‘I may not see scores, but my daughter’s work, growth in confidence, and eagerness to go to school every day assure me that she’s receiving a great education.’
Karen Williams, a Singaporean mum and educator gives us a glimpse into her family life as an expat in Brunei. From discovering interesting Bornean cuisine to hiking through a jungle in Tembourong, we uncover some of the highlights and challenges of living in Brunei. Karen’s 10-year-old daughter is studying in an international school and Karen remarks on how unique the teaching methods are where primary students never have homework or exams! Despite this Karen, says she has come to trust her teachers implicitly with her education. When discussing the benefits of living overseas, Karen says, “I never imagined that I would end up living overseas for years at a time. Growing up, my family didn’t go on overseas holidays, and I only took my first flight when I was a teenager. It was an eye-opener to discover so much beyond our sunny shores…Living overseas has made me appreciate Singapore even more.” Read on to find out what this Singaporean mama abroad loves most about living in Brunei.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hi, I’m Karen Williams. I’m a stay-at-home mum to a vivacious ten-year-old girl and an active little doodle. Home for us is Brunei Darussalam. It is the fourth country and third continent we’ve stayed in. Previously, we lived in Europe and the Middle East.
What brought you to Brunei? How long have you been living overseas?
My husband’s job requires him to work overseas. Since 2007, we’ve been relocating every few years. Brunei has been our home for the last 1.5 years, and we’ve settled down very well here.
What’s your favourite aspect of living in Brunei?
My favourite aspect would be the slower pace of life and having more time to spend together as a family. I think this has greatly contributed to better physical, emotional and mental health for all of us.
And the worst part?
The worst part about being away from Singapore is missing the food! While I love the food in Brunei, I do miss specific dishes from my childhood, like Hokkien Mee from Chomp Chomp Food Centre or my mum’s Chap Chye.
How do you think parenting and education in Brunei differ from Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
My daughter studies in an international school, and the teaching and learning methods are quite different from Singapore. Even at the primary school level, she is exposed to a diverse range of subjects such as Humanities, Drama, and Design and Technology. Lessons involve myriad approaches to learning. For instance, she spent a term learning about the Titanic which spanned different subjects. She looked at the historical aspect through research, wrote a journal from a survivor’s point-of-view for English, and designed a model of the ship using Minecraft. At the end of the last school year, parents were invited to the classroom to view the students’ work, and it was marvellous to see the breadth and quality of their learning and participation.
I think one of my daughter’s favourite things about school is having no homework, tests or exams (this is the policy of the junior school/primary levels). As a parent, this has led me to trust her teachers implicitly with her education and development in school. I may not see scores or exams, but the aforementioned work and her growth in confidence, close relationships with her friends and teachers, as well as an eagerness to go to school every day, assure me that she’s receiving a great education.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I am an educator (once a teacher, always a teacher!) teaching English and Literature. Before I had my daughter, I taught at the Junior College level. However, I quit when I had to undergo a few cycles of IVF before I was able to conceive. When we moved back to Singapore in 2018, I felt that my daughter was more independent, and I was ready to commit to teaching again. Initially, I found employment as a Teaching Assistant, which allowed me to ease back into the profession after eight years of being away. Once she entered primary school, I taught at the secondary level for two years before we moved to Brunei.
What are the top five places in or around Brunei you would recommend to parents travelling with kids, and why?
Bukit Sipatir or Bukit Shahbandar – Hiking: This is a favourite pastime of Bruneians. Many go out to tackle the hiking trails at sunrise or sunset. During Covid, this activity became even more popular, as it allowed people to enjoy the outdoors. Besides the good workout, the spectacular views and luscious greenery are so rewarding when you arrive at the peak!
Temburong – Canopy Walk: Temburong is another district in Brunei, and the Canopy Walk provides a breathtaking vista of the jungle. The drive to Temburong itself is quite unique as you get to cross the Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Bridge, which is Asean’s longest bridge spanning 26.3km. The National Park and Canopy Walk are accessible by temuai (longboat). After which, you climb 1,000 steps, then ascend towers that open up to a walkway. At the very top, you have a 360-degree view of about 500 square kilometres of beautiful, untouched Bornean jungle.
Kampong Ayer: Kampong Ayer is a fascinating place to visit. Named the “Venice of the East”, it is the world’s largest floating settlement on stilts and has existed for centuries. It is home to an estimated 10,000 residents with its own villages, school, mosques, police and fire stations. Visitors travel there by water taxi or boat and can have a meal at a restaurant, learn more about local handicrafts and even stay at one of the travel lodges.
Jerudong Park Playground: This theme park features a number of fun rides like the pirate ship and bumper cars. My daughter’s favourite activity there is the laser maze, where you aim to get across to the finish line without hitting any lasers. This playground is really popular for kids’ birthdays or a fun day out, and the kids like to head to McDonald’s across the road for a meal after.
Gadong Night Market: To get a taste of affordable local food, you can head to this food market, which sells many varieties of food and beverages. From snacks to full meals and even desserts, there are options for every appetite and taste. It’s a fun way to experience Bruneian food!
What is the local cuisine like?
Bruneian food has similarities to cuisine that you’d find in Singapore. For example, there are local versions of Nasi Lemak, Kolo Mee or soft-boiled eggs with toast. A difference I’ve noticed is that the sambal here is less spicy and sweeter. Desserts are popular, and there is a huge variety of kueh-kueh. Many look familiar but have different names, for example, Kueh Salat in Singapore is called Seri Muka here.
One dish that’s indigenous to Brunei is Ambuyat. It is a translucent starchy paste made of sago flour mixed with water. On its own, it does not taste of anything. The sticky glutinous mixture is twirled around the ends of two enjoined sticks called chandas and dipped into a sauce. Usually different sauces are available such as tempoyak (made with fermented durian and shrimp paste) or cacah (made from a binjai fruit). Ambuyat is also served with a huge variety of side dishes like vegetables, prawns, fried fish, beef and even curries. The best way to enjoy this is with a group of people, so that you get to sample many dishes!
Another local dish that I particularly enjoy is Nasi Katok. It is a very simple meal of white rice, a piece of chicken, and sambal. Not only is it delicious, but it unbelievably costs about $1.20 to $1.50. You can eat it at some stalls, but I mostly get it to-go, wrapped up in a brown paper bungkus.
Is there something that you do to keep your children in touch with their Singaporean roots?
We return to Singapore for short trips whenever we can. Thankfully, we are in close proximity, so this is easy for us. Technology also allows us to constantly refer to pictures, videos, and memories of Singapore, so our family never seems too far away. We have a small group of close Singaporean friends here and sometimes, we celebrate various events together, like National Day, Hari Raya or Chinese New Year. The Singapore Association in Brunei is quite active and organises several activities, keeping the community in touch with each other.
At home, food is also a way to connect with our family and history. We have several “comfort food” dishes like chicken stew that have been passed down from grandparents. On special occasions, I also cook Eurasian family favourites like Kedgeree for Good Friday, and Mulligatawny and Devil’s Curry for Christmas. It’s a special taste of home wherever we go!
What’s the best souvenir one could bring back from Brunei for a child and a mama friend?
My daughter suggested a soft toy of a Proboscis Monkey, which is unique to Borneo and an endangered species. We’ve been lucky to spot the Proboscis Monkey along the riverbanks of Temburong.
For a mama friend, a handwoven bag made by women from the indigenous Penan tribe in the Bornean jungle would make a special Bornean gift.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
I can only speak from my experience, and that would be trying to settle down into a new country and school, and make the house into a home as quickly as possible. When we arrived in Brunei, it was a little more difficult as we were still in the middle of the pandemic, and there was a curfew in place. Besides dealing with local restrictions, it was uncertain when our shipment would arrive, so we were surviving on what we had packed in our suitcases. Learning was online, and we also had no knowledge of when school would reopen, which made learning for my daughter a little strange, since she had not met any of her teachers or friends in person.
Within a few days of arriving, my husband was preoccupied with work, so I had to deal with most things on my own. I was extremely fortunate to have a friend in Brunei whom I had met in Paris. She brought me to many places and showed me where to shop and eat and answered a million questions that I had. If I didn’t have her, it would have been so much harder trying to settle down. She was such a godsend to me!
On raising multilingual children…
Being a Eurasian family, our mother tongue is English and that’s the only language we use at home. However, at times our conversations get peppered with French or Arabic words that we’ve picked up from living overseas.
In Singapore, my daughter studied Malay in primary school. When we got to Brunei, the school here offered a few different languages, and we decided to let her make her own choice. We wanted to encourage a love of learning, rather than having to learn out of necessity. She weighed her options and chose to study French. She really enjoys lessons and will hopefully continue to appreciate the language as she gets older.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your children?
When Christmas is around the corner, I make sure I have a special blend of curry powder to make Mulligatawny. Other times, I bring back a few bottles of Chinese preserved olives that my father buys for me from a small provision shop near his home, which we have with porridge on rainy days or whenever we are unwell – simple things that make me happy. These days, I find that certain foods, tastes and smells evoke very strong feelings and memories.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
According to my daughter, her favourite family meal is roast chicken. I butterfly a whole chicken so that it cooks faster, more evenly and has crispy skin. Sometimes I keep it simple with butter and seasoning; other times I use a spice rub from my eldest sister in Australia. I often roast potatoes in the same pan with whole heads of garlic. It’s a simple meal to whip up while I’m bringing our dog for her evening walk or when other things require attention – the perfect multi-tasking meal.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Brunei if you moved away?
The calmness of the environment, as well as of Bruneians, is something that I will miss when we leave. I think that the tranquillity of the country has found its way into the psyche of the people. Brunei is called the “Abode of Peace,” and I feel that this is a perfect description. Hopefully, this peace has slowly been taking root and is something that will remain with me, no matter where we go.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
We usually stay with my parents-in-law, so we sit down and have a chat with them if they’re home. After that, we pop by my parents’ place for a visit.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The packing and then the unpacking! We do this every few years, and it’s not something I look forward to at all. We moved here with too many boxes. Hopefully we return with much fewer!
Thoughts on your children moving back and joining Singapore’s education system?
As a teacher, I am aware of the rigour and competitive nature of the Singapore education system. We’ll have to wait and see what my daughter’s strengths and passions are, then try to find the best place and fit for her. I know that there will be challenges, but as a parent, I will do my best to support her when this transition happens.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
I never imagined that I would end up living overseas for years at a time. Growing up, my family didn’t go on overseas holidays, and I only took my first flight when I was a teenager. It was an eye-opener to discover so much beyond our sunny shores. Now, I am lucky to have the opportunity of living in different countries and creating life experiences with my family. Travelling on holiday and living abroad are completely different, and sometimes your perspective of a city or country can drastically change after living there. It also makes you more aware of the things that you value in life or re-evaluate your priorities, like security or time together with your family. These are things we consider every time we move to a country or whenever we return to Singapore.
Being an expat has also pushed me out of my comfort zone, from doing things I’d never dreamt of doing to opening my social circle and making new friends in each country. I’ve had to constantly adapt because nothing is ever constant, and it seems we are always in a state of transition.
I have to admit that growing up in Singapore has really spoiled me. Our systems and processes are highly efficient, and it’s something that you can take for granted when it’s always accessible. Our country is beautiful and constantly progressing. Living overseas has made me appreciate Singapore even more. Whenever we return and I catch the first glimpse of Singapore from the airplane window, my heart just swells with joy and pride.
Thanks so much for sharing all about life in Brunei, Karen!