His fans know him from his videos as the over-the-top, turban-wearing character of Babu Sinur. However not much is known about the man behind the larger-than-life persona, who has amassed more than 100,000 followers on his two Instagram accounts by creating short comedy skits starring the quintessentially Bruneian character of ‘Babu Sinur’. Mohd Khairul Anwar Awg Japar, better known as ‘Yul’ to his friends, talked to The Scoop about the origins of Babu Sinur; the struggle of being in the limelight; and what it feels like to be #InstaFamous.
What was the inspiration behind Babu Sinur and how did you become this huge online persona?
Mohd Khairul Anwar: I started making videos three years ago after graduating from Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD). The job opportunities [in Brunei] are limited and after applying for jobs and receiving countless rejections, I needed an outlet for me to be creative. I needed to think of something substantial because I needed to survive.
I didn’t want to depend on my parents because they also depend on me. I kept telling myself that I need to invest in my creativity.
I was looking at Vine videos on Instagram one day and thought to myself how cool it was and that I wanted to do something like that. I told my youngest brother — who plays the character Marwan in our videos — that I want to produce funny videos that focus on Brunei culture. I live in Kg Bolkiah A in Kampong Ayer and I’m proud of it. Our culture is very interesting. We are loud and there is always drama around Kampong Ayer.
I take inspiration from my surroundings, as well as from real life characters to make the videos more interesting. I love my mother so much. My mother is basically Babu Sinur… that’s what people call her. My mother went through a lot. She’s a very strong woman and she raised nine children. I am the third child and the eldest son in the family. If I have to portray someone, it had to be my mother because I know her well. The Babu Sinur character is an exaggerated version of my mother. My dad is a total opposite of her, he is a very quiet person.
I am happy to be able to portray her in our videos. I want to dedicate the videos to her and celebrate her sassiness, her ‘Bruneianess’. I want to portray the comedic life of Bruneians in our skits. That is why our videos are so relatable, it is because people see themselves in our videos.
Tell us about the controversy at the beginning of your career when your character wore a tudung (headscarf) instead of your now signature towel?
Mohd Khairul Anwar: When I first started, I wore an instant tudung. My mum wore an instant tudung so I wanted to portray the character exactly as she is. Many people found that funny but there were others who commented that I am dressing up like a woman. I understand the seriousness of this issue. After taking some time off, I came up with an alternative, that is using a towel and an apron instead of a tudung.
Wearing a towel and apron is something that both men and women do. Nobody knows the true story behind the yellow towel and apron that has since become my trademark look.
When we try to do something different, especially related to creativity, when people react negatively or say you can’t do it… we tend to take that literally. That’s why our creativity is stunted. Come up with alternatives instead so that you don’t have to let go of your passion.
What kind of impact do you hope to have by doing these videos?
Mohd Khairul Anwar: I have a passion when it comes to language. I am a Malay language and linguistics graduate. Our language and culture is interesting but it doesn’t have the attention that it deserves, particularly among our youth. Language is part of the identity of a country. Some of us do not even know how to use Bahasa Brunei Baku [Brunei-standard Malay].
That is why I’m using the Malay language in my videos. As well as entertaining people, I want this platform to also help empower the use of Malay language. It allows us to reach out to a huge number of people, even to non-Malays who are intrigued by what a particular Malay word or sentence means.
What does it mean to be a social media influencer in Brunei and how have you dealt with any negative feedback?
Mohd Khairul Anwar: When people ask me if it was my intention to become famous… it wasn’t. Being famous means you sacrifice your time and privacy but that is the price we have to pay.
As for Babu Sinur, no one appreciates the guy behind it, they only appreciate the character. It is sad, I feel dead inside. It sounds dramatic, but to me, the pressure is real. I have a lot more to offer. I’m a dancer and I do many other things. I’ve been dancing for nine years. If you ask me what my passion is, I would definitely choose dancing over my character [Babu Sinur]. With dancing, I put my true self out there. Yes, there is makeup and costumes [in dancing] but it is my true self.
The creatives in Brunei are also under-appreciated. There are highs and lows. There are people who do not like us… that’s normal but you can certainly feel the pressure. The good thing about the pressure and having haters is that it makes you better. It gives you a chance to self-reflect. I’m not a perfect human being. I cannot produce perfect skits or videos and please everyone at the same time. Most often, our close friends will not say anything bad to us. That is why it is good to have haters because they may say things that are beneficial for us. We can take what is useful and apply it in our work.
How have you been able to monetise your brand and transform it into a successful business?
Mohd Khairul Anwar: The mindset that many people have is, ‘You’re famous now, you must be doing well for yourself’, but this is the problem. The truth is that we in the creative industry are not paid well and I am doing this full-time.
I’m breaking into entrepreneurship by offering promotional videos packages to clients. That is where the money comes from. It may sound selfish but producing these videos takes time and a lot of creativity.
There are people who say that I should charge more [for promotional videos and adverts]… but I have to see where my market is… If I charge a price that is too high for the market, especially for clients who are SMEs, there will be no demand for me and there will be no jobs.
Our clients do have a sense of appreciation for the work that we do, but the of fact is we have to put a particular price so that we can survive. However, if we charge too much we can’t land jobs. There are times when potential clients ask me to further reduce the price of the packages. The pricing is based on our portfolio, work, time and creativity. What we need is for people to understand the situation and appreciate the work we do.
The people that pushed me into pursuing entrepreneurship was my best friend as well as my first client, Sarah Mumtaz (owner of Mumtaz Collections). My best friend encouraged me to take up the opportunity and soon after that, interest started coming in. I’m also thankful to Sarah Mumtaz because she saw the potential in me.
I want to do more. I don’t want to just be Babu Sinur. I want to do work that I’m passionate about. I also write scripts and it’s something that I want to pursue. It’s important to write and highlight issues that are often overlooked in Brunei, for example the issue of debt — the danger of debt and how it can affect your life and families. This issue and many others are very close and personal to me.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Check out our video where Babu Sinur gives out his top social media tips: