Get To Know Ethnic Cultures and How They Do Business in Southeast Asia

by | Jan 14, 2021 | Study Insight | 0 comments

Part V: Brunei

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Source: worldculturepeople

Southeast Asia is the most important emerging economy in the world today. Many multinationals and investors are focusing on the region. The economic, political agenda and the way each country does business across other markets are significantly different. Therefore, a foreign business investor needs to understand the culture, regulations, and laws in each country.

In the previous part, we already talked about how business is influenced by culture and ethnic groups in IndonesiaMalaysia, SingaporeThailand, The PhilippinesVietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. In this last of the series, we are going to discuss deeper how culture influences business ethics in Brunei Darussalam.

Brunei: Monarchy, Loyalty, and Saving Face

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Source: Dawn

Brunei Darussalam is an independent Islamic sultanate located on the northern coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Brunei is a multiethnic society in which one ethnic group, the Barunay, has a monopoly of political power. Ethnic groups in Brunei consist of Malay, Chinese, and indigenous groups; namely the Dusun, Belait, Kedayan, Murut, and Bisaya (Bisayah). Even though Indigenous Muslims are not native speakers of the Malay language, they are often referred to as Brunei Malays.

Nearly two-thirds of the population of Brunei is Barunay. Chinese make up about one-tenth of the population (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021). The Barunay has four ranked social classes; the nobles, the aristocrats, the ordinary people, and the slaves, although slavery is no longer practiced. There are no castes. The Kedayan and the other ethnicities have no social classes.

The economy in Brunei is based on offshore oil, natural gas deposits, and investments. Brunei is the third-largest oil producer in Southeast Asia and the fourth-largest producer of LNG in the world, exporting mainly to Japan, the United States, and ASEAN countries. Brunei produces only about 1% of its domestic needs for rice, 11% for fruit, 65% for vegetables, and some livestock (cattle and water buffalo). (Advameg, Brunei Darussalam, 2021)


Brunei Darussalam is an absolute constitutional monarchy naming the Sultan as head of state and head of government. The Sultan is assisted by five councils there are, Religious Council, Privy Council, Council of Ministers, Legislative Council, and Council of Succession, internal self-government and defense and foreign relations run by the United Kingdom. The joint Bruneian-British responsibility for the defense was amended in 1971, and in 1984, a cabinet-style government was introduced when Brunei resumed full sovereignty.

The Supreme Court is appointed by The sultan, which consists of the high court and the court of appeals, and the Subordinate Court, which consists of the magistrate’s courts. An intermediate court was given civil and criminal jurisdiction in 1991 which Syariah courts deal with Islamic law. Bruneians are proud to be the only remaining Malay Islamic Monarchy in the world that have centuries of royal heritage.


Family is one of the focal points of social structure in Brunei. The Bruneian family includes extended family such as aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as close friends. Members of the extended family are expected to remain loyal to each other and the family. Like many Southeast Asian countries, Brunei also has a hierarchical culture. It is the result of the ‘family-oriented’ culture in which age and position are revered.

Children are taught to subjugate their desires for the good of the entire family and to respect elders from a very young age. Also, they learn that it is through family support that they accomplish goals and remain loyal to the family.

Saving Face

The role of the face is very crucial in Brunei. Like many Southeast Asian countries, the concept of face affects how people behave. Bruneians are very polite and well-mannered. The utmost important thing is to maintain face and they do their best not to cause issues or problems which could jeopardize this. Indirect communication is one of the ways to maintain face, and somewhat ambiguous to those from a culture where direct communication is one of the norms.

Bruneians avoid embarrassing another person, which would cause that person to lose face with being indirect. This approach is an important way of protecting relationships. Most of the time, many Bruneians avoid expressing emotions such as impatience, anger, or irritation since it could result in a loss of face and disharmony. They also find these emotions somewhat embarrassing.

Work Ethic and Business Culture


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Source: The Scoops

Greetings in Brunei should demonstrate respect and formality. Handshake is particularly normal for the same sex but not with the opposite sex. Bruneian men often raise their hands to the heart after shaking hands. A handshake tends to be light and should not be very forceful, it may last quite several seconds. Looking straight into the eyes of a Bruneian person considered rude. It is more proper to do a glance and then lower the eyes as a sign of respect.


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Source: HSBC International Banking

Brunei’s business attire is quite conservative in a combination of traditional and western culture. For men, it is expected to wear proper shirts, tailored pants, and matching ties. Meanwhile, women wearing conservative blouses, pants, or skirts, and often encouraged to wear a headscarf. Women that work in government should wear the national dress of Baju Kurung. Jeans and casual wear are considered embarrassing.

Gift Giving

It is not common to give gifts in a business meeting setting as it will be considered as bribes. Giving gifts after a meeting is more common and acceptable. However, opening the gift right in front of the person is not appropriate. Chocolate and fruits are recommended to bring and give as gifts. Always ensure there is no gelatine or any other ingredient which is not ‘halal’ and ensure that food wrappings do not include any images which might be Islamically offensive.

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Source: Modasys

In choosing wrapping paper, avoid white color as it symbolizes death and mourning. When offering gifts, use the right hand only or both hands as the left hand is considered inappropriate.


Like many Southeast Asia countries, personal relationships also play a great part in Brunei culture. Bruneians often do not get into in-depth discussions in the first meeting. They prefer to use the first meeting as an opportunity to get to know the other side and build a good rapport, which is essential to them. It is common for the most senior person from each side to sit opposite each other at the table. To ‘save a face’, typically, most senior leaders will offer a brief speech.

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Source: International Schools Guide

Meetings may extend into business meals, although business will generally not be discussed during meals. Nonetheless, this personal-relationship-building time is vital in developing and fostering a good working relationship, and therefore you must remain professional.


As Bruneians are indirect communicators, they are concerned with the message as with how it is delivered. They attempt to speak in a manner where both parties retain face and simply avoid confrontation. When it comes to giving ideas, they will gently push their ideas forward and wait for others to respond. They will generally remain silent rather than speak up if they disagree with an idea. However, it is important to watch for silence and body language.

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Source: ASEAN US Mission

In expressing difficulty giving an absolute negative response, they have many ways of giving a non-committal “yes”. Phrases such as “it is inconvenient” or “we shall see” generally indicate a negative response. They have difficulty in saying “no”, thus, it is a good idea to phrase questions so they can give an affirmative response. Nodding the head does not always indicate agreement, it may simply be an acknowledgment that you have spoken.

Strategy and Consideration

The culture of Brunei is powerfully influenced by Malay cultures and also the Islamic religion. The culture of the Ethnic groups in Brunei consists of Malay, Chinese, and indigenous groups; namely the Dusun, Belait, Kedayan, Murut, and Bisaya (Bisayah). Even though Indigenous Muslims are not native speakers of the Malay language, they are often referred to as Brunei Malays. But still, because of Islam as the majority, it applies Sharia law there.

Moreover, taking note of however politely they act and the way the sharia law neutralizes, and what things that you have to pay attention to will be thus helpful and create a bonus point of view for you. It can make the strategy of your business in Brunei more effective. It is crucial to require appropriate when interacting with Brunei business counterparts while keeping interacting and keeping the Muslim culture.

Social Hierarchy and The Culture

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Brunei’s traditional social structure is hierarchical and pointed in the system, and one’s membership in the social structure is primarily outlined by birthright. As the social hierarchy’s primary principles are relative power and status, the core nobilities (the Sultan and the royal family) are at the highest standard hierarchy.

You have to pay attention to each thing and with the hierarchy to get more connected with Bruneians. You can use a handshake as greetings to give a more specific impression of respect and formality. It can also be better that you wear attire that looks formal and avoids the jeans so you can look more respectful, especially if you want to meet the high social structure like the Sultan. They need different treats for different social statuses. It’s essential to listen to whom you are talking to and follow the rules for another social status.

Knowing The Sharia Law

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Source: Elle

Brunei’s movement toward stricter Islamic practices includes the move toward more stringent Islamic rules. The Sultan had long wished to expand Syariah to incorporate criminal offenses by Muslims, and in October 2013, he declared that such a policy would become official the following year.

Islam’s nonsecular law is seen because of the expression of God’s command. However, everything is going to be okay if you are doing the right things. So, it is essential to grasp the system and learn more of the ‘Do and Don’t’ of the shariah law itself. For example, giving gifts after a meeting is more common and acceptable, but if you want to give food, you have to make sure that they are halal. So, it is important to know which one halal and haram food. Also, You can’t touch the opposite gender, since it is not allowed based on the sharia law.

Interact politely

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Source : Deutsche Welle

Brunei’s population is preponderantly Sunni Muslim. Sunni Islam is a member of one of the two major branches of Islam, the branch that consists of most of that religion’s adherents. With Muslims as their majority, It affects the social culture supported by their shariah law too. Bruneians are indirect communicators; they are concerned with the message and how it is delivered. You can do a formality and respect handshake for the greetings, but not for the opposite sex. If you want to give a gift in a business meeting setting, it will be considered bribes. Giving gifts like food as a recommended gift is a bonus plus to add a more positive impression.

Connecting with Bruneians in social media is easy. They use several common communication platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, and telegram also Facebook for networking. It will be more comfortable to connect with them if you use the same platform and put the promotion there. But in real life, Bruneians are typically very tolerant, but they often do not get into in-depth discussions in the first meeting. They prefer to use the first meeting to get to know each other better and build a good impression. The important thing that you have to do is to point out your respect and appreciation of their culture.

BRIGHT Indonesia as Perfect Partner

Southeast Asia could create one of the world’s most competitive areas these days with its various markets, variable economic developments, and numerous cultures. It is crucial to grasp the target country’s business culture, work ethics, customs, communication designs, and formalities.

From this article, we can summarise that from doing business in Brunei, the most important thing is we have to know the sharia law that Bruneians do there. In the next step, we have to pay attention to the culture, like how the hierarchy works there and how to get to know Bruneians more comfortably. It is like giving a gift and how you act that can provide a bonus impression as a handshake and what you appropriate to wear. However, it is important to urge the person not to be biased and to enter and do business in Southeast Asia, having the right local partner can be really helpful and so important.

BRIGHT Indonesia is a perfect partner for your company. BRIGHT Indonesia will assist you on the ground, including virtual assistant during the mission, logistic arrangement, and communication of every detail. It can make your company focus on developing partnership cooperation without thinking further about the hassle during the business trip.

BRIGHT Indonesia provides several services such as Market Insight Research, Business Registration and Establishment, Business Partnership Engagement, and Business Incubation and Accelerator services that can help you in expanding and developing your business by identification of potential partners as well as obtain the work and stay permit in Indonesia (expatriates utilization plan (RPTKA), expatriates utilization permit (IMTA), limited stay permit (KITAS)) easier. 

The domain of our strategy consulting services focuses on supporting private sector clients with the development of corporate/business unit strategies and helping public sector organizations with public policy, training and assisting our clients entering FDI source countries to gather investment for our client’s local markets. 

We also help your company registration by becoming a representative office with the rights to trade and by limited liability foreign-owned companies and also we will help your company with a full report of market insight research.

BRIGHT Indonesia always strives to give excellent services designed to fulfill your company’s needs with experiences in assisting multiple global clients in entering Indonesia and Southeast Asia Market. These collaborations are proof of our unrivaled service. 

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