Brunei’s trou­bled heart

The once-pop­u­lous Brunei dis­trict of Kam­pong Ayer, a com­mu­nity of stilted homes and wooden walk­ways, is a shell of what it once was in its hey­day as res­i­dents drift to the city

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETE FORD

Vis­it­ing the stilted homes of Kam­pong Ayer as its res­i­dents

head for life in the city

THE low, largely sin­gle-story wooden build­ings that make up much of the water vil­lage of Kam­pong Ayer cling to the south­ern bank of the Brunei River, op­po­site tower blocks, shop­ping malls, minarets and the Sul­tan’s sprawl­ing Is­tana Nu­rul Iman, the world’s largest res­i­den­tial palace, adding a splash of colour to con­trast with the lush green forests ris­ing end­lessly be­hind it.

Reached by a one-minute ferry ride from the com­pact cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict of Brunei’s cap­i­tal Ban­dar Seri Be­gawan, Kam­pong Ayer – still pos­si­bly the world’s largest stilted water vil­lage – is now home to just 3% of the coun­try’s 445,000 res­i­dents. When the fleet of Por­tuguese ex­plorer Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan called into

Brunei in 1521, it recorded a pop­u­la­tion in Kam­pong Ayer of 25,000 fam­i­lies, and as late as 1971, about 60% of Brunei’s pop­u­la­tion of 136,000 – more than 81,000 res­i­dents – still called it home.

“Why is every­one so ob­sessed with Kam­pong Ayer?” asked a teenage boy dis­mis­sively, eat­ing KFC in the park sur­round­ing Omar Ali Sai­fud­dien mosque; the park, over­look­ing water vil­lages on both sides of the Brunei river, formed part of Kam­pong Ayer un­til 1994, when a ma­jor land recla­ma­tion project led to the nearby malls, of­fices and the park.

“It’s dirty and bor­ing, and there’s noth­ing to do. I never un­der­stand tourists want­ing to go. Only old peo­ple and for­eign­ers live there now,” he added, be­fore turn­ing his at­ten­tion back to his phone.

As the tiny coun­try on the north­ern shore of the is­land of Bor­neo has grown and de­vel­oped on the back of its rich oil and nat­u­ral gas de­posits, so too has the de­mand for shop­ping malls and mod­ern hous­ing. Multi-lane high­ways link the var­i­ous neigh­bour­hoods of the sprawl­ing cap­i­tal city, and Kam­pong Ayer has been left be­hind as Brunei’s pop­u­la­tion has shifted to solid ground.

The land­ward mi­gra­tion, be­gun by the colo­nial Bri­tish at the turn of the last cen­tury, has left Kam­pong Ayer a shadow of its for­mer self, with older res­i­dents form­ing much of the re­main­ing pop­u­la­tion. Eco­nomic mi­grants from In­done­sia and Malaysia have been at­tracted by the cheap rent for the empty houses left be­hind, fur­ther chang­ing the na­ture of what has been de­scribed as the heart of Brunei.

“[Mi­gra­tion] has trans­formed Kam­pong Ayer fun­da­men­tally,” pro­claims a 2017 work­ing paper on mi­gra­tion pub­lished by Univer­sity Brunei Darus­salam. “The sym­bolic mean­ings that Kam­pong Ayer has evoked within the con­scious­ness of Bruneians have changed con­sid­er­ably. In their minds Kam­pong Ayer has changed from a func­tional liv­ing space to a place that be­longs in the past (though this per­spec­tive is of­ten tinged with a sense of ro­man­ti­cism and nos­tal­gia).”

Kam­pong Ayer has been the prin­ci­pal set­tle­ment of Brunei for much of the na­tion’s his­tory, which at its height in the 1500s stretched to parts of the Philip­pines and In­done­sia, and in­cluded all the coastal ar­eas of Bor­neo; yet it hasn’t al­ways been in the same place. When the Bri­tish took colo­nial con­trol over Brunei in the late 1800s, a pol­icy of in­land mi­gra­tion away from Kam­pong Ayer was un­der­taken in the name of de­vel­op­ment. As com­mu­ni­ties and in­dus­tries were moved to Ban­dar Seri Be­gawan, where land and in­fra­struc­ture bet­ter suited growth, the cen­turies-old life in Kam­pong Ayer be­gan “a down­ward tra­jec­tory that chipped away at the very soul of the place”, as the work­ing paper puts it.

The shift of in­dus­try to the main­land has had a no­tice­able effect on the liveli­hoods of Kam­pong Ayer’s res­i­dents.

“There is a gen­eral sense of hope­less­ness, as [there are] no jobs for peo­ple. With peo­ple leav­ing to find work, only the young and old are left in Kam­pong Ayer,” said an ex­pert on poverty in South Asia, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of of­fend­ing the Min­istry of De­vel­op­ment.

“A lot of peo­ple are liv­ing in poverty. There is a lack of jobs, no food se­cu­rity now with the loss of fish­ing,” added this source. This is de­spite a per capita GDP of some $77,000, which, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, is the sec­ond high­est GDP in South­east Asia, be­hind Sin­ga­pore, and fourth high­est in the world.

Frag­ments of Kam­pong Ayer’s rich his­tory are dis­played in glass cab­i­nets at the small mu­seum in the water vil­lage. Pot­tery from China, coins, metal slag, fish­ing weights and

other signs of in­dus­try and trade paint a pic­ture of the set­tle­ment’s rich fab­ric. Ex­am­ples of the crafts once made in the water vil­lage are also dis­played be­hind glass – an apt re­minder of a once thriv­ing tra­di­tional econ­omy.

To­day’s res­i­dents have largely stopped craft­ing the boats, cloth, jew­ellery and bas­kets that were once pro­duced there and which gave name to the var­i­ous sub-vil­lages that make up Kam­pong Ayer. In­stead, a hand­ful of ar­ti­sans now make their liv­ing at the Brunei Art and Hand­i­crafts Cen­tre in the cap­i­tal, the multi-storey con­crete build­ing vis­i­ble from the water vil­lage but very much de­tached from it. Res­i­dents now are largely reliant on pen­sions and state sup­port, or com­mute to the main­land to work low-pay­ing ser­vice jobs.

Com­pound­ing the loss of skilled work is the loss of the once im­por­tant fish­ing in­dus­try.

“It is harder to find crabs,” said one long-term res­i­dent with a re­signed shrug. “I get the same price now per kilo as 10 years ago, but I catch less.”

“A lot of peo­ple are liv­ing in poverty. There is a lack of jobs and no food se­cu­rity now with the loss of fish­ing”

“The old houses here have no real sewage treat­ment, which doesn’t help keep the water clean”

The fish stocks that once sup­ported the thriv­ing com­mu­nity have dis­ap­peared as water qual­ity has wors­ened, due to pol­lu­tion from ris­ing pop­u­la­tions along the river and the ef­fects of up-river quar­ry­ing, explained tour guide Richard Ret.

“It is dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple in­volved in the fish­ing in­dus­try now, from mak­ing the boats and equip­ment to see­ing ac­tual fish­er­men out on the water,” said Ret.

“The old houses here have no real sewage treat­ment, which doesn’t help keep the water clean,” he added, point­ing at the ever-vis­i­ble float­ing plas­tic bags, poly­styrene con­tain­ers, drinks cans and PET bot­tles.

The lack of in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment ex­tends be­yond sewage. The whole of Kam­pong Ayer has only one fire sta­tion, and the wooden houses and the wooden walk­ways link­ing them has meant the water vil­lage, iron­i­cally, has been prone to dev­as­tat­ing fires. Charred con­crete piles pok­ing out of the water of­fer jar­ring ev­i­dence of the sus­cep­ti­bil­ity of the old houses.

The Kam­pong Ayer mu­seum notes, how­ever, that the govern­ment is ac­tively seek­ing to ad­dress some of these de­vel­op­ment de­fi­cien­cies.

“Kam­pong Ayer is equipped with ba­sic yet mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture. It re­ceives a sub­stan­tial an­nual bud­get from the govern­ment due to its sta­tus as a na­tional land­mark,” notes an in­for­ma­tion sign at the mu­seum.

Some of this mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture is vis­i­ble in the newly ren­o­vated area sur­round­ing the mu­seum, where rows of mod­ern beige and brown homes have re­placed the tra­di­tional, colour­fully painted wooden homes.

The two-storey build­ings sell for about $45,000, while the bun­ga­lows are about $27,000, explained the tour guide. In con­trast, the old wooden houses are closer to $4,000. All are avail­able only to Brunei cit­i­zens, and sub­ject to De­vel­op­ment Min­istry dis­cre­tion.

The new houses ap­pear both more com­fort­able and eco­log­i­cally sounder, but cre­ate the feel­ing of bland United States-style sub­ur­bia – end­less iden­ti­cal houses

“Kam­pong Ayer is a liv­ing, breath­ing en­tity. If we try to treat it as an ob­ject in a mu­seum, it will be dif­fi­cult to have suc­cess”

lack­ing com­mu­nal spa­ces and iden­tity, in stark con­trast to neigh­bour­ing older homes.

But as Kam­pong Ayer bat­tles with neg­a­tive perceptions – pol­lu­tion, ar­rival of for­eign­ers, grow­ing crime and wide­spread un­em­ploy­ment were all high­lighted as ar­eas of con­cern in the white paper – the trans­for­ma­tion of the water vil­lage into a com­muter base with af­ford­able prop­erty and speedy com­mut­ing times could ar­rest the de­cline and make it more at­trac­tive to new­com­ers.

Tourism is an­other area that might pre­serve some of Kam­pong Ayer’s his­tory and at­mos­phere. Airbnb started op­er­at­ing there last year, and visi­tors can now stay in one of the tra­di­tional wooden houses. The Tourism Min­istry hopes to at­tract 278,000 visi­tors to the coun­try in 2018, up from around 240,000 in 2017, with Malaysia, China and the Philip­pines pro­vid­ing the bulk of visi­tors.

For tour guide Richard Ret, it is im­por­tant for Kam­pong Ayer to be pro­tected, pre­served and de­vel­oped to best meet the needs of lo­cal res­i­dents, as well as tourists: “I have heard talk of mak­ing res­tau­rants for tourists, and maybe a float­ing mar­ket, both of which will help to make Kam­pong Ayer even more pop­u­lar for visi­tors and boost their pos­i­tive im­age of Brunei.”

For as much as Kam­pong Ayer may rep­re­sent Brunei’s past, the ef­fects of colo­nial and govern­ment poli­cies have ir­recov­er­ably al­tered it. As the 2017 work­ing paper noted, “That Brunei is Kam­pong Ayer and Kam­pong Ayer is Brunei seems like a dis­tant past; a pre-Euro­pean legacy.”

How Kam­pong Ayer re­sponds to the de­mands of to­day and to­mor­row is key, whether it be­comes an af­ford­able com­mu­nity within easy com­mut­ing dis­tance or a tourist des­ti­na­tion trad­ing not off what it used to be, but in­stead what it of­fers now: river­side views, unique walk­ways and quirky, colour­ful build­ings.

Ei­ther way, as the South Asia poverty ex­pert cau­tioned, any fu­ture de­vel­op­ment must be done with Kam­pong Ayer’s cur­rent res­i­dents in mind, and not dwell on the past: “It is a liv­ing, breath­ing en­tity. If we try to treat it as an ob­ject in a mu­seum, it will be dif­fi­cult to have suc­cess.”

Scenes of ev­ery­day life in Kam­pong Ayer (clock­wise from top right): a view through a stilted hut's stained-glass win­dow; a fish­er­man checks his traps; a lo­cal cat lazes on the wooden walk­ways

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