OVER lunch in Phnom Penh the other day, a colleague related how he’d travelled around all the countries in this region – except Brunei, of course, he added.
That’s pretty common. Few people visit the tiny sultanate on Borneo’s northwest coast, partly because, as my friend said: “You can’t drink there.”
Actually, that’s incorrect. Despite a ban on alcohol, it’s not difficult to get wine or beer in Brunei, nor to indulge in other mischief, for that matter.
Our lunchtime banter, however, was tinged with sadness as we recalled that Brunei’s most renowned journalist, Ignatius Stephen, had died after a tragic accident two weeks ago.
While naturally mourned by his wife and seven children, Stephen will be most missed by fellow reporters, for he was our saviour and go-to guy on Brunei for the past half century.
Indeed, when it came to any query about Brunei, instead of saying ‘Google it’, you would just say ‘ask Ignatius.’
Invariably, he would give you the answer, openly and readily, in a place where most people are morbidly media-averse.
His absence is already evident, as was clear last week when six Southeast Asian countries urged using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to settle territorial issues.
Brunei was the only claimant to disputed areas of the South China Sea that did not support this move. Why? Stephen would have known.
Truth to tell, it was not the answer to such heavy political matters that first drew me to Stephen back in July 1997. It was because I needed a drink.
So, after checking into my hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s little riverine capital, I called the Borneo Bulletin and asked to speak to the editor-in-chief.
Stephen not only came to the phone, but said he would drive over and meet me at my hotel.
He arrived soon afterwards in a big black Mercedes with one of his girlfriends in the back.
Short, dark and podgy, his inauspicious physical presence was compensated by a deliciously mordant sense of humour and incomparable sources.
Stephen knew everyone from the Sultan’s family to ministers, generals and top executives at Royal Brunei Shell, the company that bankrolls the nation.
While he talked, and boy could he talk, Stephen drove us to a dark roadside café where we consumed cold beer from teacups.
At the time, like most outsiders, I thought little ever happened in Brunei.
Stephen soon disabused me of that notion and had me feverishly scribbling in my notebook to try to capture the fusillade of sexy ideas for stories that flowed from him.
I had ‘smuggled’ in a bottle of Merlot, so we moved on to a Western restaurant where they happily served the wine in paper Coca Cola cups.
Finally, we ended up quaffing Heinekens at a speakeasy where the walls were festooned with blown-up photos of Crown Prince Billah playing pool, while a duo of painted transvestites worked the room.
It was in there that Stephen first told me about the debacle involving Amedeo Corp, a company run by the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri.
Normally, Bruneian financial affairs is a subject about which my enthusiasm is far from fanatical, but once Stephen got going about Jefri’s business shenanigans and his luxury yacht Tits, I was hooked.
As I was about many other stories he related, but which, due to heavy local censorship, he could not report.
I had no such hesitations, and consequently was soon the recipient of a splenetic missive from the government spokesman Hazair Abdullah criticising my reportorial debauchery.
Then Stephen could at last get in on the act and write about my official bollocking, which he did in gleeful detail, using a large photo he’d taken of me when I was unawares.
Yes, Stephen had his naughty side, too. And I can only hope that he is still getting up to naughty business wherever he is now.