No Raya, No Problem

It is 1pm, third day of Raya. Im still in my towel, joyfully whistling Hari Raya song while vacuuming the floor. My cats stared at me looking annoyed. I must say, this pandemic version of Raya is not so bad after all.

I said to my nephews and nieces, now you have a “I remember when” story to tell the future generations. I remember when….. we didn’t celebrate Raya due to the pandemic outbreak back in 2020. They’ve heard so many I remember when stories from me before – I remember when we didn’t have mobile phones, I remember when we didn’t have internet, I remember when we didn’t have smart phones, I remember when we didn’t have YouTube… – and each time the stories never failed to get that intrigued look on their faces. Ok, ok, actually more of the look of horror than intrigued. I must agree, life without Internet is a scenario more horrifying than a zombie apocalypse.

Now, for anyone who thinks that this was the first time a crisis forced a Hari Raya celebration hiatus, let me tell you that it was not. Not, according to my mom’s I remember when archive. It was in 1963 at the aftermath of the December 1962 rebellion. Curfew was imposed as government forces were clearing remnants of the rebels with the shoot-to-kill order. Many of the rebels were killed, among them were people who my parents knew. It was a sad sad period in Brunei’s history.

Plausible but Ridiculous

One morning, as I was about to leave for work, I accidentally knocked over my air fragrance canister, it rolled down the table it was on, flew a distance and landed on my mopping pail knocking it down spilling all its filthy contents on the floor. Just great! I said to myself. I spent 30 minutes cleaning the mess and ended up arriving to work late. I just told my staff that my car was acting up. They wouldn’t believe me if I told them the truth anyway and I would come across as lying and coming up with a lame excuse for being late. I could imagine how ridiculous it would sound if I told them what actually happened.

Recently, I came across such ridiculous excuse, not for being late for work, but for murder. A 34-year-old man was on trial for stabbing death his 42-year-old brother-in-law on the chest. His defence was that it was an accident. He gave the most ridiculous account on how the “accidental” stabbing happened.

The fatal stabbing took place in front of a house at RPN Kg Pandan B, Kuala Belait around midnight on 27 April 2018. The defendant who is unemployed is staying in his parents’ house along with his siblings including his younger sister who is married to a police Lance Corporal.

Here is how the outrageous defence went down. That midnight, the brother-in-law got furious upon seeing the defendant’s car not parked properly in front of the house. Even after the defendant moved his car, the brother-in-law refused to let it go and continued ranting. One of the rants included how the defendant is just a guest in the house.

The defendant’s mother came out and tried to diffuse the ruckus by pulling her son-in-law’s hand urging him to get inside the house. Refusing to go in, her son-in-law pushed her and she fell. Seeing this, the defendant got angry and thus the quarrelling escalated.

The bother-in-law then charged forward, leaped onto a chair, launching himself at the defendant, swinging his right arm for the hit. As the brother-in-law came plunging towards him, the defendant took a knife out (which he happened to have with him that he used earlier to repair a TV), raised his hands with the knife in his right hand. The brother-in-law landed on the knife which impaled his chest.

The defendant, his sister and mother then carried the wounded victim to the car. The victim’s wife drove him to the hospital while the defendant fled. The victim died shortly after his arrival at the hospital. The defendant was arrested at noon the same day.

Now, lets analyse this. Vouching this story were his mother and sister, the alleged witnesses to the stabbing. Even at the get go, we all know that family members would not throw their own flesh and blood under the bus. So, the whole account of what happened as they told it must be taken with a pinch of salt.

The trigger was the defendant’s car which he parked “improperly”. Im guessing the defendant either took the brother-in-law’s regular parking spot or his car blocked the access to the parking spot. Still, this is no reason to be all psycho about. He could just text the defendant and ask him to move his car. His overreaction indicated that there should already be bad blood between those two.

When the brother-in-law said that the defendant is “just a guest” despite the house belonging to the defendant’s parents indicated that the defendant could just be staying the night or just for a few days which may explain why the defendant was ignorant about the parking “rule”. Despite being the “outsider” one, the brother-in-law could be the main bread winner and considered himself the alpha male in the household and the defendant, who is unemployed, he considered a nuisance, a free rider. The defendant could be subjected to prolonged criticisms and belittling by the brother-in-law which contributed to the bad blood.

When the brother-in-law launched at him, the defendant could choose to either run away or embrace the blow and engage in punches instead of taking out his knife. And why would he even have a knife with him. Who fixes a TV with a knife. Who, other than TV repair shop workers, knows how to fix a TV even. We also don’t know whether the victim really pushed his mother-in-law when she fell. He could just was pulling away his hand and the recoil force made his mother-in-law fell. It was like, the part is added to the plot to justify the necessity for the defendant to use his knife. Also, why would the brother-in-law even jump onto a chair first unless that part was added to the plot to explain how the knife “accidentally” plunged into the victim’s chest when the victim landed and that the defendant didnt make any stabbing movement with the knife.

On 12 March 2020, the defendant was convicted for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced to 4 years jail. Given the time already served since his arrest in 2018, he would be out in less than 2 years. On handing down the sentence, the Chief Justice considered the defendant’s clear record and that “there is no suggestion the defendant is of violent disposition and poses a risk to public safety”. I mean, he carried a knife and did not hesitate to use it that night. Which part of that is not posing a risk to public safety?

The preexisting bad blood between the two gave the defendant the intent to kill and by having a knife with him is an indication of premeditation. Thus, I don’t see any accidental aspect of the crime. Nobody has the right to take someone’s life even if the deceased did terrible things. And to get just 4 years, its like he got away with it. Just saying…

Drain-ed

The year was 1985. I was in Form 2. Our class was having a picnic trip at the Tungku beach.

It seemed like any other Sunday. We were a bunch of 12-13 year olds goofing around, making music video lip-synching to a Duran Duran song. The Bandar kids got all the good stuff including cameras and camcorders.

We noticed a helicopter flying above us. We ignored it at first, then we noticed that the helicopter was circling the area, flying low. Later, some police cars arrived. We just watched from afar but we couldn’t make out what was going on.

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Soon it was time to leave. As our bus exited the beach, we passed by the scene, our little faces looking out the bus windows trying to capture whatever we could see to answer our curiosity. In that split second, we saw something in the ditch.

Later, we found out that it was a car that was in the ditch. That day, they finally found the air force pilot who was reported missing days before. He was driving home from Jerudong the night he disappeared.

The car was upside down. The man was still strapped in his seat. His hand was holding bloody tissue papers.

He spent days in the ditch while people were looking for him. No one will ever know how long he was alive before succumbing to the loss of blood.

Once There Was A Local Millionaire…

Sunday morning. The year was 2011. Kg Junjungan was bustling with life. Cars parked by the roadside stretching hundreds of meters. The environment was filled with music blasting from loud speakers and the sounds of people cheering coming from the direction where everyone was congregating towards. K was having a big lucky draw event at his front yard and everyone was welcomed. The prizes up for grabs were jawdropping – top range household appliances, mobile phones, air tickets, and the grand prize, a car, yep! a Nissan Z360!

The public has never been treated to anything like this before, and who doesn’t like freebies! with no catch! It seemed like K was contented just to make people happy and see the smiles on their faces. K’s generosity didn’t stop there. He would assist anyone whose financial predicament came to his attention, in a heartbeat. He would sponsor sporting events, provide funding for local sporting teams to participate in tournaments overseas, donate money to schools, among others. There were even individuals who went to see K outrightly asking for cash handouts and K didn’t disappoint. Cheques after cheques were flying out left and right. A lot of love and admiration began to pour in for K.

It wasn’t long before K became the talk of the town. For those who were graced by his generosity, they got nothing but praises for K, some even saying “Why cant the others (wealthy people) be more like K?”. They became obsessed with K, gravitated around him, revered him as a hero, a champion of the financially weak. These included his family and relatives; his friends and their families and relatives; as well as his homies and their families and relatives. Those who were lucky, he employed to work in his fitness gym and as his bodyguards slash entourage slash posse, with outrageous salaries. It was heard through the grapevine (WhatsApp was not a thing yet that time) that each bodyguard got paid in the ballpark of four to five thousand dollars per month. There were people who were willing to quit their jobs just to get a piece of the action.

Whether or not this was what K had intended all along or whether he even realised it was happening or not, an unspoken patron-client relationship began to be established between K and the beneficiaries of his financial largesse. Before the dust of his charitable works had a chance to settle, K upped the ante by offering people the opportunity to grow their savings by helping them invest their money in the Singapore’s stock market. Soon enough, news about people getting lucrative returns from their investments started to swirl around. What began as a favour to just his family and inner circles, had expanded to include complete strangers, even senior government and military officials with already good incomes, who begged K to wave his magic wand on their savings. Thousands and thousands of dollars of their savings were handed over to K, no documentation, no hesitation, just a lot of excitements of a wealthier future.

To be fair, before K came into the scene, there were already local philanthropists in the country, but none was ever as visible and as present as K. The public also had some idea about the backstories behind their wealth, which could either be successful businessmen, pehins or royalties. But for K, he came out of nowhere. One minute he was just an everyday Joe trying to make ends meet, the next he was burning money like it was no one’s business. K’s entrance into the public eye as a wealthy man also came with a spectacle, making it impossible not to notice especially in a small country like Brunei. Much of the spectacle was from the sights of his bodyguards who surrounded him with their buff bodies, tight clothing showing every inch of their muscles and thick gold necklaces and bracelets. Those musclemen would also be seen in the entourage that dropped and picked up K’s kids at their schools. Surely nothing that one would expect to ever see in peaceful Brunei.

For the first couple of years since his debut into society, K was riding high on his popularity, continuing helping people financially, made donations after donations to the needy people and organisations, got covered in the local newspaper a few times for his charity works, while continuing to deliver the promised profits to the people whose money he helped invest at the stock market. Everyone was happy and they lived happily ever after. NOT!

Here comes the plot twist. While K was out helping improve the quality of life of as many people as he could, a big question mark had been hovering over the horizon – Where did he get all the millions?? No one knew except himself and those closest to him. What the public knew were that K was not born in a filthy rich family and that he didn’t own any big business that anyone knew of. Even the gym he only opened after he came out as a millionaire. This left the curious people to go with the only possible explanation there was – that K had won the lottery.

Lottery is haram and is illegal in Brunei but it is no secret that there have been locals who tried their hands on lottery schemes in neighbouring countries. If they win overseas, they would not be breaking any Brunei laws, thus they could keep their winnings (I suppose). So if K really did win the lottery, then its shouldn’t be that big of a deal as there could well be other local lottery winners before him. However, since lottery is haram, the lottery winning became haram money and should K really win the lottery then the people and organisations who received his donations were actually receiving haram money. This was where it became an issue. Eventhough K’s heart might be at the right place, there were people who later, due to the lottery win theory, had declined his donations.

K had never confirmed or denied winning the lottery. He did admit that he owned an investment portfolio worth millions. Still, earning lots of money from investment is not breaking any local laws. It was when the authorities caught wind of K taking people’s money to be invested that K troubles began. Eventhough the public could do whatever they want with their own money, the authorities had been inclined to intervene upon suspicions that the public was exposed to illegal deposit-taking activities of shady investment schemes like the get-rich-quick schemes, pyramid schemes and ponzi schemes. This happened in 2001 with the ProMail multilevel marketing scheme and in 2010 with the Pan Phoenix Dina get-rich-quick scheme. By intervening, it means freezing their funds which would also mean the investors would most likely not see their money again. This was exactly what happened to K. His accounts in Singapore were frozen, thus ending the premium payments to the investors.

Now the investors just wanted their money back, chasing K left and right, knocking on his door, calling him, texting him day and night. K felt harassed and went into hiding. Some alleged that he went hiding in Singapore to get away from the angry investors. There was nothing much that the investors could do given that there was no documentation or official record of them handing over their money to K. Even in hiding, K was adamant that he had no intention to cheat them of their money and promised to return their money and pay the backdated premium once his accounts are unfrozen. Perhaps deep inside, K knew that this was just wishful thinking.

So ended the short-lived advent of K, the popular local millionaire. No one ever knew where actually he invested the money that he took from the investors. Given that K never offered any detailed information about it, some people were certain that the money were channelled to a Singapore-based pyramid scheme or some kind of ponzi scheme. Despite his accounts being frozen, it is believed that K is still a millionaire to this day, albeit a low profile one. The speculation that K didn’t do banks and instead had cash stashed away in some suitcases all over his house could be true after all.

28 Days Later

06 April 2020. It has been 28 days since the Covid-19 containment battle begun in the country. It felt just like yesterday that Maria started to work on shifts as part of the BCP. By today, she is actually getting the hang of it, this new, albeit temporary, normal. Maria only woke up at the regular time on the first day of the working from home arrangement, before realising who’s gonna check anyway if she’s already out of bed or not. Nobody! So, on the second day and onwards, Maria deliberately didn’t set her alarm, and enjoyed the sleeping in, every second of it. It’s like Sunday comes around every other day.

Apart from the work from home aspect, there is no serendipity in other pandemic-forced adjustments to daily life. The closures of mosques, suraus and prayer halls have been extended, first until 30 March 2020, then to 06 April 2020 then to 13 April 2020. There have been no Friday prayers for the past three Fridays, leaving men still feeling so surreal having to skip something that they’ve done weekly all their lives, not once, but three times now.

Schools which were initially due to begin new term on 31 March 2020 remained closed and schooling continued through e-learning. Teachers scrambled to adjust to the new situation. Parents are overwhelmed with the demands to facilitate their children’s e-learning. Those with no ICT gadgets and bad internet connections struggled. Stress and tensions are flaring. Some teachers and parents are at each other’s throats. At the press conference, a Minister lost his cool when he snapped at a reporter during the qna session. Nurses buckled under the strain of working overtime, desperate for a breather. For anyone who ever wondered about the level of resiliency of the country’s population in the face of a major crisis, there you have it.

At the supermarkets, the panic buying seemed to have stopped as the panic shoppers eventually snapped out of it, probably realising then that they had unnecessarily fallen victim to the mass hysteria syndrome that swept the globe. In fact, as the country entered its third week of the Covid-19 outbreak, shoppers traffic at the supermarkets and shopping malls began to dwindle to a point where, even at a usually packed supermarket like the 1stEmporium, less than 10 cars can be seen parked at a time. Perhaps, at this point, the wider public have come to their senses and started to take the threat more seriously, or so I thought. The same week, when hand sanitisers and masks were back on the shelves, all bets were off as people crowded the shops to get their hands on those evasive items.

28 days after Case 1, the number of positive cases in the country stood at 135. It took 20 days before the virus picked up by Bruneians who attended the tabligh gathering in Malaysia was stopped at its track. It made an impressive journey into 71 people altogether, which are more than half of the country’s total number of positive cases.

While the tabligh gathering chapter of the containment effort was finally closed (hopefully!), the delay in imposing the 14-day isolation requirement for people coming into the country meant that a number of people carrying the virus from overseas had already slipped through and passed the virus to whoever they had contact with. Before the imposition of the isolation requirement on 19 March 2020, 13 people who had flown back from various countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, UK, Philippines and US had carried the virus with them into Brunei. These 13 people went on to spread the virus, altogether contributing to additional 43 cases. Not everyone who slipped through got themselves tested though, meaning there could be more than the 13 people who brought the virus in.

Beginning 19 March 2020, Bruneian students overseas began to make their ways back to the country. Upon arrival at the airport, they were picked up and brought straight for 14-day isolation. The same also applied to Bruneians who returned from trips overseas. A number of them had indeed brought the virus back with them, but the mandatory isolation ensured that further spreading of the virus to their families and contacts were nipped in the bud. As for foreigners, it was later announced that effective 24 March 2020, all foreign nationals are not allowed to enter or transit in Brunei through land, sea and air control posts until further notice.

By 03 April 2020, the chain of local transmission appeared to be broken (although the jury is still out on this), where the sole new case that day, Case 134, is a local student who arrived from the US through UK who had been isolated upon arrival on 29 March 2020. Similarly, the sole new case on 04 April 2020, Case 135, is a local man who returned to Brunei on 03 April 2020 after traveling to Malaysia and Indonesia. He too was also directly isolated upon arrival. On 05 April 2020, for the first time, no new case was reported for the day. So as the next day 06 April 2020, no new case was also reported.

On 20 March 2020, 11 days after Case 1, the first recovered positive case was announced. In the days following that, more and more positive cases recovered. As the recoveries were gaining momentum, unfortunately, however, on 27 March 2020, Case 25 succumbed to the virus, leaving a big scar on the hearts of the country’s population. By 06 April 2020, a total of 82 positive cases had recovered and allowed to go home, leaving 52 cases still undergoing treatment, 2 of them in critical condition.

The increasing number of people who recovered combined with the small or zero number of new cases have taken some pressure off the health system who at some point before was nervous about the isolation centre quickly reaching its maximum capacity. For those who took the figure at face value might have thought that the end of the crisis is near. This was translated into people beginning to think that it is already safe to go out as normal, unwittingly letting their guards down, slowly dismissing the social distancing advice. Some even began to tune in to the press conference only for the first 5 minutes, sighing relief upon hearing 0 new case and seeing the flat “curve”, not interested to hear the rest of what the ministers have to say. This presumptive optimism is surely destined to backfire.

Brunei’s Non-Financial Winners and Losers of the Covid-19 Crisis

It has been 28 days since Brunei reported its first Covid-19 positive case. By now, the daily press conference has become boring and I have stopped watching them days ago. No one knows when the pandemic will end and when life will return to normal. Now the world revolves around Covid-19. All the headlines in the local newspaper, from national to regional to sports section are about Covid-19. The government has spent millions to fight the pandemic and mitigate its impact, businesses are suffering loss of revenues, employees at the private sector are worried about their job security. Beyond the financial impact, this new, out-of-normal way of living forced upon the population by the Covid-19 crisis has also created some what I would call non-financial winners and losers.

Here are my take on the top 5 Brunei’s non-financial winners and losers of the Covid-19 crisis.  Losers first.

Top 5 Losers:

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5. Grandparents – Before Covid-19, grandparents would look forward to the weekends when their children and grandchildren would come over for the weekly get-together. Their quiet homes would be filled with the sounds of kids running, playing, laughing, fighting, crying, creating chaos. Grannies would prepare hearty meals for everyone to enjoy. Now during the Covid-19 crisis, all that came to a halt. All left are just phonecalls and video calls. Poor gramps and grannies.

4. Marrying couples – With the current ban on mass gathering, marrying couples would have to postpone their weddings. Well, yea they could just wait until the ban is lifted, but while waiting for that, anything could happen to the relationship. One or both of them could have second thoughts, could change their minds, could find somebody new.

3. Golfers – Golfers were left sulking when, much to their dismay, the closures also included golf courses. Well, there are of course golfers who do the “sport” for fitness, the walking, the swinging, all to stay fit. In this case, nothing that a treadmill or backyard badminton couldn’t fix. The golfers who are losers here are those whose lives revolve around golf. They eat, sleep, dream and breathe golf, spend all their free time playing golf, talking about golf, watching golf on TV, going to golf shops. Without golf, they are numb and feel lost in space.

2. Gym-Goers – People rightfully go to the gym to work out and stay fit and healthy. Some men go to the gym to make themselves buff, to socialise, to get the ladies’ attention and to hook up with no pick-up lines or thick wallets needed. Well, they can lift weights at home too but who’s gonna admire and drool over that shredded body at home? And yep, there are ladies who go to the gym to get men. I guess they are losers too during this Covid-19 crisis.

1. Husbands who use sports and other excuses to get out of the house – This needs no further elaboration. Whether going out to play football, go cycling, go jogging, go to the gym, play golf, work late, official luncheon or dinner and so on, all those excuses do not fly during this social distancing period.  Wak wak waakk…

Now the Top 5 Winners:

5. Kids who hate school – kids who hate school must’ve thought they suddenly woke up in a parallel universe where schools don’t exist. They are really loving not having to wake up early for school. When will school re-open? That’s a question no kid is asking right now.

4. Hoarders – Amidst all the panic buying, hoarders were left smiling knowing that they already got all the stuff they need at home.

3. Anti social people – Anti social people already hated crowds, events, sports and other social activities. So, this pandemic-response way of living is like utopia to them.

2. Attention deficit frontliners – Some frontliners are really milking the situation, basking in the limelight, forget about the infected and sick, everything is all about them as they made sure that everyone is acknowledging their superhuman existence and that they are the heroic warriors in this crisis that deserve praise after praise.

1. Lazy employees – The activation of the BCP which allows employees to work from home is godsend for lazy employees. That’s why lazy employees are the no. 1 winner in the Covid-19 crisis.

There you go. Congrats to lazy employees. Enjoy the bliss of the pandemic crisis while it lasts.

Graveyard Shift

Last Tuesday night close to 1 am (well practically it was already Wednesday) I heard a continuous clunking sound from downstairs. I knew that sound right away, the sound of a trolley being wheeled. But at 1 am?? So I went out to the balcony to check it out. Yep, I saw a man pushing an empty shopping trolley in the middle of the road. He was wearing dark clothings. He looked clean cut, didn’t seem like a homeless guy. Definitely not a ghost. What was he up to?

So I kept watching him as he pushed the trolley down the road, “cling clung cling clung”, like he had no care in the world. Even the dogs who notoriously liked to bark and chase after joggers and cyclists just stood there staring at the guy. He went passed our building, and as he reached the garbage bins area at the back of a nearby restaurant, he stopped and started to rummage through the bins. Oh, he could be collecting recyclable items, I thought to myself. I’ve seen people collecting cans and tins from garbage bins before, but those who were on foot I only saw doing it at town centres. I have also long known that, in the area where I live, at around 2 am everyday, a man in a white van would make his rounds to every garbage bins area to collect cooking oil tin cans.

Now, back to the trolley guy. Without care about the noise he was making, he reached his hands inside the large bins like it was no one’s business. Half of his body disappeared from sight. He found a plastic barrel, emptied its contents and put it on the trolley, and off he went. With the barrel now on the trolley, the clunking sound of the trolley wheels became muffled. Hmmm…perhaps he was not looking for recyclable items after all.

I continued watching him pushing the trolley down the road until he disappeared from view.  What an anticlimax to a potentially interesting thing that went bump-in-the-night.

10 Days Later

19 March 2020. It was a Thursday. Maria woke up the usual time, 5.45 am. She has the same routine every morning on a workday, Monday through Friday – wake up, clean the cats’ pen, take a shower, get dressed, make tea, feed her cats, feed the strays and off to work. But that day was different. Maria didn’t have to go to the office. Her office has activated the Business Continuity Plan. She and her other officemates in Team A were instructed to work from home as part of the social distancing response to the Covid-19 spread in the country. On 9 March 2020, Covid-19 made its debut in Brunei. Now just 10 days later, the country reported 73 cases with 2 in critical condition.

When news about the deadly virus took the world by storm back in December last year, Maria knew that it was going to eventually come to Brunei. But never in her wildest imagination that the situation could come to this. She remembered well the experience when the region was dealing with the SARS outbreak back in 2002-2003, wearing mask to work, getting body temperature taken, filling up medical form at the airport, and those were pretty much it. Other than that, the pandemic had negligible effect on her daily routine. So when the bird flu, swine flu and MERS made their rounds, the same drill took effect, nothing that anyone was not familiar with. 

Even with the images of the Wuhan lockdown plastered all over the news and passed around on social media in late January 2020, life in Brunei still went on as normal. There was no let down in the preparations for the mass parade and field performance as the country was gearing up for its 36th national day celebration. Maria was involved in the mass parade, so as thousands of the country’s population. In the back of her mind, Maria did question why such a big congregation of people was allowed to proceed at the time when a dark shadow of pandemic anxiety was hovering at the horizon.

But, for the majority of the country’s population, there was not a speck of worry in their minds. Who would anyway, when the MOH’s Director of Environmental Services at a press conference on 12 February 2020 very boldly assured that “at the moment, the risk is zero” and that “there are no restrictions on mass gatherings unless there have been confirmed cases of the coronavirus.” What might contribute to this confidence, which was borderline arrogant, was that the government had already put in place a ban on the entry of people coming from China’s Hubei, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.

What they might have failed to catch on was that when China was about to enforce the lockdown, some 5 million people had rushed to flee the province, some carrying with them the virus. They fled to other provinces, some went to Shanghai, some went to Hongkong, some tourists and non-Chinese nationals went back to their home countries, inadvertantly exporting the virus all over the world. In other words, by January 2020, the worms had already been out of the can, the poop had already hit the fan. Had the infected people turned to zombies like in the World War Z, the global community would have jumped off their seats instantly. So, by January 2020, the risk level should already be high and the two weeks isolation for people coming into the country should already be imposed.

In no time, the virus had landed close to home when Singapore and Malaysia reported their first cases in late January 2020. These two countries are Brunei’s closest neighbours with high Brunei visitors traffic. Yet, at that point, still no travel restrictions or self isolation upon returning was imposed. Bruneians, for their part, were relentless, still travelling to these countries with the it-wont-happen-to-me attitude. This was despite the full knowledge of how deadly the virus is. It was a ticking timebomb. Any of those Brunei travellers might well be Brunei’s first case. The MOH acknowledged this in their briefing that Maria attended on 04 March 2020 saying “It is not a matter of if, but when Brunei will get its first case” and “when that happened, the MOH is ready”. Its like sitting on a couch in front of an open window with a gun ready to shoot any intruder. But, don’t you want to at least close the window, Maria thought to herself.

Fate had chosen the Bruneians who attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia on 28 Feb-03 March 2020 to be the ones who brought the virus home. 80+ Bruneians attended the gathering and upon returning, 19 of them were tested positive. In Brunei, they had some headstart to spread the virus before one of them, Case 1 fell ill and checked himself to the hospital and eventually found positive of having the virus. Nothing that the MOH can’t handle. But what they didn’t realise at that point was that the virus entered Brunei not in one case at a time but in a wave of 19 people.

The public was informed about the first case on 09 March 2020. The situation seemed calm for a while until some people started to realise something out of the ordinary that very night. The people queueing in front of them at the supermarkets were paying for bottles and bottles of hand sanitisers, packages of face masks and yep you heard it right, toilet rolls! This didn’t just occur at the supermarket. That night close to 10pm, in her family WhatsApp group, Maria’s sister reported seeing a strange happening. They were at a Kampong kedai runcit, just a small shop, when a group of people, clearly not from that Kampong, ransacked the shop and wiped clean all the hand sanitisers. The same occurings were also reported at other kedai runcits. By the next day, all the hand sanitisers were gone completely.

While the urge to hoard on hand sanitisers and face masks is completely understandable, but toilet rolls? Maria recalled having a good laugh just the week before about the Covid-19-triggered toilet roll buying frenzy in the US, Canada, Australia and other countries. Never did she expect that Bruneians would do the same too. But, analysing it deeper, the extreme reaction to the first case only gone to show the lack of confidence that a segment of the public have on the MOH’s capabilty in containing the situation, and believing that a lockdown is imminent. But, then again, toilet rolls? Seriously? In a lockdown situation I would be more worried about food supplies, both human’s and pet’s. 

10 March 2020, Day 1. Maria started her day trying not to think too much about the panic buyers. But, as evidenced from the numerous viralled WhatsApp messages that day, the public couldn’t help but worry, expecially of not knowing the extent to which Case 1 had spread the virus in the period since he returned to Brunei on 3 March 2020 up to the day he checked himself to the hospital on 07 March 2020. The messages which included stating that the man’s wife is a teacher, that the man went to an exhibition at Bridex, that the man’s children went to school, all added fuel to the panic.

At the supermarket the panic buying worsened with long queues at the cashiers and the sight of trolleys full of maggi, rice, all dettol products and wet wipes, among other stuff. Suddenly, everyone was wearing masks, a stark difference from just 24 hours before. Alas, in the late afternoon, it was announced that 5 of the man’s close contact were tested positive bringing the total cases to 6. It was also announced that school holidays was brought forward from 16 March to 11 March 2020, much to the relief of the public. Then came the bombshell – it was informed that about 90 Bruneians attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia together with Case 1 and almost all of them had made their way back to Brunei. Things started to go downhill from then on.

11 March 2020, Day 2. 5 more people were tested positive bringing the total to 11. Daily press conference was initiated where the Minister of Health and a panel of other Ministers began to provide updates on the developments relating to the health crisis. It was revealed that the Tabligh gathering that Case 1 and the other Bruneians had attended was participated by 16,000 participants from all over the world. Photos started to circulate of the gathering showing a sea of people sitting in extreme close proximity to each other. This has created outrage among many of the public for the portrayal of ignorance on the part of the attendees. Despite the high publicity of Case 1 getting the virus from the gathering, the ignorance continued when only 29 of the Bruneian attendees came forward to be tested.

There was also some level of disappointment regarding the lack of urgency and inability to immediately track and round up all of the attendees and isolate them. The wider public went to bed that night horrified to the thought that the remaining 60 or so attendees who were still at large had another 24 hours to freely do things, go places, spreading the virus to other people. They could well be among the panic buyers at the supermarkets that day. At the press conference, the Health Minister stated that mass gatherings are “discouraged”, stopping short of banning them altogether.

12 March 2020. Day 3. Maria sat observing the MMN (Parliament) Session wondering why it has not quickly wrapped up yet in light of the Covid-19 situation. She chose a seat by the corner where the surrounding seats were empty. She looked around, the hall was full of people listening in to the budget deliberations. Any one of them could have it, she thought to herself. In the afternoon, a directive came out allowing only 3 officers from each Ministry to attend the MMN Session and that the Session would wrap up on 14 March 2020. It was about time.

The total number of cases that day jumped to 25 as 14 more people were tested positive. It was revealed for the first time that 81 locals attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia with 70 of them having returned, while 11 were still in Malaysia. Of the 70, 4 of them were still at large. At this point, police assistance was sought to hunt down the 4 people. The Infectious Diseases (Amendment of Schedule) Notification, 2020 and the Infectious Diseases (Quarantine) (Amendment) Regulations, 2020 that were announced during that day’s press conference, requiring by law anyone who is suspected to be, a case, carrier or contact of infectious diseases to carry out medical examinations or medical treatment.

Viralled WhatsApp messages reported positive cases at a BIBD (Bank) branch and the Civil Service Institute (IPA). They later turned out to be among the Tabligh gathering attendees or their family members. All their co-workers were asked to go home and to begin 14 days isolation. The IPA personnel had just conducted a training programme involving 84 people. They too were instructed to undergo the 14 days isolation. Now everyone with relatives working at the BIBD and IPA was nervous. Of the 14 new cases,  Case 25 was not related to the Tabligh gathering attendees. But, he too just came back from overseas, Cambodia then Malaysia and brought the virus with him into Brunei. By now, there should be enough reason to immediately impose 14 days isolation to anyone coming into Brunei before they even got a chance to pass the virus to other people in the country. But, nothing on that yet at that day’s press conference, neither was there any ban on mass gatherings yet.

13 March 2020. Day 4. 12 new cases bringing the total to 37. It was the first Friday since the virus made its way into the country. It was Friday prayer day. Although the Imams were urged to shorten the Friday sermon, the risk of random transmission even with the shorter sermon was still high. Elsewhere, gatherings like weddings, Doa Arwah and Tahlil were still conducted which only proved that using the word “discouraged” didn’t have much impact on preventing people from proceeding with their mass gathering plans. Finally, at that day’s press conference, a ban on mass gatherings, including weddings and sporting events, was announced. All planned national events were to be called off with the Israk Mikraj slated for 22 March 2020 being the first victim. Another bombshell was dropped at the press conference. It turned out that a number of the mass Tabligh gathering attendees upon returning to Brunei had attended a local Tabligh gathering on 05-08 March 2020. The level of ignorance was shocking to say the least.

14 March 2020. Day 5. 3 new cases bringing the total to 40. The new cases included a 9 month old girl who is the daughter of one of the Tabligh gathering attendees. At the press conference it was informed that all of the Tabligh gathering attendees have been traced much to the relief of the public. The government caught wind of the upcoming mass Tabligh gathering in Indonesia on 19-22 March 2020 and strongly advised the public against travelling overseas in order prevent more importation of the virus. If there is any lesson to learn from the attempt to prevent mass gatherings, merely saying “discouraged” or  “advised to avoid” will fall on deaf ears.

15 March 2020. Day 6. 10 new cases bringing the total to 50. Case 25 who returned to Brunei on 04 March 2020 did a good fair share of his virus spreading work attending a family event on 08 March 2020 and passing on the virus to a number of the unsuspecting family members. So as the 8 people who got the virus from attending the 05 March 2020 Tabligh gathering in Brunei, spreading the virus to their families, friends and workmates. At this stage, it had become obvious that the contact tracing was steps behind and couldn’t get ahead of the spread to close the floodgate. To the public’s horror, viralled WhatsApp messages showed a list of Bruneians who registered to participate in the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon in KK on 14-16 March 2020. This was despite the “strong advise” not to go overseas. At the press conference that day, the overdue ban was announced where Brunei citizens, permanent residents and foreigners holding valid identification cards are not allowed to leave the country starting on 16 March 2020 except for medical treatment, attend court hearing or studies overseas.

16 March 2020. Day 7. 04 new cases bringing the total to 54. Viralled WhatsApp messages that day were about the chaos at the land border checkpoints. It seemed like some people didn’t get the memo about the travel ban. This was not all that surprising. There are people who actually don’t watch the news, don’t listen to the local radio, don’t follow the developments. But, we do know that everyone has a mobile phone, thus at time of crisis as such, sms push notifications would be more effective to get the important messages across to everyone. Just saying.

People started to talk about banning entry into Brunei, which has not been imposed yet. At this point, it was very clear that thermal scanning at entry points didn’t help much when anyone who looks healthy, with no symptoms, normal body temperature, can well be carrying the virus in his/her body.  Alas, one of the 4 new cases, Case 53, is a British national who entered the country on 09 March 2020. He had close to a week window to spread the virus to anyone he came in contact with before he was tested and found positive.

At the supermarkets, the panic buying continued, with people now targeting eggs. Perhaps the rice hoarders just realised that they needed some eggs to go with the rice during a lockdown situation.

At the press conference, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced the closure of Mosques for a week from 17 to 23 March 2020 and that there will be no Friday prayer on 20 March 2020. It was also informed at the press conference that one of the positive cases is in the ICU and another two in the CCU. At this stage, sentiments about the press conference had also begun to emerge particularly on its “dryness” and seemingly lacking conviction that were thought to be not commensurate to a crisis situation, where the Ministers were sitting down instead of standing on a podium; reading out prepared scripts instead of delivering the updates off the cuff; still looking suave in their fancy suits and ties when looking all pretty for the camera should be the last thing on their minds.

17 March 2020. Day 8. People woke up to a sombre day as they heard the subuh prayer call knowing that the mosques were closed. By that day, a number of agencies had activited their BCP, including BSP and TelBru. At the government sector, departments were still in a wait-and-see mode. They were so used to red tape, even at time of crisis like this no one was bold enough to activate anyting without any formal instructions from their big bosses. So, Maria, like other civil servants, still had to go to the office that day and face the risk of random transmission. 

At the press conference that day, it was informed that there were 2 new cases bringing the total to 56 with 2 in critical condition. The smaller number of new cases didn’t bring much comfort knowing that the virus had already broken loose in the country. The Minister of Education announced at the press conference that Brunei students overseas whose learning institutions had been closed or activated the online learning due to the Covid 19 crisis were to be brought home. Meanwhile, adressing the “egg issue”, the Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism assured that eggs are enough for everyone up to the end of the year. At this stage, assuring the public about the supply of hand sanitisers and masks for everyone would be more apt than eggs. It was sad to think that Maria had to supply her mom with makeshift liquid spray of dettol and water mixture for temporary protection, before the hand sanitisers come back on the shelves.

18 March 2020. Day 9. 12 new cases bringing the total to 68. As the number of cases kept on going up, concerns started to grow on the impending situation where the spread exceeds the MOH capacity to treat and contain. Yes, Brunei had dealt with the Swine flu back in 2009-2010, but Covid 19 had proven to be a different beast altogether. It is deadlier and spread more easily than the Swine flu. It took 9 days for reality to set in, the reality that we were actually not ready. At that day’s press conference, like a flick of a switch, a slew of overdue measures to help slow the spread were announced, all to begin on 19 March 2020. These included the closure of open markets; restaurants and eateries to not accept dine-in customers; closure of all sports complexes and facilities including gyms, bowling alleys and golf courses; closure of museums and galleries, youth centres and libraries; all Ministries and Departments to implement BCP; and at last, the implementation of the 14-day selfisolation requirement for individuals arriving in Brunei from any country. Oya, and also at last, the use of sms push notifications to get Covid-19-related information to the public.   

 

The White Collar Assassin

On 21 July 1984, a dead body of a man was found at the Serasa beach. The dead man was later identified as 68 year old Ponniah Rajaratnam, a Singaporean retired ex-CIFB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau) Director, who at the time was heading Brunei’s newly established Anti Corruption Agency. A post mortem report said that the man died of asphyxiation.

Even at the get-go, the death was shrouded with suspicions. For one thing, someone who knew Mr Rajaratnam said that he was a non-swimmer, neither was he a sea sport enthusiast. So what was Mr Rajaratnam doing anywhere near the water, let alone going for a swim.

Although it was never outrightly revealed that it was a murder, one foreign newspaper article went on to say that Mr Rajaratnam “was found strangled in a small boat” and that “sources said Mr Rajaratnam was apparently kidnapped before being murdered”.

Due to his post, it was rather obvious that Mr Rajaratnam had no short of haters or people who wanted him off their backs, with sources saying that he had received a number of threatening telephone calls because of his investigative work. But which one of them hated him so much to the extent of wanting him dead?? And this is Brunei we are talking about, no one at that time, not even Mr Rajaratnam himself, would expect that there could be someone lurking among its timid population harbouring a murderous intent against another human being.

Mr Rajaratnam was not the regular Tom, Dick and Harry. He had a long career in the Singapore Police Force which he joined in 1940, where he rose up the rank to become the Deputy Commissioner of Police before being posted to the CIFB as its Director in 1971, then retiring in 1982. Certainly, he had been through so many dangerous situations and dealt with so many criminals (blue and white collars). So, don’t expect him to be deterred by threats and intimidations.

His overflowing passion for the thing that he did was probably the reason why Mr Rajaratnam accepted the job in Brunei. But whether he realised it or not, the circumstances of that post-retirement endevour were different. For one thing, he was in a foreign land, not yet familiar with the psyche and “terrain” of the constituency he was dealing with. Secondly, he was already in his late 60s, therefore presumably not as agile as he used to be. He let his guard down which unfortunately costed him his life.

If the allegation that it was a murder is to be believed, who then killed Mr Rajaratnam?? Well, for a segment of the country’s population, they claimed that they knew exactly who did it, or at least had a hand in it. Find anyone who was old enough to remember the case, the person would say M did it, the white collar assasin. Even after M was acquitted, those who pointed their fingers at him are still confident to this day that M did it. To get some clues as to why this is so, one needs to go back to the early 1980s.

In the early 1980s, the country’s population was around half of its population today. Life was simple. Some people owned cars, some didn’t. People were driving with their windows down, no biggie, 1980s Brunei was not as scorching hot as it is today. Those with no car, no problem, they happily took the bus to work.

There were not many local smartypants around, only a small fraction of locals lucky enough to have the opportunity to further their studies overseas, and upon returning, they became hot items, scouted to take up spearheading roles in the government service. M was one of these hotshots.

The government service prior to independence was organised by functional departments – Welfare, Youths and Sports Department; Education Department; Agriculture Department; Public Works Department; Marine Department; Municipal Department; Establishment Department; Health and Medicine Department; Treasury Department and so on. These departments were led by Directors who called all the shots. M would eventually become one of these Directors.

The oil boom in the 1980s has done a lot of favours to the country’s development efforts as money were pouring in from oil and gas export revenues. This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time as the country was gearing up to become an independent state in 1984. The budget allocation for the national development plan, the fourth at that time covering 1980 to 1984, leaped from the previous $500+ millions to a whooping $2.2 billions. A frenzy of development projects ensued with the constructions of roads, bridges, government buildings, schools, hospitals, you name it. Inevitably, this has created a fertile ground for the greed bacteria to grow and take hold.

A new menace began to take shape, that of corruption. Realising this, the government had, in 1982, enforced the Emergency (Prevention of Corruption) Act. Together with this, an Anti Corruption Agency was established. A foreign expert, in the form of Mr Ponniah Rajaratnam was brought in to become its Director, to help the agency get on its feet. And so began the headhunting.

As a result, a number of “big fishes” found themselves in uh-oh moments, in hot waters, in snafu, in deep shit, upon realising that some of their past moves, made in their moments of ignorance, could actually be corrupt practices. M was one of them. Among the allegations was that M had awarded a tender to a company owned by his wife, a decision which had raised some eyebrows. Also raising eyebrows were his disproportionate assets. Described as abrasive and narcissistic, M was at the top of his game, and would surely not allow an anti-corruption sleuth to burst his bubble. 

It was alleged that one of the threatening phonecalls received by Mr Rajaratratnam before his mysterious death was about his probing into M’s dealings. But, no one could prove this. There were no caller IDs back in the early 1980s. In fact, apart from having a motive, the arguments pointing to M as having a hand in the Mr Rajaratnam’s death were all circumstantial, but nonetheless very incriminating. One example is the allegation that J, a local thug, had told an acquaintance that M had socilited his assistance in silencing Mr Rajaratnam. J was later shot dead by the police in August 1984 following a high speed chase. He was pursued by the police for an unrelated crime. Another example is the allegation that Z, a government official who was sticking his nose into M’s dirt, told a relative that M had threatened to get him. Z was later found dead.

Generation Xers Shared Memories

Ooh, the TFC….

Although, the late 1980s was the turning point for the fast food culture, long before there were these fancy fast food restaurants in the country, there was a local food outlet, the Tenderly Fried Chicken or fondly called TFC, which made its debut way back in the late 70s. It was actually the first restaurant that introduced some of the types of food that would later identified as fast food – the fries, coleslaws, mashed potatoes, burgers and of course fried chicken. Back then, however, their prices were higher than the local favourites, the likes of mee goreng and martabak, and thus only the “rich” kids and parents frequented the TFC. The “mainstream” children and youths often just congregated and lepak outside the “cool” restaurant just to soak in its vibes and enjoying the aroma of the fried chicken.

So far, no one can tell me yet when this restaurant went out of business, but it sure had a good run, having opened 4 banches at its prime. The first one was at Batu Satu at the building right opposite the building where Lai Lai is. Back then it was a hip area with the nearby Klasse Department Store, Seri Theater and Thien Thien, among others. Its second branch was in Bandar, next to Citibank. Then it opened its third branch at the Anggerek Desa Swimming Pool near the National Stadium. It also has a branch in Seria.

Ooh, Klasse Jaya Department Store….

Klasse Jaya Department Store will always be remembered as the first building in the country with escalators. Adults and kids were all excited about the “moving stairs”. Older folks at that time needed more convincing to trust the escalator to bring them up and down, hesitating to put their feet on it during the first try. But they eventually got the hang of it.

The Klasse Jaya Department Store opened its doors in the late 1970s. Back then, the Hua Ho retail shop has not transformed into its superstore status yet, therefore Klasse Jaya, or fondly called just Klasse, enjoyed a lot of the limelight as Bruneians flocked to the store not just to check out the escalators, but also for the “modern” shopping vibes. It had two branches. One in Bandar and one in Batu Satu. By the late 1980s, retail competition became more intense with Yaohan opening its department store here and Hua Ho’s growth. The First Emporium retail chain also expanded. After more than a decade of operation, and providing lots of good memories for the generation touched by its presence, Klasse eventually succumbed to the tough competition and closed down, much to the heartbreak of the population.

After the closure of Klasse, Bandar went to hibernation and remained asleep until today. To rub salt into the wound, the QAF group, which acquired the business, demolished the Batu Satu Klasse building to the ground. It was said that QAF wanted to build a new building for shopping and entertainment. However, 30 years later, the site remained empty.

Ooh, Jetsin….

Not much are written about it and it has ceased business, but generation Xers will certainly recall Jetsin. Back in the 1980s, Jetsin was one of the popular go-to shops to get cool things. It was located in Bandar at the block where Ayamku Restaurant is now. It occupied the ground and first floor of the unit. Jetsin was not that big of an enterprise, smaller than department stores like Klasse and Ocean Emporium at that time, but it was bigger than small retail shops. So I would say Jetsin was in a league of its own.

That was a period when the “kedai komunis” concept and term have not entered the local scene yet. In a way, Jetsin was the trailblazer in such kind of concept in the country. In fact, that was Jetsin’s niche, one could find almost anything there, for any purpose and occasions, at affordable prices. I distinctly remember going to Jetsin everytime I wanted to buy fancy things for birthday presents, and I could trust that I would definetly find something good there.

As years passed by, Jetsin eventually lost that niche. The development of commercial areas away from Bandar, such as in Gadong and Kiulap, had also taken a toll on Jetsin’s customer traffic. One day, I went to Bandar and saw the shop was closed, its steel rolling shutter was down and it looked like it has been desolate for a while. I felt a sense of guilt for my ignorance, not realising, not knowing when Jetsin actually opened its door for the very last time. It just faded away quietly.