His Majesty's birthday: Then and now

Special spectacle: (Above) Officers standing at attention, while men young and old peeking through the gate to take a glimpse of His Majesty, both during His Majesty's Birthday Parade celebration at Padang Besar last year. Pictures: BT file

Sunday, July 19, 2009

BRUNEI Darussalam has always celebrated the anniversary of the birthday of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam. Throughout the country, months before the event, preparations are made in all four districts to spruce up all the decorations.

In Bandar Seri Begawan, arches are erected at strategic locations. Illuminations and neon lights are put up on buildings and along the main roads to add colour and enliven the festive atmosphere. Similarly, the other commercial suburbs are also dotted with arches and brightened up with decorative lightings. Meanwhile, shop premises and other commercial buildings are adorned with banners with birthday greetings for His Majesty.

On the day of the birthday, July 15, His Majesty inspects the guard of honour at the Padang Besar in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan, with his guests being the spectators. The stage and the viewing areas for the guests are now of modern construction with proper customised chairs.

During the 1950s and 1960s, however, everything was makeshift and temporary. The royal dais was temporary, the guests sat on chairs borrowed from the offices in the nearby State Secretariat building. There were many different types of chairs and the gallery comprised tents with wooden poles.

As to the sequence of Royal arrivals; the last to arrive was His Majesty himself, and prior to that were the other members of the Royal Family in order of seniority. Every time a royal family member arrived, he received a Royal Salute, or Hormat Diraja, from the guard of honour.

But not many remember that before Brunei Darussalam's Independence in 1984, the second last to arrive at the parade ground was the British High Commissioner, after all the wazirs had arrived.

In addition to also receiving a Royal Salute from the guard of honour, the British national anthem God Save the Queen was played by the band on the field.

Today's guard of honour is made up of soldiers from the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF) and the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) along with uniformed personnel from other departments, including Royal Brunei Customs, Marine Department, Immigration and National Registration Department. In the early 1960s, the guard of honour was comprised solely from the RBPF.

Today both the RBAF and RBPF contingents march in front of His Majesty, with the other contingents staying in their places. In the older days, all of them marched in front of His Majesty.

Between the 1960s and just before Independence, the guard of honour also included a contingent from the British Gurkha Battalion stationed in Seria. After Independence in 1984, the ceremony marking the arrival of the British High Commissioner was abolished and the Gurkhas no longer took part in the Birthday Parade.

During the parade, the troops used to fire their rifles in sequence as a sign of joy, hence the sequence is called feu-de-joie. This movement is no longer practised. It originated in a demonstration of the-then new weapon before Queen Elizabeth I. That ceremony was originally named "Joy Sounde". However, the French Army also adopted this form of musketry salute for festive occasions and named it feu-de-joie.

At the end of the parade, the guard of honour at the Padang also removed their headdresses, raise them in the air and shout "Hip hip, hurray!" Removing headdresses has its origin in medieval times, when knights on meeting each other placed themselves in an attitude of defencelessness by uncovering their heads or raising their visors. According to John Locke, who witnessed a review of the Gardes du Corps in Paris in 1678, the French observed a similar practice.

However, raising headdresses and shouting "Hip hip, hurray!" has now been replaced with the troops raising their right hand and shouting, "Daulat!" ("Hail!") after the Parade Commander has shouted, "Daulat Kebawah Duli Tuan Patik!" ("All hail The King!")

In the older days, even when visiting the districts during His Majesty's birthday celebrations, His Majesty's arrival at the local parade ground was greeted by a local guard of honour mounted by the local detachment of the RBAF or RBPF, and in Seria or Kuala Belait by the Gurkhas.

However this is no longer practised. The guard of honour is now assembled only for the main celebration on July 15. At the various districts' celebration nowadays, His Majesty's arrival is greeted by the Penghulus (subdistrict chiefs), Ketua Kampungs (village chiefs) and other community leaders, who shout, "Daulat Kebawah Duli Tuan Patik!"

After the Honour Parade at the Padang in town, everyone used to walk to the nearby Lapau (Royal Ceremonial Hall) to hear His Majesty giving his Birthday speech. This was followed by the annual Investiture Ceremony, when national awards, orders and medals were presented to those privileged enough to receive one.

The old Lapau was a wooden kajang building, before a concrete one was built to replace it in the late 1950s. That concrete building was later converted into a Magistrates Court, before the Brunei History Centre took it over as its headquarters. By the late 1960s, the current Lapau building had been built and was used until the late 1980s.

For a brief period in the past, Investiture was also held at district-level celebrations. The highest award given was the Order of the Mahkota of Brunei Third Class (SMB), followed by the lower orders and medals. But this practice was discontinued when all national honours and awards were presented at the Istana Nurul Iman (the Royal Palace).

Today, the Birthday speech and the Investiture are both held at the Istana Nurul Iman. The Istana is a few kilometres from the city centre and after the Birthday Parade, every single guest at the Padang Besar tries to get to the Istana Nurul Iman as fast as possible.

The police open all lanes heading to the Istana, even the ones normally used to go in the other direction, to assist in all the guests arriving on time at Istana Nurul Iman.

There used to be a break between the speech and the Investiture ceremony when guests would have a teabreak before going back into the Balai Singahsana (Royal Throne Hall), but now the two parts of the ceremony are combined.

In the evening, a banquet is held at Istana Nurul Iman. Before Istana Nurul Iman was completed, however, the banquet was held at Istana Darul Hana, where the banquet halls were temporary structures erected in the open area.

After the banquet, in the past, a silat competition was held. Some guests of those days can even remember beauty contests being held at the end of the banquet.

There were times when some awards for some of the lesser orders and decorations were made before the banquet. Today at Istana Nurul Iman, other than the official banquet, there is no longer any award or performance other than a small orchestra playing background music.

At the district-level celebrations, many remember that Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien liked to take part in the tug of war matches. He nominated people he wanted in his team. The opposition was the District Officer's team.

Al-Marhum's team seldom lost, not only because he picked the strongest people, but also because the crowd came to his aid whenever his team appeared to be losing.

Celebrations may change, but the joy of celebrating His Majesty's birthday will always be there.

The Brunei Times