Criticism and Continuity in Brunei

A long post follows. Read-o-Meter says it may take you over 20 minutes. There are three main sections, each broken into a further 3-4 subsections. Thank you for reading.

This is a post which took me a while to do, as I rewrote it many times, over several months. I wanted to promote criticism, which meant two things to me:

  • that we should encourage the writing of informed critiques about the development of various fields in Brunei, such as art, technology, business, and so on;
  • to encourage a culture of being able to question others, in a civil way, while at the same time being able to be questioned by others, and also respond in a civil way.

However, part of me feels that I have waited too long to write this. When I began, I believed that criticism in itself is not really a cause for concern for a Bruneian that wants to question something. I believed that their chosen approach in offering the criticism, and their topic of choice, are the factors that determine whether their voice would stand the threat of censorship. Hence, I felt safe in writing this post.

But in recent times, my belief has been challenged. The government is not to be disrespected, despite the multitude of channels – existing long before Tumblr, Disqus or Whatsapp – where people write all manner of things that insult their neighbours, other nationalities, and the government. Rational comments, calling for clarification and assurance, can be seen as rebellious. Questioning rules or policies can be seen as a rejection.

Also, if my post had been written half a year ago – before the news reports began to closely follow the Syariah law implementations, before we saw a deluge of commentary around the topic – I still think the core of my points would have been the same. But now, posting this seems to be highly coloured by those events, even though it hadn’t been my intention. I regret that it should be the case.

My post below continues, nonetheless. What can I say? I’m a young, stupid idealist.

0

Introduction

There is a culture in Brunei around criticism that has puzzled and frustrated me. The local media is not very critical – or not openly so. And because open criticism does not appear in the media, it is instead carried out in mostly “non-official” capacity: breakfast conversations over teh tarik, private groups on Whatsapp, anonymous or pseudonym-credited comments on websites and forums. You may argue that some of those are private spaces, while others are not. Those who are bolder, or less concerned about their identity, write to their newspapers, or comment on Facebook groups and pages with their short names. There are few blogs with significant readership that present criticism.

When The Brunei Times opened its website to comments last year, as well as aggressively promoting comments (and the commenting system itself) via their Twitter feed, what followed seemed to be a higher visibility of English-language criticism. Spelled and punctuated properly, they may give the impression that there is an increase in criticism that is “better quality”. But it is not necessarily the case.

These discussion threads are still prone to quick-fire responses, lack of research or supported arguments. There are sensationalist comments designed to provoke your feelings, to move you emotionally, while making you less guarded towards their biases. Only a few comments may stand out as being informed, critical or thoughtful comments.

This a big topic to untangle. I am limited by my own perspectives and viewpoints of life; all I can do is take you through some thoughts, and maybe hear some comments.

1

Some misconceptions

Being critical is not being negative

This is supposedly a really cliché way to kick off, but I probably need to confront what I mean by “critical” and “criticism”.

  • Criticism does not mean only negative responses.
  • Criticism can be constructive or destructive, but either may be well-reasoned.
  • Being critical means providing insights.
  • Being critical means having an awareness of other perspectives, or of the wider context, of a topic.
  • Criticism does not always mean being neutral.

On that last point, criticism cannot be completely free from bias. I write my thoughts from a privileged, university-educated viewpoint. I read and write in English; I am IT-savvy; I found school easy, but had to learn to socialise; I do not know much about politics or political communications. These things form who I am, my beliefs, my approaches to life. So, I cannot be unbiased, but I can try to see from other perspectives.

An anonymous writer to the Open Letters to Brunei blog on Tumblr has pointed out that parties on both sides of the Syariah debate have betrayed attitudes that are not open enough to other perspectives:

As easy as it is for the majority to adopt a ‘don’t like it, then leave’ attitude, it is just as easy for the minority to catcall impingements of human rights, quoting ‘intolerance’, ‘bigotry’, ‘xenophobia’ or more extremely, ‘eugenics’. In my opinion, neither progresses anything for the greater community.

Anonymous

This website (having made the recent decision to close down) further stated their preference for open letters with “coherent statements and well researched articles“, as well as those considering both supporters and opponents. I would add that, for any topic, there are also those on the fence, or who choose not to pick a single “side”, and it is worth listening to their perspectives as well.

It is hard to consider a “debate” if the comments are made from only one camp, or if either camp does not make an effort to cross the divide. These comments from Affy Rahman and Faiq Airudin on Twitter, regarding the Syariah law discussions on The Brunei Times website, consider whether these are examples of critical thinking:

Being critical is not being ungrateful

I was heartened recently to see young people, both from our local educational institutions or abroad, being critical. A discussion thread began when Fahme Mahusin wrote a sarcastic post on the PMUBD group on Facebook, criticising the goals of the local university, UBD. In another instance, Muiz Salleh wrote “A few realities of our (supposed) Multiracial Brunei” in response to the Syariah law comments on The Brunei Times website.

In both cases, the consequent responses included a few comments urging people to be “bersyukur”:

beside our government had been given us alot of free taxes and light tax,apa jua ganya road tax kerita and so on,imagine di negeri orang lain.i’ve been other countries berapa kali india and so on,durang inda ada kemudahan apa yang di beri kan leh kerajaan tani.apa apa pun we should be thankful

imyourmagicgift

As a former scholar and former civil servant, I’ve had my own concerns about voicing out my frustrations about the government, while dealing with the guilt that I’m supposed to be grateful. This expectation of complete and utter gratitude is problematic, which thankfully (pun fully intended) has been challenged:

Memang kami bersyukur jua tapi ada hadnya jua bersyukur ani. Ada tempat belajar is good but if the environment where we study isn’t good then what’s the point?

Reizo Baka

Some other commenters explain that their goal is not to criticise without reason:

One more thing, like I had commented above, if you think we are criticizing at things, it’s not that we are not being grateful. We want for the betterment for all, and hence we VOICE OUT our concerns or dissatisfaction.

We should look at the positive sides of criticisms and not the negative sides. If we are to look at it as a destructive criticism, how can we face the ‘reality out there’?

Liza Michaelis

In fact the very reason why students are ‘complaining’ because they at the same time wishes to see certain important noticeable issues needs to be improved and taken seriously which at the end eventually help the university to reach up to par in their standards among other neighbouring universities

Fahme Mahusin

The issue of gratitude, or lack thereof, seems to come up when you believe that those who are being critical are opposing the very nature of the thing they are commenting on. But critics are not necessarily enemies.

In the above comments, the UBD students are not necessarily combative or unsupportive. It is true that in any situation, some people will complain because they are “spoiled”, or because complaining is “in their nature”, or because they will “never be satisfied”. This is a fair point, but I also think it is fair to ask such people, “What is your vision? What would satisfy you?”; we may be surprised.

Criticism comes from a place of dissatisfaction. In the case of the UBD students, when they say they are not being ungrateful, I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Would UBD students not want their university to become better? I see their criticism as an indicator that they share the same goal of wanting UBD to be a better educational institution. The dissatisfaction emerges because they do not agree with the way the goal is being pursued; they perceive that their expectations have not been reached. Should you easily dismiss those who have the same goal as you?

Debates aren’t always clear-cut

One might suggest that the commenters of the Syariah law implementation, from either side, do not have the same goals. On one side, for example, the goal may be a nation that pursues the religiousness of all its residents. For the other side, their goal may be a nation where people are free to be as devout or as passive as they wish. It would not be surprising, in this case, that there is such a polarisation of opinion. Arguing that the other side is “right” or “wrong” may be long and fruitless, because in the first place, they are not aiming to achieve the same things.

But it can depend on how you frame the argument. The Syariah law discussions can be reframed to argue that both sides desire the same goal after all, religiousness and peace. The UBD student discussions can reframed such that the goals are different: the students’ goal is for access to better learning resources, while the administration’s goal is to achieve status.

Such are the ways in which discussions and debates can be manipulated to sway their readers. Exaggerated comments are not helpful:

Brunei is the first and only country I know where human rights are actually DECREASING over the years.

Anon-non

We should be aware when a comment is made without considering context, or when generalisation is insufficient to argue a point. Here, a UBD student points out an instance of generalisation:

Im sorry Mr David Cheok but your personal experience cannot be used to generalize the entire population, specifically the youths studying in higher institutions

Asyiqin Dlmn

It is also good to realise that the local media has its own motivations and priorities, and are also subject to possibilities of human error and misunderstanding:

headline says mix response but story is only one sided.

true86no

People are not perfect, they tend to exaggerate about stuff when being interviewed, and the interviewer might as well misunderstand what the speaker might say. My point is that there is a possibility of either two parties, tersalah cakap or tersalah tulis. Or even tersalah faham. The outcome of any of these three errors, may trigger unnecessary effects.

Guest

The two sides of an argument are not always clear-cut. Perhaps, what is more useful is to look for overlapping goals, and finding this common ground may be more useful in understanding other perspectives. This is useful for two things: to become better at writing informed, empathetic critique; and to become better at receiving and dealing with criticism.

Why can’t we question the government?

There is a notion that the government, a potential target of criticism, cannot be criticised. I am reminded of the issue of last year’s directive from MUIB (Majlis Ugama Islam Brunei), that prohibited non-Muslims from eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadhan. One of the common defenses of this policy was that we should not question the decision of the MUIB, or by extension, the government.

It seems flawed to suggest that we cannot criticise the government. From my humble experience as a former civil servant, guess what? The government is actually made up of people. Rules, processes and policies are created by them. They are as human as could possibly be – they pick up their kids after work, they get cranky when they’re hungry, they’re happier when their annual leave is approaching, they offer to buy you “tapau” for lunch, they take cigarette breaks for 15 minutes – the list goes on.

People working in the government have made mistakes while designing systems or writing policies. They sometimes lacked insight, or asked too few people for feedback. Maybe they were rushing because they had two other tasks, and one of them was for their Director or even an SUT. People in the government are not perfect – far from it.

It does not mean they do not their best. Yes, there are people who are do minimal work for their salary, but I’m not here to bitch about them. I have seen my share of people who actually want to do a good job. Civil servants who aim for effectiveness, or efficiency, or being considerate; people who care about giving good service to the public, or doing their best within their job. (Often, what they see as “their best” can be stretched even further, but this is a human development problem, and is another story altogether.)

The lowdown is, civil servants can be short-sighted or make mistakes. Thus, the government is not perfect and flawless, and it is natural to follow that improvements could be made.

There have been times in which the government has demonstrated that their word is not absolute. The Land Transport Department, in May 2010, announced it would begin enforcing a change to vehicle license plates, requiring all vehicles to switch to new license plates by January 2011. A month later, the decision was changed to only affect 3-letter license plates, likely in response to public reactions.

Though perhaps a trivial example, it was a policy affecting a wide range of people. Although triggering a second round of grumbling, because of the short period of time in between decisions, the retraction ultimately lifted a possibly unreasonable burden from many people. It shows that it is not impossible for the government to listen. In the case of the MUIB directive, when it is argued that the council must be trusted despite their insular decisions, Jay Johar points out that even the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) remembered to consult others (“A Reaction To The Statement By MUIB“, mujahidjohar.net, 3 Aug 3013):

3. “If Muslims in the country do not trust the council, how can we uphold Islam (in the country)?”

The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) consulted his peers and the people for policy changes and governance. If the council is not listening to their peers and the people of Brunei, whose example are they following?

Jay M. Johar

Let us not perpetuate a culture where government agencies choose to retain the pride of “being correct and infallible” over other things such as efficiency, or harmony among people.

2

Critique, more in-depth than criticism?

The fleetness of criticism in Brunei

While we can improve the way criticism is written, whether by being more open to other perspectives, or to be aware of how a certain topic can be “spun”, I wonder if we can go a step further with the culture of criticism in Brunei.

Again, criticism is not hard to find in Brunei. Popular outlets for criticism online include rants on Facebook, grumbling on Twitter, spontaneous responses to articles. They are not always fleshed out, or backed up with good sources or convincing arguments, or perhaps even insightful. It’s fine, you know, to just state your opinions – I do it too – I just feel that it can be a tiring and hollow experience to only ever see opinions and ideas stated in brief, without being elaborated or developed further.

With such outlets, comments have a characteristic of being  “live” and “fleeting”, and I see a few problems with this:

  • Live: We tweet at the moment, as something is happening. We tweet what we think, without reflecting. Our thoughts are unstructured, one-sided, or incomplete.
  • Fleeting: As a consequence of “liveness”, thoughts may be fleeting, hurried, seemingly with no expectation of being revisited.

This can be expanded to the nature of Twitter and Facebook posts, which – posted “live” – seem as if they are meant only to be read in a brief period afterward. Searching for specific posts on either Twitter or Facebook is not easy. This makes it difficult to revisit discussions, to add new insights and discuss them within the same context. The resultant conversation may not be understandable if you are were not originally a part of it. It is difficult for there to be continuity.

It could be argued that I am trying to force “traditional” forms of criticism into another medium – one that deliberately limits space, and lacks a sense of permanence. They are just different mediums, perhaps not meant to contrast, but to complement each other. My worry is that, when expressing ideas and opinions, many people use Twitter and other similar microblogging platforms exclusively, in place of other platforms. In doing so, they would always be constrained by the live and fleeting nature of Twitter.

Koo Jin Shen describes how we react to the dozens of headlines and photos in our day-to-day digital lives (“The thought process in the digital age“, The Brunei Times, 11 Jul 2013):

For every story, we have an emotion, a singular twinge of either happiness or sadness, a reactionary moment where we either want to laugh or cry at a story. And thanks to modern technology, we can share this singular moment with all our friends and family within an instant, as well as the story that prompts the reaction.

And if we are feeling particularly angry or especially happy about a piece of news, we react by posting comments, typed out often with the emotion of how we feel at that very moment — angry, sad or otherwise. Seldom do we think further about that particular story beyond how we felt, because we are already rushing to the next piece of big news, the next article, the next piece of information.

Koo Jin Shen

I do think it is possible to have meaningful discourse on Twitter – just not ideal. It certainly helps if you have a succinct way of sharing your insights, and if your followers are particularly responsive. There are also ways to curate conversations to make sense upon later review, for example via Storify or upcoming Twitter features.

In any case, we shouldn’t just stop halfway at comment debates or conversations in blocks of 140 characters. Our population is increasingly becoming more informed and formally educated. I’d like to see extended thought, explorations of ideas – critiques. If something has been done “wrong”, ask more probing questions: why isn’t it working, what are the consequences, how does this link to the bigger picture? If something is “good”, I’d like to see an exploration of that too.

Many instances of critical thinking are, in fact, the result of ongoing reflection. They may be further refined by exploring related ideas through reading, doing research, talking to others, or even when we let our thoughts wander and be “incubated“.

Admittedly, I may also be nostalgic for a time when people took to blogs to express their thoughts. In Brunei, there appeared to be a peak around the mid-2000s. Faiq Airudin has pointed out how, later in the decade, the activity in the Brunei blogosphere waned. (“Brunei Online: Platform Websites“, Open Brunei, 27 Nov 2013)

In place of blogs, “platform websites” have attempted to fill the gap. A few of these websites put an emphasis on critical or reflective writing, such as The AMO Times, Songket Alliance, and even Open Brunei (a website I co-run). Tumblr and Facebook, though described as microblogging platforms and social networking platforms, also allow long posts, and have been used for such purpose.

Although I look forward to the development of the writers on these websites, I do not know if it is enough to promote a culture of writing or debate. These websites exist in fragments, not interacting or referring to one another; their readership may not overlap; the rate of discussion is low. Yes, they focus on different topics or styles of articles, so it isn’t that they are not doing enough; perhaps we just need more of such websites, or ways to bring together such articles.

Progress beyond numbers

I have mentioned the government, with respect to giving criticism, but there are other areas that can be critiqued.

Some of us in Brunei identify as “creators” or “initiators”; just think of anything that is self-initiated, for some purpose or vision. Bruneians make art, perform, develop apps. Bruneians start groups, clubs, or even associations and companies. It doesn’t have to make the news, or have a logo to represent it.

I am interested in seeing how Bruneians develop their interests – whether personal or commercially motivated – and share their results or talents with others. I believe that in this process, we also learn and try new things; and sometimes we fail, for a variety of reasons. I believe that “progress” – in the sense of our efforts to reach our goals – can be made if we are open to receiving feedback, and use it to grow.

Aside from the “fleetness” of various outlets of criticism, we are also in a world where acknowledgment and approval is measured in the numbers of likes, loves and shares. As creators or initiators, we could be lazy and accept that these numbers have defined our popularity. We could be content and imagine that people love us; that they are happy, and will continue to be happy, to “follow” us.

But for some of us, this is honestly frustrating. I would like to know what people think about the writing or topics in Open Brunei; I would like to know if people shared the Brunei-Muara Metro Service post because it had made them think, or because they were impressed that some Bruneians had made something, it doesn’t matter what. Of course it feels great to receive a glowing comment, and it is humbling when people reshare posts, but it only brings us so far if we are aiming to improve quality or achieve certain milestones.

Progress in the bigger picture

Taking it further, how do different individuals, groups and bodies come together to reach common goals? We may speak in terms of industries: the “creative industry”, the “ICT industry”. We may speak in terms of things happening around activities and initiatives: the “music scene”, the “volunteering scene”, the “startup scene”. Such terms imply interconnectedness, but I am not convinced that the various parties involved, within each scene or industry, are so in sync with each other. This is where I think we need more critique.

This may sound odd, as a co-founder of B:Read, but I can’t tell you how tired I am of seeing suggestions – occasionally submitted as letters to newspaper editors – to improve our reading culture in Brunei. We know some of the problem areas: the narrow variety of books available in bookstores and libraries; the lack of role models who read. There is also a range of concerned parties and stakeholders: educators, language teachers, librarians, parents, employees of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language & Literature Bureau). Perhaps you, whether or not you are a part of any of these parties, could wait for stakeholders to solve problems. You could write a letter to the editor or start a new forum topic, stating your opinions, hoping the “authorities” will do something.

But how useful or effective is this, really? Critiques, longer articles with contemplation and reflection, could be more persuasive. A critique would be insightful, perhaps considering wider contexts to make observations that, from their own individual perspectives, each stakeholder cannot easily see. A critique would consider what has already been done, instead of assuming that nothing has been done; if the critic doesn’t see progress, they will make sure by doing the research. If they have noticed some progress, the critique would not conclude that that this is enough; they may reflect on whether the progress is substantial or implemented well. A critique has to do more than stating opinions.

This is why news articles, as they are written now in Brunei, are not enough. If we, as creators and initiators, or as civil servants or their critics, are sometimes short-sighted – I have written before about how LegCo is one big progress update - critique would help us to see broader views. But the media exacerbates the attitude of short-sightedness.

In an admirably honest article from a senior reporter in The Brunei Times, it is shown how a habit of self-censorship in the media, and a culture of being media-shy and risk-averse in all levels of government, leads to a system where the local media tends to report but does not critique (“The Case for Press Freedom“, Quratul-Ain Bandial, The Brunei Times, 4 May 2013):

We are reduced to becoming merely stenographers for government officials, without getting the other side of the story.

Quratul-Ain Bandial

The article goes on to address the restrictions on local media, the custom (and emptiness) of “event-based reporting”, and of both journalistic and governmental accountability to the public.

How can we get a sense of progress and continuity, instead of rehashed topics, endless launchings, and words without substance? How can we get excited about development in our country; about things that are happening, whether initiated by the public, by companies, or by the government? How long can you keep working towards your goals or visions, if you do not (and do not allow others to) ever review your failures and lessons?

3

A few points of interest

Where can critique be published?

I seem to be suggesting that local newspapers become a medium to promote critical writing. It may be wishful thinking that I still look to the local newspapers for written content, especially in an age where you can create as many blogs as you want under one Tumblr account. But when our most-read print media in Brunei still mostly consists of local newspapers – widely found in kadai runcit and cafes, from public waiting areas to managers’ desks – could you not help but wish that, with such an audience, the news could be less “event-based” or “one-sided”?

Alternatively, there are definitely benefits with publishing on the online world, where you have more flexibility and control, and it easier to start. New writing platforms such as Medium and Thought Catalog offer spaces and tools for writing that “increase depth of understanding” and encourage writing that is “entertaining, journalistic, and literary“.

Lastly, I have mentioned that good writing from Bruneians does exist, but on different places on the Internet. Perhaps there could be a way to bring together or curate such pieces, making it easier to view different perspectives around topics. Topics could be revisited or reflected upon, without needing them to be “live”.

Censorship and negotiating boundaries

You may ask: why introduce a new column or outlet for critique, when the government might shut it down? As Quratul-Ain Bandial comments in her article on press freedom:

Quite simply, because information matters.

Information empowers people and guides them in their choices in life. And in order to make good choices, we require accurate and balanced information.

Quratul-Ain Bandial

I feel these are uncertain times with regards to censorship of opinions and comments. There are laws in place to deal with irresponsible writing, panic-mongering, and “sensitive topics”. But all of us – including the media and the government – should appreciate that critical writing is not (or should not be) irresponsible or destructive.

Sports writing is apparently a strangely critical area of journalism in Brunei, supposedly because “it is obvious if you are doing badly” in sports. This is evidenced by a frustrated piece written by Jason Thomas after the 2013 SEA Games, “Brunei continue tradition of disappointing Games (The Brunei Times, 24 Dec 2013).

To some degree, criticism from columnists also seems to be acceptable – with appended disclaimers, of course – as demonstrated by Koo Jin Shen’s Excessive Thoughts column in The Brunei Times. After the conclusion of the 23rd ASEAN Summit last year, he commented on the attitude of “most Bruneians” – or indeed the population of any ASEAN country - towards such forums, and the political role our countries play:

…[T]he official note[d] that while they understood the decision, but were saddened by the fact that being a “source of excitement” the US President will not be coming. “I’m sure people looked forward to the pageantry of a presidential visit,” said the official, “particularly of Obama’s celebrity.”

This comment is more akin to a cancellation of a Justin Bieber concert then the fact that someone considered the most powerful man in the world has to deal with political issues that do impact cooperation between the region and the United States.

Koo Jin Shen

He has managed to criticise and reflect without causing controversy. He expressed outright disappointment with the Creative Industries Forum in 2012; his article about the reality of Brunei’s dependencies on the oil and gas sector received a civil response: “Nothing exceptionally new here”. The lack of fuss over his articles is not necessarily because of discreet or indirect criticism, but perhaps due to his writing in an even, nonprovocative tone.

There is also the possibility of inwards criticism. I have mentioned earlier the challenges surrounding the reading culture in Brunei. B:Read is still an outsider, with limited experience and reach, compared to the experience and impact of those working in schools and public libraries. I would like to hear those who are “insiders” talk about the challenges. Does the lengthy government procurement process affect buying books for libraries? Are there difficulties in crafting reading programmes? Are there tensions between the roles of schools and librarians, and the roles of families, in cultivating reading habits? These are all potentially fruitful topics of discourse, and in fact, I have heard all the of the above issues being raised – but almost never in an official capacity.

Certainly, there may be concerns about being completely transparent, such as whether it leads to reduced public confidence. After the policy change for vehicle license plates, this Letter to the Editor implies that backtracking on the policy exposed uncertainty and incompetence:

Now, the Land Transport Department (LTD) is retracting its statement, and only imposing the changes on cars with the new, three-letter license plates.

It looks as if the LTD is kicking back on its heels, and only realised that they have made a mistake.

This does not look good for the department, and in such blunders, it will be the head that will become the scapegoat to be sacrificed.

So if the director wants to save his job before its too late, he must present himself before the public and explain in complete transparency as to how these changes have come about; from the start of these plans to the final implementation.

Abang Di, Jerudong

I do not agree that it is bad to admit to mistakes. As I mentioned earlier, policies are created and enforced by human beings, and they are not immune to making mistakes in the process. However, I do understand the concern of maintaining the “trust” of the public. I would argue that persisting in implementing controversial policies, without addressing concerns of the public, does not inspire trust. It is similarly difficult to maintain trust when you feel that you are not being given the whole picture. As Jay Johar says about the MUIB decision (“The Directive (And Why It’s Wrong)“, mujahidjohar.net, 27 Jul 2013):

If the government has its reasons, they should make it public and transparent. The public can scrutinise these reasons and decide if they’re reasonable. It is not enough to just say ‘we have our reasons’ or ‘we have done the required analysis’ and never publicly release that analysis.

Jay M. Johar

I’m not suggesting we force organisations to air their dirty laundry, and to shame them for it. It is understandable if there are minor screw-ups or misunderstandings. What may be of genuine interest is if there is a pattern of screw-ups, for example, or a pervading sense of thoughtlessness towards other ethnicities, or a continual dissatisfaction with a school’s administration, and so on. Perhaps, the approach should be to not focus on the minute details, but to look for patterns that could lead to critical analysis.

Accepting criticism

What goes hand in hand with being able to critique? Being able to accept critique.

Criticism may sometimes come from “outsiders” – those without inside knowledge of your field or industry, without experience of the nitty-gritty details of the job. Your first instinct may be to feel offended; then you may dismiss the remarks.

In all fairness, we can’t take in every piece of criticism. Priorities may come first; if you have a clear strategy and someone has proposed one that goes against it, then you may not be able to consider it. You may have limitations such as manpower or money or approvals, and as such you’re just not able to do certain things… at least, not at this moment in time.

But we must keep in mind that not all dissatisfaction is unfounded. Their perspectives may show something we do not see.

When a video was released by a backpacker last year, criticising the surroundings in Bandar Seri Begawan as well as Brunei’s royals and its people (“Monkeetime Brunei | Tattered and Brainwashed“, MonkeeTime, 26 Aug 2013), what followed was a stream of hate mail; the intensity of the hate was more distressing than the video itself. Yes, the video may be infuriating to some; but look at the content, at the dissatisfaction he faced as a tourist. While his comments are deliberately provocative, it does not mean that others did not share his experiences.

Fighting back our instincts – taking criticism personally, and to immediately take a defensive stance – could help us to look past the stylistic tone of a comment and how it provokes us emotionally. On Reddit, where comments and content can be “upvoted” or “downvoted”, it is encouraged to upvote based on quality rather than similarity of opinion. As the reddiquette guide says, “Well written and interesting content can be worthwhile, even if you disagree with it.”

This approach could work even if the comment is positive, evoking positive emotions; looking past this, it may be that its content does not deliver the substance you are looking for.

4

TL;DR

(But dude, at least try to read some of it?)

In summary

Misconceptions of the critical:

  • Being critical is not being negative
  • Being critical is not being ungrateful
  • Debates aren’t always clear-cut
  • Why can’t we question the government?

Why go deeper? Why critique?

  • Criticism expressed via comments, status updates, letters to newspapers, are not enough
  • We need to seek feedback beyond “likes” and “shares”
  • We need to find the wider context, and seek continuity, in order to make real progress
  • This requires ongoing reflection, doing more than just stating opinions, and recognising one-sidedness

Some things to think about:

  • Where can we actually publish critique? Traditional print media, online publishing, or curate ‘em all?
  • Censorship and how sometimes it’s not a big deal
  • If we want to be able to write critique, we need to be able to accept it too

Your turn, go write something

Some ideas that could be further explored:

  • Culture of accountability and transparency
  • Culture of not wanting to offend others
  • Culture of dealing with failure and sharing its lessons
  • Culture of self-censorship
  • Critique as a form of support
  • Critique from outsiders vs. critique from insiders
  • Critique by medium other than writing – other ways to express ourselves, e.g. music, videography, art, lectures, debates

Also, there are a lot of things I don’t know:

  • How to debate “better”
  • How to tell someone you don’t like the way they’re doing something
  • How to actually write critiques

Closing thoughts

As I said, I have only taken you through my thoughts.

I am not advocating for more complaints. I’m not telling you to write irresponsibly. I’m not telling you to go ahead and insult others.

I am asking if we can accept that criticism doesn’t mean attacking others, and that criticism shouldn’t be taken personally. I am asking if we can sometimes not care about “looking good”. I am wondering if anyone else is tired of putting on a good face, of being diplomatic without moving forward.

I’d like to see more thoughtful, critical, and engaging writing. I’d like to know that, if I have to express my feelings about something, there is an environment where it is possible to do so.

 *

Much thanks to Faiq Airudin for feedback. Additional thanks to Teah Abdullah, Mohamed Nazmi, Mujahid Johar, and Kathrina Daud for discussions and ideas around this topic – yes, that was ages ago, but still!

Edits:

  1. (Added 5 Mar 2014) This post was written by Hazirah, who is also possibly a zebra. It’s not a huge secret, but since it has been asked, and since I write about transparency here, I’m putting my name out there. Bwoh :p
  2. (Added 5 Mar 2014) Because of the content of this post, I appreciate that some people felt pressured to write “insightful” things in the comments below! If you want to leave a quick comment, you may tweet me @possiblyzebra, or what the heck, write below anyway. Thanks for your comments.
03
Mar 2014
POSTED BY
POSTED IN Critical Me
DISCUSSION 12 Comments

12 Responses to : Criticism and Continuity in Brunei

  1. Jay M. Johar says:

    A great read.

    Even if my own commentary and views are similar to what you’ve presented here, I always find myself guilty of some of the transgressions listed.

    I would suggest that the lack of coherent, insightful and fleshed out criticism correlates with the rise of microblogging and fall of long-form blogging. The rise of Twitter and Instagram may contribute to criticisms being more of a TLDR of someone’s thoughts. 144 characters aren’t enough to present an argument. But it is great for knee-jerk reactions.

    The Brunei Times’s comment system (Disqus) also uses an upvote system like reddit. Unfortunately, much like Reddit, unpopular opinions are downvoted despite the quality of the argument. What is visible at the top then is not necessarily a well-formed response, but an opinion that resonates with most of Brunei Times’s online readership. I would suggest that the online BT readership is more liberal than say Borneo Bulletin or Brudirect. This then creates an echo chamber, with commenters agreeing with each other and having less motivation to explain their opinions and conclusions.

    But recent inflammatory comments on BT articles on the Syariah law has demonstrated that the Bruneian conservatives also comment on BT, albeit mostly downvoted.

    • possiblyzebra says:

      Hi Jay!

      Well, I wouldn’t say that I am a 24/7 critical thinker myself :) It’s just good to remind ourselves about what is hidden in commentary or discourse!

      I didn’t want to outright accuse microblogging of leading to less insightful comments. But in my opinion, yes, a habit of writing in blocks of short characters can condition us to not reflect on what we read or think, or as Jin Shen says it, to act on a singular, reactionary moment in time. What do you think about long-form blogging in this day and age?

      I think your point about the echo chamber (or circlejerk, if we want to get Reddity here) is an important one, though I didn’t address it specifically. “…with commenters agreeing with each other and having less motivation to explain their opinions and conclusions” – great point! I agree with you that the online BT readership – and their comment upvoting preferences – has a particular leaning. It’s not easy moderating that kind of comment space, though.

      • Jay M. Johar says:

        Long-form blogging is currently so far down from the peaks of the early 00′s, and I don’t think we’re due for a revival. But I do think that this means that this community is less satiated than the microblogging community.

        The few Bruneian blogs that are around don’t seem to focus as much on hits and pageviews, but more on feedback and commentary. The quantity has gone down, but the average quality may have gone up. Low effort clones of popular blogs have died out.

        Personal blogging has mostly moved to Twitter and Facebook and evolved to microblogging. Commentary blogging still thrives, albeit in lower numbers.

        Note that this is a personal observation, and not a statistical fact, so take it with a grain of salt.

        I didn’t want to use the word ‘circlejerk’ because I wanted to avoid having to explain the origins of the word. Hahaha.

  2. Epic Rouge says:

    Hey, I would have never expected an article in Brunei that is actually a critique of critique (ignorance on my part, perhaps). Leaving a reply, I feel slightly threatened and obliged to ‘have insight’, rather than leaving simple comments as we always do.

    So lets break the tradition of leaving ‘fleeting’ and ‘live’ responses.

    After taking my sugar sweet time of 40 minutes to read this write-up, I thought there were a number of things that deserve recognition:

    1) How in-depth this article is. The writer, with well-placed disclaimers, presented his thoughts and ideas in a manner that is really comprehensive. It should be no surprise that it took a long time to develop and eventually publish this article.

    There is one thing; an article that has taken so long to publish may be well-looked into or well-studied (as compared to fleeting responses), but there is also a risk of staleness. The writer mentions that the recent political developments in Brunei color the article, but quite on the contrary, I thought the article lacked freshness. It’s an article about an idea that has been sitting and marinating around; and while the writer did an excellent job stringing it altogether, it lacked the necessary urgency it should have had.

    This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make the writer look like an apologetic fellow making pleas. I must thank the writer, nonetheless, for such a great read.

    2) The writer referenced a lot of unofficial sources (which really is inevitable) as well as official ones (and some that lie somewhere in between?). It built a context surrounding what the writer concerned in writing. This is certainly very effective, and transparent too. The honesty and the direction of this article (as well as humility) is the much needed element in the critique which the writer so calls for (sadly, I shan’t develop this idea).

    Although I did flip when I saw thought catalog as a comparison to the journalism in Brunei. Sure, thought catalog is a new breed of journalism, very entertaining and the much-in-read thing for young adults; but it certainly does lack the depth that the writer is looking for. Go ahead and see for yourself (there are some articles about what sex feels like and it is material fit for young adult novels).

    In any case, this article is a must read for all those residing in Brunei (I used to) and all whose life concerns their country (and vice versa). I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you very much, Possiblyzebra.

    • possiblyzebra says:

      Hello and thanks for your reply! Really appreciate you taking the time to read my post closely and write down your thoughts. (I am sorry if my post has pressured people to “leave insights”! If anyone feels like this, you can still leave a brief comment or tweet me, it’s fine!)

      Good point about lacking freshness. No, it’s not a new idea to write about and I did consider there are many, many ways that Bruneians have been critical, not just in the recent year but throughout many years of Bruneians being on the internet. I scaled down my post to focus on recent examples. If you were referring to something else more specific in terms of the “risk of staleness”, I’d be interested to hear it. Also, I will admit on my part that I do find it difficult to get these kinds of posts done quickly.

      I’m not a Thought Catalog regular so I take note on your point! I was thinking of the aspects – which I thought were similar to Medium, but I could be wrong – allowing people’s writings to get out to an audience faster, in comparison to starting a blog and having to learn to promote it, in order to get an audience. What do you think about Medium though?

      Last thing is that I’m a “she”, though it doesn’t really matter. :)

      Thanks again!

  3. clovis lai says:

    Thank you for the time and thoughtfulness you put into this article. I wish more people like you and those you mentioned in your article would surface in our local popular media. I loved Quratul-Ain Bandial’s article you referred to for its clarity, honesty and truth. We can all learn together to move forward in how to have a constructive conversation and discussion that is meaningful and will engender positive change. I feel your article, late as it may be, is still valid and appropriate to help current commentators appreciate that perspectives may differ but acceptance of, openness and a willingness to listen to each other is paramount to making progress as a society of people living together in peace & harmony. My appreciation for your heartfelt writing.

  4. sai says:

    so true!, i agree. tapikan typical bruneian mun tane membagi cadangan,idea,kritik atau sebandingnya yang dapat negatif ans sja nda kana support, kena biarkan, kena ucap setau. mcm labih baik diam.

    • possiblyzebra says:

      Thanks for commenting! I agree that that’s a typical response, but that was why I wrote this article, hoping that people can understand why they need to see past the negativity. I know that sometimes “labih baik diam” will seem like the easier option, if you don’t want to offend friends or family, or feel that nobody is listening to you. To be fair kan, I don’t think it is easy to give criticism if someone doesn’t ask for it. How do you think people can learn to be more open to suggestions or ideas?

  5. Lish says:

    Hi Zebs! Well written article, i appreciate how much thought (& time!) you’ve put in to having this done. It is a very challenging battle to educate the general public or even some people in the gov’t to learn how to critic & accept criticism but we should start somewhere. I can’t tell the number of times I’ve been really frustrated on how criticism are always seen as “negative attitude” at work. I believe it’s about upbringing, environment and also education background.

    So as a parent, it’ll be my aspiration to instill this kind of thinking for my kids. (I can always use “because i’m your mother and i said so” card if i’m at the losing end) :P

    • possiblyzebra says:

      Thanks Lish :D I also hope that workplaces will become a place where criticism can be accepted so that standards of work can be improved. Coincidentally, I think my first workplace (i.e. your current!) was the same place where I was taught to be open to criticism :)

      Regarding parenting, I’m going to be cautious here – I don’t know exactly how to apply this to parenting! Remembering to state both negative and positive sides, maybe; teaching them to think critically, yes; but maybe there is a specific way to do it with kids and I wouldn’t know what it is! Hope you find a way!

  6. Pingback: Lei Sharia e a Liberdade de Expressão em Brunei · Global Voices em Português

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