Brunei - Background information

Natural history

A small enclave of a nation tucked between Sabah and Sarawak’s frontiers, Brunei’s 5,765km² territory accounts for less than 1% of Borneo. Despite the physical constraints, it’s somewhat of a mini Borneo, geographically, composed of wide coastal mangrove plains, nipah and peat swamp, rainforest and hilly terrains. In comparison with Sabah’s sizeable 1,600km coastline, and Sarawak’s 720km shoreline, Brunei’s South China Sea-face (the Laut China Selatan) is just 161km long.

Much of Brunei consists of low-lying coastal plains of alluvial soils, laced by mangrove-fringed river estuaries. Hills of sandstone and shale dominate the interior; together with clay and mudstone, they constitute the bedrock of both Brunei and West Sarawak. The Temburong District in eastern Brunei is more mountainous, with Bukit Pagon peaking at 1,843m. Brunei Bay – shared with Sabah and Sarawak – is heavily indented and features marine terraces cut by waves of the South China Sea.


The government of Brunei Darussalam claims ‘primary tropical jungle’ covers about 75% of the country, though also cites forestry as a major activity. Thanks to oil, Brunei has had little need to cut down its forests for export to the extent of its Malaysian neighbours, so the country’s rainforests, peat swamp and mangrove environments are among the better preserved in the region. Still its record is not entirely clean: forestry is a major economic activity, mangrove woods have been culled to make charcoal, and mangroves are continually cleared to make way for urban and industrial developments. Urban pollution is another major environmental issue, with sewage from the capital’s large water village – Kampung Ayer – running directly into the river and its ecosystems. Sustainable forest management is a relatively new concept in Brunei, but the country is aware of the need to preserve all that is left , and is positioning itself as a beacon of sustainability and ecotourism.

The Forest Act categorises forest reserves into five types: Protection Forest, Conservation Area, Recreational Area, Production Forest and National Park. There is just one national park, the 50,000ha Ulu Temburong National Park, created in 1988 within a huge forestry reserve. A further 32,000ha of reserves are classified for conservation purposes, and many urban and rural recreational areas underpin a visually green Brunei. A respectable 15% of Brunei’s total land area is fully protected. The Forestry Department manages the reserves and has started to carry out some early day greening activities, such as rehabilitating degraded lands and raising public awareness. Talk of bolstering the Wildlife Protection Act, established in 1978, aims to give it more scope to create national parks and sanctuaries.

People and culture


Indigenous tribes officially make up only 12% of Brunei’s population. Yet the ‘Malay’ majority (73%) are actually descendants of the Melanaus and Kedayan people – indigenous to northern Borneo. Muruts, Ibans, Dayaks and Dusuns form the tiny slice of Brunei’s other-ethnic indigenous population.


In Muslim-dominated cities and towns, the chants of Islamic prayer resonate through streets at dawn, and seep eloquently into skies at dusk. In Brunei, Islam is far more predominant – two-thirds of the population are practising Muslims. If you see the sign KUDAT in hotels, on the ceiling or table or in a bedside drawer, the arrow alongside it is not pointing out an emergency exit, but the direction of Mecca. One of the five pillars of Islam is that Muslims must make a pilgrimage – a hajj – to Mecca, the birthplace of the faith, once in their lifetime. By doing so, men are bestowed with the title Hajji and women Hajja. Such trips to Saudi Arabia are only possible for a relatively privileged few in poorer Southeast Asian Muslim countries. In Brunei there are many hajji and hajja. Naturally the sultan is the king of the country’s Hajji – it’s just one of the words in his seemingly endless title.


Gongs and other instruments

Gongs are a big feature of cultural performance and music ensembles in Malaysia, in both indigenous and Malay music. There are many different types of gong. Bruneians introduced the kulintanganinto Sabah, which is played among ethnic groups of the Kadazandusun peoples on the west coast and the Muslim Bajau on the east coast. It looks like a series of brass casseroles lined up – eight small knobbed gongs in xylophone-form which several players gong-chime away in turn.

Brunei’s stringed lute, the gambus, is played to the beat of Malay dances such as joget and zapin. Its hollow body is made from nangka, which is covered with lizard or goatskin, the neck coated with a thin wooden veneer. Three pairs of brass or gut strings are traditionally plucked with the claw of an anteater. A Pesta Gambus festival is held every year on Sabah’s west coast among the Bruneian–Malay community, and there are pesta gongs all over the place.

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