Thoughts on Local Brunei Legends

So the headline on Borneo Bulletin the other day caught my eye:


The Minister of Home Affairs officially opened the Bukit Tempayan Recreational Park and it is said that there is an interesting legend behind the location. Legend has it that it was the site of an epic battle between the ‘Bunian’ Princesses (Bunian is equivalent to fairies/forest spirits) and the guardians of Mount Kinabalu (I’m not sure if these guardians were humans or bunians). The battle was fought – with mortars and other magical weapons – over the control of these seven magical stones. The guardians eventually took five while the other two remained with the Bunian princesses.

I don’t know about you but I think that is some epic Lord of the Rings style tale. It’s also a shame that a majority of us Bruneians have not heard of this story (including myself).

Which brings up to the fact that there are probably tons of interesting local legends that we shamefully don’t know about.

These stories are essential to our heritage and cultural identity. They may not be historically accurate but they do tell us a lot about the mindset, the traditions and language of Bruneians in that period of time. Perhaps the most famous one is Syair Awang Semaun.

Syair Awang Semaun

We all have heard about Syair Awang Semaun – an epic poem that tells the story of the founding of Brunei. We all know the basic story of it:

An egg from the sky dropped to earth and hatched a being known as I-pai Samaring. He married a local princess and fathered Awang Alak Betatar. One day, I-Pai went on a hunt for a tembadau (wild cow) and stopped at several villages along the way. At each of the village, he married a daughter of the village chief and fathered a child. Alak Betatar later united all of his 13 brothers and discovered the Brunei River – establishing a settlement there.

But here are several things that a lot of people don’t know about Syair Awang Semaun:

1) It’s not just about the founding of Brunei. The poem is episodic in nature. The part that we all know about – the one I just summarized – was just one part of the poem. The story went on to tell about the conquest of Borneo and Sulu by Bruneians led by three generals/warrior/heroes – Awang Semaun, Damang Sari and Awang Jerambak.

Other popular stories like the Princess of Johor, the cockfight with the Majapahit Empire, the legend of Chinese adventurer Ong Sum Ping were also from the Syair.

And then you have the lesser known ones like Awang Jerambak and his equally badass son and grandson (Awang Sinuai and Awang Mawar).

Not a lot of people know about them because I don’t think a full version of the Syair was ever published and made available to the public. It’s made much more complicated when…

2) There are different versions of the Syair. There are at least six versions of the Syair. Each one has different lengths and different ‘episode’ structure (eg. some stories are missing in some version). You can read more about the different versions of the Syair in this academic study by Maxwell: Assessing the Epic Status of the Brunei Malay Sya’ir Awang Simawn: Place Names and Toponyms

Different versions also have different set of characters. We all know about the standard list of 14 ‘saudara’ (eg. Pateh Berbai, Pateh Malakai, Damang Sari, Pateh Malakai, Damang Lebar Daun, etc). But other less well known version of the Syair apparently included other characters with interesting names like Pateh Bulu Mata Gajah, Harimau Taring, Panglima Kujal among others.

3) Chronology Issues. The fact is that these legends mixed historical facts and fantastical story telling – so don’t be too bothered with the historical accuracy of it and just enjoy them as a great cultural tale. I’ve touched on some of the historical issues of local legends in another blog post.

The main one issue is between the Salasilah and the Syair regarding Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524). The Salasilah stated that Sultan Bolkiah is the fifth Sultan – son of Sultan Sulaiman, who was the son of Sultan Sharif Ali whose father in law was Sultan Ahmad who was the brother of Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Sultan.

*Takes a deep breath*

But the Syair also told a story about a Sultan Bolkiah who was the son of Damang Libar Daun – the brother of Sultan Muhammad Shah who emigrated to Java. The story has it that Sultan Bolkiah returned from Java and had adventures with Awang Mawar – the grandson of Awang Jerambak.

*Pause to take that all in*

But the Salasilah version is the one that is widely accepted probably due to the fantastical nature of the Syair – making the latter less likely to be historically credible.


Ironically, just like some of the interesting local legends that people may have never heard about, there are interesting shows that aired in RTB that many Bruneians may have never seen before. One of them is a show called LEGENDA. It’s a documentary about our local legends retold by elders and re-enacted by local actors (probably the most entertaining part).

I never got to catch it on TV but there are some episodes that you can watch on Youtube.

The episode below is about a warrior from Belait named Panglima Galis.

I have never heard of Panglima Galis before. After watching this video, I must say that I find the story really interesting. It’s about a warrior that started as a hero that defended his village from foreign invaders. But he eventually got power hungry – started beating people up and harassing the women. In the end, the villagers had enough and killed him – by burying him alive no less!!

It’s an interesting story about a rise and fall of an anti-hero. And not a lot of people know about this! I find this story way more interesting than the well known ones.

There are other local stories that I’ve heard or read about which some of you may or may not know (Correct me if I’m wrong about any of these tales).

There was one about Buaya Putih. It’s About a Giant White Crocodile from the Brunei River who took a young boy to Kinabatangan (present day Sabah) so he can witness first hand how stronger the Bruneian Crocodile is compared with the Kinabatangan crocs.

Then there was the story of Jong Batu which I’m sure is much more popular than the Buaya Putih story because this one had a stronger moral. It’s about a man known as Nakhoda Manis (the ‘Sweet Captain’) who was ashamed of his poor looking mother and refused to recognized her. The mother cursed him and he turned into a rock that can still be seen at the Brunei river. Yes, there are many version of this story from different countries like Si Tanggang in Malaysia.

And then there was Hikayat Awang Kamaruddin. This local legend gained popularity when it was published as a book about 10 years ago. The story is basically divided into two parts.

In the first part, Awang Kamaruddin goes to Java to prove his worth in a fight against a strong Javanese warrior. He was also trying to win the heart of a princess who was about to marry that Javanese warrior. The second part involves Awang Kamaruddin trying to fulfill his mother’s wishes and marry a childhood friend (If I’m not mistaken).

Of course, the story isn’t as simple as I summarized it just now. It actually spanned several chapters – containing various characters and events.

That was a dramatic illustrated ‘trailer’ of Hikayat Awang Kamaruddin by Ajie GioNToji.

It got me thinking…if we can’t make a good live action film with these local legends, how about going for an animated film? You don’t have to worry about getting actors and finding a real suitable location to shoot it (ok, we still have to worry about finding the right voice actors though).

Creative Industry – animation with local flavours

Creative Industry is the hot catch phrase in Brunei right now. Everyone wants a piece of this potential market gap in our country. It’s also a really nice way to kill two birds with one stone – diversifying our economy while also engaging the growing youth population. You see it everywhere  – from big things like our education system opening up more opportunities for students to engage in the Arts to relatively minor things like ‘Pusat Sejarah’ holding a video competition – rather than the usual essay competition. Just recently, I saw a picture of our Minister spray painting at the Skate park – years ago graffiti was mostly considered as vandalism rather than art.

But there is this whole idea held by some people that MIB is hindering any potential for a creative industry. Actually, I have no idea where people get the idea that our national ideology are diametrically opposed to the Arts. As proven many times, our cultural identity is deeply rooted in creative arts. Not just in our local stories but in our music, songs, poetry, dances and fashion (yes, traditional fashion takes creativity as well). And we can use that to our advantage.

I’ve written a blog post before about using MIB as a jumping point for a possible Bruneian film anthology. But I wouldn’t pretend to be the only one who thought about something similar. A University professor have said that we should use our culture as an ‘asset’Our Minister have said that our unique culture can be seen as niche in the creative industry; A visiting former BBC executive have put forward the idea of our culture and history as a selling point.

We can use various outlets to re-tell classic legends and bring them to a wider audience. Or even better, tell an original story that are thematically linked to our cultural folklore. The latter can be done….actually, it has somewhat been done.

Last year, I was in London and watched a group of Bruneian students scripted and performed this stage play for their annual ‘Brunei Night’ event. What interested me about last year compared to the previous years was the inclusion a plot about a time machine to bring local folk hero Awang Semaun to present time. Time travel? Awang Semaun? A Hero with daddy issues? All in one? I thought that whoever came up with that story idea weirdly knows exactly my kind of taste in plot.

But the point I’m trying to make is that I liked how they tried to inject a bit of those Bruneian folklore into a contemporary story even if it was merely a plot device.

This goes back to the idea that I mentioned earlier: the potential of using animation to bring these stories (with cultural relevance) to life. The good news is that there are those that already made a head start towards this goal. BEDB/iCentre seems to be game for the idea when it established the Creative Arts Facilities (CRAFT) to train “young animators and multimedia developers.” UBD – and its Creative Industries Research Cluster (CIRC) – have also set their sights on nurturing students interested in pursuing 3D animation.


“...I hope one day we can produce ‘Perang Kastila’ or ‘Kastila War’ (war between Brunei and Spain in the Philippines) for television viewers and animation will make such an epic production possible,” said one production personnel from RTB.

You know what I personally like to see? That epic battle where the Bunian princesses try to defend Bukit Tempayan Pisang against the onslaught of the Guardians of Mount Kinabalu. *Cue epic LOTR style music*


You might also be interested in these:

History Centre

Tarsilah Brunei: The Early History of Brunei Up To 1432 AD

Awang Semaun: Tale of a Brunei warrior

Tales from Syair Awang Semaun

Brunei Sultanate expands empire

Assessing the Epic Status of the Brunei Malay Sya’ir Awang Simawn: Place Names and Toponyms

Creating The ‘Brunei’ Film – A Trilogy Based on ‘Melayu Islam Beraja’

Identify cultural assets to develop creative industries

MIB a catalyst for creative industries

Telling ‘national story’ via creative industries a way to attract investors

Creative Industry Research Cluster

First Creative Industries Fest kicks off

UBD Major in Art & Creative Technology

Workshop sparks animation ideas

Diversifying economy with multimedia dev’t, animation

Bruneians called on to explore 3-D animation

Ambuyart: iCentre’s first animator

Ambuyart Animations paving way for Brunei’s first-ever 3-D animated cartoon series

Brunei must focus on quality in Animation Industry

Brunei Economic Development Board Partners with Autodesk to Develop Country’s Media and Entertainment Industry


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Local Brunei Legends

  1. Pingback: Commentary: Prologue | Guardians of Darussalam

  2. Pingback: My thoughts and ramblings on ‘Yasmine’…and other stuff | Trylobyte's Corner

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