This is the extended version of the interview with Santika Apri in Perspectives: Skin Colour in Brunei.

University of Exeter

There are only two Bruneian students, here in Cornwall Campus, currently, and I think there are 22 Bruneians studying in Exeter’s Main Campus. Cornwall is probably the warmest place in the United Kingdom (it took us a while to join the rest of the country when every other county were snowing). It definitely is one heck of a place and different from anywhere else. Cornwall gets really busy over the Summer, it’s practically a tourist destination. Everyone’s so friendly and we’re all on first name basis with our lecturers and staff members.

I live right by the harbour in Falmouth and my flatmate has the view of beautiful sunsets. The beach is only a 10-minute walk away, and over late spring to early Summer, that’s where I’d hit the books instead of the library to revise in the sand and sun. I can’t describe how aesthetic and romantic the place is; you just have to come here and see it for yourself. For the outdoors and adventure seekers, a lot of students take part in activities such as windsurfing, sailing, surfing, trekking and even cliff diving! We’re so famous for our fish and chips as well, all of my friends who’s visited me and tried the fish and chips from Harbour Lights crave them when they go back to their homes. It’s an award-winning fish & chips restaurant and I completely understand why. The seafood, oh my goodness, is delicious here. There’s a variety of restaurants on the high street but the seafood is the best. Underneath my flat is a celebrity chef’s restaurant, Rick Stein’s, and they sell scrumptious dishes.

Education and academic-wise I couldn’t have asked for a better place to study. Its very student friendly and the support system reassures any student that you’ll finish the course smoothly and successfully. I picked the university because it’s Top 10 overall in the league tables of U.K. universities, and it was the only one out of two universities in the country that runs a joint honours course of Geography and English. Furthermore, Geography and English departments in Exeter also scored Top 10 in the subject tables. The study environment is astounding and I can understand why it was awarded 2013’s The University of The Year by the Sunday Times.

The university has an array of subject choices where one can study a combination of the subjects they like. I’ve always has a hard time choosing  my degree path during my UCAS applications and I was really thrilled to know that I didn’t have to give up on Exeter. The university allows me to study two subjects that I love and have the best of both worlds.

Both subjects are equally amazing and I wouldn’t have traded my experience as a joint honours student. I enjoy the variety and the different things I learn from both areas. I can’t say which is my favourite module because I had the freedom to choose which modules I wanted to do and none were a mistake. This year my favourite module in English would be “Sex, Scandal and Sensation” in Victorian Literature. The title pretty much says it all. It’s… scandalous. As for my favourite Geography module this year, it would have to be “Cultures of Empire”. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of imperialism and issues of identity, race and culture. It’s so close to my heart especially for a Bruneian whose country has only been independent from British rule for 29 years now. Also, the best thing about Geography is of course the field trips! I had the opportunity to practice an ethnographical study of New York City last year. Under the supervision of our lecturers, my course mates and I learnt how to conduct, manage and present research and learn how to do fieldwork.

The Role of Education

I’ve always been an enthusiastic learner and being a student gives me that independence to learn with other people who share the same interests as I do. I can’t thank His Majesty the Sultan enough for giving me the opportunity to learn in such a reputable university. I enjoy what I do and InsyaAllah I’ll be able continue studying until I become a specialist in something. I’ve always been passionate about education, and my mom and dad has been supportive all the way throughout my educational life. I am currently going through Masters applications and I hope everything turns out well because I’m not stopping until I attain a PhD. Research is something I enjoy doing and I am having the best time of my life working on my dissertation at the moment.

Education is improving in Brunei and it’s a popular topic discussed in tabloids of Bruneian newspapers. I’ve read an interesting BT article on Twitter, and in the article, Professor Dr Hans-Dieter Evers proposes Brunei as a nation that exports knowledge. I completely agree with him because Brunei has bags of potential. There’s plenty of intelligent people who have been carefully chosen by the government as an investment to improve Brunei.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a Research Symposium being held here in April and the theme this year is “Towards a Knowledge-Based Economy.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Kudos to the organisers for initiating such an innovative conference, that not only engages academics and researchers, but also sharing knowledge between policy makers and representatives from the governmental sector. Here’s one stepping stone in developing Brunei as a knowledge hub.

How the idea came about

Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought about this research if I wasn’t forced to. The dissertation is a module in itself and I kinda have to do it. I am currently working on a Geography dissertation and it was really hard to come up with an idea at first. Under the pressure of time, I wrote a list of the things I am really interested in. I noticed a pattern and that was the representation of women’s appearances. This included the usual, fashion, makeup, bodily representations in the media, etc. But what was most close to my heart was the skin whitening culture in Brunei.

So I thought, of exploring the reasons to why a skin whitening market exists in Brunei. Korean cosmetics just started booming a couple of years ago and I thought… “WHY?” Skin whitening BB-creams was, at some point, a beauty essential and it’s still rather popular today. I read into a lot of articles and academic journals and there was plenty of research done on skin whitening amongst a sample of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians and Africans but none (that I could find) was about Malays. So, boom, I had it, an opportunity to contribute knowledge about Malays in Brunei.

Academic Framework

For English, one of the module readings was a novel called “The Beetle”. I highly recommend it to everyone, it is absolutely bizzarre, and one of the themes is centralised on Orientalism. Written during the period of British Imperialism, the orient is represented based on nineteenth-century imperial discourse. The orient is described as having yellow and ugly skin that not only distinguishes his physical appearance as different but also evil and dangerous. There is a constant paradox between the ways the British and the Other was represented especially with regards to white and yellow skin, good and evil, modernity and barbarism, etc. In most contexts even way before the time of British imperialism, the positive connotations of whiteness and negative associations to darkness can be dated centuries ago in many cultures. My dissertation incorporates these theoretical perspectives to explore Malays’ associations of skin colour and how it came to be so.

Observations at school

Before Jerudong International School (JIS), I was in Paduka Seri Begawan Sultan Science College (MSPSBS). In MSPSBS, the majority of students were Asians and there was a general fear of P.E. when we were forced to play sports outdoors especially if it was a bright, cloudless, sunny day. If we had the choice between going outside or staying inside, the majority would stay not only due to the heat but also the fear of getting darker.

Having moved to JIS for A-Levels was a weird transition for me. There was hardly any conversations about a fear of getting dark, but a fear of being burnt in the sun. My Caucasian friends would wear sunblock to enable them to be out in the sun and go shades darker and retain it without being burnt causing skin dryness and peeling. Back in MS, we lather sunblock on with the hopes of not getting dark. Also, in the UK when the sun is out everyone rushes to go to the beach and hopefully get a tan. It is indeed an eye-opening experience being assimilated to different cultural environments and I’ve learnt that there’s different perceptions of beauty and attractiveness for different people.

Makin Hitam

We don’t say tanned in Malay; the everyday discourse we use – the terms we use to describe people – are usually putih and hitam. “Makin hitam,” people say, usually as a negative remark. But no, you don’t get black. Some people get really tanned but no, not black. On the contrary, people generally call fair skin “putih”, which means white, and it is positively received if someone says it to you. I know a lot of people with medium, brown skin who would identify themselves as “hitam” and in fact some people with fair skin who too think themselves dark. I’ve never questioned the reasons behind the idea of having white skin as an accomplishment, because I too shared the same beliefs. It is until I received compliments from my Caucasian friends, who said they want my skin; that pretty much shook my world.

We use contrasting words, “hitam” and “putih,” black and white but no one or even rarely people say tanned or “kuning langsat”. That is one of the things I wish to understand.


I was afraid of the potential of this research being sensitive, because skin lightening isn’t just an element of beauty. It poses issues about social processes, class and gender. But after talking about it with several friends, though some people were shy, none were offended about it. Skin lightening is a norm in our society and I’m thankful for those who has participated in my interviews and questionnaires.

Additionally, some could approach the issue of skin colour preferences as a racial preference. They overlap, but the meanings of skin colour extends beyond categorizing a person to a particular race. My dissertation aims to explore the associations and different meanings of skin colour and the implications it poses on our society today.


Interview: Faiq Editor: Faiq & Hazirah

Categories: Culture

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