Brunei: Related Information
This page was last updated on 4 June 2019.
Brunei is a predominantly Malaysian and Muslim country, although with an admixture of Chinese and other regional cultural elements. Muslims pray five times a day; alcohol is banned and Muslims follow other dietary rules in addition.
The official language of Brunei is Malay, but English is widely used, particularly in business affairs. Most schools above primary level teach in English. Friday is equivalent to a Western Sunday; everything is shut. Saturday is at least half a working day, but most businesses are shut again on Sunday. Business activity is at a low ebb during the month of Ramadan; in 2019 it began on Sunday 5 May.
It is very unusual for a foreigner to be invited into a Bruneian’s home; if you are so invited, gifts are acceptable but would not normally be opened on the spot. Shoes are to be removed before entering a private home. According to custom, food should be handled only with the right hand.
While the rule of law, which forms the bedrock of Western, and particularly Anglo-Saxon business relationships, is well-established in a formal sense in Brunei, collective, family and hierarchical relationships play a much more prominent role in Brunei, as in other Asian cultures, than they commonly do in the West.
In Brunei, although perhaps less so than in China or Japan, a successful negotiation, and a successful business relationship, is therefore dependent on recognizing that a contract, while necessary and important, is only one aspect of the cultural nexus in which a foreign investor is operating. It may be difficult, also, to locate responsibility and decision-making power among a group of Bruneians with whom you are negotiating or dealing.
Central to Bruneian inter-personal culture is the concept of 'face'. In the collective, position is dependent on reputation, and nothing is more deadly to the self-esteem of a member than loss of face. A foreigner who is seen as the agent of such loss of face has committed a serious and possibly fatal error of negotiation.
While it may be difficult at first to understand the relative positions of individuals in the group with which you are negotiating or dealing, there are some pointers. It is highly probable that the members of a team will enter a room in the order of their relative importance, especially in the presence of a foreigner; and junior members of the team will constantly defer to their seniors in conversation and in bodily behaviour.
Due to the importance attached to 'face', business cards have much greater importance in Asian societies than in the West, where they have rather taken a back seat, and relative position among a group of Bruneians will be reflected in the order in which they present their business cards, as well as on the cards themselves, if you can understand them! When presenting your business card, you should offer it with both hands; likewise, you should take a business card with both hands, study it carefully, and place it respectfully in a pocket or on the table in front of you.
It is normal to address a person by their title either instead of or as well as their personal name. Titles can be quite long; the word pengiran indicates a relationship to the royal family.
It is normal to shake hands when meeting someone of your own sex, but a nod or slight bow is also often appropriate, particularly for someone you already know. It is rare for men to shake hands with women. A handshake should not be very forceful; and it may last quite a number of seconds. It is rude to look straight into the eyes of a Bruneian person; more proper would be a quick glance, and then lower the eyes as a sign of respect.
Of course, much business in Brunei is conducted among Westerners, and in that case normal international business rules will apply. It is only when coming into contact with Bruneian companies and people that the suggestions in this section will apply.
Business etiquette is quite formal in Brunei. It is normally necessary to make appointments well in advance, and punctuality is respected. Do not arrive at a meeting with unannounced companions; details should be sent in advance. This is an aspect of the importance attached to rank and hierarchical position. Remaining calm and smiling is an essential cornerstone of successful negotiating.