Despite ban, Christmas in Brunei goes on…with a silver lining

Shoppers pose in front of the Christmas tree at Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, December 24, 2015. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Shoppers pose in front of the Christmas tree at Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, December 24, 2015. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

By Julia Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Dec 25 – This year, the Chang family in the Brunei capital of Bandar Seri Begawan will carry on their usual Christmas routine: opening up presents at midnight, going to church, and then a big family lunch which includes a roasted turkey—halal, of course—pumpkin soup and their grandmother’s apple pie.

Although Christmas has been publicly banned in the sultanate, the kids in the household will still sing Christmas carols with their cousins, open even more presents from their visiting relatives and friends, before passing out after watching a Christmas-themed movie, while the adults enjoy some wine or coffee.

“We are still going to church, still putting a Christmas tree at home. “If anything, the ban puts into perspective what Christmas should be about—family, and the birth of Jesus—and not some over-commercialised holiday which glorifies snowflakes and Santa Claus,” said the matriach, who only wanted to be called Nicky.

Nicky, a 32-year-old mother of two, took the news of the official ban with resignation. After all, the downplaying of Christmas had been going on in the tiny oil-rich country over the years.

“A year ago, big businesses and malls were putting up trees and glitzy lights but [now] they were told not to. This year, many just did without it or kept it to a minimum. But you can still buy them for your home,” the Bruneian Christian said.

Brunei is predominantly Muslim and Christians make up about 10 per cent of the roughly 430,000 population.

French news wire AFP reported two days ago that officials in the oil-rich Southeast Asian sultanate would be enforcing a ban on Christmas decorations and celebrations in public in line with the adoption of strict Islamic laws, sending ripples of unease throughout the region.

Non-Muslims in Malaysia have kept a close watch on happenings in Brunei since the sultanate moved to adopt hudud as the PAS-led state government in Kelantan seeks to implement a similar religious penal code. Nicky said most of the community has accepted its ruler’s decrees though it rankled.

“It’s not as bad as the media paints it out to be. We are not happy about it but at the same time it is not a blanket ban. Christians can still celebrate in private, we just adapt,” she said.

“Most people won’t complain or protest openly anyway. There is nothing we can do. We are used to this,” said a 42-year old engineer, who only wanted to be known as Pete.

Pete said that growing up in Brunei, relations among the races were warm and peaceful but the government’s religious dominance has always been hanging over them.

“Lately I hear there are more griping, usually done discreetly through online channels, but they know there’s nothing to be done about this now.

“I think a lot of Bruneian Christians just find their own way of celebrating Christmas by going away for the December year end holidays. Many just pop over to Kota Kinabalu or Kuala Lumpur,” he said, referring to the two nearby cities in neighbouring Malaysia, “or abroad if they can afford it.”

On the other hand, several Bruneian Muslims have expressed empathy towards their Christian countrymen, with some saying the ban was “silly” and “ridiculous” for such a multiracial society.

Those polled by Malay Mail Online said that the new restriction, which has banned Muslims from singing religious songs, sending Christmas greetings or wearing hats or clothes that “resemble Santa Claus” would not change their respect towards the religion.

Ibrahim, a 38 year-old civil servant, said he has relatives who celebrate Christmas and despite the ban, he would still visit them during the festive season.

“Of course I’d still go, and bring presents for my nieces and nephews. That doesn’t change. What changes is no more décor in the malls. And no jingles while we shop.

“It’s a little silly to think that Christmas songs would shake my faith. We have been open to all religions and other celebrations all this while. I don’t see why things should change now,” he said.

For 26-year-old Hashima and her friends, they will be visiting their Christian friends’ homes for the holidays.

“I would just say that some people are paranoid. Most of my friends are pretty much open-minded to these things so just because of the law, it really doesn’t stop us from enjoying nor does it put a restrictions on us to join in the merriment of Christmas.

“I don’t think I have encountered any Muslim friends who are afraid of this law enough to stop them from going out,” she said.

Long-reigning Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced last year the introduction of Shariah penal code of hudud, which leads to tough penalties against crimes such as death by stoning or severed limbs.

Earlier this year, the ban against any public celebration of Christmas was announced, along with its punishment for violating the ban: a five-year jail sentence. – Malay Mail Online

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