Youth leaders and goverment officers, including the author, speaking at the Forum Plenary “Bruneian Youth as Future Ready Agents of Change” on 18 January 2020. (Photo: Chevening Alumni Brunei)

Digitally Connected Youth as Potential Agents for Brunei’s Socio-cultural Change

Published

Just like young people in other nation-states who are digital natives, Brunei’s youth are making their presence felt online and off, in culture, politics, and society.

Brunei Darussalam is among the leading Southeast Asian countries in terms of Internet and social media penetration, especially among youth (defined as Bruneians aged 15 to 35). In the past five years, digitally connected young Bruneians have been the key shapers of the country’s development agenda. They can easily shift their socio-cultural practices through transcultural engagements and active participation on social media sites. Despite the government’s call for a “Whole of Nation” approach that brings together state and non-state actors to plan, enact, and monitor the agenda for achieving Wawasan 2035 (“Brunei Vision” 2035), the state has yet to fully tap into these youths’ potential to pursue development. 

Today, young Bruneians’ digital civic engagements, such as addressing previously overlooked topics like racism and sexual harassment in Brunei, indicate the intensification of their active involvement in the country’s development and their thirst for progress. Worldwide and in Brunei, youth-led and youth-focused organisations have encouraged youth volunteerism and developed a “socially aware and proactive” society. These organisations empower youth, mobilising them for collective action and inculcating a culture of volunteerism and social activism. The appointment of four young Bruneians to the country’s Legislative Council in 2017 marked the recognition of youth as a major stakeholder in Brunei’s development. 

As the state regards young people as agents of change and future-ready youth capable of shaping the future of Brunei, the culture of volunteerism embedded in educational institutions is a common discourse heard when discussing the Whole of Nation Approach.  

However, the state’s lack of meaningful engagement with youth-led civic advocacy (mostly on social media) would arguably defeat the state’s desire to uphold a Whole of Nation approach. In many countries, viral news reports and social media have provided valuable platforms for fostering civic engagement among youth. Notable examples of young activists who gained fame through such outlets include Greta Thunberg, Swedish climate change activist, and Andrea Gunawan, an Indonesian sexual health activist. 

When reports on critical global and transcultural events, such as climate change and racial injustice, are circulated on digital platforms, youth in Brunei view these issues as analogous to their local concerns like social injustices that might have been previously ignored in Brunei. 

The Bruneian youth’s actions and idealism may not be a magic bullet to cure the country’s social ills, but their ‘wokeness’ is a starting point for Brunei to have a conversation about a larger sociocultural transformation.

Racism in the country is one of the youth’s concerns. As a small nation with a population of just 400,000, Brunei relies on many migrant workers to boost its workforce, especially in blue-collar jobs, which are less attractive to locals. The misconception of these blue-collar migrant workers as reckless or lacking in manners has contributed to racism towards this community. It was the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent popularity of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement first in the U.S. then globally that sparked several young Bruneians to speak openly about the overt and covert racism against some minorities in Brunei. 

For instance, the youth problematised Bruneians’ use of the derogatory term “Kaling” to label anyone who appears to be of South Asian origin. Most would be migrant workers (which include Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani nationals) but some workers have settled and gained residential status in Brunei. Local influencers such as “Bash Harry” – who is legally trained and a female content creator — have raised several issues linked to this bias on Twitter and Instagram, pointing to existing racism that is often ignored and normalised. 

In comparison, the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse (mostly against women and predominantly about workplace harassment) has been more successful in Brunei. #MeToo, which went viral in 2017 after American actress Alyssa Milano’s viral tweet that called for more survivors to share their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, became the impetus for young women in Brunei to share their experiences on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Several Instagram profiles run by young Bruneians collate victims’ stories. Significantly, a forum discussing a potential framework to address sexual harassment was organised in 2020 by the Youth Outreach Team. The organisers were university students who titled the forum “No More Silence: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Private & Public Spaces”

A former young member of Brunei’s Legislative Council, Yang Berhormat Khairunnisa Ashari, who has been raising awareness about sexual harassment, further pushed the #MeToo agenda at a Legislative Council meeting in March 2021. She called for the Prime Minister’s Office to introduce a code of conduct to prevent sexual harassment in the civil service and private sector. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office has acknowledged this issue and has been working on guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet, it is unclear if guidelines without legal repercussions for perpetrators can be an effective check.  

The Bruneian youth’s actions and idealism may not be a magic bullet to cure the country’s social ills, but their ‘wokeness’ is a starting point for Brunei to have a conversation about a larger sociocultural transformation. These young people and the state both face constraints: the state and its bureaucrats are newly acquainted with this phenomenon of young Bruneians openly voicing their opinions and concerns in digital spaces. What more, the youth do so on matters that have traditionally been considered taboo or shameful by conservative Bruneian society or are often overlooked due to the perceived lower-class status of the victims. It will take time for the Bruneian state to get used to new and different ways of obtaining feedback and participation from the grassroots. It must heed, however, the youth vote and voice, both online and in real life, if Wawasan Brunei 2035 is to be a success.

2022/356 

Siti Mazidah Mohamad was Visiting Fellow at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.