Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bandar Seri Begawan - a new city, an ancient capital

[The following article was published edited in the Golden Legacy column of Brunei's national newspaper The Brunei Times on 29th July 2007, 2 days before the expansion of the territory of Bandar Seri Begawan.]

On 1st August 2007, Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam will officially be enlarged to about 10 times the size of what it is today. The current size of Bandar Seri Begawan is surprisingly smaller than that of the municipality of Kuala Belait and Seria. But come 1st August 2007, the new size of Bandar Seri Begawan (100.36 sq km) will be comparable to a number of other capitals in the world.

Even though Brunei’s capital city had been in existence for at least 500 years, the capital city on dry land is relatively new. Last year, Bandar Seri Begawan celebrated its centenary being on dry land.

Prior to that Bandar Seri Begawan or Pekan Brunei as it was then known was a city on water. Peter Blundell in his book ‘City of Many Waters’ published in 1923 stated that the “town was unique, the only one in the world built almost entirely over the water, and the Bruneis were justly proud of it. They were folks who live a semi aquatic life, and their methods of living, household arrangements, family life, and town government, adapted as they had been to life over the water.”

When did the capital move to dry land? The official record was that of the first British Resident, McArthur, who wrote in his report the following words “I want a clean, dry village with suburbs of kampong houses. I also want to discourage building on dry land.”

However it took a cholera and a small pox epidemic in 1902 and 1904 with many people dying before Bruneians then would consider moving themselves away from their traditional way of life over the water. Peter Blundell in that same book also bluntly wrote that it was “apparent that the cramped conditions under which the inhabitants lived, the damp, the lack of exercise, and the germs in the filth and mud under the huts could not but affect unfavourably the health of all the inhabitants.”

The government persuaded a group of Pengirans to move out to dry land and to build their houses in the Tumasek area. His Majesty Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Alam built the first Istana on dry land in 1909. This was followed by some of the populace who started to build their houses in the Kianggeh and Sumbiling areas.

A group of Chinese businessmen moved out from Kampung Pekan Lama (then known as Kampung Bakut China) which served as the business area in Kampong Ayer, and started to build their shops on dry land. In 1910, there were six shops, the year after, in 1911, there were 26 shops and just before the Second World War in 1941, that number has increased to more than 80 shops.

As for the population, it was not only in Kianggeh and Sumbiling, but they have also moved to Sultan Lama, Barangan, Sungai Kedayan, Tasik, Tungkadeh and Pusar Ulak. Although there were a number of houses now built on those areas, there were still many more left on Kampong Ayer.

The traditional government’s machinery too had to be modernized with a number of Brunei’s population now on dry land. Many of today’s government departments were created and formed in 1906 and subsequent years. There were 21 departments by 1920 and by 1931, there were 31 departments. The forerunner to today’s Bandar Seri Begawan Municipal Council itself was created in 1921 then known as the Sanitary and Health Board and was responsible for the cleaning and health of the new town.

Schools were beginning to be built. A mosque known as Masjid Pekan Brunei (also known as Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal), sited near the current Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was also built but that was destroyed during the Second World War.


Photo 1: First Hospital on Dry Land

The first hospital was built in 1929 with an 18 bed ward.

The British themselves built the official residence for the British Resident, the ‘Bubugan Dua Belas’ at Jalan Residency. The first road in the new town connected that building to Pekan Brunei with a wooden bridge being built over Sungai Kianggeh.

Photo 2: Jalan Sultan circa 1930s

By around 1920, another road was built in the town centre, today’s Jalan Sultan with street lighting.

For the facilitation of trade, a wharf was needed. The wharf was built on today’s Bandar Seri Begawan wharf, now unused. Then it was known as ‘Labuhan Kapal’ – a place where ships berthed. The original berthing place for ships was near the Kampung Bakut China. There was no airfield until the Japanese built one during the Second World War and that was later expanded by the government to be a proper airport after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945.

However, many of the development that was made before the Second World War was destroyed by the Allied Forces through aerial bombing when trying to recapture Brunei back from the Japanese.

Befitting his title as the Architect of Modern Brunei, His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien was responsible for many of the developments in the country and in Brunei Town especially in preparing the first and second five year development plans for the country.

Photo 3: Jalan Sultan circa 1950s

Many of today’s development were made in the 1950s after the Second World War. The E-shaped Secretariat Building on Jalan Elizabeth II formed the nucleus of the government’s machinery. Concrete shophouses along Jalan Sultan were built. A new hospital was built along Jalan Stoney (now replaced by the new Courts Building). A few British owned companies also built their own buildings near the wharf. Two cinemas, Boon Pang (now replaced by the BIBD building) and Bolkiah were also built in the early 1950s. Even the HSBC bank built its first concrete building then.

Photo 4: Brunei Town circa 1950s

By the mid 1950s, the Government had prepared the first 5 year development plan which made about $100 million to be available to build the government’s infrastructure. The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque was one of the major buildings completed in 1958.

In the 1960s, the town master plan was completed and executed. Though many of the government offices were by then outgrowing their allocated spaces in the town centre. Some of the developments started to take place on the outskirts.
The town witnessed many important events including that of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah ascending the throne when His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien abdicated in October 1967. The coronation took place on 1st August 1968.

Photo 5: Bandar Seri Begawan Today

His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien took the title of Seri Begawan Sultan. In 1970, Pekan Brunei was renamed as Bandar Seri Begawan in commemoration of Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien as Seri Begawan Sultan. Since then Bandar Seri Begawan like many other capital city in the world had developed by leaps and bounds and with the expansion of the city size, it will definitely have room to develop further in the future.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bedil - The Brunei Cannons

[Note: The following article was published edited in the Golden Legacy Column of Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times, on 22nd July 2007.]

As everyone stood rapt to attention at the Taman Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Saadul Khairi Waddien to the national anthem being played, the 21 cannon volleys reverberated throughout Bandar Seri Begawan thus marking the beginning of His Majesty The Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei’s birthday celebrations.

The firing of the cannons by the Royal Brunei Armed Forces is a centuries old tradition adopted not just in Brunei but throughout the world.

Not everyone knows the origin of the firing of the gun salutes and even why 21.

It is said that the origin of gun salutes is usually attributed to soldiers demonstrating their peaceful intentions by intentionally placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective.

And one way to render cannons “ineffective" was to fire them as reloading cannons in the ancient days was a very difficult affair. Originally at sea, seven shots became the norm due to superstition and mysticism about the number seven.

However on land, with more supply of gunpowder, they could fire three guns for every one shot from a ship, so a salute from a ship of seven guns would be answered by a salute from the shore batteries of 21 guns.

With improving gunpowder technology and storage everyone adopted the 21 gun salute including us in Brunei Darussalam.

Similarly not everyone knows that cannons had been manufactured in Brunei at least 500 or 600 years ago. Many cannon moulds had been found at archaeological sites throughout the country.


Many historical records also indicated that cannons had been used in Brunei. The historical records of Antonio Pigafetta when he was in Brunei as Magellan’s chronicler in 1521 stated that “in front of the Sultan’s palace, there was a thick wall of bricks, with towers in the manner of a fortress on which mounted fifty-six brass and six iron cannons.”

The Bruneian cannons known in the Brunei vernacular as “bedil” are used not just on land but also on board Brunei ships. One record during the Spanish attacks on Brunei stated that the Brunei ships used cannons.

The origin of the cannons is unknown but most probably that of Chinese and European origins as they were the first to use them. The first cannon in Europe probably appeared during the Islamic era in Spain. Brunei cannons probably are more influenced by our relationship with the Chinese Empire.

In Brunei, the art of casting metals had been in existence for many centuries. As far back as 1225, during the visit of one Chinese official, Chau Ju Kua, he found that the Bruneians had been carrying swords and metal armour made of bronze when attending funerals.

It was said that during the era of Sultan Bolkiah, the fifth Sultan, 40 Javanese metal craft experts had been brought back to Brunei to teach their craft to Bruneians.

Cannons played important roles in Brunei’s history. They were used as Brunei’s main defences and a good number were positioned at the mouth of the Brunei River and were placed there until the British came to Brunei in 1846.


Some of the cannons were well known that they had names such as Si Tunggal and Si Dewa. These two were taken by the Suluks during the Brunei civil wars and later taken to Manila. Another well known cannon during Sultan Bolkiah’s reign was Si Gantar Alam which was used during the attacks on Luzon and Manila.

The Brunei cannons had their own attributes. In the manufacture of the cannons, the local craftsmen would pay attention to eight main parts of the cannons known locally as the batang (barrel), muncung (mouth), kancing lumba-lumba (trigger), pistaran (sightscope), sumbu dan gargasa (ignition), gamban (barrel end), gaganok (holder) and sangka (holder).

Each of this part would be intricately designed with Brunei motifs thus distinguishing the Brunei cannons from other cannons in the world.

Cannons are not just used for defensive purposes but played important role in the royal courts.

Cannon shots are fired on many important royal events with different numbers for each event. The highest obviously are events connected to His Majesty the Sultan and Her Majesty Raja Isteri, of 21 shots.

Others include the 17 shots for a circumcision ceremony, 16 for the opening of the nightly vigil ceremony, 16 for the anointment of Wazirs and 7 for the births of Princes and Princesses.

During Royal Wedding ceremonies, another set of numbers including 12 fired to mark the beginning of the Royal wedding ceremonies and 17 during the ‘nikah’ and other occasions.

Brunei cannons are also used in the economy where they are also used as monetary tokens, payments and for the use of payment of fines.

A number of exhibits at the Currency Gallery of the Brunei Currency and Monetary Board are miniature cannons between 6 inches and 12 inches long which were used as currency in Brunei in place of coins and other monetary tokens. It was said that the value of these miniature cannons can be as high as $30 (straits dollar) each.


Cannons were used as part of the dowry to be paid. In Belait, a groom had to send a cannon among other items to the bride’s family. Cannons were also used as tribute payments. When an ‘Orang Kaya’ – a titled local minister died, landowners had to pay a tribute of a cannon. Cannons were also accepted as replacement of other punishments in some Brunei ethnic cultures.

One interesting use of a Brunei cannon had been found used to mark a grave in Rangas.

Brunei cannons are unique and it is one of our few remaining historical assets.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

History of Brunei Newspapers

[Note: The following article was published on the Golden Legacy Column of Brunei's national newspaper, The Brunei Times on 7th July 2007.]

As ‘The Brunei Times’ celebrates its anniversary of being the new kid in the Brunei’s newspaper industry, it is worthwhile to look at how the newspaper industry have fared since newspapers began to be circulated in Brunei.

Brunei’s media industry is relatively new compared to many other countries. Despite Brunei being an ancient country, it is considered a new nation by some which it is. After the turbulence at the end of the 19th century where Brunei had lost practically most of its territories, Brunei emerged as a new nation, having the first British Resident in 1906 to set up the new modern administration, discovering oil as its new lifeline in 1929, writing its own constitution and self internal administration in 1959 and finally achieving its independence in 1984.

Likewise the newspaper industry only began after the 1950s. Before 1950, there was no other publication in Brunei other than the Annual Reports which are published by the British Colonial Office. The first other regular government publication was the Government Gazette which was first published in 1951. However the gazette was not strictly a newspaper, but an official publication for the government.

The first newspaper to appear was ‘Salam Seria’ published in 1952 by the British Malayan Petroleum Company, the forerunner to today’s Brunei Shell Petroleum Company. Being an official company publication, it delivered news and information to its staff as well as the general public regarding its oil exploration and other company news. Even though it was produced bilingually in English and Malay, the Malay version had added content of world news and educational materials. ‘Salam Seria’ became ‘Salam’ the year after and had remained until now. ‘Salam’ remained a free publication.

The second newspaper is today’s ‘Borneo Bulletin’ which first appeared on 7th November 1953. This English weekly publication was printed in Kuala Belait by the Brunei Press Company which was formed in October 1953. Borneo Bulletin was sold for 20 cents when it was first produced. At first most of its news concentrated more on news in Borneo with special emphasis on Brunei and its first publication run of about 3,500 was the largest in Borneo then.

In 1959, the founders of Borneo Bulletin sold the press and newspaper to the Straits Times of Singapore. The first bulletins were published with different covers for the three different editions for Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak. It publication increased to about 10,000 by 1957 but was reduced to about 6,000 in 1970 as a result of both Sarawak and Sabah being incorporated in Malaysia. However by 1983, production had increased to about 30,000 before gradually reducing to about 10,000 by 1997.

In 1985, Brunei Darussalam's first public listed company, QAF, took over part of the shares of Brunei Press from the Straits Times. By September 1990, the ‘Borneo Bulletin’ became a daily newspaper. At present, the circulation per issue averaged 20,000 copies daily while the Weekend and Sunday edition averaged 25,000 copies.

The third publication is the Government’s ‘Pelita Brunei’ which was first published in 1956. Pelita Brunei’s first issue on 15th February 1956 had His Majesty Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Saadul Khairi Waddien’s speech inaugurating the publication of the newspaper.


In 1957, ‘Pelita Brunei’ was produced twice monthly and was at first produced using A4 size paper before increasing in size to 9 inch by 14 inch in 1959. It was not until July 1965 before ‘Pelita Brunei’ became a weekly newspaper published every Wednesday and remained so until now.

In the beginning, there was only about 1,000 being printed by the 1990s, more than 45,000 ‘Pelita Brunei’ was printed weekly becoming the largest print publication in the country. The content of the newspaper increased from about 4 pages to about 24 pages now and with a second part being added to it containing all the government job vacancies and tenders being awarded in the government as well as other interesting features and articles.

A fourth publication was a short lived one called the ‘Berita Brunei’ which was first published in March 1957. It was printed in Malay and also partly in jawi. It was a weekly publication and was published every Thursday and sold for about 10 cents each with a print run of about 5,000. By July 1958, the jawi was dropped and by October 1959 it was renamed as ‘Berita Borneo’. However the newly named ‘Berita Borneo’ only lasted for 5 editions and the last publication was in December 1958 with the editor citing the drop in advertisements from Malaysia and Singapore as the main reason for its demise.

In April 1958, another publication in jawi started called ‘Malaysia’ printed by the Budaya Press. Sold for about 20 cents each, it too died by September 1958.

A publication by a former political party called ‘Suara Bakti’ was published on October 1961 and came out every Friday was the sixth newspaper in Brunei. It called itself ‘the largest weekly newspaper in North Kalimantan’ and sold for 20 cents each. However the newspaper came out sporadically and by December 1961 it only had about 10 editions. A new editor took over and that too lasted for only about 5 editions before closing down in January 1962.

A seventh publication called ‘Bintang Harian’ and ‘The Daily Star’ published in both Malay and English first appeared in March 1966. It appeared everyday except Sunday and cost about 15 cents. More than 10,000 copies were printed daily as it was published not just for Brunei, but also for Sabah and Sarawak, West Malaysia and Singapore. When it stopped publication in January 1971, more than 15,000 copies was printed. The publication stopped when the publishers The Star Press became a subsidiary of The Brunei Press.

Two other government publications, Brunei Darussalam Newsletter and the Brunei Darussalam Daily Digest were published in October 1985 and January 1990 respectively. The former continued being published but its readership is mostly made up of foreign readers and are seldom seen by local readers. The latter had stopped but efforts are in place to restart the publication again.

‘Media Permata’ was the latest of a number of local Malay newspaper when it began in January 1995 as a weekly paper focusing on local news and features for the Malay literate. It was relaunched as a daily newspaper in July 1998 and remained so until today with an average of 10,000 copies of Media Permata being circulated. Media Permata is available from Monday to Friday and a weekend edition is also available for Saturday and Sunday.

The last newspaper to appear before Brunei Times was the ‘News Express’. News Express started when the 20th Southeast Asian Games was hosted in Bandar Seri Begawan towards the later end of 1999 but by early 2001, it too joined the ranks of other newspapers which were unable to sustain themselves in Brunei’s competitive newspaper market.

And of course, the latest newspaper to join in the ranks of Brunei’s newspapers is today’s Brunei Times.

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