Ambassador Caryn McClelland (front row kneeling, fourth from left) and Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan staff and family members join the Brunei-U.S. Association’s Ramadan charity drive in Temburong, Brunei, April 2022. The annual event helps distribute household necessities to families in need. Photo by Sarina Yasmin Mueller
By Jeff Barrus
The woman never intended to build her home in a swamp. The lot her stilted house sat on could be dry for much of the year, but this year the monsoons had been fierce, leaving her living above standing water that invited in the full insect onslaught of Borneo. The Brunei-United States Association’s (BUSA) group of roughly two dozen volunteers had come bearing charitable gifts for the holy month of Ramadan—cooking oil, rice, dried noodles, and juice boxes—and the woman’s eyes lit up with gratitude. As the forest dripped down on the corrugated roof of her porch, it was another reminder that prosperity is not always spread evenly.
It was also a reminder of the reach of BUSA, the organizer of this annual Ramadan charity drive. Not only had they identified this widow and a dozen other deserving recipients, all of whom opened their homes to the group over the course of the day, but they had also partnered with the Brunei Four Wheel Drive Association to get the group into any otherwise inaccessible locations. For a small post like Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan, BUSA has been a major key to doing more outreach in more areas than they could otherwise.
BUSA is a social organization for Bruneians that also does charitable work. It promotes networking and coordinates service and charitable projects. It was established in 2014 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U.S. diplomatic relations with an independent Brunei and inaugurated under Ambassador Craig Allen. Its first president was Taher Ali, the country manager for the energy technology corporation Baker Hughes Brunei, and its mandate was to foster social, cultural, business and educational ties between Brunei and the United States. Its formation, however, was not without hurdles. Under Brunei’s Emergency Powers Act, in place since 1962, the process of registering new NGOs and associations in this tightly controlled monarchy is arduous, involving multiple government ministries with final approval granted by the Registrar of Societies, which falls under the Royal Brunei Police Force.
BUSA started slowly, pulling in mainly graduates of American universities, alumni of government exchange programs, and businesspeople with connections to the United States. The group’s first meet-and-greet was held at a local bowling alley. Over the past three years, however, BUSA has picked up steam, growing membership from 75 in 2019 to 184 in 2022, partly by starting up new student chapters.
The group has also gotten more ambitious in the types of projects it has taken on. It has conducted regular soft-skills workshops targeted at youth between the ages of 18-25 on everything from enhancing critical thinking skills to preparing professional resumes. A sign language workshop (that used a mix of American sign language and the local sign language) helped connect young leaders to Brunei’s often marginalized community of individuals with disabilities. The group involved the embassy in a program to promote and preserve the use of Malay in Brunei, and it has hosted discussions that helped link Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) alumni to students thinking of joining this key U.S.-led regional network.
Salimah Saim, the current president of BUSA, said the main reason people join the group is to learn more about higher education opportunities in the United States and programs offered through the U.S. embassy.
“By joining BUSA, they get the opportunity to learn from other proactive professionals, thus not only broadening their knowledge but also strengthening their network,” said Saim. “BUSA also provides them with volunteer opportunities so that they can give back to the community and develop their mentor[ship] and leadership skills.”
Saim hopes to continue BUSA’s growth by pulling more non-official Americans into the organization—not a simple task in a country with a large British expat community and few American workers, teachers, or students. She also hopes to strengthen partnerships with local NGOs and universities who want to facilitate U.S.-Brunei exchange programs.
BUSA is a natural partner for advancing mutual goals on climate issues in an organic, grassroots way. The group regularly organizes group hikes and trail cleanup projects in the hilly jungle that surrounds Bandar Seri Begawan. These are always covered by local media and serve to highlight U.S. government messaging about the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability.
In April, BUSA convened a panel discussion with the newly appointed head of Brunei’s Climate Change Secretariat to discuss climate change impacts on Brunei and how the country was working to mitigate those through its national climate change policy strategy. The event, which coincided with the Our Ocean 2022 conference co-hosted by the United States and Palau, was a perfect opportunity for Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan to make two points. First, the climate crisis is very much an ocean crisis. Second, the United States is committed to championing ambitious global targets for ocean conservation, including conserving or protecting at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. These key messages were covered by Brunei’s largest newspaper because of BUSA’s event.
In eight short years, BUSA has strengthened Bruneians’ connection with the United States and given them more ways to connect with the embassy than would have been possible otherwise. BUSA also keeps the embassy in touch with local trends and opinions, particularly among Bruneian youth.
Jeff Barrus is the public affairs officer at Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan.