Sunday, May 27, 2007

Before the oil, it was coal

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in the national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 14th April 2007.

Since the discovery of oil in 1929, Brunei Darussalam had been known as an oil-exporting country to the point that it is almost impossible to remember the time when Brunei had to rely on other products for its exports. Believe it or not, there have been many exports in the past. Our famous camphor was one, timber, cutch, rubber and surprisingly, coal.

In Brunei, we just do not realise sometimes how lucky we are and how rich our country is. Currently we have the oil and the natural gas. But in terms of natural resources, we still have the silica sand, the peat which can be converted into energy, the coal, the methane gas and the trees. That's why in the old days, Bruneians were great traders trading our goods far and wide. Unfortunately we seemed to have lost that skill with most of us now preferring to be civil servants, sitting down in air-conditioned rooms and pushing papers.

So what about the coal?

Coal was first reportedly found in Brunei Darussalam in the Kianggeh River by someone called Tradescent Lay as early as 1837 and attracted the attention of Americans. In 1841, an American ship ‘Constitution’ arrived in Brunei Town to negotiate a treaty of commerce and friendship but the offer was refused. The coalmine at Kianggeh was later operated by Pengiran Yusof and from 1846 to 1883, the Brunei coal deposits remained unexploited except by Bruneians for local consumption.

Coal played an important role in the world economy before oil. Steamships, trains and the engines for the industrial revolution in Europe rely on coal for their fuel. In fact the discovery of coal in Labuan in 1844 led to the British decision to annex the island from Brunei with their gunboat diplomacy forcing the Sultan to sign the agreement. When the Japanese invaded Brunei, it was not just the oil that attracted them but the coal deposits that we had in the country too.

However it was in Serai Pimping, Muara that coal was mined extensively. The Muara coalmine was first mined commercially in 1883, when William Cowie was given the concession rights to mine the coal in exchange for $1,200 per year. However Cowie later sold his rights to Rajah Charles Brooke and the Rajah renamed the mine Brooketon (Brooke Town).


Between the years of 1889 to 1924, it was operated by the Sarawak government. Annual exports of coal varied between 10,000 to 25,000 tons annually and in those 33 years of operation, more than 650,000 tons were exported. At first the mine was opencast – the early miners used changkuls (hoes), shovels and hammers – the method is simple but very slow and unproductive. With increasing demand, the operation moved underground needing larger capital and more miners.

Brooketon Colliery was strategic as it was very near to Muara where then and as well as now there is a safe deep-water anchorage to which the mine was connected via rail. With the more sophisticated mining methods, railways, wharfs and other advance equipment were needed. A rail line that connected Brooketon in Serai Pimping which is about one and a half mile away from Muara was built.

Muara itself grew. Before the mine, Muara was a small hamlet occupied by fishermen but by 1911, more than 1,447 people lived in Muara with some 30 shops operating there. Politically too, even though he only had economic rights, Rajah Charles became the ‘ruler’ of the area. The mine employed hundreds of miners and that required him to introduce a police force, post office and roads transforming Muara into an ‘extraterritorial’ settlement – an extension of Sarawak.

It was not until 1921 before Muara was ‘returned’ back to be under Brunei control. The Brooketon Colliery closed down in 1924 because of heavy financial losses caused by continuously decreasing coal prices in the world economic recession as well as the discovery and search for oil to replace coal.

The Muara coalmine opened for a short while during the Japanese occupation in the second world war but production was limited for local consumption only.

According to Brunei Shell, there is a number of other coal bearing seams throughout Brunei. A nearer one to Muara is at the Kianggeh and Mentiri Valleys and at Berambang Island. Another area in Tutong is at the Tutong and Keduan River Valleys and in Belait is the Ingei and Topi Rivers. Lumut Hills and Labu Sycnline also have it as well.

Recently the Museums Department announced that it wanted to turn the historical 62 hectares coal mine as an open site museum to promote the country's eco tourism. The Brooketon coalmine is currently already a protected site under the Antiquities and Treasure Trove Act. Maybe one day, Brunei can mine the coal again. In the meantime, it is being kept as one of Brunei’s treasures and legacy for the future.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mysterious Grave in the City Centre

[Note: An edited version of this article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 7th April 2007.]

Many people have walked past the walled small roof structure opposite the General Post Office Building in the car park yard of the TAIB Building in Bandar Seri Begawan. Many have in fact parked their cars next to it. However, not many have realized that they are actually parked to a grave. A grave which is very interesting and full of mystery. It is not even known whether it is a grave.


It was said that before the World War, the site was actually a huge mound of some thirty feet tall. It was blown up by a bomb during the Second World War and the mound was said to be empty even though according to legend, there should be at least a few people who were buried there.

The grave was said to belong to a lady by the name of Dang Ayang. Dang is the Brunei colloquial term for Dayang and Ayang is the name of that person. Those who know it called the grave Kubur Dang Ayang. Some have called it Kubur Raja Ayang. It was said that the lady is actually of Royal parentage.

Legend has it told that this was a very sad story. Apparently in the old days, a sister and a male sibling was caught in an unlawful relationship (sumbang mahram is the Malay term). According to the laws then, the crimes must be punished by being stoned to death. It was said that nobody then had the heart to stone them to death but neither could they leave them unpunished.
So the authorities compromised.

What they did was to build a cavern in the middle of the forest (remember most Bruneians in those days live along the river and this 'kubor' or grave was about a mile inland then - so it is quite far from the other Bruneians). The two of them had to live in it. Some versions said only Dang Ayang lived in it and other versions said both of them. The cavern was fitted with air ventilation. Presumably some food was left with them as there was supposedly a small chimney where smoke can be seen coming out of the chimney. This smoke indicated that they were still alive. They must have been kept there for a long while until one day no more smoke was seen coming out of the chimney and everyone presumed that she or they died.

Nobody knew when the graveyard started to be walled but presumably someone did it because it is still technically a grave and up to now it is left there - to be left unknown and a rather sad testimony to an indiscretion of a young Brunei couple.

If one was to visit the grave, there is a broken tombstone which tells the story of the lady and who she was. Even though she was not named on that tombstone but instead she was called the daughter of a certain person. According to a paper written by the Principal of the History Centre, she was most likely a member of the aristocracy whose father was of Arabic origin and said to be related to the third Sultan. Sultan Sharif Ali was of Arabic origin.

It was most likely too that the crime was committed in 1452 during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman (circa 1432-1485). It was said that the lady upon realising what she committed was an enormous sin that she and her entourage (so it wasn't just one person but the whole household) voluntarily went to their deaths. Given the context of the time and the parentage, the deed perpetrated was deemed to be very serious and merited such punishment.

On the tombstone it was written in Arabic too that it is hoped that the punishment meted out is sufficient compensation for the sin that was committed for the body (bodies) of those who committed the sin and pray that they are in peace and a prayer so that the Al-Mighty will forgive them. Based on the writings on the tombstone, it is understood that for every sin committed, the authorities must carry out the punishment necessary for it. It also reflected the strength of the religion then to the point that the punishment has to be meted out regardless of who the perpetrator was. What has happened can be a lesson for all.

Even though the punishment seemed harsh, some have said that the punishment that one will receive in the hereafter will be harsher if the punishment during the lifetime was light. The young couple understood what they did was wrong. They also understood that they must be punished and they accepted the punishment voluntarily. That is a lesson for us too. To know when we do something wrong and to know when we must pay for it. Hopefully the story of the young couple will make us better persons and that their grave can be a constant reminder to us.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Tale of the Unfilial Son

[Note: An edited version of this article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 31st March 2007.]

There was this tale of a local boy, who went away to better his and his family’s lot in life. After many years, he achieved success and wealth, married a a noblewoman and became the owner of a huge ship, forgetting his humble roots in the process. One day, in order to take shelter from an impending storm, his ship happened to berth near his birthplace. His ageing poverty stricken mother recognising him rowed out in a canoe calling out to her long lost son.

In front of his beautiful rich wife, he was too ashamed to acknowledge her as his mother and threw her overboard. She was shocked and very depressed and placed a curse on her unfilial son whereupon a storm suddenly appeared capsizing the ship and transforming it into rock.

Another variation to the story was that he was well to do but went away just the same, to find out what the world can offer him. His mother in the meantime became poorer as she spent quite a large sum of money searching for her long lost son. But the result ended in the same way, he refused to acknowledge her and she cursed him in the end. Sounds familiar?

In Malaysia, this tale is known as the tale of Si Tanggang, in Indonesia as Malin Kundang and in Brunei as Nakhoda Manis. Each and every single country has natural proof of the legend. Malaysia has the Batu Caves in Selangor where the caverns of the caves are said to resemble the cabins of the ship. Indonesia has the pieces of the ship in rock forms including that of a rock which resembled a man prostrating for mercy along the beach in Air Manis, Sumbar about 20 kilometers from Padang in Sumatra. Brunei too has the Jong Batu, a small island which jutted out of the water in the Brunei River which resembled the keel of the ship jutting out. So, who is right?

Well, this article is not a scholarly attempt to find out whose story it is. But what is interesting is how the stories can be made to fit into each other regardless whether one is in Brunei or one is in Indonesia. The Brunei and Indonesian versions have natural rock formations which look fitting as well.

The Malaysian one is more interesting as the story was originally an Orang Asli’s story namely the Temuans who lived near the Batu Caves. Even in print form, the story first appeared in print form in a text book in the early 1960s, the story was that of an Orang Asli. However by the 1970s, the Tanggang story became an all-Malay story and has remained so until now. The Batu Caves was discovered by an Indian in the early 1800s and by the 1890s, Hindu devotees began making pilgrimages and slowly turning the caves into a huge shrine attracting some 1.5 million Hindus every year.

Similarly the Indonesian rock formation is easily visited as it is by the beach becoming a shrine or an attraction of some form. However the Brunei’s Jong Batu is fairly inaccessible. It is some distance away from the nearest residence being a small little island out in the waters of Sungai Damuan. Thus it is rarely visited as compared to the ones in Malaysia and Indonesia.


The few visitors who do manage to get there note the striking similarity of the keel of ships and that of the Jong Batu. What is interesting is how the same story albeit with slightly different variations has survived through the various countries and the various generations.

It begs the question whether we come from one origin and as our ancestors migrated, they carry with them the legend of the unfilial son. And whenever they stop and started a new community or settlement, they try to find the geographical formation that best fit the description of the legend.

Not surprisingly, even in Tutong, a similar legend was passed down through the generations. The only difference is that the name of the perpetrator is Si-Untak. The ship that was cursed by Si-Untak’s mother sank in the Tutong River and up to now, the rock formation known as Batu Ajung Si-Untak that resembled the ship is still there near a place called Telting in Pekan Tutong. Maybe it does matter to some, in the end, it does not really matter who owns the story - we don't even know our own origins.

In the mist of time, it is possible that all of us all come from the same stock and therefore share the same stories passed down through legends. But what is more important is the lesson that the legend offers. In our Asian society where filial piety – serving one’s parents and elders - is important - the unfilial son's great sin for being unfaithful to his mother was considered unnatural.

That great sin was punished with him and his ship being transformed into rock forms forever to serve as a reminder, a warning and a lesson to all of us. The fable served the most important lesson that we should never be unfaithful to our parents no matter what the situations are and that we should always remember the sacrifices that they made for us.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Bersunat - Then and Now

Before my son underwent his circumcision, he was curious about what will happen. When I related my own experience, I realized mine was different from his. Since then I discovered that in the older days, there were variations to the ceremonies but also variations to which bits to remove.

In the earlier days, bersunat is considered as the mark of a true Muslim. Immediately just before the circumcision, the boy would be asked to recite the ‘kalimah sahadat’ which is recited by every Muslims declaring themselves Muslims – and by saying it before the circumcision, made him a true Muslim.

Circumcision is the procedure that removes the foreskin of the boy's organ. The word is derived from two Latin words meaning 'cut around'. But in Brunei there was a variation to this more than fifty years ago. During the ceremony the ‘penyunat’ – the circumcision master would go to the base of the organ and snip a little nerve which connects to the foreskin. The foreskin as a result would ‘pull back’ thus ‘circumcising’ the boy. Some say this is not true circumcision. However it is ‘bersunat’ as you reached the same objective of not having the foreskin.

There were many variations to the ceremonies. In some, the boys would take a bath where someone would pour scented water over them. In others, the boys would be undergoing a ‘lulut’ - scrubbed with scented powder and water.

After that, the boys would be dressed in ‘baju melayu’ with a ‘kain pelikat’. They might also wear songkoks with decorative motifs known as ‘kopiah berpisnin’.

They would be taken outside to straddle banana tree trunks - the trunks supposedly make one feel cool. In Kampong Ayer, the boys would sit in the lap of their fathers. On some of their foreheads would be smeared a white powdered ‘lulut’.

The penyunat at first would use a ‘sembilu’ which is sharpened bamboo but later on, a sharpened folding type knife to do the procedure.


There is no anesthetic. The boys are held by other people so that they can not move. The skin would be stretched out and cut. If the knife is very sharp, there was hardly time to feel pain. Though there have been cases where the boys screamed in pain. In Temburong, the pulled skin will be held by a piece of split bamboo before being cut off.

The cut would be bandaged leaving it to heal. Sometimes powdered coffee beans supposedly with faster healing abilities would be placed on the wound before being bandaged. In most cases, the bandages will only be taken off in a few days time. For the Kampong Ayer boys, they would be asked to go into the water for the bandages to come off.

The cut skins are dealt either by being buried in a piece of cloth with ashes or for Kampong Ayer, the skins are kept in an ash filled coconut shell and floated down the river. Why ashes? It was said that the many instances of people suffering from inability to urinate is due to their skins being ‘disturbed’ by pontianaks. To avoid this, the skins must be in ashes.

After the circumcision, there would be a berzikir ceremony. For the boys, it would be particularly painful as they have to walk around the berzikir crowd getting ‘blessed’ by them.

As usual there were many restrictions. One would be not to step over a ‘lesong’ (stone pestle) fearing the organ would be that size. One practical pantang is not to have ladies walk in front of the boys. In those days, most boys were around 15 before they were circumcised. At 15, the last thing they need is to have stimulating thoughts when recovering from a circumcision.

Fast forward to today. My seven year old son went through the procedure in a very clinical but sterile surgery and done by a doctor. Like three quarters of all boys he had a local anesthetics. He could have chosen a general anesthetics.


He recovered in two days compared to my father who took a month. Unfortunately my son did not go through any of the traditional ‘manhood’ rites but then the chances of his circumcision turning septic is almost nil which is a fair tradeoff.

But it does not mean that what our elders went through did not teach us anything. Firstly there is the advancement of technology. From crude implements – a ‘sembilu’ to today’s ‘surgical knife’. From no anesthetics to today’s choices of anesthetics. From an ordinary ‘penyunat’ to a ‘doctor’. From being done outside in the open to a sterile operating room. Many things have improved as a result of lessons from the past.

The most important thing our elders left us is the legacy of being a Muslim. No matter how difficult and terrifying it was, the procedures and ceremonies must be undergone in order to comply with the sunnahs. Our elders were brave and they lived in a difficult time. We learnt a lot from what they had undergone.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in The Brunei Times dated 24th March 2007.

Inspirational Quotes

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