find 90% of the time the person saying ‘yeah sure’ (and the other 10% of the time you’ll meet an interesting character you’ll probably want to tweet about). The problem is that we have so many issues in the world, and differences of opinions and mindsets, we all have different ways of trying to ‘do’ good.
With HeartKids, everyone will want to help these kids living with (and many dying from) heart disease, but one person may want to donate to an actual family but not research. And another will want 100% of the money they give to go to the kids without a thought of how or who is going to administer that. Or someone will want to volunteer their time, even though in some cases it makes it more expensive to manage and train volunteers. Or someone will give lots of money for tax purposes. Or some will give money, because it makes them feel better at the end of the day – the thing is there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these scenarios. The problem is managing them all in a way where everyone will be happy with their donation and support, and the way it was handled. The reality is, that’s really tough to do without it costing a lot of money (which is also a part of my job: keeping the costs lower, so that more money goes to the beneficiary).
But I have to say, that the people that are super passionate, who want to remain anonymous, and give purely because they know that these kids, or animals, or the environment, or whoever it is going to, really need it. They’re not ‘better people’ than any of the ones I mentioned before, cos making an effort to give is more important than how much … but I have a special spot for them. I love those people. And I am so surprised by how many of those people I meet every day. (Just last Xmas time, someone gave $10k, because he thought kids with heart disease need it more than he did. He said he loved to drink and smoke and do all these things that these kids could and should never do, and he was fine – for now at least – and said it just wasn’t fair on them. He wanted no big thank you. Nothing. Respect.)
Regarding research, there’s a lot of it out there, and they all basically point to the fact that people in general are giving more than ever before, whatever their reasons. Year on year it’s been growing. Whether it’s been because of more marketing or whatever, more people have not only given more times on average, each one of them have been giving more money too (i.e. the amount of donors have increased, and the average gift of what they give has also increased).
Interestingly, I did a research paper in uni through my masters (4th mention) and I did a comparative study between Brunei and Australia, and although Australia and the UK are known to be quite giving countries, you’d be happy to know that Brunei was pretty up there too.
Share a few highlights from your journey with HeartKids to date.
This is a little hard for me to answer because every day is a learning curve for me. I had a corporate desk job a few years ago, and I realised that it was quite the cushy, laid back job that had a bunch of deadlines here and there which I was fine with, but it wasn’t until I spent a long time in the fundraising industry that I realised that even though the level of stress and work and sleepless nights is about the same (arguably more) you are able to feel like you’ve achieved much more in the fundraising sector. Knowing that what you do has some direct and indirect impact on potentially supporting someone that really needs it does wonders to your psyche.
I think I mentioned it before, but the highlights happen when you choose to focus on the goodwill that every day people have. The people that you meet on a daily basis, that give thousands of dollars to a charity and want nothing in return, or the many different people who are always trying to find a way to help your charity, or more importantly, proactively trying to do what they can to do a little bit more in their lives to help others. These unsung heroes – and they are, as they do the things they do to help and not beat their chests to their 4,000 FB friends how awesome they are – are the highlights I have in my career.
Do you miss Brunei?
I absolutely miss Brunei – I’ve been away since I was about 11, but that place is always home to me. I just came back recently and although a lot has changed, the place and the people...it was like I fit in, like a jigsaw. I am not well travelled as much as most Bruneians I would imagine, but I’ve done my fair share, and in my line of work, you meet a lot of people from all walks of life and cultures, and I can truly say, I’ve never met anyone that are like Bruneians. I guess you can truly say we’re really one of a kind.
I love telling people I’m Bruneian too, that always makes tickles me (it’s usually followed by a “funny. You don’t look middle eastern.” Or, “that’s awesome….. uhm. Where is that?”
I miss a lot of things, which go without saying. The food (thien2, roti jons, nasi katok… the list is endless), the people (my family and friends, even the casual way people are smiley and friendly there – when you live in a big city like I do, on-street smiling is a bit of a rare commodity). ‘Escape rooms’, which I got into the last time I was there, I miss that. I miss going to the kedai runcits and getting the bulletin and a hundred plus. I miss lazing at home on a Sunday, watching astro while the aircon is blasting and watching your family snooze around you.
You’re always going to miss the things you love.
What advice would you give the 16 year old you?
There’s a lot of advice I would give my 16 year old self, but there wouldn’t be a point, I wouldn’t have listened to anyone much less myself - but assuming my stubborn 16 year old self would listen I’d tell him:
Eat more chicken rice. You are REALLY going to miss that. Drink more water. It will feel like it, but high school is not the end all, be all of life. It will get better. And more fun. Speaking of high school, get a haircut. Middle parting your hair is called a ‘bum part’ for a reason. Buy some Google stocks. And maybe Facebook. Enjoy having knees that don’t hurt. Spend more time outdoors. Don’t be such a puteri lilin. And finally, call your mum (actually all your family) more. WhatsApp doesn’t come out for a long time.
What do you see yourself doing in three years?
Mate, I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow night… but I’m happy just plugging away doing what I wanted to do all those years ago in that job recruiter’s office – just want to do a job where I get paid enough to live my life, go home and not be completely irritated by what I achieved that day, make a difference, (I hate this phrase and you’ll notice I’ve been trying to avoid it all throughout this Q&A, but alas, I ran out of similar phrases) … and ultimately be able to sound like an over compensating douche to my friends while remaining stoically confident.
As Brunei celebrates its 32nd National Day, I had the privilege of being there in person for the first time to witness the celebration from a new perspective. I remember being in St. Andrew's School, taking part in the flag waving portion of the day. I didn't know much about the celebrations, but one thing I was always excited about was the sight of His Majesty passing by, waving to everyone.
The day began as early as 6:00 am as people started to fill the roads in preparation for the annual national day march. As I stood there watching some groups practice their march for the parade, while others excitedly fixed their uniforms. I could feel the excitement.
The time had come.
As the arrival of His Majesty's entourage caught my attention from the distance, there I stood with the same anticipation as when I had been a flag waving schoolboy. From the arrival of His Majesty to the march-pass, the performance and the departure, it was heartwarming to see not only the locals but also foreigners and tourists celebrating this joyous occasion with us in harmony and as one nation.
Personally, the march pass was one of the highlights of the day . The participants of the parade included school students and teachers, public corporations, scouts, sports teams, and many more. It was a joy to see people of all ages and background marching as one.
Here are some photographs from the day...
"Challenges have potential to bring about change. Challenges must be handled wisely. Wisdom determines the pattern of the change to something better," said His Majesty on the 32nd National Day titah.
Editor's Note: The local FnB culture remains strong, and the cafe scene is growing. The last 12 months have seen a number of new places pop-up, and Nerdee is one of them. We visited them recently. The first things we noticed were the fun sounds and colours. People were laughing, board game tokens were getting passed around, cards were being shuffled and slammed onto tables, quirky food and colourful drinks were sprawled across tables... This place is a fun place. Follow their journey on FB and on Instagram @nerdee.cafe
p.s. Diana and Bernard, your profile photographs are gold! =)
Share with us a bit about yourselves.
Diana: I am currently doing financial planning in a company in Brunei, and have been there for two years now! My background studies is in Health Science. I did my studies in Brunei and Melbourne. It was Melbourne that raised the bar for me in regards to how cafes can look and be.
Bernard: Cooking is my passion and the kitchen is my playground. I have always loved it when people go “WOW” after having a meal I prepared. I started cooking with my grandma at the age of five (steamed eggs with cut up sausages), and I recently spent three years in Singapore studying culinary arts. I also worked in various cafes and hotels there.
Tell us about Nerdee Cafe.
Diana: Nerdee is a lab-themed board game cafe. The main idea behind the cafe is to have people talking, reconnecting and laughing at the table. The board games are excuses to put those mobile phones and devices away. We love what we have seen so far: children and adults with no phones in their hands. Friends, children and parents are laughing and interacting. We aim to give a fun experience to all patrons, and at the same time, promote and grow the interest in board games in our country!
Bernard: It’s THE place to be at the moment. And we are really humbled by the support of every single one of our customers. We see people from all ages and we love that! From regular customers who is a three year old girl who keeps coming with her mother...to an elderly lady who brings her family back again and again. It’s a place where we hope to bring a little more color into Brunei.
How did you come up with the concept of the cafe?
Diana: Well, for the board game part, both Bernard and I did our own travels. Coincidentally we visited some board game cafes on our own before we started talking about opening a cafe together in late 2014.
Bernard: Yeah! It was weird. One day right after work when I was Singapore, out of the blue, Diana called and said, “Hey! Remember we had talked about opening a café in the future - back when we were in Secondary 4? You want to open a café together?” The rest was history! Things were not as easy as ABC or 123! Take the name for example, we (by we I mean she) almost named our café “SHIOK LA!” *shudder*
Diana: Haha, we each came up with a list of names. We finally settled on a name, but apparently a tile company had already taken it. Haha. It took us a whole day driving around together to come up with the name NERDEE (which is a combination of our nick names). In terms of the Chemistry Lab theme, Bernard suggested it! So it went from there.
Bernard: In all of our individuals travels, we thought to ourselves, if this and that country can have it, why not Brunei? So we decided to bring it into our community!
How has the response been?
Bernard: We are about three months old now. It has been an incredible ride thanks to the public. The response has been favourable and we hope to keep it that way. We love interacting with our customers whether they are retuning or brand new to the whole concept. That way we can grow, serve and host everyone better.
Which board games are a must?
Bernard : Hmmmmm this is a tough one. We have over 120 different games, and every game has been played at least once by our guests. But if I had to choose, I would always suggest people start off with Speed Cups, Ghost Blitz and Moustache Smash. Then slowly move onto Pass The Bomb, BANG! and Machikoro. These are games that you have probably have never seen or heard of, and they may sound overwhelming, but the kick that you get out of them is music to our ears! (We have guest shouting "WHERE CAN?! Anyhow play one!! PACAH JUA!")
Tell us about the food and drinks on offer at the cafe.
Bernard: There isn't a specific (food) theme. It is really about experimenting and fusion. A lot of times we tend to think that our resources here in Brunei (in terms of food) are limited, but I say, use local! Instead of saying you wish you had that particular ingredient that is only available in say...Papua New Guinea...why not work with something Brunei has? We buy all our ingredients from local supermarkets and wet markets. I love it when our guests go "WOW that looks good!" or when I see returning guests ordering the same things again and again! But the one thing I must say is that we do not use any MSG or Ajinomoto or even chicken cubes! That is something I am really proud of.
Diana: The drinks are from the "Lab Bar", served in beakers, conical flasks, reagent bottles, etc. We have more ideas we will share with Nerdee customers in months to come. We look to have more where you are pouring and seeing reactions in your drinks.
Which are the popular food items?
Bernard: Our menu is constantly evolving and adapting to the needs and wants of our guests! What has stayed with us so far these months are our Nachos (with beef sauce made from scratched! I mean I don't grow my own beans or raise my own cows...but you get the idea) and our Kimchi Noodles. It is something that will have a special place in my heart because the Kimchi is made in-house! Our new offering, the Doughwich, is not your normal sandwich! It plays with your senses - sweet toasty doughnuts with a savoury spread.
What do you hope to see for Nerdee Cafe in 2016?
Bernard: I think in 2016, with how things are going, we are looking take the whole Ner Dee Café experience up a whole ‘nother level. We (thankfully) have managed to pull an integral man into our core team. He joined us in our starter team and now he's like family! Have you met Sid?
Sid: Hi! I am thrilled to be with Ner Dee Café as the Game Ambassador. We just brought in some new games and we have some events (game nights, board game competitions, etc) coming up this year. It is going to be an exciting one for sure.
Bernard: Yeah, like Sid said, we believe 2016 will be an exciting one! We personally would love to see ourselves grow in all areas: our board games, food items, the ever evolving drinks and even our service towards YOU - our Nerds in action!
Is there anything you would like to say to the public? To those who have already visited and those who have yet to give it a try?
Bernard: Thank you for your tremendous support! Like, really! We are tremendously blessed to have been able to make your experiences at Ner Dee Cafe a worthwhile one. For those who have yet to join, well, if you REALLY want to know like know KNOW your boyfriend or girlfriend or children, play a round of different boardgames with them here at Ner Dee cafe! Like honestly...all bets are off in battle. GAME ON!
I recently got in touch with Jenn O’Connell, a native New Zealander who runs the expat blog “The Engineer’s Wife: Joining My Engineer on an Expat Adventure in Brunei” (http://theengineerswife.wordpress.com/). I was really interested in what an expat perspective of Brunei might be, and have followed with amusement her “Weekly Challenge” feature, in which Jenn and her husband try and report back on local foods like dried cuttlefish.
On being a first-time expat, and the local and expat community.
As a first time expat, being here is completely different to anything I've done before! It's great, but it's definitely not the same as being at home. Even the most basic interactions and tasks have a level of discomfort / not knowing that I don't have while in New Zealand. This means I learn a lot about myself and about other cultures, which I love, but it's not always easy.
I spend half my time in the local community (shopping, enjoying the markets, eating), and half my time in the expat community (spending time at the Panaga Club, all sorts of activities there, spending time with my friends). From my experience and observations, the expat and local communities operate very separately. I have met local people through my husband's work, and have enjoyed spending time with them, but my friends are all expats, and most people I know have a similar experience. I have felt very welcomed by the expat community. People are friendly and open, and there are always plenty of things to do, particularly with so many other women (and a few men) who aren't working. I have been surprised at how easy it is to fill a day!
I have not felt quite so welcomed by the local community. I think it's difficult to break into a completely different culture, and the activities I do here haven't led to me meeting many locals. People have always been friendly, and I haven't had any negative interactions, but I also haven't made local friends. There are so many factors that contribute to this, and I don't at all want it to sound like the local community have been unwelcoming - I just haven't had many chances to meet and interact with them.
One of my favourite features on your blog is when you try local food and drink! (Particularly because I personally love some of the things you've tried - cuttlefish, canned cockles, ambuyat.)
This was one of my favourite features too, and I am sad that it has gone by the wayside in recent months. It is definitely getting more difficult as the weeks go on. I do have a couple of ideas up my sleeve (cheese flavoured ice cream, chicken floss, durian), but I am always open to more ideas, particularly from locals, on things we should try!
Pondering local food in one of many food challenges
A meal of delicious fresh seafood in Labuan
At Bako National Park, Kuching
As an expat, how involved do you feel in local developments?
This is a tricky one. I love reading the local papers, and finding out what is happening. But I think I will always see them as an outsider, particularly big legal developments like shariah law. This is where I am living at the moment, but it's not "my" country, and I don't think it's my place to project my views on the local laws etc. All I need to do is abide by them while I'm here. At home I am fairly political and opinionated on these kinds of developments, so it has been interesting to have this different perspective.
On the lighter side of things, I feel a little more involved. I love finding out about new places (although I far prefer High Frequency to Starbucks in terms of new coffee outlets!) There are a few Facebook groups that I have loved being a part of, because they help me to find out more details about local developments, such as new (or just recommended) eating spots and events. We really make an effort to try new things on a regular basis, so it's great having a few different sources of information.
The Brunei blogging community is obviously very active. Do you consider yourself part of that community?
Honestly, I see myself far more as an expat blogger than as a Brunei blogger. I have met several expats through my blog, and have answered questions from many more expats and potential expats. But I do also read local blogs. My favourites are ProjekBrunei and The Food Addictions of Cookie Monster (Thanis Lim). Until this interview, my local reading hasn't led to much interaction, but I am always keen to meet and talk to new people, so if anyone out there is reading and wants to find more, just pop over and say hi!
A visit to Tasek Merimbun
Enjoying a walk at the Agrotechnology Park
How do you find yourself describing Brunei to people back home?
The first word I usually use is HOT. The climate is such a huge change for me, and has been one of the things I've found it hardest to get used to (especially since I've been pregnant!). Once we're past the weather discussion, I say that it's small and friendly and relaxed. My life here is so cruisy (that might be a mostly New Zealand word - we use it to mean relaxed / laid back), and the change of pace has been wonderful (if sometimes challenging). Sometimes if people have travelled around Asia a bit, I say that it's similar to Malaysia, but a lot quieter and more relaxed. I think it's very difficult to describe the vibe of a country, so I usually recommend people come to visit to see what it's like!
And finally! You describe yourself as currently a lady of leisure and a trailing spouse. Would you recommend it? Lifelong dream or temporary condition?
I think it's hard to make a blanket for or against statement for trailing-spouse-life. There are people who will suit it, and love it, and others who will find it incredibly difficult and unsatisfying (and most people will fit somewhere in the middle). For me, it's definitely a temporary condition. There are parts I have loved (getting more into yoga, having time to read and write and think), but I do also miss my work, and really want to go back at some stage.
If we saw it as a longer term lifestyle choice, and if I wasn't about to have my life completely changed by a baby, I would definitely be studying and trying to find online work opportunities at this stage. As it is, I am very happy as a lady of leisure for now, but can't see me doing it forever!
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
Greetings everyone! Green Brunei is proud to announce that The Remarkable Green Race is back for the second time, happening this March!! So come show your support and RACE with us while at the same time, learning more about the environment as you go. Each participant will get a t-shirt, bag, notebook, tumbler and an e-cert. You may register in teams of 4 people for $20 per person on http://rgr.green-brunei.com
Date: 13 March 2016
Time: 6.30am - 10.00 am
Venue: Bio-innovation Corridor (previously known as Agro Park)
Deadline for registration: 14th February 2016
Attractive prizes awaits you, so we hope to see you there!
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