Comment: Chinese workers in Brunei live in their own little bubble. That’s a missed opportunity

Currently, there are an estimated 42 Chinese companies operating in Brunei employing around 1,500 Chinese workers. These Chinese companies fall into two categories: sole proprietorships and joint ventures. The former consists mainly of subsidiaries of Chinese private or state-owned companies, while the latter consists of large Chinese private and state-owned companies working in joint ventures with Brunei’s government-linked investment funds and companies.

Most Chinese foreign direct investment in Brunei comes from small enterprises, particularly in sectors such as trade, logistics, fisheries and construction.

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At the same time, China Belt and Road Initiative Emphasizing people-to-people ties as one of its five „cooperation priorities,” this has had limited effect in Brunei due to the lack of interaction between Chinese workers and local communities.

Most of the temporary Chinese workers in Brunei are usually men in their 40s and 50s. They are employed under contracts with their companies in China or related labor agencies and have work visas in Brunei that are renewable on an annual basis.

With their extensive experience, these Chinese workers find themselves between the lower and middle tiers of the company hierarchy. They mainly provide technical assistance in their establishments while supervising manual laborers.

Chinese workers in Brunei differ from other low-skilled migrant workers due to the nature of their roles, which generally do not fall under the category of „3D” – work that is generally considered dirty, dangerous and menial. Such three-dimensional work is often carried out by Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Filipino workers, many of whom know Brunei’s official language, Malay.

Most Chinese employees working in Chinese SMEs in Brunei live in a bubble. They live in shared accommodation located near office or factory sites. Accommodations are available with adequate infrastructure and facilities to meet the daily needs of the workers. In contrast, employees of a large Chinese petrochemical company live in comfortable rental apartments with amenities such as swimming pools and gyms.

Families gather at the Taman Mahkota Jubilee Imaz Park in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Chinese workers based in the Sultanate are less likely to integrate into the local community. Photo: AFP

In both living systems, Chinese workers inhabit a self-constructed environment separated from their local environment. Their companies organize shuttle buses to transport employees to a supermarket to buy groceries every weekend.

Generally, Chinese workers in Brunei have contracts that are valid for two or three years. Their continuous daily work routines and isolated living arrangements give them little incentive to develop connections with the local community. Their limited proficiency in English and inability to speak Malay add to the communication barrier. In their shared accommodation, these workers are a „home away from home”.

Despite the challenges of physical isolation, Internet technologies are helping to connect some Chinese workers in Brunei with local Sino-Bruneis. There are more than five active WeChat groups connecting hundreds of Brunei and Mainland Chinese members. These chat groups are very popular among Chinese workers because they serve as platforms for socializing, information sharing, and even buying and selling local products.

However, some Chinese workers have shared their negative experiences with local Chinese, such as being overcharged. Even mini-marts near their accommodation tend to charge higher prices knowing their limited options due to lack of traffic.

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On the other hand, some local Chinese are disillusioned with the limited involvement of mainland companies and workers in social and national events.

Because of the relatively small number of Chinese workers in public spaces, tensions did not arise between them and the local community in Brunei.

The separate lives of Chinese workers and local communities are a double-edged sword. Such arrangements could help alleviate social concerns surrounding the influx of Chinese workers. However, it also represents a missed opportunity to foster cross-cultural understanding between people in China and Brunei.

Recognizing this lack, some Chinese companies in Brunei have initiated efforts to foster cross-cultural understanding and integrate their employees into Brunei society.

An example is the Muara Port Company (MPC), a joint venture between a Chinese state-owned company from Guangxi and the Brunei government. MPC has embarked on skills development for the Brunei workforce and capacity building of local companies. Its employees also participated in charity events, attended English lessons and learned more about Islam.

The MPC provides a good model for Chinese companies that want to build connections with the local community, and, in turn, help improve bilateral relations between China and Brunei.

Chang-Yao Hoon is Professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Asian Studies, University of Brunei Darussalam, and Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was the Director of UBD’s Center for Advanced Research. Kaylee Zhao is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Asian Studies, University of Brunei Darussalam. His research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese FDI in ASEAN, and Chinese communities in Brunei Darussalam. This commentary was first published by ISEAS – Yusuf Ishaq Institute’s commentary website.
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