Group picture of delegates with Brunei's crown prince

Paul Seen Ng reflects on his recent trip to Brunei for the Singapore-Brunei Youth Leadership Exchange Programme.

Between 1-7 October 2019, I had the privilege to represent Singapore as one of the delegates to participate in the 6th Singapore-Brunei Youth Leadership Exchange Programme (SBYLEP).

SBYLEP was initiated in 2014 and it is a key bilateral programme between Singapore and Brunei. It aims to strengthen bilateral relations by promoting understanding among the next-generation leaders, enhancing appreciation of national policies, systems, country relations and regional concern and promoting dialogue between the public, people, and private sectors.

The present ‘special’ Singapore-Brunei relationship is best represented by the 1967 Brunei-Singapore Currency Interchangeability Agreement, where the currency exchange rate is pegged at 1:1, and extensive defence relations that includes Singaporean use of Bruneian training facilities (the UK presently deploys a battalion of troops in Brunei too and it was reported earlier in 2019 that Brunei could host a new British naval base as part of the government’s ‘Global Britain’ vision).

Dialogue session with Brunei's Minister for Culture, Youth and Sports, Maj Gen (Retd) Dato Aminuddin Ihsan, and Singapore's Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu

Dialogue session with Brunei’s Minister for Culture, Youth and Sports, Maj Gen (Retd) Dato Aminuddin Ihsan, and Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu

Themed ‘Future Ready Youth’, this year’s SBYLEP is very timely for the season, given the increasingly complex and uncertain wider world, coupled with the disruptions technological developments could pose to everyday life. On the first day of the programme, we went to the Prime Minister’s Office to hear about Brunei Vision 2035, a long term national development plan that aims to enhance Bruneians’ quality of life and create a sustainable economy. This was followed by visits over the days to Darussalam Enterprise (DARe), a national body set up to support local businesses, Meriuk Farm Stay, a ground-up venture into eco-tourism, and to Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam to hear about their initiatives in harnessing technology to improve processes, among others. These visits highlighted how the Public, People, and Private sectors, in their own ways, contribute towards attaining Brunei Vision 2035, and also the agenda setting process in Brunei. Beyond these visits, we also had the opportunity to engage and interact with the Crown Prince of Brunei, ministers and permanent secretaries of the Bruneian government, from which we heard first hand their thoughts about youth development and ‘future-readying’ youths.

Naysayers of such bilateral programmes might comment on its value – is it not just an info-ops where the best side of the country is presented, and participants become converts who help to propagate the intended message to others? Indeed, there is no denial that the official presentations and sharing sessions were conducted with a positive slant and kept very politically correct. Nonetheless, it is still commendable in the sense that the government and society at large is able to confront the elephant in the room – Brunei’s high unemployment rate and unsustainable reliance on the oil and gas sector – head on. People are not shy to admit the problems their country is facing.

Viewing projects done by students from Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB)

Viewing projects done by students from Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB)

To some extent, I will also agree that what was shared can be read and found online. However, beyond this, there is also the intangible aspect – the people-to-people connections and relations gained through conversations and interactions. All these cannot be gained through academic reading. I think that the value of such programmes lies in stripping away the stereotypes we might have of others. They allow us to put a face or faces to the otherwise generalised and sometimes even vilified ‘Other’. The Bruneians are a globally attuned lot; they are into the latest pop, latest Netflix drama, and are into bubble tea too! They are real people with dreams and aspirations and working hard to attain them – be it the budding entrepreneur or the green activist or the civil servant looking to set up his business in the future. They are worried about their future – that their government’s social welfare system might not be sustainable, that their social compact might be splintering for the government is not hiring as many as it used to be (Bruneians rely substantially on the large public sector for employment). A parent also shared that she found Brunei’s future bleak and would encourage her child to seek employment overseas, where there are greater opportunities. The picture might not be as rosy as presented, but there is still that hope for a better age and that striving, and in this we are connected as one.

The official programme lasted a mere five days, but it is indeed an eye-opening experience and one that I greatly appreciate to be part of.

Paul’s trip was funded through the newly created LSE Student Research and Outreach Fund which sits in the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement.

Paul Seen Ng is a MSc Public Policy and Administration postgraduate student at the LSE Department of Government. He graduated from King’s College London with a BA (Hons) War Studies and History and is interested in geopolitics, defence and governance. 

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.