Sometimes the smallest of places can pack the most punch.
That thought befits Labuan, an unassuming island tucked in the Bay of Brunei. Labuan is tiny compared to the behemoths of neighboring Sabah and Sarawak but it is also rich culturally, economically and historically.
Labuan is East Malaysian in essence but sees itself as a federal entity governed by the bureaucrats of Putrajaya with cultural roots to Brunei Darussalam. As I explored Labuan over three days, I unravel the island’s past through its many attractions.
Kampung Patau-Patau 2
There was a time when Labuan was part of the vast Brunei Sultanate in the 15th century, stretching from Bandar Seri Begawan all the way to present-day Manila.
It is no surprise then to see that Brunei Malays make up 35% of the island’s population. Their seafaring nature and close proximity to Brunei has seen the sprouting of centuries-old floating villages around the bay.
We had the chance to visit Kampung Patau-Patau 2, a floating village right across from downtown Labuan. We were treated to a traditional dance not dissimilar to its West Malaysia brethren before partaking in an ambuyat making demonstration.
After mingling around with our hosts, we took a tour of the floating village to check out some of the houses converted into homestays. I was impressed to see the whole village equipped with a convenience store, a community hall and a mosque, all on stilts.
What really caught me by surprise was the interior decoration of some homes was nicely done. It surely threw away my initial thoughts of a simple and rustic living as the owners do know how to spruce up their dwellings!
The Chimney & “Gedung Ubat”
Labuan remained part of the Brunei Empire for over three centuries until it was ceded to the British North Borneo Company in 1888. The British used Labuan as a naval base and its economy boomed when coal was discovered at the northern part of the island shortly thereafter.
Mining activities ceased around 1912 when coal ran out and one of the few remnants is the mysterious Chimney. People have argued over its purpose for decades and many theories, from a ventilation shaft to a lighthouse, were easily debunked.
When we met up with Ms Alice from the Chimney Museum, she explained that clay was a by-product of mining and there existed a small brick-making industry at the same time. The Chimney was actually part of a furnace and became the only structure standing after all the buildings were left to rot in a state of neglect.
A 15-minute hike from The Chimney towards the coastline led us to the eerie “Gedung Ubat.” This bullet-shaped bunker was used by the Japanese to store ammunitions and is strategically built on a cliff overlooking the sea to spot incoming enemy ships.
A further 30-minute hike down the cliffs leads to one of the island’s hidden natural secret. It’s a rocky outcrop that juts out into the sea and can only be reached during low tide. I was too tired to hike and my peers who took up the challenge came back satisfied. “We finally set foot on the Tip of Labuan!” one of them exclaimed.
Peace Park & War Memorial
Labuan’s strategic location was coveted by the Japanese Navy and they seized it during World War II, renaming it Maida Shima. It took a coordinated assault by the Australian Army to recapture Labuan as the Japanese eventually surrendered on 9 September 1945.
This momentous event was commemorated by Surrender Point, a circular monument depicting the exact location Major General George Wootten accepted the surrender of Liutenant General Masao Baba. This occurred right at Layang-Layangan Beach, which happened to have the best sunset in the whole of Labuan.
Nearby Surrender Point is Peace Park, a sprawling zen-like garden built by the Japanese government in 1982 as a memorial to peace. A large mound with prominent curved walls is the centerpiece, surrounded by fish ponds and gazebos. It’s a tranquil place to reflect and renounce the horrors and miseries of war.
On the other side of island lies the War Memorial. This Commonwealth cemetery holds one of the largest number of graves in the region – 3,908 of which half are unidentified. The graves are well tended as each of them is neatly arranged according to faith and nationality. The vast open space where all lots are accounted for is a solemn reminder to all the people who perished in this moment of conflict.
On the final day, we were brought on a tour of Labuan Museum for a crash course on the history of the island. Our guide did a fine job narrating Labuan’s colorful past and included some chilling trivia (Did you know that one of the small islands off Labuan was used by the Japanese as an execution ground?) while the exhibits brought a sense of intrigue and excitement to the historical sites we visited.
As we stepped out of the museum, Ujana Kewangan – the financial park – beams mightily under the bright blue sky while giant oil rigs lumber in the horizon. Labuan has since reinvented itself into an oil and gas hub and an international offshore financial center. Tough times are ahead and as an island that has survived conquests and conciliation, Labuan’s future is now in their hands.
Many thanks to Tourism Malaysia for inviting me on this three-day media familiarization trip to Labuan. All opinions and thoughts are my own.