Brunei Darussalam: Centenary of the Post Office

2007

AVM Horton

The sultanate's Post Office celebrated its centenary in late 2006. The Postal Services Department, a division of the Ministry of Communications, currently runs twenty-three post offices throughout the country. It employed 367 people as at 2000, including 157 postmen. Two types of service are provided: 'standard' and 'special'. Among the standard services are air and sea mail, registered letters, a road tax payment facility, and a business reply service (BRS). Special services, available only at certain post offices, include pos gagas, introduced in April 2002, which guarantees door-to-door delivery within three hours anywhere in Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD). A state-of-the-art NBD$9million mail-processing centre came on stream at Berakas on 1 January 1991.

Brunei became a member of the Universal Postal Union on 1 January 1916. The seventy-fifth anniversary of the association was celebrated by a stamp issue in 1949 (likewise the centenary in 1974 and the 125th anniversary in 1999). The golden jubilee (1966) of Brunei's own adherence to the organisation was allowed to pass un-noticed, although the accession was remembered in 1986. The National Philatelic Association (Persatuan Filatelik Kebangsaan) of Negara Brunei Darussalam was formed on 27 March 2002 (PBA 17.04.02:5). Philately itself was commemorated on stamps appearing in 1984 and 2004.

A Savings Bank Enactment was passed in 1934 and a Post Office Savings Bank was duly founded in 1935. It survived for four decades before being closed down on 1 January 1976. Branches were established at Brunei Town and Kuala Belait. The number of depositors increased from 143 in 1935 to 1,845 in 1971, the amount deposited (at year end) from 10,070 Straits dollars in 1935 to 670,633 Malayan dollars in 1955, before falling back to just 174,121 Brunei dollars in 1968 (referring to the same currency, as successively renamed).

A postal system was introduced on 1 October 1906, when the first internationally recognised stamps went on sale in the sultanate. There had actually been an earlier issue on 18 July 1895; but this 'star and crescent' design was valid only within the state or on mail to Labuan and Sarawak. The 1906 definitives were really the Labuan issue of September 1902, overprinted 'Brunei' and surcharged as well. Variations on the two cents black and vermilion and the two cents black and sepia of 1906 are the most valuable of Brunei stamps at auction, valued by Stanley Gibbons at nine thousand pounds each as long ago as 1998; the same stamps on an original cover would multiply the asking price many times over. Another stamp, from the Japanese Occupation era, is catalogued at 6,000 used and unused as at 2005.

The first group of stamps specifically printed for Brunei was the definitive issue of 26 February 1907 (denominations 1-5 cents, 8c, 10c, 25c, 30c, 50c, and Str.$1). A further definitive issue followed on 12 June 1908 and lasted until 31 March 1922, when Malaya-Borneo Exhibition overprints appeared. In 1910 the postal clerk, Mr S Murugasu, was imprisoned for embezzlement. This was a particularly heinous offence at the time because postal revenue accounted for a fair proportion of national income. Receipts were actually rather volatile. Large increases occurred after new issues of stamps, which were bought up by European philatelists; hence in 1907 postal revenue, standing at Str.$14,587, accounted for 28% of total State income; and 1912 was an even better year in absolute terms ($15,957). But, at other times, annual receipts fell below $2,000. By 1969 the department was bringing in more than a million Brunei dollars annually.

A new set of definitives, dating from February 1924, was in use for the remainder of the inter-war era. The 6c denomination features the Kampong Ayer (water village) section of the capital.

The first commemorative stamps materialised in September 1949, when the Silver Jubilee of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin was so honoured, followed less than a month later by the UPU issue already mentioned. The opening of the Brunei Mosque was noticed in 1958, followed by the 'Freedom from Hunger' set of June 1963. It was not until 1965, however, that a continuous stream of commemorative stamps commenced.

Royalty features prominently on commemorative stamps. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's birthday was portrayed in 1968, 1996 (50th), and 2001 (55th); his Coronation was featured at the time of the actual event in 1968, and again at ten-year intervals; and the twenty-fifth anniversary (1992) of His Majesty's accession to the throne was also noticed. Various royal installations were covered in 1968, 1969, 1971, 1980, and 1998. There were four series of 'royal regalia' in 1981-2 and two series of 'royal ensigns' in 1986. 'Twentieth century sultans' were lionised in 2000.

Also in keeping with NBD's official (Melayu-Islam-Beraja or Malay-Islamic-Monarchy) ideology, Malay culture has been exalted several times, for example the opening of the DBP (Language and Literature Council) building (1968); the twenty-fifth anniversary of the DBP itself (issued, alas, one year late, in 1987); and the inauguration of both the Brunei Museum building (1972) and the Malay Technology Museum (1988).

However, Islam has been somewhat neglected by the Postal Services Department: apart from the 1958 mosque cited above, the 1400th anniversary of the Quran (1967), the year 1400 AH (1979), and the Islamic International Exhibition (2001) are the only specific examples which spring to mind, unless the 'tenth anniversary of the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation' (2002) should be included under this heading.

Other themes which recur on NBD stamps are: the security services (armed forces and police); the opening of new buildings, notably the Royal Audience Hall and Legislative Council Chamber (1969), the Youth Centre (also 1969) and the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium (1983); the United Nations (1995) and its agencies, i.e. the WHO (1966, 1968, 1988) and the UNESCO (1966); and international 'years' or 'days', such as International Literacy Year (1990), World Telecommunications Day (1996), and the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons (1998).

The economy is regularly depicted: fishery resources (1983, 1991), forestry (1984), brassware (1987, 1988), fruits (every year between 1987 and 1990, and again in 1994), hand-woven material (twice in 1988), the sixtieth anniversary of the oil and gas industry (1989), tourism (1992, and twice during Visit Brunei Year, 2001), and Royal Brunei Airlines (1994). Brunei International Airport was blessed in 1974 and the Earth Satellite Station at Telisai in 1979.

Wildlife is a favourite subject: endangered species (1990, 1991, 2001), birds (five series between 1992 and 1998), mangrove flowers (1997), marine life (1997), local flowers (2000), turtles (2000), and flowering medicinal plants (2003)

Historical events are frequently highlighted. Independence was boasted both at the time (1984) and at five-year intervals thereafter. ASEAN anniversaries were observed in 1987 and likewise at subsequent five-year intervals. The admission of NBD to world organisations was trumpeted in 1985 and 1986. The APEC summit in the national capital was flaunted in 2000. Two years later there were stamps marking the golden jubilee of the Survey Department and the twentieth anniversary of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Universiti Brunei Darussalam's first ten years warranted depiction in 1995. The renaming of Brunei Town as Bandar Seri Begawan, which took place in 1970, was remembered in 1972 and again in 1995.

With regard to outsiders, tribute has been paid to Sir Winston Churchill, who was admired by the late Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III, no fewer than three times (1965, 1973, 1974), whilst HM Queen Elizabeth II goes one better (twice in 1972, and again in 1977 and 1978). British royal weddings in 1973 and 1981 were deemed suitable subjects.

Sources: Borneo Bulletin, online, 2.8.2002; Brunei Annual Report, 1971 and 1976; Pelita Brunei; Postal Services Department website, accessed on 2 December 2006; Stanley Gibbons catalogues; Statesman's Yearbook 2002:335; and Dato Edward Thorndike's The Definitive Issues and Postal Cancellations to 1974 (Nether Stowey, Somerset, nd).

WATCHPOINT: Postage stamp designs reflect the 'symbolic capital' and interests of the nation-state, hence the comparative dearth of postage stamps depicting Islam may be an area which the appropriate authorities will address in the future.

 

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