The story behind the revival of Brunei’s most remote settlement

There is an old Iban adage, one that holds that which is not used or practiced will rot and fade away. In Ulu Belait, the district’s remote and sparsely inhabited south, such beliefs are being put to the test.

The urbanization and development of Brunei’s coastal towns from Muara to Kuala Belait, largely spurred over developments in the oil and gas industry since the Second World War, have seen the gradual outflow of residents, enticed by the prospects of professional jobs, and its promises for prosperity and a better life.

Over the decades such developments have carried with them a narrative of inevitability, perhaps even normalized in mainstream consciousness as a cost that’s part and parcel of the modernisation process.

In the past few years, there has been the occasional news report, sometimes full length feature, documenting the struggle of the last bastions in Belait’s remote south – mostly of the Iban and Penan tribes – who wrestle to strike a balance between maintaining their traditions – especially their communal living within the longhouse – and the opportunities presented by the Sultanate’s towns and city.

As kids towel off from a dip on a muddy river bank Mukim Melilas, the last and most remote settlement in Belait – and arguably all of Brunei – cement trucks, who must have made over the 100 kilometre journey either from the capital of Kuala Belait, can be seen pouring cement onto the dirt slope that leads to the last remaining Melilas longhouse.

Is change coming?

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A gift of brick and mortar

The trip to Belait’s south begins with Jalan Labi, a long winding road of nearly 50 kilometers. While narrow, it is entirely tarmac, allowing safe access even for small sedans, all the way to its very end, where another Iban settlement, the Teraja longhouse, is located.

About halfway along Jalan Labi is a junction to the east that veers off to Jalan Merangking. Through here, one will traverse further south to first reach Mukim Sukang, before finally reaching Melilas.

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A screenshot of Brunei from Google Maps, with Mukim Melilas delineated in red.

The final 30 kilometers to Melilas however, sees the road gets progressively worse; gaping potholes make way to stairs of rocks, before tarmac and gravel gradually dissapear almost entirely, leaving a muddy, orange dirt path that only a 4×4, body-on-frame SUV will be able comfortably maneuver.

By the end of 2015, the last remaining settlement in Melilas was within a single longhouse over 40 years old and in dire need of attention. While the community’s main concern was their leaking roof, termites had also eaten into its wooden floors and stilts, compromising the overall base.

“We had bought a new zinc roof and some wood,” said head of the Melilas longhouse and the Mukim’s acting Pengulu Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali Abdullah Itam. “But we needed some help with the repairs. We reached out to the army, who routine patrol the area (due to Melilas’ proximity to the border), to see if they could help us.”

A shot of the Melilas longhouse taken in 2011. Courtesy of MoRA
A shot of the Melilas longhouse taken in 2011. It’s difficult to put an official number on the residents from Melilas. During weekdays, the number drops below 50, but swells to over 100 over the weekends, and more than 200 during special occasions. Courtesy of MoRA

A small military delegation arrived after their request, but after inspecting the longhouse’s state, they left and returned again, this time – to the residents’ surprise – with contractors from the capital.

“We were shocked when we saw contractors come by,” said Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali. “There was no way, even if all of us pooled our money together, could we afford one (a contractor) to make up the place.”

The real surprise would come shortly after, as Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali, along with his son-in-law and another resident Hj Mohd Yassin, made the trip to the capital, where they were informed by a senior army officer that their request had been cascaded to the office of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam – with the monarch giving his seal of approval for a new longhouse to be built.

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Head of the Melilas longhouse Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali (L), son of the Melilas’ first Penghulu, Sindai Orang Kaya Setia Lela Kerna Anak Mudim (C) and head of the first batch of Muslim converts Hj Mohd Yassin (R).

The mandate was promptly initiated under Julangan Titah; a special project overseen by a secretariat consisting of senior government and His Majesty’s Office, funded by donations from both public and private sector as well as individuals.

In October 2016, the rumble of trucks, excavators and cranes arrived for the first time to Melilas, as residents recall construction workers putting in shifts from morning until late at night.

Eight months later stood unquestionably the largest longhouse in Brunei, and at $2 million – also reportedly the most expensive.

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Measuring just over 100 metres long, and 25 metres wide, it houses 14 private units, each with four bedrooms and two toilets, with an additional unit for community functions and administration.

Recognizing that the longhouse is off the main power grid, each unit is backed by its own diesel generator for electricity as well as a water tank. A helicopter landing pad and a connecting access path was also built to support the community’s medical needs by allowing for doctors to fly in safely, while also catering to special visitors.

“We moved in just in time for Hari Raya (2016),” says Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali. “It was the greatest gift we could have asked for.”

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Paddling from Marudi

If there is a definitive book or chapter chronicling the history of the people of Melilas, it certainly can’t be found online. Search engines mostly yield articles on the new longhouse’s opening, and a handful of blog entries of adventurous personal expeditions to the area.

The general background of the Iban people, initially referred as the Sea Dayak by the British who came into contact with them in the 1840s, are as nomadic Borneo tribe most notorious for a warring past and their inclinations toward riverine settlement.

Sindai, the son of Melilas’ first Penghulu, Orang Kaya Setia Lela Kena Anak Mudim, is perhaps the most qualified to give an oral account of how the Iban first arrived into Melilas.

The 67-year-old Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) retiree begins the tale at Marudi, a settlement by the Baram river, southwest of Brunei’s border.

“My father’s family came from there Marudi to Brunei through the Sungai Belait, before the Second World War, in search of a better life,” says Sindai. “They paddled by boat. The journey took about a week.”

Orang Kaya Setia Lela Kena Anak Mudim was familiar with the route through Belait, as well as with its grassroots leaders, from previously working in the area the field of land survey. They first arrived in Bukit Uding, building a temporary settlement, but after the Second World War, their community had split into what became four longhouses – named Tempinak, Banggerang (1 & 2) and Melilas – all that were later demarcated as being within Mukim Melilas.

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Orang Kaya Setia Lela Kena Anak Mudim, who was head of the Melilas longhouse, moved with his closest relatives upstream, closer to where the current longhouse is, but only for a few years, before moving to their third longhouse in 1959, which would have Melilas’ first school built next to it.

By then, Sindai recalls that Orang Kaya Setia Lela Kena Anak Mudim held a unique but now defunct position. Not only was he the first Penghulu of Mukim Melilas, but he also acted as a grassroots representative for all Ibans in southern, Ulu Belait, including those in Sukang, Labi and Bukit Sawat.

In 1964, Sindai, along with his cousin and current head of the longhouse Pehin Dato Pekerma Dewa Hj Mohd Ali, who were already well into late teens, began primary one with 40 others. In 1970, they graduated primary six; those that did the best, including Hj Muhd Yassin Abd Rahim Sap went onto Sekolah Menengah Ahmad Tajuddin in Kuala Belait, while others sought work in towns, and the remaining few stayed back in Melilas, continuing the agrarian lifestyle.

The outflow had begun.

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The first batch of residents Melilas embraced Islam in 1992. Since then 40 families from the mukim have converted.

The community tried to strike a balance between working in the city on weekdays and returning on weekends, but not all would put with the difficulty of returning back to the kampong. Boat rides, that initially left from Kuala Belait, using the long and narrow temuai, were up to 10 hours long. Later, a route from Sg Mau (located along Jalan Labi), became more common, which took four to five hours depending on the tide.

“In the early days most boats didn’t have an atap (roofing),” recalls Hj Muhd Yassin. “If rain were to pour we just covered ourselves with a canvas tarp.”

Over the years the mukim saw its permanent population dwindle, and Tempinak, Banggerang I and II – as the old Iban adage had rather practically foreboded – eventually whittled away. By the 1990s the Melilas longhouse, mostly populated by elders and the young, was the last remaining settlement in the mukim.

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The elaborated headdress and costume is worn for the traditional ngajat dance. Today, the Melilas primary school has just two to three students, and four teachers.

What of tourism?

In 2006, the government cleared forest to create the first land trail to Melilas, and residents were thrilled. Those that could afford, shelled out their hard earned savings on 4×4 vehicles, outfitted them with mud terrain tires, and took the jarring journey along the winding, hilly path.

In the few years that followed, it was a general rule that one was not make the trip without an accompanying vehicle, especially during the rainy season. For the uninitiated, whether from the capital or Kuala Belait, the journey was at least three hours.

Melilas – at least indirectly – came to national attention in 2010, as the result of a two year Faunal Biodiversity Survey carried out at the Sungei Ingei Protection Forest, located in the upper catchment of Sungai Belait at the edge of Brunei’s southern border with Sarawak, less than 50 kilometres from the Gunung Mulu National Park.

There was much fanfare; researchers including those from Unverisiti Brunei Darussalam and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) described the forest forming a “spectacular mosaic” with “extremely rich fauna”, while interviews with media trumpeted the site’s potential for eco-tourism.

In 2013, the results of the study came to a positive conclusion (which you can read on WWF’s website here). However there appears to be no follow through from the study, and the base camp built at Sg Ingei, according to villagers, has since been left unused.

“We believe the Sungei Ingei area has a lot of unexplored potential that any visitor would love to see,” said Alif Sandan, who has camped out at Sungei Ingei, an hour to two hours by boat from Melilas, which reportedly also has a hot spring and waterfalls in its surrounding area. “By exploration, we have long been known of Sg Ingei, even before the researchers came.”

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A long wait soon to be over

As Sendi Batu and her husband reach the final 20 kilometers heading to Melilas, a project signboard reads: UPGRADING OF JALAN BUAU-BIADONG-SUKANG-MELILAS (ROAD WORKS).

Gravel and cement, cover in varying degrees, the once orange-brown dirt path. By mid 2018, the road upgrade is expected to be complete – and if the potholes and damaged tarmac along Jalan Merangking will also be fixed – just about any car will be able to make their way to the edge of Brunei.

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Subtantial progress to the once dirt road has been made.

Sendi, who is head of the Mukim Consultative Council’s Women’s Bureau and is affectionately referred to as “doctor” by her community, pulls up her Ford Ranger at her wooden rest house that overlooks a fruit and vegetable farm, about a five minute drive from the longhouse.

Built on stilts, the wooden rest house is one of a handful seen around the path to the longhouse, which were constructed as temporary shelters by the villagers during the eight month period that their old longhouse was demolished, and a new one was being built.

She welcomes us up into the house, which is without the comfort of air conditioning or the connectivity of the internet; only a fleeting signal belonging to Malaysian telecommunications provider Celcom, can be recorded.

The 58-year-old, a former nurse now turned nursing lecturer at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, is upbeat about the community’s future.

“The past few years has brought so much change. With the new longhouse, and soon to be new road, there is hope (for the survival) for Melilas,” she says. “We are forever (indebted) to His Majesty for his caring attention, for without it this change would not be possible. There is now so much that we can develop in tourism and agriculture, now that transportation will be better.”

I ask, perhaps too obviously, why they first endured long boat rides, and then bought vehicles just to travel through dirt road, to return to a village that to most, is sorely missing the modern amenities that one would not go one day without.

“I remember when I was fortunate enough to be sent to the UK to continue my nursing studies,” said Sendi. “But when I returned, the first thing I did was to hop on the boat and return to Melilas.”

“You know lah,” she continues with warm smile. “We are orang kampong.”

To get in touch with the Melilas community, you can contact Sendi at +6738845556.

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