Brunei - Rising from the Ruins of World War II

Brunei Town bombed during World war II

Brunei Town 1950 (Source: Rozan Yunos Collection)

Brunei Town 1950 (source: Rozan Yunos Collection)

Brunei: Rising from the Ruins of World War II

Rozan Yunos
Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, December 13, 2015

IT WAS 74 years ago this month that Brunei Darussalam was dragged reluctantly into World War II. On 16 December 1941, 10,000 Japanese troops arrived in Kuala Belait. Within a week, they occupied the entire country. They did not face any opposition as the British, despite the treaty between them and Brunei, left only a tiny detachment of a Punjabi Regiment in Kuching, Sarawak to protect the three territories of British Borneo of Brunei, Sarawak and then North Borneo.

At first, the Japanese, despite being occupiers, were not “too much hated” by the people though it was “very dangerous if one did not toe their line”. The Japanese were seen as “harsh” and “drove the workers hard”, and during the early stages of the occupation, the Kempetai (Japanese Military Police) did not execute anyone but they were greatly feared.

Towards the end of the war, the former benevolent Japanese governor was replaced. The Japanese became increasingly paranoid and life for many Bruneians became harder and many chose to flee into the jungle.

On June 10, 1945, the Australians landed at Muara under ‘Operation Oboe’ to recapture Brunei. They were supported by American air and naval units. Brunei Town was captured in three days after a heavy bombing campaign by the Allied Forces which virtually destroyed and flattened the city including the Mosque.

The forces advanced from Muara into Brunei Town against little resistance from the Japanese, most of whom had fled to Limbang, Terusan, Tutong and Kuala Belait.

The Allied soldiers saw for themselves the extensive damage done by the Japanese during the occupation, which had been made even worse by the Allied Forces' bombing operations. Brunei was then placed temporarily under the British Military Administration (BMA).

One of the best accounts of Brunei during the aftermath of World War II was written by Captain TS Monks (1992) of the Allied Forces. His initial description of Brunei Town was quite sad. “There was hardly a building left standing. The main street (Jalan Sultan) was a mess of bomb craters and fallen telegraph poles. There was not a soul in sight anywhere. It was a shattered ghost town.”

All the main buildings had been demolished or were far beyond repair. The Government Office was leaning to the point of collapse. The State Council building had only its front facade left. The hospital had been reduced to rubble, and so had every single shop.

The BMA’s immediate actions were to restore peace and to regain the people’s confidence in British administration. Thus the years 1945 to 1946 saw efforts being made by the British to rebuild Brunei and to revive its economy.

Reviving Brunei’s economy included reopening Seria’s oilfields, which the Japanese had set on fire. It was not until September 1945 that the fires were under control. However, by 1946, the British Malayan Petroleum Company was able to restore 113 wells and drilled 17 new wells.

A new temporary hospital in Brunei Town was built. Dispensaries were provided in the other districts and a maternity service was set up. A police force was re-established and shophouses, schools and government buildings in the towns were soon repaired and reconstructed. At the same time, new policies were formulated by the British to strengthen the security of the Malaya-Borneo territories as well as introduce a systematic administration.

Conditions in Brunei improved much faster than thought possible. By July 6, 1945, the BMA had handed over the administration of Brunei to the civil administration and WJ Peel was appointed the first post-war Resident. The Brunei State Council was also revived that same year.

The first post war official annual report of Brunei was issued for the year 1947 by LHN Davis, the British Resident in March 1948. Davis described that the year 1947 saw considerable progress in rehabilitation and improvement in the standard of living of the peoples of Brunei.

Supplies of food and consumer goods have improved considerably. Rice was still in short supply but not as acute as in 1946. Roads have been repaired and reopened. More temporary shop houses have been built. The population of Brunei was just over 40,000.

Davis also described the annual regatta on the Brunei River which was held on the second day of Hari Raya Puasa holiday in August. The increased number of entries reflected the returning peace and prosperity in Brunei.In schools, 1,892 students were enrolled in government Malay schools whilst there were 947 students were in role in Chinese schools

In terms of revenue, the government collected a total of $4,389,974 much higher than the $3,452,280 estimates and the government spent $1,797,597. The previous year, the government only collected $774,145 and before the war, the highest revenue collection was $1,556,354 in 1940.

In 1948, EEF Pretty, the British Resident reported that the process of rehabilitation has continued but progress has been painfully slow due to the shortage of trained staff and the difficulty in getting essential materials. Despite the excess revenue, the absence of contracting firms with adequate capital has made it impossible for half of the new public works to be carried out.

But in the Belait District, the British Malayan Petroleum Company has succeeded in rehabilitation work that the oilfield of Seria was then the largest producing field in the British Commonwealth with 60,000 barrels per day.

By 1948, there was no longer any shortage of food. Total government revenues were now higher than the previous year at $6,586,299 but expenditure has also increased to $3,740,254. The increase in revenue was due to increasing income from oil which is around $4,239,287. The number of students in government schools have increased to 2,029 whilst those in English mission schools were 471 and 984 in Chinese schools. There remained difficulties in getting teachers.

By 1950, Pretty continued the good news in his annual report that the work of rehabilitation proceeded as smoothly and rapidly despite the continued dearth of technicians with three major projects, the new Government Hospital, the new palace for the Sultan as well as the new Malay school.

Oil continued to be produced and has rose to 100,000 barrels per day. The government’s revenue for 1950 was $17,302,862 with an expenditure of $7,112,499 compared to 1949’s figure of $8,736,148 revenue and $4,228,459 expenditure.

The Year of 1950 also marked the turning point for Brunei Darussalam. His Royal Highness Sultan Haji Ahmad Tajuddin died in Singapore on June 4, 1950 while on his way to United Kingdom for an official visit.

His brother, His Royal Highness Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien was proclaimed the 28th Sultan on June 6, 1950. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien led the country to greater heights and was later described as the “Architect of Modern Brunei”.

The writer of The Golden Legacy column – the longest running column in The Brunei Times – also runs a website about Brunei at

The Brunei Times


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