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The Handicraft Series:
1. Silverwork - continues to flourish
2. Weaving (Tenunan) - an art into a tradition
3. Kris - the Malays' unique and ancient weapon
4. Songkok - the cap that became a symbol
5. Tudung Dulang - a dish of a cover
6. Weaving (Anyaman) - the hobby that became a traditional art
7. Brasswork - another ancient craft of Brunei Darussalam


Wearing a headgear has always been part of the Bruneian male's dress since time immemorial. This was especially so in the old days when different headresses were worn, which more often than not reflected the individuals' stations in life, both for formal and informal occassion. This of course, not the case today; except perhaps during rare ceremonial events.

Generally the man's headgear in Brunei Darussalam can be categorised into three kinds: dastar which is a piece of cloth tied around the head; songkok or kopiah, a type of cap made from velvet; and tangkolok or serban, which resembles a turban and is a typical headdress in the Middle East.

Unlike the dastar, which is also known as tanjak and has existed in Brunei Darussalam since time unrecorded, songkok and serban were introducted to Bruneians by Arab traders - some of whom doubled as Islamic missionaries - more than six or seven hundred years ago.

While the origin of the serban has never been doubted, much speculation has been made about the songkok simply because it is no longer seen among the Arabs. Nevertheless according to a research it did originate from the Middle East and was later brought to India, where minor improvements like putting papers inside to make it firmer were made.

Fig.1 Songkoks of various colours to suit individual tastes

The songkok became a familiar sight in the Malay archipelago around the 13th century when Islam began to take roots in the region. The rise in popularity of the songkok were apparently viz-a-viz the propogation of Islam, and this was quite logical because the religion encourages it followeres to cover their heads. In fact it is considered sunat (voluntary good deed) for the Muslim males to don a headgear provided that is is done in good taste. The serban was also very much in evidence at about the same time but was worn more by the ulamas (Muslim scholars) rather than by man in the street.


Malay craftsmen of that period started to improve on the original kopiah, which was somewhat round, and came out with a slightly oblong songkok with horizontal top. Their creation served as the model for songkok makers that followed and survived to this day, albeit with some modifications along the way such as sewing pieces of paper between the linings, which are always satin to make it sturdier.

Fig.2 Newly completed songkoks with some of the parts to be sewn.

After a period of time the wearing of songkok became a tradition and synonymous with being a Malay. Thus a symbol was born. Gradually it replaced the dastar as part of the Malay's national dress on most formal occassion.

Today, like other gears, the songkok comes in many colourful variations to suit individual tastes and styles. It is not, therefore, unusual for a man to have ate least two different shades to go with his equally colourful national dress and other attire. Some men like to have their songkoks made to measure - even if it means that they have to pay a little bit more - so that they can incorporate their own innovations as well as select the type and colour of the velvet to mirror their individuallity. Others who are more economy minded, prefer to choose from the wide variety of ready-made songkoks available in many of the shops in town.

Fig.3 Black is the songkok's original colour. White songkok are normally worn by men who have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca


Songkok sales are normally high at the approach of Hari Raya, which is the festival celebrated to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, as parents upgrade not only their own wardrobes but also those of their children. Because of the religious significance of Hari Raya, the songkok is worn by practically everyone, young and old.

The value of songkok-wearing are communicated to the young both at home and at school. An adult may not want to put the songkok on all the time but he will certainly wear it on various important occasions including religious activities and state functions. Naturally there are people who habitually wear the songkoks most of their waking hours. In former times such act was usually associated with piety but nowadays people put the songkok on merely out of a desire to fulfill traditional religious requirements or both. Some government servants are given songkoks with the appropriate decorations as part of their uniforms.

Fig.4 Songkoks with coloured bands are issued to government servants to go with their uniforms

The are of songkok-making had not been quite as well established in Brunei Darussalam as those of Bruneians' ancient arts and handicrafts such as brass and silver-crafting, cloth-weaving, wood-carving and basket plaiting but to mention a few. Though the existence of these ingredients crafts was well known, the actual know-how was nevertheless a closely guarded secret and possessed only by a coterie of family members who learned the skills from their elders just as they themselves did, and those before them. If was not until the mid-seventies that serious efforts were initiated to encourage the traditionaly craftspersons to pass on their knowledge to those outside their family circle.


Thus in 1975 the Government set up the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre (BAHTC) where young school leavers learn from the master craftspersons themselves. With that the survival of one facet of the country's cultural heritage was assured. Songkok-making joined the other courses three years later. So far more than 30 students have completed the 3-year songkok making course and have been using their hard gained skills to earn a living or side-line income.

One of the more senior students, Dayang Hajah Asnah binti Haji Mudin, rejoined the BAHTC in 1983 as an instructress. Her skills and experience have enabled her to produce up to three songkoks a day. But she pointed out "this depends on the intricacy of the designs. For example, the more the patterns or decorations the longer it would take to finish a songkok."

Fig.5 A student sewing an inside part of a songkok

Besides skills, patience and an eye for details are two important assets a songkok-maker should have as the various parts are sewn separately. The main ingredients of a songkok are cardboard, velvet and stain. The cardboard has replaced the old method of using pieces of paper as stiffener. When all the parts are sewn they are then assembled and knitted according to the shape, height and head size required before the velvet is stitched on.

Songkoks with horizontal or level top remain the leading choice among the majority of people but there are others who like to have a bump that resembles a far-away-mountain in the middle of each side of the top. In addition, there are songkoks without the stiffener and can therefore be folded up or flattened.

To meet the increasing needs of Bruneians and make the distribution of its products easier, the BAHTC plans to open up branches in the country's other main towns. It also keeps up with advances in technology and will soon introduce songkoks made of plastic, which are expected to be more durable than the present type.

With the popularity of and demand for songkoks getting bigger all the time, the budding songkok industry is one enterprise that will bloom to its full potential without hinderance.

Fig.6 Traditionally songkoks are worn with the national dress, which comprises a loose, long-sleeved shirt with unfolded collar or without collar, a pair of trousers and kain samping (a type of sarong tucked around the waist, over both shirt and trousers).

Source: Brunei Today published by Information Department, 1994


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