A glimpse into Brunei’s legacy

Daniel Lim

Photographs can help to create a window into history. It provides a glimpse of what happened in the distant past.

With 90 years of history, Brunei Shell Petroleum Company Sdn Bhd (BSP) had a unique opportunity to create something special.

Rows of photographs depicting scenes of the oil and gas industry in Seria lined the halls and exhibition rooms of the Belait District Museum when BSP launched a photo gallery titled ‘Padang Berawa: A Country’s Legacy’ recently.

While some of the photos shown were from a time period not too far in the past, many in the exhibition dated back as far as the 1920s, showing a time when the country and the industry had just started out. The records that had laid dormant for decades from BSP’s own repository soon evolved from an internal project to digitise the record into a specially curated collection of photographs, each of which tells a story from a time long ago.

During an opening speech at the launching, Managing Director of BSP Dr Ceri M Powell said digitising the old records and photographs has shown that BSP’s history is deeply interwoven with the nation’s history and growth.

Photos of the oil and gas industry in Seria displayed at a gallery titled ‘Padang Berawa: A Country’s Legacy’. PHOTOS: DANIEL LIM
BSP Communication and External Affairs team member Siti Diyana binti Abdullah

“Our intrepid Communication and External Affairs team went through the BSP archives and found photos and films, some of which had endured floods, condensation, leaks and mould,” she said.

Despite the damages, Dr Powell said that more than 30,000 photographs have been digitised successfully, and there are 200 film reels that are yet to be digitised and preserved in the collection. She is confident it will unearth precious insight so that the legacy can be shared across the country.

“The images you see today tell a story of the people, places, and ways of working at BSP in the old days,” she said.

“More importantly, they help paint a picture of the Belait community through the ages.”

During the launching, Dr Powell also shared some facts on the photo gallery, one of which was that the name of the collection.

Padang Berawa or Field of Wild Pigeons, was chosen not by coincidence as it was the original name for the field that is now known as Seria Town.

She also said the BSP archive contained a photo of the late Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien ibni Al-marhum Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Alam, which helps solidify the interwoven nature of both BSP and the nation.

The photo gallery exhibited at the museum would not have been possible without the Communication and External Affairs (CEA) digitisation team.

Speaking in regards to the start of the photo gallery project, Siti Diyana binti Abdullah, a member of the CEA team, said it all started with a book released back in 2017 titled The People’s Sultan: Leading a Legacy that BSP created to commemorate the many achievements of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam.

“Back then, we were going through our archive to scour for photos to be digitised for the National Archive. As we continued to find more photos detailing the life and times of BSP and Brunei from way back, we decided to continue to digitise the photos and records to preserve them and bring back the past to present day,” she said.

The project was also conducted in line with the theme for the company’s 90th anniversary celebration which is ‘Honouring the Past, Making the Future’.

“We had a discussion with the Belait District Museum, which has the space to conduct the exhibition. The location used to be the residence of the Belait District Officer, which ties in with the rich and untold history that we want to showcase,” said Siti Diyana.

She said that many of the attendees, some of whom were invited due to their past relation as the Belait District Officer, were able to share their stories as they reminisced through the photos, which shed a new light on the photos being shown.

“The beauty of this project is being able to share the legacy that many know, but do not have a clear picture of how it looked like in the past,” she continued.

She also said there are plans to showcase the photos in other districts. “We want to make sure that everybody can get an opportunity to share and take a look at the photos in appreciating and understanding the past that have shaped the country to what it is today.”

She noted that while digitising the photos, it was also a clear indication that each of them should have an accompanying story or caption to go with, which led to an internal engagement with former and current staff of BSP to help fill in the blanks.

“We have shown these photos at our headquarters, and we invited our staff to contribute their stories that they might know from the photos. One comment we had was of a particular group photo, one of whom was the late grandfather of one of our staff members.”

Such moments, she said, help paint beautiful stories behind each of the photos, showcasing a tightly knit staff spanning generations.

Generation after generation, such an archival of photos and records is more than worth its weight in gold, be it to help find moments from an era from long ago, to finding photo showing one’s relative who had previously worked here in the nation. All these photos and stories are able to help enrich and further deepen the appreciation for growth over time.

“A photo gallery such as this can help build a sense of national pride, especially when you see the hard work that went into the past and knowing that we all had a role – if not us, our parents and grandparents – in contributing to the growth of the nation,” added Siti Diyana.

Many of the memorable photos at the gallery were captured on the black and white windows into the past, all of which tell fascinating stories, from one showing His Majesty arriving to officiate at the Tenaga Naming Ceremony on July 1979, to another showing a BSP survey party dating all the way back to 1959.

Photos displayed also include those showing various strides made both onshore and offshore by BSP and the nation during the early years, including a rarely seen aerial view of the industrial area in Seria from 1957 which represents the start of the oil and gas Industry in the nation, the launching of pipelines linking the offshore supplies to the onshore refineries. The archive also revealed several photos relating to the daily lives of those working both onshore and offshore.

Notably, an old photo showing a cable car utilised to transport staff members, which used to be located at a site near where the Billionth Barrel Monument previously stood, can be seen.

The gallery will be shown to the public at the Belait District Museum for over the course of two months, which BSP hopes will help to inspire visitors to not only appreciate the photos, but also to contribute their stories to photos that they might recognise through a QR Code set up at the exhibit.