Welcome to my private journal generally on Brunei issues. Any opinions expressed are in my personal capacity. All rights to the articles are reserved.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Fare Thee Well Mr. BR by Emma Good Egg

DURING lunch with the girls last Thursday, amid being reminded what a lazy blogger I was, I learnt to my surprise that Mr BR of the local blog The Daily Brunei Resources at http://www. bruneiresources.blogspot.com has hung his blogging boots and called it a day.

My first thought was that the powers-that-be had impressed on him the need for self-censorship, but Mr BR, who prides himself as "fostering a better-informed Brunei society", had left a warm and final posting on his now-defunct blog informing his readers why he felt the need to bid the blogosphere farewell.

His reasons were good enough for me _ for they are reasons that all bloggers out there are familiar with. I was happy too that my first thoughts were wrong _ he did not leave because he was asked to, he left because he wanted to.

If one were to write a Wikipedia entry on the origins of blogging in Brunei, it is impossible to fathom that Mr BR and his blog would not have a prominent place in the entry.

So, my plans to write about the environment will have to be shelved as I muse over Mr BR, the impact he made on the Brunei blogosphere and most of all how he always played nice in cyberspace.

If you have ever read The Daily Brunei Resources you would know that Mr BR wrote mostly about the country we call home, as is pretty evident in his blog name. Postings about Brunei's history, culture and its people were his forte.

He helped redefine Brunei's blogosphere from the young who posted personal diaries, to those who blog about their hobbies, to old fogeys like me who jumped onto the bandwagon.

From the clues he dropped about his personal life, to whisperings on the grapevine, it became known to the public in cyberspace that the person behind the blog was in fact a senior civil servant.

In many other places, this fact would receive less than a blink of an eye, but in Brunei, I blinked at least thrice when I realised who Mr BR was.

My point, in case you missed it, was that a senior civil servant writing freely about Brunei was pretty big news. In a country where anonymous "surat layangs" (or "flying letters" complaining about Tom, Dick or Harry and disseminated in government departments and offices) are unfortunately all too common, and the most widely read Internet publication are the public Internet forums of Brudirect's (http://www. brudirect.com) Have Your Say and Bruclass (http://www. bruclass.com), it was a breath of fresh air to have a person of his stature pen a blog about this sleepy little hamlet.

And for him to do so without a cloak of anonymity is of some importance. Mr BR's postings were never incendiary, always justified and moderate. It was heartening to know that he could express his views without being called in and questioned.

Sure Mr BR writes under a pseudonym, but the thing about blogs in a small country such as Brunei is that it is fairly easy to determine who the writer is.

Personally, I believe that even if you write anonymously, you are still accountable for your views. This accountability makes for a courteous and reasonable blogger, of which Mr BR was a prime example.

I am sure Rano Iskandar, who has a comment box on his blog at http://www.ranoaddidas. com hopes for some intelligent discussion but can attest to the fact that conversations among his visitors often lead to vitriol. One can simply enter any one of our Internet forums and read how low we can go when hiding behind an anonymous moniker.

There is of course the other side of the coin in which the courteous blogger could be subjected to a certain amount of self-censorship. But as long as you are not making wild accusations, it is all in the interests of promoting free speech.

I have always felt that the writing behind the Daily Brunei Resources encouraged public openness and accountability, and encouraged the exchange of ideas. After all it is only when your opinions are tested can you say that they are valid.

Fare thee well, Mr BR, your presence in Brunei's blogosphere will be missed.

The writer invites readers to visit http://emmagoodegg.com, her blog. The Brunei Times

Note: This article written by a Brunei blogger calling herself Emma Good Egg was published in the Blogspeak column of The Brunei Times dated 30th April 2007

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Two Brunei Bay Legends

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.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in The Brunei Times dated 28th April 2007.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A History of Bruneian Flight

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.

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

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Before the oil, it was coal

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.

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

Friday, April 20, 2007

Mysterious Grave in the City

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.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in The Brunei Times dated 7th April 2007.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Tale of the Unfilial Son

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.

Note: An edited version of the above article was published in The Golden Legacy column in The Brunei Times dated 31st March 2007.

Wednesday, April 18, 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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Take

Why keep a blog? That is a question I have been asked many times. When my colleagues first discovered that I have been keeping a blog for a while – there was a mixed reaction. Some are completely aghast - given that in the media, blogs are sometimes treated like the devil incarnate and for whoever who blogs, they are considered like pariahs in society at the extreme or if not as someone who is immoral or vain writing things about themselves. Some of my colleagues are amused and wonder how long I would last.

As for me, I am completely amazed that the current technology is allowing anyone of us no matter how computer illiterate we are, that as long as we have a computer, we can type albeit an 11-finger typing (your two pointer fingers) or the normal 10-finger typing, and an internet connection – one can instantly transmit one’s thoughts to the world – you become an author with the world your readers.

Originally a web log was more like a diary updated daily or at least constantly – one’s daily thoughts and one’s daily happening. But nowadays, blogs are more than that. The only common feature is that they are updated regularly.

Though you would not want to read all the blogs. There are just too many of them. Even here in our little country, I have lost count of the number of blogs there are. Some are well known and regularly visited whereas some are so obscure and rarely visited that there are virtual cobwebs there.

But today’s topic is not about blogs or blogging per se. It is about why a senior civil servant would want to use this tool to impart knowledge.

It is ironic, I first started not to impart knowledge but merely to use the blog as an updating information board – updating readers about new materials available on my main website www.bruneiresources.com which contained a number of unclassified information which I have gathered through my journey in the civil service to be shared with everyone.

Over time, I found it much easier to put the information on the blog entry itself and eventually it has a life of its own with the number of visitors at first comprising of my wife and I, to the 800 daily visitors and at times exceeded 1,200. How that happened is beyond me, though I have had a couple of helps along the way. But over time too, I found that I seemed to have positioned myself as someone whose role is to impart knowledge about Brunei – hence the catch phrase – “helping to foster a better informed Brunei society”.

I write every day because I think and I know that there are many things in this beloved country of ours that we do not know enough about. When I first started, I write about the Brunei that I know. Now I write about the Brunei I do not know. I read, I talked to people and the more I do that I discovered a wealth of information that are available but not widely or at all disseminated. These knowledge are so precious that once the keeper is no longer with us in this world – those knowledge would die with them. There are just so many things about Brunei that we will never know.

How many people know that Bukit Merikan is where the Americans used to stay in the 19th century when they were first in Brunei? How many people knew that we had relationship with America more than a hundred years ago? How many people knew we had railways in Brunei? How many people knew we had cable cars operating in Brunei? How many people knew that the Secretariat Building is shaped like an E because it stands for Elizabeth II? How many people knew that the Royal Regalia Building was formerly the Churchill Memorial Hall and that it is shaped like a C because it stands for Churchill?

I could go on but then that is what I do everyday. I write about it daily. The little things that make Brunei Brunei. What made Brunei? What shaped Brunei? What determined Brunei? There are many pondering questions that one can ask. We can look at the past and we can envisage the future. But the most important thing is that one has to realize that the future of Brunei is on everyone’s hands. Every single one of us determines what makes Brunei Brunei.

The unique cultural aspects of Brunei influenced by many cultures and societies throughout the eons of Brunei’s history that until today, that part of the ‘chiri’ read out during the award of Pehinships are said in Sanskrit. The Malay wedding ceremonies has many similarities to the Indian wedding ceremonies. Our language is made up of words that come from Arabic and other sources. Our unique Brunei language is not unique. Many of the words are also spoken by others around the region.

Travel through the Borneo region and discover that the whole island used to be Brunei. A number of sultanates sprang up once Brunei ceded control to some of the more outlying areas. But Brunei itself is an ancient state – with records going as far back as more than 15 hundred years ago. That is one hell of a long history, if I may use the word.

Do we care about how powerful we were in the past? Or do we care about whether we can find jobs that will enable our future generation to feed themselves? No doubt the latter is more important. But then I would argue that you need to know about your past before you are able to find the way to the future. The past is like a light, something that can light up the path in front of you so that you can see and find your way to the future.

That is what I will do. We need to know about our past. Our legacy left to us by our forefathers. They worked hard so that they can leave a more secure future for us. We should not squander that. We should utilize that and use the lessons of the past as we chart our way forward. The history lessons that we can learn are not about dates or about who did what but what was done that makes and shapes Brunei as Brunei. We can not change the past, but the future? That is entirely up to us.

Note: An edited version of the above article appeared on The Brunei Times on 18th March 2007 under My Take column. This article introduces my weekly column which started on 24th March 2007 entitled 'The Golden Legacy'.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A New Beginning

Welcome! A brand new home.

This will be the new home to take refuge - to write about the history of Brunei as we know it. What made us. What drives us Bruneians.

To those who followed me from my old blog - The Daily Brunei Resources - welcome. Unlike The Daily BR - this blogsite will not be updated daily and neither will it focus on the current affairs of Brunei (there are enough people doing that already). It will concentrate mostly on the historical sides of Brunei - where we come from - how do we get here - and where do we go from here. It's a new journey.