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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

BEDB Houses at Pandan, Kuala Belait

Yesterday was our second MOD visit to Kampong Pandan to visit the 2,000 houses that BEDB is currently building for us. Sometime last year, we visited them with the former Minister and at that time, other than a few sample houses, most of the houses were in various stages of completion. Unlike yesterday, it is the other way around, most of the houses are nearly completed.

We even visited the inside of the houses where two of the houses were actually fully furnished.

Complete with proper interior decoration and nice furniture, I thought the houses looked very nice. Altogether there are 2,000 houses being built. Currently around 1,700+ houses have been completed and there should be another 200+ houses left to be completed. There will be 800 semi detached houses of around 1,300 square feet area and 1,200 terrace houses of around 1,200 square feet area. The colour schemes for the interior of the house is very nice. Our own officers even want to take photographs inside the house.

How about the outside?

I have to admit it does look plain and simple despite the grand colours. First timers might find themselves lost as the houses are not differentiated. The houses are divided into 6 precincts with each precinct having aound 200 to 400 houses. The semi-detached houses are grouped together with the entrance from the highway whereas the terrace houses can easily be found by using the entrance from Jalan Singa Menteri.

Any other caveats? None as far as I can see, except that people living in the houses have to realise that their sidewalls are cement and not bricks. The brick walls areas are where you can put the aircond.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Value of Brunei's Undistributed Stamps

I was really surprised to see this set of stamps. This set of stamps was supposed to be released in 1970 but it was never released. The stamps were supposed to have been destroyed but I guess with these sets in the market, someone somewhere decided not to destroy every single one.

I came across this set sometime early this year when my dealer in Singapore showed the whole set and I paid around S$800 for the entire four stamps. When I told one of my friends in Brunei who specialised in antiques, he said I overpaid for it. It's difficult to estimate what the value is as these stamps do not come up for auctions that often.

When I saw it on ebay, I was surprised and put up a bid for it. I was the highest at one stage but towards the end, there were just too many bidders, serious ones too. When the dust cleared, the stamps were sold for US$935 which is even way way what I paid for. Whoever bought it, congratulations, I do hope no more of these stamps will appear suddenly any more.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stopover with Majesty

[This article was published in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald on 24 October 2010]

Steve McKenna swings from royalty to rainforest in one of south-east Asia's most underrated destinations.

MY HEART is beating faster than normal as I approach the Sultan of Brunei. We're in the lavish surrounds of his 1788-room palace, standing beneath a ceiling coated in crystal and, although it feels like a dream, I don't have time to pinch myself.

Smiling and looking genuinely pleased to see me, his majesty shakes my hand. It's neither a wet fish nor a bone cruncher. It's just right, in fact, though I'm not surprised by his expertise, considering the amount of practise he gets.

Advertisement: Story continues below
The sultan will greet about 50,000 people in the course of the weekend as part of the celebrations for Hari Raya, an annual festival that follows the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. For three days, Bruneians and foreigners can visit the palace, where a buffet bulging with treats is laid on, compliments of his majesty.

Bellies full, men then queue to meet the sultan and male members of the Bruneian royal family (including eccentric playboy Prince Jefri). Women are shepherded to another opulent room, where the queen and princesses await. Later, everyone leaves with a gift. This year, it's cake.

A sovereign state swimming in oil on the north coast of the island of Borneo, Brunei boasts far more than just regal splendour and black gold (more than 1 billion barrels' worth of oil has been pumped out since the resource was first tapped in 1929).

In four days, I'm won over by the country's jewels: tropical jungles teeming with wildlife, atmospheric villages, sublime Islamic-influenced architecture, delicious, spicy Malaysian-style cuisine and friendly people - many of whom speak fluent English as well as Malay, the official language.

Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984 and still bears a few influences - driving on the left-hand side, for instance. However, religion holds greater sway: Islam arrived here with Arab traders in the 14th century and the sultan is part of a dynasty that claims direct descent from the prophet Muhammad. On his watch, Friday prayers are near-sacrosanct, aspects of Sharia law are in force and alcohol is essentially banned (though foreigners can bring 12 cans of beer and two bottles of wine or spirits through customs for private use).

Yet Brunei is no fundamentalist backwater and instead lives up to its full name, Brunei Darussalam (Abode of Peace). Various religions flourish here, violent crime is virtually non-existent and Bruneinan women wear a mix of Western-style clothes and traditional Malay outfits and headscarves. Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is small, clean, green, low-key and laid-back. Also shorn of pesky street salesmen and choking traffic jams, it's a fine base for exploring the country.

As well as two huge, beautiful mosques and a clutch of intriguing museums, Bandar offers Kampong Ayer - a collection of "floating" villages that have huddled here, in some form, for a millennium.

Home to about 20,000 people, Kampong Ayer was mentioned in the chronicles of Antonio Pigafetta, a member of Ferdinand Magellan's 16th-century round-the-world expedition, which passed through Borneo's waters.

Treading the boardwalks linking Kampong Ayer's wooden stilt homes, workshops, schools and medical centres, I chat with locals.

Most homes have satellite dishes, while the government's oil-rich coffers means healthcare and education are free for all citizens, there's no income tax and petrol is cheap (about 30¢ a litre). Much of Brunei is covered in rainforest and on a water-taxi tour of the jungle-fringed waterways around Bandar, I spot proboscis monkeys and macaques swinging between branches and crocodiles sunbathing in mangroves.

I also venture deeper into Brunei's interior by motor boat, to Temburong, the smaller, eastern slice of Brunei. Split from Bandar, and its more populated western part by Malaysia's state of Sarawak, Temburong is home to Ulu Ulu, a rainforest eco-resort where you relax to the sounds of chirping crickets and cicadas, or tackle a raft of jungle-based adventures. Early next morning, I'm woken by a guide and embark on a sweaty, humid 30-minute trek to a vantage point overlooking the misty rainforest canopy. The prize is seeing a magical, almost ethereal, Borneo sunrise. My last night in Brunei is spent at the sumptuous Empire Hotel and Country Club, said to be a favourite hang-out of the sultan, his polo-playing friend Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. Built a decade ago on the fringes of the South China Sea for a reported $1.1 billion, the club is a riot of Italian marble, gilded columns and shimmering chandeliers, with a spa, pools and a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.

As I enjoy a glass of red on my balcony, I toast Brunei. Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to stopovers in Asia and although the sultanate lacks the fame of Hong Kong or Singapore, the country is every bit as rewarding.

The writer was a guest of Royal Brunei Airlines.

Trip notes

Getting there

Royal Brunei flies from Brisbane to Brunei priced from $620 return, with connections to other Asian cities and London (alcohol-free flights). (07) 3860 6700, bruneiair.com.

Staying there

Radisson Hotel in Bandar has double rooms priced from $Br165 ($130) a night. +673 224 4272, www.radisson.com/brunei. Empire Hotel and Country Club rooms are from about $Br400 a night. + 673 241 8888, theempirehotel.com. A night at Ulu Ulu Resort, including transfers, activities and meals, is from $Br350 a person, twin share. + 673 244 1791, uluuluresort.com.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Brunei's Connections

The Oxford Business Group reported on 30th September 2010 the following news:


Brunei's Connections

The arrival of a flotilla of traditional Filipino balangay sailboats in Brunei’s Muara harbour last month was not only a colourful display of seamanship – the boats are on a 14,000km journey around South-east Asia – it was also a reminder of the Sultanate’s plan to deepen trade and transport links with neighbouring nations.

A significant contributor to the enhanced cooperation is the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asian Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) initiative. Launched in 1994, it seeks to boost economic activity between Brunei and peripheral states of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, since the states are economically distant from their countries’ main growth centres.

The multilateral grouping includes the states of Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan in Malaysia, the provinces of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, West Papua and Papua in Indonesia, and Mindanao and Palawan in the Philippines. Around 1.6m sq km is covered by the BIMP-EAGA, with a combined population of some 57.5m people.

Brunei, which currently possesses the only international air gateway in the sub-region, Bandar Seri Begawan Airport, has long been a firm backer of the plan.

Thomas Koh, secretary general of the Federation of Transport and Stevedoring Brunei Darussalam, told reporters and sector insiders at a presentation in August that improving trade and transportation, particularly logistics, was key to the BIMP-EAGA vision.
Air links were strengthened in August with the Filipino low-cost carrier Cebu Pacific launching its first direct flight from Manila to Bandar Seri Begawan. The Brunei Tourism Board hopes that this will see a jump in the number of Filipino tourists and foreign visitors.

Cebu Pacific’s Vice President-Marketing and Distribution Candice A Iyog told Bruneian reporters soon after flights began that they enjoyed a 98% passenger load factor in its early days. Part of the route’s popularity is that it connects well with domestic Filipino destinations that the airline flies to.

An early morning flight from Bandar Seri Begawan to Manila allows for an onward journey the same day, connecting the Sultanate via the Filipino capital to airports such as Davao, the capital of Mindanao, and Puerto Princesa on Palawan.

Cebu’s arrival brings the number of international airlines using Brunei’s international airport to four – the other three being Royal Brunei, Air Asia, and Singapore Airlines. Media reports suggest Air Asia’s Indonesian operation is also eyeing a link between the airport and Jakarta. The budget airline doubled its daily number of Bandar Seri Begawan-Kuala Lumpur flights from August 25 to two.

The Malaysian low-cost carrier is also talking of opening a budget hotel as part of its Tune Hotel chain in Bandar Seri Begawan, to go along with the flight expansion. Tiger Airways, the Singaporean budget airline, still has no plans to add Brunei to its schedules, though it was given permission to do so back in 2006.

Overall, the number of international connections into Brunei is now increasing. There is also hope that sea connections will improve too, with the addition of a Muara-Labuan route to the itinerary of the roll on-roll off car and passenger ferry Shuttle Hope, which currently plies the Muara-Kota Kinabalu route.

However, the BIMP-EAGA initiative still suffers from the lack of direct flights within the sub-region, while the ferry project has met challenges in obtaining the necessary permissions from different national authorities. Unless addressed, this could limit the sub-region’s potential.