The relationship between China and Brunei Darussalam has grown by leaps and bounds since diplomatic normalisation in 1991. The influx of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) into Brunei, however, has not lived up to Beijing’s goal to enhance people-to-people bonds. Transient Chinese workers in the Islamic sultanate effectively live in a bubble separate from local Bruneians.
Growing trade and investment
Situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, Brunei boasts favourable geographical conditions and a stable political regime, rendering it an enticing investment destination for China. In November this year, Brunei and China will mark the fifth anniversary of their Strategic Cooperative Partnership.
Brunei has emerged as an enthusiastic supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), exemplified by the establishment of the Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor in 2014. China stands as one of Brunei’s largest sources of foreign investment and the third largest trading partner. In 2022, bilateral trade reached a record US$3.08 billion, reflecting a 7.5% increase year-on-year. Since 1991, two-way trade has enjoyed a 200-fold increase.
Currently, it is estimated that there are 42 Chinese enterprises operating in Brunei, employing approximately 1,500 Chinese workers. These Chinese enterprises fall into two categories: sole proprietorships and joint ventures. The former primarily consists of subsidiaries of Chinese private or state-owned companies. The latter involves large Chinese private and state-owned enterprises working in joint ventures with Brunei’s government-linked investment funds and agencies. Most of the Chinese FDI in Brunei comes from small and medium-sized companies, particularly in sectors such as trading, logistics, fisheries and construction.
While China’s BRI emphasises people-to-people bonds as one of its Five Cooperation Priorities, this has had a limited effect in Brunei as there is a lack of interaction between Chinese workers and local communities.
Chinese workers in Brunei set themselves apart from other low-skilled migrant workers due to the nature of their roles...
Who are the Chinese transient workers?
Most Chinese transient workers in Brunei are male, typically in their 40s and 50s, and have their wives and children residing in China. They are employed under labour contracts with their companies or associated labour agencies in China, and hold work visas in Brunei which are renewed on an annual basis.
With their accumulated experience and technical expertise, Chinese workers find themselves positioned between the lower and middle tiers in the company’s hierarchy. Their primary responsibilities include offering technical assistance to the company while also overseeing manual labourers.
Chinese workers in Brunei set themselves apart from other low-skilled migrant workers due to the nature of their roles, which typically do not fall under the “3D” category — work that is commonly considered dirty, dangerous and degrading. Such 3D work is predominantly undertaken by Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Filipino labourers (interestingly, such workers are more adaptable, primarily by becoming conversant in the Malay language).
Almost by default, the majority of Chinese employees working for mainland Chinese SMEs in Brunei live in a bubble. They reside in shared dormitories located adjacent to office or factory sites. The dormitories are equipped with adequate infrastructure and facilities to meet the workers’ daily needs. By contrast, employees working for a large Chinese petrochemical company live in more comfortable rented apartment blocks provided by the company, which offer amenities such as a swimming pool and gym.
In both types of arrangements, the Chinese workers reside in a self-contained environment where they are segregated from their local surroundings. Their companies arrange a shuttle bus to transport employees to a supermarket for grocery shopping every weekend.
As transient workers with contracts typically lasting two or three years, Chinese workers in Brunei have limited connections with the local community. Their repetitive daily work routines and isolated living arrangements provide little incentive for them to build connections with the local community. Their limited proficiency in English and inability to speak Malay exacerbate the communication barrier. In their shared dormitories, these workers have a “home away from home”. They can socialise and build relationships with fellow Chinese co-workers originating from various parts of China.
...many Chinese workers have shared negative experiences with local Chinese they have encountered through these platforms. They recount instances of being cheated or taken advantage of.
Despite the challenges of physical isolation, internet technologies — mobile applications and social media — have created a virtual space for some Chinese workers in Brunei to establish interpersonal relationships with local Chinese Bruneians. There are over five active WeChat groups in Brunei that cater to hundreds of local and mainland Chinese members. These chat groups are highly popular among Chinese workers as they serve as platforms for socialising, information sharing and even buying and selling local products.
However, many Chinese workers have shared negative experiences with local Chinese they have encountered through these platforms. They recount instances of being cheated or taken advantage of. Due to limited mobility, both technological and physical, they are more vulnerable to such mistreatment. Even the nearby mini-marts near their dormitories tend to charge them higher prices, knowing their limited options due to lack of transportation.
Because of their relatively small population and limited presence in public areas, tensions between Chinese workers and the local community in Brunei have not arisen, in contrast to the situation that occurred in Singapore and Indonesia. However, local Chinese have at times expressed their disappointment regarding the lack of commitment and limited involvement of mainland Chinese companies and workers in community and national events.
They get their workers to participate in charity projects, acquire some proficiency in English, and gain a basic understanding of Islam. This helps to foster better communication with their local colleagues.
Chinese workers’ spending separate lives from the local community is a double-edged sword. The arrangements might help mitigate inter- and intra-ethnic tensions and alleviate social anxieties surrounding the influx of Chinese workers. However, it also represents a missed opportunity for fostering cross-cultural understanding and intercultural conviviality needed for deeper bilateral relations between China and Brunei.
Recognising this shortfall, certain Chinese companies operating in Brunei have initiated a shift in their investment focus to include cross-cultural understanding and integrating their employees into Bruneian society. An example is the Muara Port Company (MPC), a joint venture between a Chinese state-owned enterprise from Guangxi and the Bruneian government. In addition to their efforts in workforce localisation, MPC has embarked on endeavours involving local capacity building and skill transfers. They get their workers to participate in charity projects, acquire some proficiency in English, and gain a basic understanding of Islam. This helps to foster better communication with their local colleagues.
While MPC promotes a good model, the reality is that other Chinese companies continue to struggle to build connections with Bruneian society. This highlights the need for more extensive efforts to buttress deeper bilateral relations.
This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.