41st Anniversary of Bandar Ser i Begawan

[I wrote this article for the 4th October 2011 edition of The Brunei Times]

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It can be confusing to many people. The word Brunei appears in both the country as well as the district. Before 1970, it was more confusing. The word Brunei can be used not only for the country of Brunei and the district of Brunei but it was also for the capital city, Brunei Town or Bandar Brunei.

The older folks know it as Pekan Brunei. This writer’s mother-in-law sometimes asked, “are you going to Brunei?” To which this writer was always tempted to answer, “we are already in Brunei” but this writer realised that she was referring to the capital city even though it has not been called Pekan Brunei for a long time.

It is not known when Brunei Town officially used the name. However at the turn of the 20th century, Pekan Brunei was a city on water but it was not on today’s dry land.

Peter Blundell in his 1923 book “City of Many Waters” who wrote about Brunei at the end of the 19th century said “… 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 ...”

Despite the first British Resident McArthur‘s efforts to move the Bruneis to dry land in 1906, not much progress had been made. By December 1941, the dry land in Brunei Town was a small town with one major road going through it with all the houses made out of wood with nipah roof and one wooden cinema built in 1923 for night entertainment. There was a wooden mosque named Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal (aka Masjid Pekan Brunei). There was not much other than that.

It was Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien III who worked hard to bring development to the capital city from a ruined city after the end of World War II. At the end of the war, after heavy aerial bombardment by the Allied Forces, Brunei Town lay in ruins. Even the wooden mosque Masjid Marbut Pak Tunggal was completely destroyed.

According to Captain T.S. Monks, one of the first British military administrators who came immediately after the war, there was “… hardly a building left standing in Brunei Town. The main street was a mess of bomb craters and fallen telegraph poles … there was not a soul in sight anywhere. It was a shattered ghost town … so severe had been the bombing damage that it was difficult to imagine what the town had been like ...”

Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien III was the second son of Al-Marhum Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Alam II. He was born on 23 September 1914 at Istana Kota at Kampong Sultan Lama, Brunei Town. He was installed as the 28th Sultan of Brunei on 6 June 1951 after the death of his brother, Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin.

From early on, Sultan Omar ‘Ali focused on raising Brunei’s standard of living. His top priority was providing adequate education. Several primary and secondary schools were built throughout the nation to ensure that all citizens could attend formal schooling. A free-food scheme was introduced. Students were sent abroad for higher education.

In 1953, the Government had prepared the first five-year development plan allocating $100 million to build the government‘s infrastructure. Among the major items in the plan was the redevelopment of Brunei Town as a well-planned city, complete with asphalt roads and other modern amenities.

The plan’s other aims included providing basic education to all districts; improving communication systems; raising the quality of medical and health services; increasing agricultural products as well as providing basic services such as roads, electricity and water to all the people.

Most of the expenses were borne by the government. One of the first changes was the change of the wooden houses with concrete ones in the city centre. Other projects included the construction of schools, extension of medical services, agricultural development and the construction of roads. Most of these were able to be done successfully.

By December 1958 the road linking Brunei Town to Kuala Belait was completed with all the bridges crossing all the major rivers. By then too, most of the government buildings in Brunei Town were completed including the State Secretariat Building, Istana Darul Hana, SOAS College, the Customs Department at Brunei Wharf, the General Post Office, SOAS Mosque and one first class hotel.

The 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, the Boon Pang (now replaced by the BIBD building) and the Bolkiah were also built in the early 1950s. Even HSBC built its first concrete building.

In the 1960s, the town master plan was completed and executed. However Sultan Omar ‘Ali had other concerns. The campaign to eradicate malaria was carried out in 1953. From an annual 3,875 cases, it dropped to 41 in 5 years.

Sultan Omar ‘Ali ordered that the wharf at Brunei Town be enlarged so as to allow more ships to come in to bring food supplies. He also built a new airport out of the airfield strip left by the Japanese during World War II. Even a museum was built to keep records and artifacts of Brunei‘s past.

Sultan Omar ‘Ali set up a welfare system where allowances were paid out to the needy, handicapped and old aged.

Most importantly Sultan Omar ‘Ali also worked tirelessly for the implementation of the Brunei written constitution as the foundation of governance and the achievement of independence from Britain. Discussions with the British government culminated in the signing of the Brunei written constitution and the Brunei Agreement on 29 September 1959. Among others, the constitution stipulated Malay to be the official language and Islam to be official religion of Brunei.

In 1961, Sultan Omar Ali also ordered the formation of the Brunei Malay Regiment, today’s Royal Brunei Armed Forces. Sultan Omar ‘Ali’s reign was marked by so much progress that he is known as the “Architect of Modern Brunei”.

On 4 October 1968, Sultan Omar ‘Ali abdicated his throne and his young eldest Prince became His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the 29th Sultan of Brunei Darussalam. Sultan Omar ‘Ali took the title Paduka Seri Begawan Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien.

In recognition of his contributions, 41 years ago, on 4 October 1970, His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah renamed Brunei Town as Bandar Seri Begawan, after his father’s title.

Today, the majestic Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque and imposing Legislative Council Chamber (Lapau) and institutions such as the Seri Begawan Religious Teachers University College; the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Institute of Islamic studies (Universiti Brunei Darussalam); the Paduka Seri Begawan Sultan Science College; and the Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien are testaments to the efforts that Sultan Omar ‘Ali has taken to leave a fitting legacy of his — Bandar Seri Begawan.


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