Brunei Customs Officials Get Their Own Back

July 2, 2007

The first law of travel is “Never irritate the person in uniform who lets you in or out of a country.” There are some very sensible reasons for that. They are not paid very much. In a country’s defence and security they often are the first in line but the last to know. They work horrible hours. In many countries they are not empowered to make a decision on the spot. Often these officials are caught up in a very bureaucratic milieu. And, they usually love their uniform, are proud of their country and just want to do their job well. OK, in places like Zimbabwe they want some extra dollars as well.

omar ali saifuddien mosque 13 , bandar seri begawan - brunei

A different law, but far more immutable goes something like this – that young Air Force Officers (boys actually), but especially pilots and aircrew, have a swagger gene, closely linked to the “I’m indestructible gene.” These are in the same strand of DNA which contains the “I know everything gene.” Wrap that genetic make-up in crew suits, put squadron badges on them and they think they can walk anywhere, go anywhere, do anything.

In 1991 when visiting Brunei, I watched an Air Force C130 crew arrive in Brunei. They expected to be able to swan into the country through an airport that was being rebuilt and not endure the required checks, stamps, visas and other paperwork. Immutable law clashes with first law of travel. First law of travel wins out. The aircrew, after “misbehaving,” arrive in the Sheraton (no less) and encamp for the night. They drink late and party as much as is possible in BSB (the capital) – which is actually pretty restrained. Unbeknown to them the hotel staff had placed them in rooms facing this mosque – only 600 metres away. Calls to prayer were broadcast at 90db (that is, loud to very loud) at 5am the following morning, only a few hours after they retired. Directly into their windows. Worse, a sermon or similar dialogue had started at 3am.

I had the blessed good fortune the next day to watch a grinning team of customs and immigration officers smiling at the sorry lot of aircrew working on their aircraft, complaining of disrupted or complete lack of sleep. I was not convinced the boys understood the connection. It was a nice touch and should have been expected in this very small, close knit town.

(Click on the photo to be taken to a terrific collection of photos by “geertsonck” )