The City

The City: Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo from

The Kampung as undefinable

The word ‘kampung’ has its roots in the colonial times derived from the word ‘camp’ as in site or an alteration on the word ‘compound’ which, for some reason, dictionaries seem to describe as a Far Eastern or African term for an enclosure of residences. Kampung itself by definition is a small village or an area of rural residence – that is outside of the city and beyond the urban zone. I do not know if these terms apply to Brunei as decisive as these definitions seem to clarify but what I am trying to get at is the suggestion of a geographical ‘outside’ (of the city) and of the theoretical ‘other’ (than that of the centre). Furthermore, from what I understand, in conversations I have had with people with more knowledge than I have regarding these matters, land division in many parts of Brunei remain tribal in nature thus affecting the sprawl as it were in developing parts of the country. But consider, for the sake of reflection, if these demarcations (even if imaginary) between rural and urban, between city and village, and between bandar and kampung, were simpler terms we could pursue for the sake of thinking.

Some people can experience the sense of displacement of being children of a generation who migrated into the urban city from the rural village. These people can utter the phrase ‘balik kampung’ (going back to the village) – a return to your place of origin, home. I remember I was 10 and I wrote a composition on ‘kampung saya’ (my village) and my first sentence was ‘kampung saya jauh dari rumah saya’ (my village is far away from my house/home). Undoubtedly this was flagged with red question marks and for the remainder of the text I was gradually graded down and questioned repeatedly. Of course, I was expected to write about my present dwelling in a village I lived in then – but this is a concept different to what I had known in using the word kampung then, so I wrote about the place my parents took me to every weekend when we had to ‘balik kampung’.

What is the kampung then, in this sense? For my parents (who were the migrating generation) it is their birth place, childhood, and home. For myself, the children, it remains a place, a figure, which has an abstract existence I can never fully comprehend. A home that was never mine, will never be mine, a momentary childhood in the distant memory of an almost irretrievable time. The journey from city to rural warps the senses. I remember vaguely the looping electric cables which line the roads as if to guide me outward and remind me of a civilization I’m leaving behind like a journey into the unknown. The landscape changes gradually but the difference is sharp between urban steel and green wilderness. The kampung haunts me with its existence as the other. It remains a calling to a home that is not home, a dwelling in an inhabitable space of an almost forgotten memory.

The kampung is the sense of the mystical. It is the place where extraordinary stories come from. I do not have the pleasure, now for this post, to share any particular Bruneian art, music, literature or film. However we are fortunate to see our thoughts reflected back to us in other ways. Consider the cinema, the journey into the rural serves as the basis of a plot in many films as a journey into the unknown (such as Apocalypse Now). Novelists have a tendency to morph the narrative of a returning home, to the kampung, into a pleasurable anxiety; the narrative of the individual being shaped by the city and his eventual return to his origin (such as the Bildungsroman). What can I say about art and the paintings which capture the countryside? They live in frames, in the concrete houses of urban zones – on walls they remain as a looking into another time, a calling, a remainder. They seek to articulate what is in their nature hard to describe. They signify an abstract line, a zone, a crossing into the other.

The undefinable under threat

In an essay entitled ‘The General Line’ addressed to Deleuze, Lyotard writes of a second existence called the no-man’s-land. Everyone has a domain in which it is separate from the general life everyone else sees. It is his and his alone and none of anyone else’s business. This domain is crucial to demarcate a general line and the right to this mysterious domain is the basis of human rights. Lyotard writes, humanity is only human if people have this no-man’s-land. It is not about some right to secrecy but a “right to remain separate, not to be exposed, not to have to answer to someone else.” This mysterious region is something for us to encounter. Lyotard writes of the no-man’s-land as something that is unexplainable in juxtaposition to man’s anxiety to explain everything under the scrutiny of analysis and the modern prerogative of rights. The anxiety of the general life looks at the no-man’s-land and is “haunted by the suspicion that there is something that escapes them, that might plot against them.”

The pathology of modern (sometimes labelled Western) thought is to have everything explained. It cannot withstand the infidelity of the unexplainable. The city has these symptoms. It is haunted by the otherness of the rural unknown. The city spreads its tentacles to seek out what is calling (but cannot be seen) and in the name of development it is looking towards the rural. The city’s pulse is high tempo, like its stream of cars along its grey urban veins, like the mass clicking of keypads, a noise which silences the call of the kampung. Slowly, time is consolidated and distance is reduced – if not geographically then technology makes it seem like locality is wherever you are standing. Your GPS will guide you and inform the world of your ever changing home – now everywhere is home. The city is bright, every dark corner must be lit – this is the consciousness about the unknown, about control, about management. It must render what it does not know to be on its own terms – seize, analyze and urbanize or else eliminate. Dreams for a metropolis are realized in the world’s biggest cities. In these places, there is no inside or outside, everything is the metropolis. There is no boundary to transcend for a destination into the rural. With their surveillance technology, camera phones, and communicational technology, everything is present and stored. What happens to those who forget about the remainder, whose calling is silenced, and deny the other? Is there a residue reminiscent of the kampung which digital memory tries to eliminate?

My intentions to write of the kampung in these terms are not due to nostalgia or a post-colonial agenda. Far from it, technological advances and digital proliferation calls forth an unrecognizable discomfort to which we must try to understand. In the momentum of rapid modernization, which is neither East nor West, we stand to lose something analogous to the kampung. Yet I do not know what exactly we are at danger of losing, as even the name escapes me. So does the very essence of what this thing is. I only know that this thing bids me to write and calls me to think in certain ways against what I would like to call technological thinking: seize and explain or eliminate. Technological thinking tries to bring an end to uncertainty, a totalising system of understanding to which the excess (which cannot be articulated or understood by the system) is contained or erased.

Categories: Culture, Philosophy


  1. Non Permanent Resident

    After doing some research, it’s not that kampung came from ‘compound’, but that the etymology of ‘compound’ is that it came to English from the Dutch ‘kampoeng’ which came from the Malay ‘kampung’ in the 15th and 16th century.

    So, as with other Malay words that have come into common usage in English (like amok, sarong, batik, gecko, cockatoo, bamboo, sago), don’t assume that kampung came from English (or Dutch), it was the other way round – Malay has contributed many words to the rich tapestry that is English.

    While researching this, I was surprised to find that the word I have been using my whole life – ketchup – is another word of Malay origin, not the other way around!

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