A bridge over calmer waters

A boat passes through the Kampong Ayer water village at dusk as the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien mosque is lit up in the city of Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei
A boat passes through the Kampong Ayer water village at dusk as the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien mosque is lit up in the city of Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. Malaysia and Brunei opened the toll-free Friendship Bridge earlier this month which is hoped will bring a new era of social and economic development between the two countries. AFP

A bridge over calmer waters

Life is a short, sharp endurance test, and then you die; but solace can come by recollecting past pleasures when, for a brief interlude, the senses are vitalised and the daily quotidian becomes tolerable.

The French writer, Marcel Proust, wrote a seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, based on such past joys, which were famously stimulated by the taste of a madeleine cake dipped in warm tea.

Freshly brewed coffee with a little cream does the job for me, as it did last week when a rare news item about Brunei popped up – and my mind took off.

To paraphrase Proust, the vicissitudes of life became indifferent, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory; for I was no longer at my desk, I was on the African Queen.

Or more precisely, Brunei’s African Queen, which putters down the café-au-lait Limbang River from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to Limbang town in Malaysia’s Sarawak State.

And oddly, it was a rather dull report about the opening of a new bridge from Limbang to Brunei’s eastern enclave of Temburong that sparked this reverie.

Temburong, while largely empty – it hosts only two per cent of Brunei’s 380,000 population, is geographically big and makes up a quarter of the sultanate’s land mass.

It also plays host to the Singapore Armed Forces, whose troops train there and act as a deterrent against any potentially hostile action by Malaysia.

Now, thanks to the new bridge, which closes an infamous gap in the Pan Borneo Highway, Temburong assumes even greater importance.

Previously, it was possible to drive from Sarawak’s capital Kuching to Limbang via Miri and Bandar, but then the road abruptly ended at the Pandaruan River.

There, drivers had to wait, often for hours, for a creaky old ferry to take them across to Temburong; now they can drive straight over in minutes and continue on to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and even to Tawau.

It is a big deal, which is why the December 8 bridge opening was attended by the Sultan of Brunei, the Malaysian Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of both Sabah and Sarawak.

Said Malaysia’s PM Najib Razak: “With the completion of this bridge, we move closer to realising the ASEAN Community in 2015 because this was the last point along the Pan Borneo Highway that had to be linked.”

The bridge not only closes the “missing link” in the 2,000km highway, but it also marks the symbolic closure of a long-festering territorial dispute between the two countries over the district of Limbang.

The trouble began back in 1890, when Britain’s colonial ruler, Charles Brooke, the so-called second Rajah of Sarawak, took Limbang from Brunei and made it part of Sarawak, thereby splitting Brunei in two.
The move infuriated the tiny sultanate, which became even more anxious about its borders with Malaysia, especially after huge oil and gas reserves were discovered off its coastline.

Its robust stance was certainly justified, given that Brunei is now Southeast Asia’s third-largest oil producer and the world’s fourth-largest producer of liquefied natural gas.

Not unnaturally, fearing more loss of sovereignty, Brunei declined to follow Sabah and Sarawak in joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

Instead, the sultanate went its own way, while continuing to complain about the unfair Limbang annexation and other alleged border encroachments by Malaysia.

But time and reality assuage such disputes and now the “Friendship Bridge” has brought both sides together and obviated the need for the Temburong ferry crossing.

Those like myself, however, who fondly recall Brunei’s African Queen, can still live out their madeleine-like reverie by taking the half-hour trip between Limbang and Bandar.

Just clamber aboard and sit among the beer cases and the sequined good-time girls, for they are among its abiding joys as it transports you between dry, staid Bandar and decadent, frolicsome Limbang.

I’d love to go back. Just to see the new bridge, you understand.

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