TL;DR: I am born and raised in Brunei. But I am not a Bruneian. And there are thousands of people like me.
I was born into it. It’s not even a disease but it’s been something that has been preventing me from freely going to places. Every time I tell my parents about my holiday plans, they ask me the same old question: “Are you sure you can go with your situation?”
I hate (and am honestly scared) to talk about this, especially in such a public setting but here is my ‘coming out’ story.
Back in the 1940s, my grandfather fled from Kinmen, Fujian Province during the Second World War and established a life in Brunei. In the Kingdom, he was labelled as a ‘permanent resident’ along with other immigrants. After all, he was set to stay for a long time since Brunei was where he found a stable job and started his family. A few years later, my dad was born in Brunei.
You would think, “Oh, he must be a Bruneian then.”
Unfortunately, he is not a Bruneian, and so am I who was also born in Brunei.
We are just a permanent resident who doesn’t have any nationality. In other words, we are stateless. In Brunei, the national law dictates that citizenship must be inherited from one’s parents rather than through birth within the country’s territory.
Our family grew up with this label without many problems in Brunei and never thought that such status would put us in so much trouble. Sometimes, this ‘in-between’ status worked in favour of us — we get to enjoy some citizenship benefits such as (partially) subsidised education and healthcare.
There are some downsides. When I was studying there, I couldn’t apply for the government scholarships although I was qualified to do so.
One of the biggest downsides is that we can only travel to limited places such as nearby nations like Malaysia and Singapore — the only two places which do not require a travel visa from us, permanent residents from Brunei. I like to put it that they ‘understand’ our situation.
In seventh grade, I went to Singapore for a school exchange trip and studied at a local school for a week. They asked me about where I am from. I said “I am from Brunei” just like my other classmates I came to Singapore with.
There was no doubt in my mind that I am a Bruneian. However, legally, this was not the case.
Later that year, I traveled to Macau for a drama competition. I was suddenly questioned at the check-in counter of the airport and was almost banned from flying. The customs officials said my visa is invalid since they cannot find it in the system. That was the first time I realised that my ‘passport’ is unique. It is mysterious and unknown to the world.
In eleventh grade, I went back to Singapore again. I needed to apply for a student visa once I got there because I was set to study in the city-state for two years. To get a student visa, I needed a ‘valid’ passport. However, I only had what’s called ‘Certificate of Identity,’ the certificate by the Bruneian government that theoretically allows for international travels. However, the holders can be denied entry since many countries are ignorant and skeptical about the validity of this certificate.
Needless to say, my attempt(s) to get a simple student visa in Singapore was terribly challenging. My online application for a student pass came back with a reply stating ‘nationality error’. I went to an immigration department in Singapore, and they probed into my identity.
They asked me, “If you’re not a Bruneian, then where are you from?”
“Brunei,” I said.
“No, I mean, where were you born? Clearly, you must be from somewhere, right?”
“I was born in Brunei.”
Their face was full of confusion.
Well, it’s not their fault that they don’t know about this situation. In fact, many people might not even know much about Brunei, besides the oil and Wuchun (one of the members of the Taiwanese boyband, Fahrenheit). Sadly, their unawareness of stateless people born in Brunei made me, my family and probably the thousands of others (as of 2017, 20,524 people, to be precise) feel frustrated, awkward and lost.
Being stateless requires one to possess a tremendous amount of patience. In a visa application centre in Hong Kong, I repeatedly and desperately explained my special need for a permit and was ignored multiple times by the staff. Flustered and furious, I went to another staff and stated that I do not have a nationality. It was only then that they understood and apologised as they have never encountered such a situation.
The airport has always been a daunting place for me. I’ve been stuck and questioned at various customs including Australia, Mainland China, and Hong Kong.
Apart from occasional embarrassment at customs, I lack a sense of belonging.
When I was denied entry to Shenzhen, I couldn’t even make a U-turn back to Hong Kong right away because of my ‘unique’ document. At this point, I felt quite hopeless and inferior for the fact that any Bruneian nationals can just proudly walk through the customs check while I, born and bred in Brunei, constantly gets shouted at by the confused and impatient customs officials.
It is challenging to live as a stateless person. My parents always felt bad about giving birth to us in Brunei and making us ‘stateless.’ They’ve worked so hard to provide for us, and to put a roof above our heads. Yet, at the end of the day, that house figuratively, and literally doesn’t belong to us (the law bans any non-Bruneians from owning any land property).
However, I don’t blame anyone for my situation. Being stateless is not my parents’ fault; neither is it my fault. I just wish that more people know about this so that I wouldn’t have to repeat my ‘identity explanation’ over and over again, especially at the customs. I don’t want anyone’s pity. I only need their understanding.
I love Brunei and I hope they reciprocate this love one day.
Written by anonymous in Shun Hing College