Brunei's western mode education system was introduced only a few years after the establishment of the British Residency. The first British Resident was in Brunei in 1906 following the 1906 Agreement between Brunei and the United Kingdom. At that time, the education system in Brunei was along the line of religious education with "sekolah pondok" and students being taught the rudiments of the Islamic religion as well as how to read the Al-Quran.
It was not until 1911 that the British Resident was able to introduce a western education system. It was not because education did not play an important role for the government but it was because of the lack of funds as well as the lack of available Bruneians who would be able to become the first teachers. Between 1906 and 1910, the budgets were in deficit and it was only in 1911 that the budget showed a small surplus.
It was also thought that the introduction of a western style education so soon after the British Residency would be quite sensitive to the Brunei population then.
In 1914, the first Brunei school was built. It was a Malay vernacular school built in Brunei Town. At first the school operated from a mosque before it moved to a building which was formerly occupied by the Monopoly Office. The first group of students was made up of 30 boys.
By 1915, that number has increased to 40 boys. Another school was established in Muara with a Malay Teacher teaching at his own house. The other districts got their first schools in the next three years. In Belait, the first Malay school, the third in the country, was built in 1917. In Tutong, it was built in 1918.
The first crop of these schools was absorbed into the government as trainees by 1917 and full time government servants by 1920. Some of these students were also sent to attend short teaching courses at a Teachers' Training College in Malacca in 1919.
However despite the government's efforts, many parents did not want to send their children to schools. Even though there were shortages of teachers and shortages of school buildings, there were also shortages of willing parents. Most of the boys who attended were from the upper class and very few from the village commoners. Most parents refused to send their daughters to school.
As described by one mother who only attended up to Primary 2, her mother and her aunt told her that there was no point for her to have the ability to read and write: she would just waste that writing love letters to boys. Some parents feared that sending daughters would be a waste as they would end up as housewives anyway.
Nevertheless, the need for education was slowly being accepted by the masses. The Chinese community established their own school in 1916. In 1925, the villagers at Kampong Kilanas asked for a school to be built in their area and it was built the year after.
The education provided was free but the curriculum was not geared towards anything other than basic general education.
Education in these early vernacular schools was quite limited. Most of the education was conducted in Malay for boys aged between seven and fourteen years. The curriculum consisted of Reading and Writing (in both Jawi and Roman script), Composition, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Hygiene, Drawing and Physical Education. Gardening and Basketry were later introduced at some schools.
The government report of 1928 noted that "the curriculum of these schools is based on that of the vernacular schools in Malaya and all teaching is in the Malay language nothing is taught which will tend to drive Malays from their agriculturist pursuits". The education provided only enabled the students to fill in the lower government posts. Despite that the government continued to pursue better education for all.
In 1926 an education inspector (known as Nazir) was appointed. Teachers were also being trained at the Sultan Idris Teacher Training College in Tanjung Malim, Malaysia.
In order to encourage parents to send their children to school, limited compulsory attendance was introduced in 1929 via the School Attendance Enactment (No 3 of 1929). The Brunei Town area was the only location immediately affected. It was introduced in Kuala Belait in 1933.
The government continued to have a tough task in getting girls to school. One government report in 1933 noted that "apart from government servants few Malays like the idea of their girls attending schools it is hoped, however, that slow progress will be made against the wall of conservatism it must be remembered that purdah has a much stronger hold in Brunei than in the Federated Malay States".
Yet, by the outbreak of World War II in 1941, there were 312 girls among 1,746 pupils. The number of schools in Brunei had increased to 32 which included 24 Vernacular Malay, 3 private English and 5 private Chinese.
After the war, there was a number of shortages. In Brunei Town, some students described their school as having no paper and no furniture. Every time they had to write something, they will be using a slab which would be wiped clean every time they have covered the slab. The students would be on the floor lying prone facing downwards writing on their slabs. Their pencils would be an inch stub scavenged from the Australian army camp. To make the pencils longer, the students used empty bullet casing fitted in at the end of the pencils.
There was much reconstruction after the war. In October 1951 a Brunei Town Government English school was opened, followed by the opening of another in Kuala Belait the following year. In less than three years, the Government was able to introduce English- medium secondary education to the country. By 1966, the Government also started Malay medium secondary education.
In 1954 Brunei embarked on a five year Development Plan for education. New schools were planned. Many teachers were trained and expatriates employed as additional teachers in the schools.
By the completion of that Plan in 1959, there were 15,006 pupils enrolled in the State's schools, 30 per cent of whom were girls. There were 52 Malay primary schools; 3 English schools (including one exclusively for girls that had been completed in 1958); 7 mission schools; 8 Chinese primary schools and 3 Chinese secondary schools. In addition, there were 133 Bruneians at teacher training colleges overseas, and many at Brunei's own college that had opened in 1956.
In August 1969, following a Brunei Youth Council seminar on education which focused on the needs and importance of having a national education policy; an Education Commission was established in 1970. The 1972 Commission Report was adopted by the government and this formed the basis for the present education policy as well as the basic organisation of the present Ministry of Education. An Education Council was established and the recommendation of the use of Malay as the main medium of instruction. Though by 1984, a bilingual education policy — dwibahasa — was introduced.
Today there are more than 110,000 students in the Brunei Education System with more than 270 education establishments throughout the country. Education is provided free up to university level and beyond for Brunei citizens. The education provided is expected to produce Bruneians who are able to play their part in the present day knowledge-based economy and yet, at the same, remain imbued with strong Islamic and Malay values.
A second university has just been established and the religious teacher training college has also been upgraded to be a university college.
Brunei's Education Philosophy is founded on the National Philosophy of a Malay Islamic Monarchy and incorporated the two key elements of naqli (on the basis of the holy Quran and Hadith) and aqli (on the basis of reasoning).
These two elements are essential in the development of individuals to their fullest potential, thereby bringing forth people who are knowledgeable, skillful, faithful, pious, and of excellent character which are fundamental in the realisation and emergence of a national identity based on the national philosophy as well as Islamic teachings in accordance with Ahli Sunnah Wal-Jamaah.
How times indeed have changed when just a 100 years ago, hardly anyone in Brunei could read.
The writer runs a website on Brunei at bruneiresources.com
The Brunei Times