Friday, January 05, 2007

Life in a small town

A few days ago, Jewelle, a Sabahan blogger based in Brunei, wrote an interesting post about how she sometimes feels "unchallenged" in Brunei. It reminded me of when Mr K-E and I used to live in Brunei; the relaxed rhythm of life - get home by 5pm, amah does all the housework, lots of free time to go to Shahbandar, buy pirated movies near the "communist" shop and try all the buffets in town. Oh happy days!

I used to work for a private company in Bandar Seri Begawan. It was moderately succesful, and like most private companies, most of the staff were expats from Malaysia, Philippines, India and so on. There were a handful of "local" staff who had been there ages, but it soon became clear that they were only there so that the company could say it had X number of local staff.

Anyway, these guys (and gals) spent the days having long tea breaks, lunch breaks, etc - they didn't do any work and frankly, no one expected them to do any work. Their jobs were 100% safe because they would never get the sack. There were a few of us (by "us" I mean Bruneians) who were new, but anyone with any initiative was using it to apply for a government position.

So which came first? Do you think that a person is naturally eager-beaver to start with, but then the low expectations of the Employer turns them into a lazy waste of space? Or did the Employer invest time to train them, but then give up when it became obvious that they did not intend to do any work or progress themselves?

And after a few years, would that have been me?

Of course this is just an "snapshot"of my working life in Brunei and doesn't apply to all Bruneians. But let's be honest and admit that it does apply to many of us.

In Brunei, it was easy to be complacent, although in some ways it was an acceptance of the status quo. For example, if you are from a prominent family, you can easily get a job or start a business - even better, you can just be a "silent partner" in a business venture and get paid for doing nothing. Whereas if you don't have any connections, well, you will never get anywhere, so why kill yourself with work. At the end of the day the Permanent Sec's daughter will be promoted over you anyway. So just relax!!! Go home at 4:30!!!

I remember my parents encouraging me to do a Masters degree, because then I would be able to teach at one of the Technical/HE Colleges. Then after some years sucking-up to Ministry of Education officers, I would hopefully be able to get government sponsorship to do a PhD abroad, and then if I got through it would be on to a "goyang kaki" well paid position at UBD (Universiti Brunei Darussalam). LOL! I think they were slightly misguided - but they just wanted me to have an easy life....ha ha ha. (Goyang Kaki literally means "shaking the leg" meaning "no-effort required")

This post has brought back lots of work memories - I remember one year after the annual pay review, one of the women (lets call her Noora) was unhappy with her bonus and pay rise. Her husband came into the office, demanded to see the Boss (a Malaysian Chinese) and threatened him physically. The Filipina secretaries could hear him (Noora's husband) shouting in the Boss's office - THIS IS BRUNEI! THIS IS OUR COUNTRY! IF YOU DON'T WANT TO TREAT US PROPERLY YOU SHOULD GO BACK TO MALAYSIA .... etc etc.

In the end, the Boss gave her a slightly higher pay rise but looking back, it's scary how "normal Bruneian behavior" this was at the time. As the Filipina secretary said to me...ah, you know your countryman la....little bit, little bit, want to "tumbuk" (punch) already.....

Noora - who was always 45min late to work every day, had 2 hour lunch breaks but left at 4:30 on the dot. The office was open on Friday but she would never turn up, as almost every week she had a "function". Oh well - they had to fulfill local/expat staff ratios somehow....

(Not my intention to upset anyone by the way. As I said, it's just a "snapshot" of my working life in Brunei. If anyone has any views or comments, I would interested to read them)


Jewelle Tan said...

Katie Ella, I think it would be the same anywhere with a small enough population and the ingrained mentality that who-you-know is better than what-you-can-do. Its the same in Sabah, I find that it is usually the migrant races (chinese, indian, filipinos, indonesians etc) who work harder and are more ambitious.

Katie-Ella said...

Jewelle, I agree with you. I think it's just a reflection of small-town life.