Brunei, affectionately known as the Abode of Peace, is a high-income country on the Island of Borneo in Southeast Asia with a GDP of USD 13.5 billion (2019 estimates). It has a high Human Development Index of 0.838 (2020 estimates), which implies that Bruneians enjoy a high standard of living. By 2035, Brunei aspires to be amongst the top ten countries with the highest Quality of Life in the world and is working towards attaining a zero-poverty status.
Not much is known about what poverty means or who the poor people in Brunei are. Given the country’s socio-economic status, however, it is assumed that poverty in Brunei is unique and relative. Asked the question “What does poverty mean in Brunei”, some Bruneians responded:
“When we say someone is poor [in Brunei], we always have this assumption on our mind: that someone does not live like other people…we really do not know who actual poor people are … we make a lot of assumptions, let us find out what poverty means…”
“In this country, we do not fully understand the real meaning of poverty…”
Success in making some progress in addressing poverty depends, among other factors, on how much we know about poverty in a given society. Indeed, it is the knowledge of poverty in a society that determines, for the most part, the nature of any poverty eradication measures to be adopted. Accordingly, a lack of understanding of how poverty is construed or perceived in Brunei could hinder the country’s efforts to achieve zero-poverty status by 2035. Between 2015 and 2018, we conducted an empirical study intended to generate scholarly knowledge on poverty in Brunei. During the preparation for this study, we observed that the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ are somewhat sensitive in Bruneian society, but the reason for this sensitivity has not been subjected to scholarly examination. Our study addressed several questions relating to the language, meanings, causes, dimensions and classification of poverty in Brunei. It also examined the opportunities and constraints associated with achieving zero-poverty status in Brunei by 2035. This blog post shares some insights on the language and meanings of poverty in Brunei(See our SAGE article here for a detailed discussion). Insights on other aspects highlighted herein will be shared in future blog posts.
The language of poverty in Brunei
As our study found, Bruneians are not very comfortable with the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ because these terms could affect one’s sense of dignity or sense of self. Instead, they prefer the phrases ‘living in need’ (kurang mampu in Malay language), ‘needy people’, ‘difficult life’ (hidup susah) and ‘people facing hardships or difficulties’ (orang or keluarga susah). The sensitivity associated with the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ is not peculiar to Brunei, however, as it is quite common the world over, as we have argued here and here , and as Keetie Roelen has blogged here. It is therefore important to understand the acceptable poverty terms in a given society.
The meanings of poverty in Brunei
Bruneians attach different meanings to poverty, which include:
Lack of income – As one Bruneian grassroot leader put it, “… duit bukan segala-galanya, tapi segala-galanya memerlukan duit” (money is not everything, but everything requires money). By implication, money is a key determinant to achieving a better life, although it is not everything. For this reason, lack of income was the most cited definition of poverty in our study. It was associated with not having enough monthly income for basic and material needs, savings and settling debts or housing and car loans. It was also interpreted as having an income of less than BND 250 (around US$ 188.61) per person per month. Although this figure is being used as a benchmark in poverty reduction efforts by development agencies in the country, it is neither an official poverty line nor a minimum wage.
Lack of basic needs – this was viewed as living in absolute poverty, that is, lacking necessities of life such as food, clothing, housing etc, and not owning at least one car. Public transport in Brunei is very affordable but is not always regularly available. Accordingly, in the words of one household respondent: “mempunyai kereta adalah satu kemestian diBrunei” (owning a car is a must in Brunei). As we found in our study, however, understanding poverty in Brunei through the lens of the basic needs could be misleading, as there may actually be poor people who live in well-built (comfortable) houses.
Material deprivation – this was construed as a lack of household assets such as household properties and electrical gadgets. Lack of access to utilities (electricity, water and sewage facilities) was also viewed as a form of material lack.
Being unemployed or not having a permanent job – this interpretation of poverty is linked to financial poverty. If one is unemployed, one does not have a source of income; or if one lacks a permanent job, one has an unstable source of income and is therefore vulnerable to financial poverty.
Having an uncomfortable house – poverty in Brunei is also taken to mean having a house without sufficient space/rooms for members of the household, with a leaking roof, a house which is wooden, shaky, dilapidated, and lacks proper air conditioning facilities.
Kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang – this is a Malay saying, which loosely means ‘labour in the morning for morning food, and in the afternoon for afternoon food.’ It denotes food insecurity and/or financial poverty, and anyone in this poverty situation has what is known as a ‘chicken way of living’. As reported in our study, however, this form of poverty is rare in Brunei because of the country’s sound welfare system and the charitable nature of Bruneians.
Miskin and Fakir – these interpretations of poverty are commonly used by government welfare agencies. Miskin implies moderate poverty, where one has a few household assets, a monthly income that covers more than half but not all of one’s basic needs and a somewhat weak social capital. Fakir, meanwhile, denotes extreme poverty or an acute lack of household assets, having a monthly income that covers at most half of one’s basic needs and an acute deprivation of social capital.
Is poverty in Brunei unique and relative? I will address this question in my third blog post. My second post, meanwhile, will share insights on my comparative study of seasonal poverty in Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Do look out for it.
Thank you for spending time on my blog!