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International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259


Caught between tradition and modernity: technicalvocational education in Brunei Darussalam

J.R. Minnis

Department of Educational Foundations, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Bandar
Seri Begawan 2028, Brunei

In the Seventh National Development Plan 19962000, the government of Brunei Darussalam has stressed the need
to diversify the economy in an attempt to render the country less dependent on oil and gas revenues. Technicalvocational education (TVE) is part of the governments human capital approach to manpower development and is
thought to be essential to achieving economic diversification as well as a means to engage more Brunei citizens in the
development process. However, judging from recent information divulged by the government, the investment in TVE
has yielded low returns. Many Bruneians reject employment in the private and commercial sectors of the economy
thus raising questions about the long term viability of government policy. The paper examines the relationship between
Bruneis rentier economy and Malay-Islamic values as plausible explanations for the limited success of TVE. The
paper concludes by recommending policy options in the education and economic sectors that could conceivably enhance
the role of TVE during this period of economic transition. 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: International education; Educational policy; Development; Economics of education; Technical-vocational education; Culture and education

1. Introduction
Two questions guide this paper. First, why do
so many citizens in oil-rich Brunei trained in technical-vocational education (TVE) reject employment in the industrial and private sectors of the
economy? and second, what can be done about
it? As a small state (2226 sq. miles), Brunei is a
Malay-Islamic Monarchy located in northwest
Borneo. It shares the island with the much larger
Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Occupy-

* Address for correspondence: Box 4414, The Pas, Manitoba, Canada R9A 1R2.

ing the rest of Borneo is the Indonesian state of

Perhaps because Brunei only regained full independence in 1984, its history has often been incorporated into the histories of Malaysia and Singapore as a marginal British colony in South East
Asia (Sar Desai, 1994). The result is that Brunei
is often mentioned as peripheral to the more significant developments elsewhere in the region.
However, Brunei has made significant achievements of its own since 1984 but is presently experiencing difficulty in developing the non-oil and gas
sector of the economy. For some years, the government has embarked on an ambitious economic
diversification programme in an attempt to render

0738-0593/00/$ - see front matter 2000 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
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J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

the country less dependent on oil and gas revenues

and foreign labour.
However, despite the priority placed on TVE,
many graduates do not actively seek work in commercial or industrial enterprises, which the government finds troublesome. Out of a total of 4838
graduates since 1985, only 1372 are presently
working in private and public sector jobs for which
they have been trained. Three hundred and forty
four students continue their studies abroad while
the remaining 3122 are not working at all. Each
year, Brunei produces on average a total of 400
graduates in various technical-vocational fields, but
only 35% have permanent jobs. Currently there are
about 88 359 people employed in the private sector
but only 19 642 (22%) are Brunei citizens (Othman
and Clark, 1998, p. 1). As one official put it, without the active participation of locally trained citizens, the nation will not be able to realize its vision
to become a service, trade and tourism hub in the
region (Othman and Clark, 1998, p. 1).
The recent Asian financial crisis has only added
to the Brunei governments problems. The pace of
diversification has slowed due to substantial cuts
in public spending. The Brunei Investment Agency
(BIA) which controls most of the states assets is
thought to have lost 40% of its value during 1998.
Many of BIAs investments were locked into longterm securities in the region. Since Brunei is a net
importer of almost all goods, including 40% of
machinery and transport equipment, 28% of manufactured items, and 13% of food, its inflation performance is influenced significantly by import
prices. The Brunei dollar, which is pegged to the
Singapore dollar, fell by 9.7% from June to November 1997 (Economist, 1997, p. 46). Investor
confidence has not fully returned to South East
Asian markets at the time of writing.
Despite the different meanings the term development carries, in a wealthy country like Brunei,
development is officially treated as synonymous
with economic growth on the one hand, and
national unity on the other. As an Islamic state,
great care is taken to ensure that economic priorities do not outweigh religious/moral considerations. Bruneis development trajectory since statehood in 1984 is that of a petro or rentier state
dominated by the oil and gas sector and a huge

public sector. The result has been uneven development and limited state capacity to diversify the
economic base.
According to Middleton et al. (1993), whether
technical-vocational education can be an effective
means of increasing a countrys productivity and
economic growth is conditioned by that countrys
economic context. The rate and nature of economic
change conditions the patterns of employment and
skills needs in the society and thus determines the
incentives to individuals, employers, and society to
invest in skill development. In addition to those
who take an economistic approach, there are those
who argue that the cultural and political context
of TVE is equally relevant for the achievement of
development goals (Thomas, 1997; Brown and
Lauder, 1996).
Opening up a discussion around educational
issues in the context of a rentier economy is the
main objective of this paper. A second purpose is
to demonstrate how Brunei culture/values intersect
with the economy to produce a rentier mentality
that is not altogether congruent with TVE or education generally. The paper concludes with a discussion of policy options aimed at enhancing the
viability of TVE as Brunei struggles to diversify
its economy.

2. TVE in Brunei
The link between human resource development
and economic diversification in Brunei was first
highlighted in the Sixth National Development
Plan 19911995. High priority was placed on the
need to refine and expand TVE in tandem with the
skill/training requirements of the industrial and
commercial sectors that were still in a relatively
undeveloped state. During this period, the Department of Technical and Vocational Education was
formed within the Ministry of Education
(Williams, 1993, pp. 12).
Today, TVE comprises two types of institutions vocational schools (3) and technical colleges (4). Vocational schools are intended to train
young adults for employment, including apprenticeship training. They offer a comprehensive range
of programmes in a modularized format in such

J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

areas as Building and Construction, Electrical and

Electronics, Business and Secretarial, etc. Successful completion of these programmes leads to the
nationally recognized Trade Certificates (Ministry
of Education, 1997, pp. 2330).
The technical colleges offer a wider variety of
career, technical and vocational programmes for
students entering directly from the formal schools
or older adults requiring upgrading and re-training.
In addition, many government ministries operate
their own in-house training and education programmes.
The earliest technical-vocational school was
established in 1970 as an engineering craft trade
school. Since then, most of the expansion in TVE
has taken place in the 1980s. By 1995, the two
types of institutions had a combined enrollment of
approximately 2500 students (SNDP, 1996, p.
155). Plans to build two more technical colleges in
1999 have been put on hold due to the recent economic downturn. In addition, Brunei is home to the
South East Asian Ministries of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Regional Centre for Vocational
and Technical Education (VOCTECH Regional
Centre) established in 1990. The purpose of the
VOCTECH Regional Centre is to coordinate, plan
and implement training, exchanges, research and
information sharing within South East Asia.
The expansion of TVE reflects the Brunei
governments on-going commitment to a system of
integrated national training facilities with strong
links to industry, commerce and particularly to the
Shell Oil Company. A special feature of the oil
industry in Brunei is the privatized character of
ownership and operational control of the oil industry. Since 1913 the Shell Group of companies has
dominated the search and extraction of Bruneis oil
and gas reserves (Gunn, 1993, p. 118). Thus to a
certain extent, it would not be unreasonable to state
that the training and employment needs of Shell
have influenced but certainly not dominated TVE
practice and policy in Brunei.
In 1991, the Brunei Darussalam Technical and
Vocational Education Council was formed. As an
accreditation, monitoring and standard-setting
agency, the Council has performed a much-needed
coordinating and administrative function. The
MOE through the Council attempts to coordinate


and link education and training standards to the

present and future needs of industry. To this end,
the MOE has relied primarily on a competencybased approach to instruction the intent of which
is to maintain a flexible approach to meeting the
changing needs of clients and employers
(Williams, 1993, p. 19).
From their inception, the technical colleges and
vocational schools have proven reasonably adept
at delivering a wide range of subjects and programmes to students on both a full-time and parttime basis. However, enrollments remain persistently low while the number of teaching staff
remains high (approximately 500) reflecting a
student/teacher of about 5:1. Presumably, the underutilization of TVE cannot be rectified until more
Bruneians are willing to undertake training, or,
until the government makes greater progress in
diversifying the economy.

3. Rentier economics
Examining the nature of the rentier economy
may enhance an understanding of the ambiguous
status of TVE in Brunei. The rentier state concept,
or the notion that states based upon external
sources of income are substantially different from
states based on domestic taxation, was first proposed with reference to Middle East countries such
as Iran (Mahdavy, 1970) and Libya (Mabro, 1969;
First, 1974), although the concept itself can be
found in early Marxist and neo-classical economic
theory. Other useful sources include the work of
Mahdavy (1970), Beblawi (1987) and Franz (1990)
and more recently, Shafer (1994), Noreng (1997)
and Amuzegar (1996) have added considerably to
our understanding of rentier economies.
With reference to Brunei, Colclough (1985)
claims that as recipients of substantial foreign
rents, the economy is extroverted in the sense that
the key industry export of oil and gas effectively dominates and retards potential production
in other sectors of the local economy. In fact, the
historically poor performance of the small manufacturing and industrial sectors in Brunei suggests
that these sectors have contributed little to the GNP
since independence in 1984 (Economist, 1997). In


J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

rentier states generally, the government (or public

sector) becomes the major employer in the economy. Potentially productive sectors, such as agriculture, tourism and heavy manufacturing, are left
relatively undeveloped and often remain untouched
beyond that worked by foreign interests. In
addition, rentier states tend to foster an inverted
pyramid of social classes. A middle class not
engaged in directly productive sectors emerges
which some analysts maintain has the effect of
widening income and social inequalities in the
society as a whole (Noreng, 1997).
Further explanation is provided by Gunn (1993)
who writes, in rentier economies there is no nexus
between production and income distribution since
revenues accrue directly to the government not
through any production process but from oil taxes
which come from outside the country (p. 114).
Thus rentier states differ structurally from other
states in the advanced industrialized and
developing countries, particularly agricultural or
manufacturing exporters, whose products are not
depletable or necessarily state-owned or strategically important, as capital intensive, or as foreigndominated as petroleum. Petro states also differ,
albeit to a lesser extent, from tin, copper, and other
mineral exporters, which share many of these
properties but differ with regard to the magnitude
and duration of their extraordinary rents.
In Brunei, the emphasis on TVE rests on two
human capital assumptions that, on the surface at
least, seem more appropriate to a non-rentier economy. The first is that there is a strong relationship
between the formation of the type of human capital
needed in the economy and the skills presently provided in TVE programmes. The second assumption
is that private firms are (or will be) in a position
to take advantage of the greater educative capacity
of trained workers. There is no available evidence
supporting either assumption (Minnis, 1997;
Siewee, 1993; Thambipillai, 1992). The presence
or absence of locally trained workers, up to now
at least, much like the experience of petro states
in the Middle East, has little or no bearing on the
performance of the rentier economy (see Amuzegar, 1996; Noreng, 1997).
The disjunction, so to speak, between TVE and
the rentier economy may be related in part to the

way in which the rentier economy influences public policy and bureaucratic decision-making. Karl
(1997) suggests that the steady influx of petro dollars hinders the search for independence from oil
rents and contributes to a rentier mentality. Hence
the covariance of weak states with oil rents which
tend to transform social and political structures in
such a way that formidable barriers to change are
created. These barriers lock countries into the
initial choice of a rentier development path. They
effectively distort the public sector by expanding
jurisdiction and undermining authority precisely
when the challenges facing the state require it to
be the most cohesive. When the international price
of oil and gas declines, as it has recently, petro
states are particularly vulnerable due to the inexperience of the bureaucracy in planning, organizing
and implementing policies in other sectors. Also,
when oil revenues fall, sometimes the states
extraction costs rise dramatically because the authorities find it difficult to exploit new revenue
sources with the efficacy required to offset lost revenues (Noreng, 1997).
In regard to educational planning, it is puzzling
why decision-makers in Brunei find the human
capital paradigm so captivating when it would
appear to be unrelated to the countrys economic
well being. Perhaps one reason is the Brunei
governments admiration of the performance of the
near-by Singaporean economy and the way TVE
has been socially engineered to meet the demands
of industry (Lim, 1995; Soon and Stoever, 1996).
It is well known that Singapore has been highly
successful over the years in marshalling and
deploying human resources in ways that support
economic policy (Morris and Sweeting, 1997).
Based on their analysis of the Singapore experience, Ashton and Green (1996) employ the term
developmental state model to describe a model
of skill formation in which the states political and
economic goals are used as a basis for the definition of a nations skill needs. The needs of
employers or individuals are basically left out of
their model. Training policy is then directed at
ensuring the requisite human resources are in place
to achieve these goals.
It would appear that policy makers in Brunei
have borrowed the developmental state model

J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

unwittingly. And yet, without going into detail on

the differences between Bruneis economy and that
of Singapore, it is clear that Singapores economic
success is based on a fundamentally different set
of economic principles. Therefore, the Brunei
governments quest to redirect the economy away
from dependence on oil and gas revenues by
enhancing the stock of human capital will likely
remain unachievable until such time as the private
sector begins to develop. In addition, the emphasis
on human capital formation in public policy tends
to be overshadowed by the powerful and constraining influence of Brunei cultural values and religion
on economic activity directly opposite to the
experience of Singapore where Confucianist
values, a strong state and the need for ethnic harmony have combined to produce steady economic
growth and national prosperity (Tan et al., 1997).

4. Theoretical and policy issues

TVE as preparation for employment at the basic
occupational levels is a field which is contested in
many Western industrial countries, usually taking
the form of a debate between advocates of the
school versus advocates of the corporation as the
proper locus of training (Masri, 1994). The school
model, wherein responsibility for vocational education lies with school authorities, is pitted against
the working life model. In the latter, the
employer or firm is thought to be the most appropriate provider of vocational training which quite
often involves shared arrangements with school
authorities. In each approach, there is a mix of onand off-the-job learning and formal educational
provision (Skilbeck et al., 1994).
However, the affluent rentier states, including
Brunei, have followed an entirely different development trajectory than Western industrial nations
resulting in far greater uneven economic development and social imbalance. High per capita
incomes, guaranteed government jobs and the
ready availability of unskilled and semi-skilled
immigrant labour have appreciably reduced the
need for locally trained manpower. Thus Western
debates over the proper role, financing and function of TVE are not altogether relevant in the con-


text of rentier economies. On the contrary, it could

be argued that the contribution of education to
economic growth has been minimized and perhaps
even constrained by virtue of the high levels of
affluence created by a steady stream of oil and gas
revenues and their subsequent re-distribution in the
form of jobs, free housing, education, health and
welfare services.
In a related sense, the concept of the vocational
school fallacy put forth by Foster (1965) is applicable to rentier states. That is, general education
itself may be perceived as vocational in that it
opens doors to secure employment with the largest
employer, the government. In rentier states,
research reveals that government jobs provide
higher salaries and fewer demands on ones working time than the more cost-conscious private sector. Hence the difficulty in convincing people of
the need for education and training (Devlin and
Jewson, 1995; Amuzegar, 1996).
In short, the cradle-to-grave welfare state based
on oil rents owes little, if anything, to the productivity of its citizens. Instead of achieving high
levels of educational attainment benefiting all
classes, the priority of oil exporting countries has
concentrated on educating their economic and
political elites. As a result, high adult illiteracy,
income inequality, and inequity in the provision of
formal education characterize rentier economies
generally. For example, El-Ghonemy (1998, p.
100) estimates that despite huge investments in
education, there are presently about 80 million illiterate adults in the Middle East, representing
roughly one-quarter of the total population. One
would have expected the affluence of rentier states
to be positively related to measures of educational
quality, but the reverse holds true for many countries. Country data compiled by UNICEF show a
connection between the inferior quality of primary
education and dropout rates among children of
low-income and illiterate parents (cited in ElGhonemy, 1998, p. 103). Moreover, the effort in
education amongst oil rich states suffers from a
political bias against the countryside, against the
poorer parts of the population and against women
(Richards and Waterbury, 1990, p. 112).
Further, the existence of a link between education and economic growth, whether rigidly or


J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

loosely planned, is a feature of modern national

economies but is not so self-evident in rentier
economies. In the industrialized economies, such a
link is the result of manpower needs derived from
economic targets fixed by planners and the productivity levels underlying the targets. Policy makers then determine as rationally as possible manpower projections on a sectoral basis, by
occupational category and by educational level.
The final manpower demand is then expressed in
terms of educational targets. In this context, TVE
and education generally are seen as both a cause
and effect of economic growth.
Once again, with reference to the Middle East,
it is clear that militarization has been a prominent
characteristic, in terms of its share of total imports,
of public expenditure and of national income, compared to the shares of health and education. As a
result of these distorted priorities, issues pertaining
to accessibility, quality and equity have tended to
characterize discussions of education (Devlin and
Jewson, 1995; Noreng, 1997, pp. 184197). The
Middle East and North African oil producers,
through their economic monocultures, are highly
vulnerable to the cycles of a single commodity
market. Significantly, periodically high revenues
brought about by sudden increases in oil and gas
prices have not led to substantial economic diversification. The only exceptions are smaller rentier
economies such as Kuwait, Oman and the United
Arab Emirates but they still continue to be largely dependent on oil (Morsi, 1990).
In Brunei, one can detect similar patterns. Military spending has superceded spending on health
and education thus resembling the situation in the
Middle East but with slightly better results.
Although government expenditures on security,
which includes the army, airforce and police,
amounts to about 13% of the total development
expenditure, only 5.7% is allocated to education
(SNDP, 1996, p. 171). Despite this, enrollment in
primary education has been virtually universalized
in Brunei while secondary and university
enrollment ratios continue to increase. In contrast
to the Middle East, the adult illiteracy rate in Brunei was about 10% in 1995 compared to 20% a
decade earlier with near parity between males
and females.

Briefly, with respect to rentier economies, the

literature seems to suggest the following: (1) The
relationship between TVE and economic development is highly problematic, that is, TVE can be
carefully planned on a one-to-one correspondence
to work-force requirements but this does not
guarantee that worker productivity will result; (2)
The skilled labour market in rentier states has a
low degree of institutionalization. Most recruitment does not take place through formal channels;
selection is strongly influenced by personal and
family connections (Salmi, 1991, p. 58). The implication is that entry of graduates into the labour
market is sometimes unaffected by specialized
qualifications. The value attributed to TVE, as a
result, is diminished; (3) Educational planning in
terms of work-force requirements provides useful
estimates, but work-force requirements can never
control all educational target setting; (4) There is
no strong relationship between production volume
and total employment and its distribution by occupations. In this respect, a distinction must be made
between genuine industrial occupational needs
and job vacancies in planning.

5. Brunei culture
The role assigned to education, training and
technology in any society will vary according not
only to cultural norms, but also to particular stages
of economic development (Bhala, 1998). While
analysts generally agree that education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for economic
growth, they are less certain about the specific role
culture plays in this whole process (Ashton and
Green, 1996; Tilak, 1994).
An examination of Brunei culture is necessary
to gauge the probable impact local norms and
values will have on TVE. Brunei is an amalgam
of Islamic and Malay civilizations. Due to its small
size, relationships tend to be multiplex in the
sense that social roles and responsibilities intersect
and serve many interests simultaneously. Anthropologists inform us that standards of judgement
tend to depend on who people are rather than what
they do in contrast to larger states where social
roles are more likely to be universalistic

J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

(Lowenthal, 1987). Brunei Malays see themselves

as a homogeneous collectivity and are socialized
to get along with one another and subordinate personal ambition to the common good. Finding equilibrium, harmony and balance in all things is
highly valued (Brown, 1970; Maxwell, 1996).
Bruneians share many values with their South
East Asia neighbours including the preference for
consultation, consensus and indecision over contention, debate and litigation. Also prevalent is the
tendency to defer to authority and support strong
forms of punishment as a deterrent to and retribution for crimes. In short, these values give the
peoples of South East Asia a common outlook and
to some extent, provide the foundation for regional
political and economic cooperation (Mauzy, 1997).
Other anthropological studies reiterate the
highly collectivist orientation of Malay culture
with its rigid stratification system and strong family and kin ties (Blunt, 1988; King, 1994; Mulder,
1996; Brown, 1976). Utilizing Kluckhohns (1962)
notion of universal categories of culture, the
Dutch organizational theorist Geert Hofstede
(1991) posited four dimensions related to basic
issues that all cultures face: (1) human inequality,
(2) uncertainty about the future, (3) the relationship
between the individual and the collective, and (4)
the duality of the sexes. Hostede argues that our
cultural learning or mental programming begins
in the family, develops in schools, and continues
in the workplace. The culture of the workplace,
therefore, reflects the larger culture of which it is
In the only study of its kind done in Brunei,
Blunt (1988) applied Hofstedes theory in a study
of professional workers and found that they exhibited: emotional resistance to change; aversion to
risk-taking; preference for clear organizational
goals and structure; preference for clearly stated
rules and regulations that should not be broken;
aversion to conflict; and mistrust of foreigners as
Formal institutional arrangements probably matter less than do the informal connections of mutual
trust based on past personal services, kinship and
on exchange of protection from above for support
from below (Brown, 1970). Although the society
appears modern to the outsider, it is in fact


organized on traditional customs, rituals and

norms. Social roles are defined in kin terms, and
may indeed frequently be filled in terms of the kin
positions of their occupants. Ones place in society
is based on an elaborate ranking system. Therefore,
political, economic, ritual and other kinds of obligations are superimposed on each other in a single
idiom. This strengthens all of them: one cannot
ignore ones kin of obligations, for instance, without imperilling their relationships. The price of
such strengthening is that all spheres of life
become fairly rigid, and innovation, technical or
otherwise, is rendered that much harder (King,
The social visibility and authority of relationships is fortified by a plethora of ritual reminders:
as in a military organization, discipline is enforced
by a proliferation of minor rules and hence
additional possible transgressions, the avoidance of
which puts a heavy burden on each individual and
keeps them in awe of the social order. Roles are
thus stable, ritually orchestrated, and are simultaneously internalized and externalized. Such predictability endows individuals with an identity both
secure and inescapable. Brunei citizens know only
too well who they are and what is expected of
them; their prospects of redefining their identity are
therefore problematic.
Having said as much, does Malay culture
impede success in a capitalist rentier economy? A
difficult question to answer, but it would appear
from the available evidence that economic competitiveness is tempered by the value given to
maintaining smooth, conflict-free social relationships. Implicit in perceptions of Malay culture is
the assumption that because they value smoothness
in interaction, they do not work hard, i.e., they lack
the work ethic. As Tamney (1995, p. 100) aptly
concludes, what Malays lack is not a willingness
to work hard but the spirit of capitalism.

6. Challenges, problems and prospects for

When TVE in Brunei is understood within a cultural and economic context, contradictions
immediately present themselves. First, while there


J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

is strong public participation and state support for

general education, the same cannot be said for
TVE. It is assigned a relatively low social status.
Second, whereas TVE is legitimized as a modernizing influence, it seems to be feared for the
same reason. The resulting ambiguity over the relative place and value of TVE is therefore understandable but is such ambivalence conducive to
economic diversification?
In Brunei, high levels of public consumption is
bolstered by high per capita incomes which in turn
creates a state of dependency on imported commodities of all kinds. The implication for education
is that there are no strong links between the proceeds of production, effort and incentive; therefore,
it is difficult to convince parents and students alike
that their present or future level of economic well
being is tied significantly to education and training.
Beblawi (1987, p. 52) has shown how a rentier
mentality is derived from a rentier economy. The
former implies a break in the work-reward causation where reward or wealth is not related to
work and risk-taking. A further implication for
education is that Brunei students are not likely to
be motivated by the need to get a job. Consequently, it is questionable whether or not teachers
can effectively alter or modify student tendencies
to achieve at minimum performance levels.
The indifference toward learning displayed by
students, compared to the rather more urgent need
to obtain a credential, is not unique to rentier
states. However, in Brunei, while there is considerable social pressure placed on students to achieve
and obtain credentials, this is not manifested in
their examination performance. At the secondary
level, from 1985 to 1994, only 9505 out of 32 885
or 29% of the GCE O Level candidates successfully obtained a minimum of four credits. The
number who obtained two or more A-Level passes
was 1549 out of 5483 or 28% (Peng, 1997). This is
in sharp contrast to the performance of secondary
students in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia
(Tan et al., 1997).
This author has argued elsewhere (Minnis, 1997)
that the combined effect of such values on education unfortunately results in the institutionalization of form over content wherein students are
rewarded for formal compliance with modest per-

formance requirements rather than for demonstrating operational mastery of skills deemed economically and socially useful.
To return to the economy, Colclough (1985) predicted that compared to the high-tech extractive oil
and gas industry, Bruneis social base would
remain undeveloped; agriculture and other domestic industries would remain stagnant or decline.
Typical of enclave economies, effective linkages
between the oil sector and other economic sectors
have not developed in Brunei despite government
efforts to the contrary. Colclough (1985) argued
that the rentier economy is in fact an inversion of
the development process in so far as it creates a
need for a service sector almost exclusively as the
employer of numerous civil servants, technicians
and technocrats. Devlin and Jewson (1995) and
others (Karl, 1997; Shafer, 1994) have noted similar patterns in other petro states. Thus the rentier
economy appears to be a plausible source for the
indifferent attitude directed toward manual and
semi-professional occupations.
Thanks to oil wealth, the Brunei economy did
not pass through early and late industrialization
phases as was the case with many of its neighbouring countries (Bhala, 1998). Rapid structural
change took place in the postwar period transforming the country from an agrarian to service
sector society in a very short period of time (Franz,
1990, pp. 129131). Thus while in 1947 more than
50% of the population was employed in the primary sector, by 1971 this figure had declined to
just over 10%. Today it is even less (SNDP, 1996).
During the aforementioned period, the service sector grew from around 30%, while the secondary
sector remained the same (Gunn, 1993, p. 117).
The rapid shift from agrarian to service sector
society, and the ability of the state to purchase
immigrant labour to build up and modernize the
country, meant that it was not essential to educate
and train Bruneians beyond minimal, socially
acceptable levels.
Therefore, within a stable economic and political
environment, there has been no pressing economic
need for the education and training system to
develop the capacity to shift gears or rapidly
respond to global forces. In the absence of
regional/global competition, firms have not con-

J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

cerned themselves with worker productivity; hence

the lack of on-the-job training. In this environment,
schools are under no pressure to engage in the
development of skills relevant to the workplace.
This accounts for the huge gap between educational output and the knowledge/skill requirements of private sector firms (Minnis, 1997).
Because the secondary curriculum offers little in
the way of vocationally oriented courses, selection
and streaming processes are not connected to economic or employment requirements (Thambipillai,
1992; Siewee, 1993). As a result, education and
training bodies and private firms are poorly positioned to engage in collaborative action needed to
enhance human resource development as envisioned in the SNDP.
The socially disabling effects of the rentier economy is given further meaning when juxtaposed
with research indicating that there is a positive correlation between individualism and innovation
(Barrett, 1985). And yet, individualism, innovation
and risk-taking are qualities of little cultural import
in Brunei. Research indicates that the greater the
freedom of the individual to explore and express
his or her views, the stronger the chances of
accepting or deriving new ideas. Mokyr (1991)
suggests that for any society to be technologically
creative, three conditions must be present: first, a
sufficient pool of resourceful innovators willing to
take risks; second, economic and social institutions
organized to encourage potential innovators; and
third, diversity and tolerance and a willingness to
challenge the dont rock the boat mentality
which impedes technological progress. In contrast,
Blunts (1988) study showed that in Brunei, the
workers first priority is to find their rightful place
in the organization in a way that conforms to their
place in the larger society.
Another factor detrimental to economic diversification is the ambiguous position taken toward
development. While the Brunei state has taken a
high-tech road to development, it remains suspicious of outside forces that are deemed to be
inimical to traditional cultural and religious values.
In Brunei, like other rentier states, the nature of
the economy seems to have skewed the political
system to a point where oil revenues are excessively centralized and controlled by state actors as


much for personal gain as for achieving national

development goals (Cause, 1994, p. 42). The
notion of prebendalism, used by many analysts to
describe the rent-seeking behaviour of African dictators in the post-colonial era, seems perfectly
suited to describe the behaviour of political leaders
in Brunei (Lofchie, 1993, p. 443).
But economic factors do not tell all the story.
Devlin and Jewsons (1995, p. 16) observations of
Qatar suggests that technological advances represent an alien Western importation that may not
be altogether congruent with Islamic precepts.
Technology is conceived as something that is
externally driven, impersonal and devoid of a cultural soul. Moreover, technical knowledge is
thought of as morally neutral and utilitarian,
restricted to the acquisition of certain technological knowledge and skills to qualify for a job (p.
17). Similar attitudes have been expressed in Brunei. The recent widespread use and popularity of
the Internet, for example, has caused considerable
consternation amongst religious leaders in Brunei.
This has led many to wonder how long the authorities will tolerate such developments.
It is by no means clear how these conflicting
tendencies can be easily reconciled in Brunei without considerable changes to education, cultural
values and attitudes and social policies. It is quite
likely that TVE will continue to be problematic for
some time thus hindering the pace of diversification.

7. Policy options and conclusion

In an exploratory way, this paper has attempted
to shed light on the culture-economy nexus in Brunei and the resultant implications for TVE. The
conservative and collectivist nature of the culture
in conjunction with economic affluence conspires
to create a rentier mentality resulting in an indifferent attitude toward education, training and work.
Oil wealth has created an extreme confidence in
the ability of the state to provide for all. The idea,
prevalent in South East Asia, that education is the
key to success, is not so clear or so self-evident in
Brunei. Within this milieu, a low social-economic
value is placed on TVE that is at odds with public


J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

policy, a paradox the government has found difficult to resolve. The paper concludes by recommending three interrelated policy changes that
will hopefully lead to a closer correspondence
between public policy and TVE in the near future.

governance as a means to enhance the economic

diversification process. This does not auger well
for the future but nonethesless, economic diversification may well have a salutary impact on political processes and eventually lead to a more open,
pluralistic political system.

7.1. Encouraging greater openness in the


7.2. Implementing new modes of production

One strategy which the government is pursuing but not quickly enough is to encourage
more foreign investment in the private sector and
speed up efforts to privatize the economy. Privatization and direct foreign investment could conceivably generate more local competition resulting in
well-remunerated technical jobs.
Opening up the private sector would help to
undermine traditional scientific management practices which impede firm productivity. Research
indicates that most Brunei firms are small and conservatively managed; managers monopolize and
control every step of the production process
(Siewee, 1993; Thambipillai, 1992). In this
environment, workers tend to defer to managers
and owners thus reinforcing high power distance
and low individualism, traits that are inimical to
worker productivity.
If firms wish to compete internationally, they
will have to reconsider their definitions of worker
productivity. Worker participation schemes and the
simultaneous adoption of merit and performance as
criteria for hiring, recruitment and promotion must
take precedence over ascriptive hiring criteria.
Continuing discrimination against ethnic Chinese
and indigenous peoples will only slow down the
pace of change and in the long run will work
against economic diversification.
Evidence from the Middle East suggests that for
those countries that have experienced some success
in diversifying their economies, breaking out of the
pattern is as much a political as an economic problem (Noreng, 1997, p. 205). It requires change in
power structures and decision-making. The
absence of representative political institutions
complicates the accommodation of social and generational change and the redistribution of income.
Unfortunately, the Brunei political elite has shown
little willingness to explore alternative modes of

A new understanding of productivity is also

required if Brunei firms are to gain any sort of
comparative advantage in regional/global markets.
Various commentators (Porter, 1990; Castells,
1993) have argued that in the global economy productivity is more of a network than a hierarchy,
in which production is determined as much by the
educative capacity of workers as finance capital.
Throughout the world, mass production systems
are being replaced by far more efficient modes
such as flexible-volume production, lean production or just-in-time production. These systems rely heavily on information technology,
skilled workers and bottom-up management
These new modes of production compress the
hierarchy of the workplace, radically redistribute
power within the firm downward, put a premium
on short-term, problem-driven training and establish a more equitable and mutually dependent
working relationship between employees and
employer. Knowledge, information and technical
competence are the new raw materials of international commerce (Carnoy, 1993). A consequence
of economic diversification in Brunei is that newly
formed firms will have little choice but to compete
not only with their Asian neighbours, but also in
the global economy. Thus the attitudes and skills
of workers toward new modes of production, work
and effort are critical to firm productivity. In this
context, there is a clear need to institutionalize onthe-job training and worker upgrading schemes.
Brunei policy makers must also be sensitive to
the fact that despite the recent economic downturn
in South East Asia, industries througout the region
have become more human-resource driven and less
manufacturing intensive. In nearly all countries,
the capital-labour ratio has declined considerably
over the past twenty years (Ilon, 1997, p. 158).

J.R. Minnis / International Journal of Educational Development 20 (2000) 247259

Changing global production has led to an increased

demand for schooling in general, and higher education in particular. As global production changes,
local context and responsive policy have combined
to create an environment conducive to higher education expansion. Introducing new and more flexible modes of production in Brunei firms may have
the same effect in so far as it could expand the
need for trained manpower thus enhancing the
cost-effectiveness and social status of TVE.
7.3. Integrating technical-vocational education
into the secondary school curriculum
Most educators would concur with Tabbron and
Yang (1997) that a synthesis of the vocational
with the general, the technical with the liberal, and
the theoretical with the practical should form the
basis of the future curriculum at all levels of education (p. 329). Unfortunately, Bruneis secondary curricula reflect opposite tendencies.
Presently, there is an inordinate emphasis on
examinations, early selection and didactic teaching.
While it would be wrong to cite these as causal
variables, some believe they are largely responsible
for the low academic achievement that plagues the
system (Cheong and Nuttman, 1995; Peng, 1997;
Minnis, 1997). Technical subjects are taught only
at the Upper Secondary level and then merely as
electives (Jones, 1996).
Economic diversification means that the Brunei
government may have little choice but to radically
modify the secondary curriculum. In this regard it
may prove useful if secondary education and training priorities were set with reference to a whole
range of cognitive and affective outcomes measured by a system of learning assessments. The current misalignment of curriculum priorities is harmful since it ignores the value of skills critical to
developing productive workers, i.e., teamwork,
cooperation and group problem solving (Levin and
Kelley, 1994). Productivity in a firm depends not
only on the aggregate of capabilities of individuals
taken separately, but also on the development of
effective interaction patterns and team work
(Bowman, 1995, pp. 6975).
Oil rents are the cause of persistent rent-seeking
behaviour that results in a bias toward the pursuit


of unproductive activities, leading to poor development outcomes. Understanding the rentier economy is thus critical to our understanding the incongruity of poor development with huge investments
in education in Brunei and other rentier states. Yet
it is also important to comprehend the underlying
political and institutional processes that set off
economic laws and market forces in the first place
and that subsequently form strong barriers to
necessary readjustments in the economy.
Just as all narrowly economic activity is embedded in a web of social institutions, customs and
beliefs, minerals too derive their economic significance from the social and political relations arising
from their utilization. The point this paper has
stressed is that the fate of Brunei and its educational institutions must be understood in a context in which the rentier economy shapes institutions and, in turn, is shaped by them.

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