Modernisation efforts shake off Belait’s sleepy town image

National 4 minutes, 7 seconds

BELAIT

BELAIT took a step towards shedding its image as a district of sleepy oil towns in 2015 with a slew of new retail businesses as well as improvements in connectivity.

The largest of all four districts by land mass, Belait is home to the sultanate's oil and gas industry, which now face the challenge of a global environment where oil prices are predicted by analysts to remain low.

The Belait District Office, as the main arm of the government in the area, have also stepped up to resolve the long-standing issue of squatters and shanty towns in Seria, through a relocation initiative that has seen over 120 families move to government barrack housing units.

With 2015 about to draw to a close, The Brunei Times looks at these and other developments in the district over the past 12 months.

Booming retail sector

The year 2015 was a year of many firsts for Belait district's retail sector.

Leading the way is Belait's first one-stop shopping mall – Sentral Shopping Centre – which opened its doors for business earlier in January.

With a cinema, hotel and over 30 retail outlets, the mall now draws 15,000 to 25,000 unique visitors weekly, creating hundreds of jobs, over 70 per cent of which are locally occupied.

New businesses from the district also seized the opportunity to bring in foreign franchises, setting up shop in Belait first before considering moving into Brunei-Muara.

Sentral's general manager said Belait's customer base, one known for its fondness for spending across the border, is untapped.

“We (Sentral) are trying to do our part by bridging the gap in retail experience to the Belait community; they no longer have to drive to Bandar or Miri necessarily for shopping or entertainment,” said Abby Lim, who is also the master franchisee of Brunei's Chatime and Beesket.

Oil and gas industry

Reacting to announcements by Royal Dutch Shell and Shell Malaysia to cut thousands of jobs due to a sustained drop in oil prices – Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) assured the public in August and October that it had no plans to lay off staff.

Instead, BSP said it would be focused on “enhancing efficiency” to remain robust in what they described as “challenging times”.

BSP is also in the process of understanding the data collected by their biggest survey in 20 years – the Rasau 3D Seismic project – which aims to uncover oil and gas reserves.

Their commercial director said processing the data should be complete by this year.

The next step is interpreting the data; expected to take between six months to a year, putting the earliest potential drilling date in 2017.

Connectivity

Improvements to roads were seen throughout the year, with stretches along the Seria-Mumong and Seria-Lumut bypass being shut down periodically to allow for upgrading works.

These roadworks have long been awaited by Belait residents as the original highway that provides access to major housing developments have developed waves and potholes now deemed dangerous for driving.

Motorists have been limited to single lane stretches where improvements are being made, slowing down traffic during peak hours.

The upgrades however, once complete, will see the bumpy old Seria bypass evenly resurfaced and widened into two dual carriageways.

At the border, operating hours were extended to midnight effective September 1, as part of an agreement between Brunei and Malaysia aimed at easing difficulties faced by people who travel between the two countries regularly.

Its first week of implementation, which coincided with the school term break, saw over 20,000 pass through Brunei's Sg Tujoh Control Post, a number described by customs and immigration officials as a “steady but not dramatic” increase.

Computer and telecommunication networks have also been boosted, with over 50 per cent of Kuala Belait ready for TelBru's High Speed Broadband (HSBB), along with certain areas in Seria and Lumut. The other areas with a concentrated residential population are in progress.

Progresif Cellular also opened stores in Belait earlier in September and October with an improved network capable of providing unhindered reception to the district.

Backed by the installation of a new core in the capital, Progresif is using microwaves in areas outside the capital not serviced by a fibre-optic network to provide connectivity.

Relocation of squatters

Kg Jabang, Kg Api-Api, Kg Sg Baru and Lorong 14 – all in Seria – are still home to over 100 squatters who have built shanty houses on government land decades ago.

A move initiated by the Belait District Office in 2012 to relocate squatters to vacant, low-cost, civil servant housing has been a slow, but gradual success.

As of November this year, all but one household from Lorong 14 have been relocated to nine designated government barracks across the district.

The Belait district officer recently said since housing assistance has been opened to squatters and the underprivileged, applications have steadily risen to over 300, with three to five fresh cases brought to their attention every day.

The relocation's biggest challenge will be availability. Only 200 vacant barrack units remain, but there are 212 applications currently pending, a figure which is expected to rise.

The Brunei Times