Skip to main content

Counter-Narratives of the Nation: Writing the Modern Brunei Malay Woman

  • 420 Accesses

Part of the Asia in Transition book series (AT,volume 6)


This chapter examines how young Malay women in Brunei Darussalam negotiate culturally different notions of gender identity and agency in changing, modernising social spaces through creative writing in English. Despite the ideological imperatives and regulating apparatuses of the nation-state, Brunei’s boundaries have nonetheless been rendered porous by the global cultural flows of media , people, capital, technology and ideology (Appadurai 1990) . These flows have pervaded both social and cultural imaginaries, influencing a young generation of women in the way they perceive and represent modern Brunei Malay femininity; such representations can be found in female students’ contemporary creative writings at the local university. Linking modernity with the use of English, these students’ writings not only counter traditional norms and patriarchal views of Malay femininity encoded at state level, but also reflect how the process of creative writing constitutes a symbolic space of negotiation and exploration, a space in which Otherness or difference is embraced as essential to the idea of the modern Brunei Malay femininity.


  • Brunei
  • Creative writing in English
  • Malay women
  • Modernity

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Some consider English their first language, and their competency is akin to the level of native speakers.

  2. 2.

    The inaugural class began in 2011/2012 with a cohort of 12 students–four from English Literature and the rest from mixed disciplines. Subsequent classes attracted more students, and, due to demand, I relaxed my initial cap of 15 students: I had 20 students for the academic year 2012/2013 and 17 students for 2014/2015. The year 2012/2013 saw an influx of Drama Studies students, nine of whom joined seven English Literature students and four others from different disciplines. The class in 2014/2015 saw different numbers again, with four from English Literature, six from Drama Studies and seven from other disciplines, including Science and Economics.

  3. 3.

    See Deterding and Salbrina (2013) on the influence of American media on the language use among young Bruneians.

  4. 4.

    Permissions for the use of these scripts have been obtained from the writers.

  5. 5.

    See Alicia Izharuddin’s Chap. 4 in this book for an analysis of the new Malay woman in twentieth century Malaya.

  6. 6.

    See the Editors’ Introduction for a description of Brunei’s phallocentric culture, and how it is observable through the workings of local academia that had, up till 2010, excluded the study of gender from its curriculum.

  7. 7.

    Brunei’s authoritarian handling of freedom of expression was seen when the government ordered the shutdown of a local English-language daily The Brunei Times in November 2016. Initially removed, the daily’s online archives have recently been reinstated: On the shutdown of the daily, read Walker (2016). For an overview of human rights in Brunei, see Human Rights Resource Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (2016).

  8. 8.

    Brunei supports a diverse population that consists of Malays (who are the majority at 66.6%), Chinese (15%), indigenous groups (6%) and others, mainly foreign labour (12%). See Kathrina’s Chap. 3, Sect. 3.2, for more background information about Brunei.

  9. 9.

    Read Hussainmiya (2010) who observes that while the Dusun and Murut have been categorised as “Malay”, most of them have not converted to Islam (69–70).

  10. 10.

    Read Fanselow (2014, 98–99) and de Vienne (2015, 262–267) for an interesting account of how the state implemented policies and institutions that rallied around the construction and production of MIB as a historically and culturally legitimate ideology through the historicisation of Brunei as a Malay Islamic Sultanate.

  11. 11.

    See United Nations’ online report (2014) by CEDAW on Brunei, mainly its “Concluding observations” ( on how “women are disproportionately affected by punishment for ‘crimes’” involving sex and rape, as well as the criminalisation of lesbians and bisexual women ( See also Musawah’s (2014) analysis of Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code Order 2013 for CEDAW, and how it discriminates Muslim women in areas that include male guardianship, polygamy, divorce, children’s nationality, inheritance, and domestic and sexual violence. The report is also based on findings from fieldwork and interviews conducted in 2014.

  12. 12.

    Given the lack of scholarship and that anecdotal accounts are unreliable, I turn to the media coverage of talks and interviews as they provide insight into the kinds of pressure placed onto women’s bodies by society and the state. In her 2010 talk for instance, the former deputy minister of culture, youth and sports of Brunei, Hajah Adina Othman, recognised that the family institution has been affected by the rise of women in the workplace. She advised career women to “learn new skills such as time management as well as new caregiving skills for family members” and men to assume more family-oriented duties. In 2015, the Dean of the Syariah Law Faculty at a local Islamic university stated that Muslim women can work as long as they “maintain their family welfare” (Khai 2015). Additionally, she urged women to “practise menutup aurat (safeguarding their modesty) at the workplace to avoid persecution, obtain the consent of their husband [to work], [have] the ability to juggle between work and family and if the children are not doing well in their education, wives are encouraged to quit from their work” (Khai 2015). In an interview, Timothy Ong of Asia Inc Forum notes that Bruneian “society still expects women to take on a much greater burden than men. The society has ways of being negative about women who are perceived as being neglectful of the family. So, when a woman is in the office working til late at night, earning money for the family, she is generally not given as much credit as the man” (2014, 15).

  13. 13.

    Based on the naturalised authority of husbands, this gendered ideology can also be seen in neighbouring Indonesia through the propagation of Keluarga Sakinah (peaceful, happy family). See Chap. 5 in this volume.

  14. 14.

    State and social emphasis on women who have to balance both career and family is not a new phenomenon in developing Southeast Asia, since women are traditionally viewed as the guardians of family and culture.

  15. 15.

    Brunei currently boasts the highest penetration of social media in the region at 69% (Quratul-Ain 2016b). See Nurdiyana and McLellan (2016) and Wood (2016) about the online language used by Bruneians on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Read also Kathrina et al. (2016, 247–8) about Brunei’s blogging culture and online writing communities and how they herald new directions for the production of Bruneian literatures in Malay and English.

  16. 16.

    As an example, one student writes: “This play, inspired in part by the idea of Western true stor[ies] such as the Craigslist Killer (a medical student who murdered women), A Beautiful Mind (a mathematician named John Nosh who suffered from Schizophrenia), the Crime Scene Investigation series (one episode [where] a young daughter killed her parents and older brother) and Cinderella in a Bruneian context”. Her script, Sofea, is about a schizophrenic young woman, the titular Sofea, who has been confined to the house as the family’s shameful secret. Treated like a servant by her grandmother and cousin, Sofea one night kills them both. The play ends with her being taken away to the mental institution.

  17. 17.

    See Chin and Kathrina (2015) for their analysis of the unfilial child and the gendered consequences in Jasmine.

  18. 18.

    Your younger sister is getting married first?

  19. 19.

    Do you have a boyfriend? You’re not married yet? How old are you?

  20. 20.

    Old virgin.

  21. 21.

    You should get married soon, since your younger sister is already married.

  22. 22.

    You just have to be patient, sis!

  23. 23.

    Even so, the writer satirises Brunei Malay society for its expectation for women to be pregnant within their first year of marriage. In a parallel ‘Tahlil’ scene, the same elderly woman, Fatimah, tells married Maria, “Kesian your husband kalau alum ada anak” (Pity your husband if you don’t have a child yet). It is not enough for a young woman to be married, for to be a “real” woman, one must also conceive or else it would reflect badly on the husband’s virility. The onus thus lies on the wife to quickly conceive lest her femininity or worse, her husband’s masculinity, is questioned.


  • Anaman, Kwabena A., and Hartinie M. Kassim. 2006. Marriage and female labour supply in Brunei Darussalam: A case study of urban women in Bandar Seri Begawan. The Journal of Socio-Economics 35 (5): 797–812.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Public Culture 2 (2): 1–24.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bhabha, Homi K. 1990. The third space: Interview with Homi Bhabha. In Identity: Community, culture, difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford, 207–221. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chin, Grace V.S. 2014. Co-constructing a community of creative writers: Exploring L2 identity formations through Bruneian playwriting. In Exploring second language creative writing: Beyond Babel, ed. Dan Disney, 119–138. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chin, Grace V.S. 2016. Bruneian women’s writing as an emergent minor literature in English. In Special issue: English in Brunei Darussalam, eds. James McLellan, and Grace V. S. Chin. World Englishes 35 (4):587–601.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chin, Grace V.S., and Kathrina Haji Mohd Daud. 2015. Negotiating difference: The trope of “anak derhaka” and ideological endings in Bruneian writings. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 50 (2): 101–114.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deterding, David, and Salbrina Haji Sharbawi. 2013. Brunei English: A new variety in a multilingual society. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • de Vienne, Marie-Sybille. 2015. Brunei: From the age of commerce to the 21st century. Singapore: NUS Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dk Nurul Hazirah Binti Pengiran Sazalee. 2014. My child. Unpublished ms for AL-3301/AM-3401 Script-writing module, Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

    Google Scholar 

  • Drew, Julie. 1999. Cultural composition: Stuart Hall on ethnicity and the discursive turn. In Race, rhetoric, and the postcolonial, eds. Gary A. Olson, and Lynn Worsham, 205–239. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fanselow, Frank. 2014. The anthropology of the state and the state of anthropology in Brunei. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 45 (1): 90–112.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, Stuart. 1992. The question of cultural identity. In Modernity and its futures: Understanding modern societies book IV, eds. Stuart Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew, 274–316. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press in association with the Open University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hajah Adina Othman. 2010. Moving forward: Women in Brunei Darussalam. Talk presented at The Women’s Forum 2010, organised by Asia Inc Forum. Accessed 15 November 2016.

  • Heng, Geraldine, and Janadas Devan. 1995. State fatherhood: The politics of nationalism, sexuality, and race in Singapore. In Bewitching women, pious men: Gender and body politics in Southeast Asia, eds. Aihwa Ong, and Michael G. Peletz, 195–215. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Human Rights Resource Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. 2016. Update on the rule of law for human rights in ASEAN: A path to integration. Accessed 15 January 2017.

  • Hussainmiya, B.A. 2010. The Malay identity in Brunei Darussalam and Sri Lanka. South East Asia: A Multidisciplinary Journal 10: 65–78.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, Gary M. 2016. Policy and practice in the use of English in Brunei primary school classes. World Englishes 35 (4): 509–518.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kathrina Mohd Daud, Grace V.S. Chin, and Maslin Jukim. 2016. English and Malay literature in Brunei: A comparison. In The use and status of language in Brunei Darussalam: A kingdom of unexpected linguistic diversity, eds. Noor Azam Haji-Othman, James McLellan, and David Deterding, 241–251. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Khai Zem Mat Sani. 2015. Wives are not domestic servants. The Brunei Times, November 13.

    Google Scholar 

  • King, Victor T. 1994. What is Brunei society? Reflections on a conceptual and ethnographic issue. South-East Asia Research 2 (2): 176–198.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Low, K.C. Patrick, and Zohrah Haji Sulaiman. 2013. Women and human capital—the Brunei Darussalam perspective. Educational Research 4 (2): 91–97.

    Google Scholar 

  • Musawah. 2014. Musawah comprehensive fact-sheet on Muslim family laws: Brunei Darussalam. 59th CEDAW Session (October), 1–10. Accessed 15 May 2016.

  • Naimah S. Talib 2013. Brunei Darussalam: Royal absolutism and the modern state. Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 13: Monarchies in Southeast Asia. Accessed 22 July 2015.

  • Noor Azam Haji-Othman. 2012. It’s not always English: ‘Duelling aunties’ in Brunei Darussalam. In English language as hydra: Its impacts on non-English language cultures, eds. Vaughan Rapatahana, and Pauline Bunce, 175–190. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nurdiyana Daud, and James McLellan. 2016. Gender and code choice in Bruneian Facebook status updates. World Englishes 35 (4): 571–586.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nurul Faiqah Hazirah Hj Suani. 2014. Hope. Unpublished ms for AL-3301/AM-3401 Script-writing module, Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ong, Timothy. 2014. Face to face with Dato Timothy Ong on the roles of women in Brunei. Interview by Inspire. Inspire (Apr-Jun), 50 Brunei’s most influential women: 15.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ożóg, A.C.K. 1996. Codeswitching in Peninsular Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam: A study in contrasting linguistic strategies. In Language use and language change in Brunei Darussalam, eds. Peter W. Martin, Conrad Ożóg, and Gloria Poedjosoedarmo, 173–188. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies.

    Google Scholar 

  • Quratul-Ain Bandial. 2016a. Closing the gender gap in Brunei. The Daily Brunei Resources, March 8. Accessed 15 November 2016.

  • Quratul-Ain Bandial. 2016b. Brunei has highest social media penetration in ASEAN. The Brunei Times. October 14.

    Google Scholar 

  • Saxena, Mukul. 2014. “Critical diglossia” and “lifestyle diglossia”: Development and the interaction between multilingualism, cultural diversity and English. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 225: 91–112.

    Google Scholar 

  • Teah Abdullah. 2013. The history of Brunei women during British rule. Open Brunei, September 4. Accessed 15 November 2016.

  • United Nations. 2014. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on Brunei Darussalam. Concluding observations. Accessed 15 May 2016.

  • Walker, Peter. 2016. The Brunei Times suddenly closes after criticising Saudi Arabia’s Mecca visa price-hike. Independent, November 8. Accessed 30 November 2016.

  • Wood, Alistair. 2016. The discourse of online texts in Brunei: Extending Bruneian English. In The use and status of language in Brunei Darussalam: A kingdom of unexpected linguistic diversity, eds. Noor Azam Haji-Othman, James McLellan, and David Deterding, 187-200. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Grace V. S. Chin .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2018 Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Chin, G.V.S. (2018). Counter-Narratives of the Nation: Writing the Modern Brunei Malay Woman. In: Chin, G., Mohd Daud, K. (eds) The Southeast Asian Woman Writes Back. Asia in Transition, vol 6. Springer, Singapore.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Singapore

  • Print ISBN: 978-981-10-7064-8

  • Online ISBN: 978-981-10-7065-5

  • eBook Packages: Social SciencesSocial Sciences (R0)