PM Lee Hsien Loong meets Singapore community in Brunei

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a reception for the Singapore community in the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - Undergraduate Syazana Hussain woke at dawn on Thursday (Oct 5), hoping for the chance to snap a photo of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah as he passed by in his elaborate gold and black chariot.

She went with her friends to get a space at the front of the crowd, hours before the royal procession to celebrate the golden jubilee of his accession to the throne started at 10am.

"My local friends tell me he has changed the nation a lot with all his hard work," said Ms Syazana, who waited cheek by jowl alongside more than 60,000 other well-wishers under the scorching sun for a brush with Bruneian royalty.

"After 2½ years here, I felt it was important to know and feel what the locals feel, and this is one way of appreciating all he has done for us," she added. The 24-year-old is on a scholarship from the Brunei Government to study at Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University, where Sultan Bolkiah is chancellor.

In the evening, she met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a reception for the Singapore community in the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan.

Mr Lee, who is in Brunei till Saturday for the celebration, spent his first day mingling with about 250 Singaporeans at the Royal Brunei Polo and Riding Club, over a spread of local favourites such as rojak and chicken satay.

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More than 60,000 people gathered to pay homage to Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in Bandara Seri Begawan, as he celebrates his Golden Jubilee.

"I was very touched to find out the prime minister was taking the time to meet us," said Ms Syazana, who took her first selfie with Mr Lee. "Every time some of our leaders from Singapore comes here, it makes me feel at home. It's like they bring Singapore to us."

In a chandelier-lit room garlanded with mini Singapore flags, Mr Lee spoke warmly of the longstanding ties between Brunei and Singapore.

"We have many exchanges because it's a very dangerous, big world. And in a big world, small countries need to be friends with one another," he said.

The relationship between Brunei and Singapore dates back to the personal friendship of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, the late father of the current Sultan, who knew each other even before Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form Malaysia in 1963.

Brunei chose not to join Malaysia, and the short-lived merger between Singapore and Malaysia ended barely two years later.

Mr Lee said that when his father and the late Sultan met after Separation, they knew they had made different choices but "had eventually come to the same conclusion".

Since then, Singapore and Brunei have collaborated in a wide range of areas, including an agreement that allows both countries to accept their respective currencies, and having Singapore troops train in Temburong, said Mr Lee, who will visit soldiers there on Friday.

Giving the guests his assessment of Singapore, he said all is going well. The economy is stable this year, and should make 2.5 per cent growth.

The country is in the process of restructuring its economy, he added.

"It takes effort. So there are people who are a bit concerned about jobs, costs of living, what will the future be, and I think that we're on the right track and we're heading in the right direction," he said.

"And part of the right direction is we have people who are overseas, who are working, who are in the region, who have a network, and who help Singapore to know what's happening in the world and to fit in the world and be friends with the countries around us."

Cardiologist Patrick Ang, 51, moved to Brunei in 2003, expecting to stay a few years. Fifteen years on, he is raising his family there - two of his three children were born in Brunei - and is president of the Singapore Association here.

The association, which has about 90 members, organises get-togethers and celebrations during festivities like the Mid-Autumn Festival.

"It's essential we form a community to get together, and retain our Singaporean culture," said Dr Ang.

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