Feature Story – Tuan Zainal Abidin

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tuan2At the age of 65‭, ‬Zainal Abidin Hj Ibrahim has seen it all in the art industry‭. ‬Today‭, ‬he operates out of a small boutique called Batik Desamas where he personally takes orders and custom designs traditional batiks for customers‭. ‬

The humble little store on the first floor of Bangunan Sumbangsih Mulia has led to Zainal Abidin showcasing his batik clothing range around the world, in countries like Korea, Japan, UK, Vietnam, Oman, Thailand and Bali. Zainal has a clientele which includes government ministers and top business people in Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak. When there are state functions in Brunei that require local traditional designs Zainal is often the one who is called upon to fill the order. In fact, he remembers in the previous ASEAN Summit having to stretch himself to take measurements of the very generously sized US Senator John Kerry.

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The reason why Zainal remains grounded and seemingly contented with his tiny operation is that he has seen many ups and downs in life. Speaking to this slightly wrinkled soft-spoken gentleman, you could almost sense that there are very few things which impress him nowadays, but he still has a passion and love for the arts and crafts that he creates every day. When asked, how he would describe his profession, he said first and foremost, he’s an artist. And batik costumes is the vehicle which he uses to express his creativity. An artist indeed, Zainal started his career with the government as an illustrator in Language and Literature Bureau Department. He remembers quitting his high paying job to pursue his own business, Ibrahim Publisher. During that time he had to live on a shoestring budget in order to make ends meet. His friends thought that he was crazy, but he had this profound sense of wanting to create his own destiny. Through hard work and perseverance, Zainal received a contract to publish Royal Brunei’s inflight magazine, Muhibah, in the late 80s and that’s when things started looking up for him.

Zainal was able to express his creativity through designing the layout for the magazine. He also travelled around the region sourcing business opportunities to have the magazine printed bi-monthly from Singapore. He recalls how difficult it was to get advertising from the regional market, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Zainal was able to get help and he hired professionals to make up for his shortcomings.

During the five years of publishing Muhibah, Zainal said that business was very good! Following that, Zainal published another magazine called Dayang which was on the market for three years. During that time, there was a surge in the number of local magazines being published and the market just wasn’t big enough to support all, so he decided to call it a day. That was when he decided to try a new career- designing traditional Batik costumes. The business did not take off until 2011, when he successfully applied for the LEAP Grant from BEDB. With financial support from BEDB, Zainal was able to invest in the latest technology and develop his business. His company was the first business in Brunei to integrate digital process into batik design. Today, many of the designs on his clothes are a hybrid between hand drawn designs and computer graphics. The size of his business has also allowed him to focus only on the design, while outsourcing the work to master craftsmen in ASEAN region, whose workshops he visits once a month.

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Zainal explained that even though the medium has changed and the technology has evolved, there was never any stopping him from pursuing his passion in art. He has gone from being an amateur in graphic design to being an expert in computer graphics. He has continuously reinvented himself, from a successful publisher to a revered designer. To this day, he still enters his hand drawn abstract arts in competitions, to keep his skills sharp and for “the love of my arts”.

Zainal Abidin’s story is a classic reminder in life that there is more than one way to pursue your passion and to realise your strength, but you should never quit learning and always continue to try.

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!