Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Story of Brunei's Oil Discovery

Note: An edited version of the following article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 12th May 2007.

The story of the discovery of oil in Brunei’s oil town, Seria has often been told even in school text books but no body remembers how difficult it was to find oil in Brunei Darussalam at the beginning.

When we look at the approximately 200,000 barrels of oil that our nation produced daily and the billions of revenues that we get from the sale of oil and gas, it is a wonder that it was ever found in the first place.

By the early 20th century, Brunei, once a powerful regional thalassocracy (maritime power) had become a poor country. Brunei had lost almost all of its territories and was confined to the current tiny area in the vast Borneo Island. It needed something of a miracle and it found it when oil was discovered in Brunei and in particular in abundance where Brunei is currently.

Oil has been more or less expected to be found in the North West Borneo area. By the mid 19th century, seepages have been reported in a number of places and oil prospectors have come in droves flooding in to Borneo and into Brunei all hoping to be the lucky person to find that oil.

Oil prospectors tried drilling in a number of places. In Labuan, a hole was actually drilled there as early as 1866. In Brunei, an oil seepage was reported in the late 19th century. It was at a place called Ayer Bekunci near Kampung Kasat which is around the Sungai Kebun area in Kampong Ayer and just across the Brunei River from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, then known as Pekan Brunei.

A well was drilled for the first time in Brunei in 1899. The drilling went down as deep as 850 feet but unfortunately no oil was discovered. After that attempt, interest in finding oil in Brunei waned.

But that all changed when in 1910, oil was discovered in the neighbouring district of Sarawak, Miri. That renewed the flagging interest of discovering oil in Brunei Darussalam. In 1911, a geological survey for Brunei was conducted by the British Borneo Petroleum Syndicate Limited.

A number of other companies were also given oil prospecting and mining rights to find oil in Brunei Darussalam. The British Borneo Petroleum Syndicate Limited was given 169 square miles in the Belait District. The Shanghai Langkat Company from Singapore was given a small area in Jerudong. The Nederland Koloniale Petroleum Maatschappij, a Dutch Company in the Belait District, The Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company Limited in the Tutong District and Asiatic Petroleum Company (Federated Malay States) Limited was also given rights. The latter two are Shell Group companies.

All the companies mined between 1912 to 1923 and between all of them, in those 12 years, they only had one ‘oilshow’ (the character or traces of oil showing or present) but all the other oil wells in all the districts were dry. As a result most of them abandoned their operations with the exception of Shell. It bought the Petroleum Syndicate’s rights and from 1923 onwards, Shell began serious exploration works in the Belait District. Belait District, being the area adjoining the Miri District in Sarawak looked to be quite promising to Shell as it had already produced oil commercially there.

However Shell did not have that much success in the beginning. In Labi, the British Malayan Petroleum Company (BMP), the Shell company drilled a few oil wells and one produced oil even though the amount was not of commercial quantities. Another produced gas at high pressure.

It wasn’t until 1926 before the search for oil began in earnest in Seria. The story oft been told regarding the discovery was that a Mr. F.F. Mariott, then BMP’s Field Superintendent in Labi and and a Mr. T.G. Cochrane (later Lord Cochrane), then the General Manager of Sarawak Oilfields Limited, another Shell company were on the way towards Kuala Belait from Miri. They stopped at Kuala Balai, then considered as the capital of the Belait District and used two bicycles to visit a geophysicist in the Lumut area.

It was a relatively long journey and they stopped at Padang Berawa, near Sungai Seria to rest. That was when Cochrane smelled oil and told the geophysicist to suggest the survey further south to Padang Berawa. At that time Padang Berawa (wild pigeon’s field) was unknown and was described as a swamp and the conditions in that area was terrible.

However a number of gas seepages were reported and when analysed at Shell Headquarters in Holland indicated that it was methane and ethane gas indicating the possibility of oil gas. A detailed survey was conducted and coreholes were drilled. The first proper oil well named S-1 was drilled in July 1928 near the beach and struck oil and gas at 974 feet when it began flowing. And the rest is history.

Padang Berawa as a name disappeared from the records and Seria named after Sungai Seria became the new name for the newly created town. It took quite a while before Seria was established. In the early days, all equipment had to ferried in. The first buildings were relatively primitive.

It wasn’t until 1938 that the road connecting Kuala Belait and Seria was completed. Before that, one had to drive along the beach and wait for the tides to go out. It was the same from Seria to the capital. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the road from Kuala Belait to Bandar Seri Begawan (then Pekan Brunei) was finally connected.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that the company name ‘Shell’ was not visible in all the early Shell companies that operated in Brunei. The discovery of oil in Seria was made by a Shell company called Sarawak Oilfields Limited and the oil production was operated by another Shell company called British Malayan Petroleum Company Limited. The Brunei Shell Petroleum Company Limited did not operate until 1957.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Mosque in the Capital City

Wherever we are in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei's capital city, we can't help noticing the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque dominating the skyline of the city centre of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Mosques have long dominated the skyline in Brunei. In 1578 during the reign of Sultan Saiful Rizal, a Spanish traveler, Alonso Beltran described the main mosque as one made up of five layers.

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is said to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the Southeast Asian region. It symbolised the country’s official religion of Islam.

However not many people realised that prior to its completion in 1958, there was no proper mosque in the capital city, then known as Pekan Brunei.

Before the Second World War, even though there were a number of other mosques built in the countryside, the only mosque that was built in the capital city was called Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal (also known as Masjid Pekan Brunei) which was built during the era of Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Alam II, the 26th Sultan.

This mosque was located by the river approximately nearby where the current Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is. The mosque was made out of timber with an asbestos roofing and a small rocket like minaret attached to it. The building was raised about a foot off the ground with concrete base.

This mosque was clearly visible in some of the aerial photographs taken during the Second World War (try to spot the mosque in the photo). Unfortunately during the Japanese occupation, the mosque was destroyed.

A temporary mosque catering to about 500 worshippers was built immediately after the war. This was sited where the TAIB Building is currently located. It was more like a temporary prayer hall rather than a proper mosque for Brunei Muslims to congregate for their prayers.

The building structure was made out of timber with the roof made out of thatched palm leaves and the walls out of thatched nipah leaves. Built on top of the roof was a small tower. Everything about the mosque signifies that it was temporary.

It was never given a proper name but was always known as Masjid Kajang (named after the type of roof material used). Despite that it was widely used until 1958 when the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was completed.

However Masjid Kajang was relatively small and for bigger congregation, the prayers would be held out in the open at the Padang (now known as Taman Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien) in the town centre. His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien himself prayed together with his subjects out in the open air.

By 1949, a committee had been formed to look into the possibility of building a national mosque. The first site proposed by the committee chaired by YTM Seri Paduka Pengiran Bendahara Pengiran Anak Haji Muhammad Yasin in December 1952 for the location of the new mosque was the Padang itself.

However His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien preferred the site to be where it is situated currently which is on the riverside and at that time considered as the town centre.

According to Pengiran Adnan, a Senior Architect at the Public Works Department (PWD), the architect employed to design the mosque was an Italian named Cavalieri R. Nolli based upon an early design prepared by His Majesty himself and drawn with the assistance of Awang Besar Sagap, a PWD draughtsman.

The detailed architectural plan was prepared by Booty and Edwards Chartered Architects and the construction work was done by Sino-Malayan Engineer. The construction costs were very modest estimated to be around $7.7 million to $9.2 million.

The design was heavily influenced by Mughal architecture in India. The Mughal Emperors who ruled India for about 350 years from the early 16th Century, built many of India’s beautiful historical mosques and buildings including the Taj Mahal.

Work started on building the mosque on 4th February 1954. The mosque is sited on a 5 acre site and the actual size of the mosque is 225 feet by 86 feet. It has a capacity of about 3,000.

The mosque used many of the world's most elegant materials, including marble from Italy, granite from Shanghai, stained glass and chandeliers weighing four tons and two tons from England and handmade carpets from Belgium and Saudi Arabia.

Its maximum height is 52 meters and is topped with a gold dome supported by walls of Italian marble, which also forms the mosque's columns, arches, and towers.

One of the local elements incorporated into the design was the ‘kalat’ (very thick rope) shaped design which are plastered winding on all the outside columns. In the Brunei tradition of building ‘lapau’ (halls), the actual kalat rope is used to install the columns and it is usually dyed with many colours and gold.

It has been said in the architectural world that the main dome is the mosque's most recognisable feature covered in gold. The main minaret incorporated an unusual mixed of Renaissance and Italian architectural style which is not seen in many mosques in the world.

The mosque's interior itself was filled with elements of Islamic art especially the calligraphy, flowers, geometric and the likes.

Even though the mosque was officially opened by His Majesty on the 26th September 1958, the artificial barge located in the lagoon beside the mosque was built much later and was completed in 1967.

The barge, a replica of a 16th Century Sultan Bolkiah mahligai barge was used to stage Al-Quran reading competitions. It was built to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of Nuzul Al-Quran (coming down of the Al-Quran) and cost $¼ million.

Today the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque has become Brunei’s best known landmark as well as a praying place for Brunei Muslims.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in The Brunei Times dated 5th May 2007.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

2 Brunei Bay Legends

[Note: An edited version of the following article was published in The Golden Legacy column in Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 28th April 2007.]

There are two islands on Brunei Bay which are more interesting than all the others. One is called Pulau Pilong-Piolongan and the other very much smaller, more like a raised sandbank called Lumut Lunting.

Lumut Lunting is situated in between Pulau Sibungur and Pulau Berambang and is located at the mouth of the Brunei River whereas Pulau Pilong-Pilongan is out in the sea nearer to Muara.

Both islands - Lumut Lunting and Pulau Pilong-Pilongan have been associated with an old legend that stretched back in time to more than 500 years ago.

The origin of both islands have been chronicled in the Syair Awang Semaun, which is equivalent to the local folklores or in English known as the oral tradition of Awang Semaun’s epic poems. The story was said to have taken place in the early days of the first sultanate of Awang Alak Betatar around the 14th century. In those days, Brunei Darussalam was still a vassal state of the Majapahit Empire.

Awang Alak Betatar was the first ruler of the new Brunei Sultanate and as a vassal state, Brunei pays an annual tribute to the King of Majapahit. The tribute was made up of 40 ships laden with camphor to be paid to the Majapahit Empire from Brunei. Brunei’s camphor was considered to be among the best in the region then. Though some legends talk about a much smaller amount of 40 kati (roughly equal to about 24 kilograms).

During that time, a rooster owned by Awang Senuai, a nephew of Awang Alak Betatar was known for its ability to win all the cockfights that it competed against. A cockfight is of course a fight between two specially trained and conditioned roosters with spectators betting on the outcome of the fight. Most fights end up with the death of one or both roosters.

This came to the attention of Raden Angsuka Dewa who also owned another rooster named Asmara which is said to be equal to Mutiara. Asmara was well taken care of by his owner – eating from a golden plate that was hung high and given a special coop. Asmara was said to be strong, smart and possessed a special power. When he crowed upon entering Brunei, the local cocks were so terrified that they did not crow for several days.

The King of Majapahit dictated that should he lose he will give the 40 ships laden with goods to Brunei; but should he win, he will gain more territories of Brunei which it owns and controls then. Another version talked about should Brunei lose, it will continue to be a vassal state of Majapahit.

Both Asmara and Mutiara were both meticulously trained for the cockfight in front of the Sultan’s Palace.

On the day of the fight, many people came to watch it. The fight commenced with the roosters pouncing, pecking, attacking and kicking each other cheered on by the excited spectators. Suddenly Asmara flew out of the ring followed by Mutiara. Asmara had been stabbed during the fight and was seriously injured. Asmara fled out of sight and succumbing to his wound, fell down into the sea turning into a rock becoming an island (Pulau Pilong-Pilongan). Mutiara who tried to give chase, fell into the river cursed by the King of Majapahit. He too turned into a rock and became an island (Lumut Lunting).

It has been said among the elders in Kampong Ayer dwellers that Lumut Lunting will never be under water no matter how high the water level rises. If it does, then that signals a bad omen such as the death of a king or the occurrence of an untoward incident.

This tale chronicled the earlier days of the current Sultanate. According to historical sources, the reign of Awang Alak Betatar who eventually became Sultan Muhammad, the first Sultan was from 1393 AD. If this tale is true, then it must have occurred around that period.

Before Sultan Muhammad, not much is known about the previous Brunei rulers even though in the Chinese annals, Brunei had contact with China as early as the 5th Century.

Most likely this tale is a symbolism of what happened in those days. There could have been a struggle between the new rulers of Brunei and Majapahit. There could have been an actual battle, or at least a struggle of some sort by the new rulers trying to overthrow the yoke of the oppressing powers of the Majapahit.

As by the time of Sultan Abdul Majid, who is the immediate descendant after Sultan Muhammad, whose tomb is found in China, Brunei had already turned its allegiance back to the Chinese Empire.

The cockfight tale signifies the beginning of the ‘new’ Brunei Empire and it marked the existence of the country we lived in now.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A History of Brunei Flight

Note: An edited version of the following article was published in The Golden Legacy column in the Brunei national newspaper, The Brunei Times dated 21st April 2007.

When did Bruneians first fly? According to local civil aviation historians, the first airplane to fly over Brunei was a seaplane spotted over Tutong in 1922. Nobody knew whose plane that was.

Despite the current modern international airport in Berakas, not many people knew that sixty years ago, prior to the Second World War, let alone an airport, there was no airfield whatsoever at all in the entire country of Brunei Darussalam.

The first runaway was constructed during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War at the current Old Airport Government Buildings Complex. This was then used by the Japanese fighter planes coming to defend their occupied territory.

After the end of the war, despite being heavily shelled by the Allied Forces, that runaway was repaired and improved by the same forces and a proper airport was planned and built. The first commercial air transport in Brunei Darussalam only began in 1953 with the establishment of internal air service links connecting Pekan Brunei (then Brunei Town) with Anduki (near the oil town of Seria) in the Belait District.

Getting to Kuala Belait or Seria from Pekan Brunei was very difficult as it was not until the early 1960s that the road connecting the three districts was finally completed. In those days, driving to Kuala Belait from Pekan Brunei was a whole day affair as cars had to travel via the coast and traveling had to take into account the tides and the conditions of the beaches and the waves.

The first initial overseas flights were to the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah which was to accommodate travelers from Labuan in Sabah and Lutong in Sarawak. If you were to visit the Brunei Government's Printing Department at the Old Airport Complex (that's why the area is called the Old Airport Complex as the old Brunei Airport was there), that department now occupies what used to the Brunei Airport Terminal Building including the tower.

The building the department occupies brings nostalgic memories to many elderly Bruneians. Most Bruneians who had to travel overseas for their studies had to fly via Jesselton (now named Kota Kinabalu) to catch a connecting flight to Singapore. At first it was the Malayan Airways using De Havilland Rapides aircraft that operated flights between Brunei Town, Anduki, Miri and Labuan with over 4,300 passengers using the Brunei Airport in 1955. The Brunei Airport then was only able to serve airplanes like the De Haviland, the small Douglas DC3s and later the Foker Friendships. These planes were all twin-engined turbo props.

The Anduki Airport in Seria in the meantime played a very significant role in the aviation history of Brunei. Constructed soon after the end of the Second World War, it served the Shell company operating in Seria. It was completed sometime in 1951 and the first plane to land there was a Vickers Supermarine Type 309 (VR-SOL) or better known as the Sea Otter. The Sea Otter was a versatile airplane, it can land both on the water as well as on dry land.

Before Anduki was built, the Sea Otters were flown from Lutong in Miri - from an airport which the Japanese built during the War and landed along the coast somewhere near Seria. One of the interesting experiences for British expatriates coming to work in Shell in Seria was that their first ever air flight tended to be in Brunei. After the World War and the 1950s, the expatriates and their family would arrive by ship and dock in Labuan. Then the Sea Otters would fly them from Labuan to Kuala Belait and for many those Sea Otter flights would be their first ever air flights in their lives. The Sea Otters played a very significant role in Brunei aviation before being replaced by the Percival P.50 Prince. In addition to that was the small Auster J5B Autocar.

In the 1970s there was a very significant growth in popularity of air travel. The old Brunei Airport was swamped with activity, operating beyond its capacity. This prompted the authorities to scout for a new site to build a modern airport, in order to cater to the needs of the growing number of users. The new Brunei International Airport which we all use currently in Berakas, began construction in 1970, was completed in 1974.

Our own national airline, Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) was also born in November 1974. After a year of service RBA’s two Boeing 737-200 jets managed to fly 36,000 passengers. Twin turboprops Fokker were also used. Later Boeing 757-200s and the long range wide bodied Boeing 767-300 replaced all the 737-200s. By 2002, Airbus A319 and A320 were added to the fleet to replace the 757s.

Seeing the Brunei International Airport nowadays, not many young Bruneians realised that it is still a relatively new airport and that flying too is relatively new in Brunei. Thanks to the early planners in Brunei Darussalam, we are now able to enjoy the fruits of their forward thinking.

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