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Nestled in the northern reaches of Borneo in the South China Sea, Brunei Darussalam has kept a relatively low profile in the region despite its huge wealth from oil and gas reserves.
But all that is likely to change in the next 12 months as the former British protectorate takes its turn in the spotlight, firstly with the SEA games then with next year’s APEC summit.
With the SEA games from August 7-15 posing as an important test of Brunei’s preparations for APEC 2000, Brunei officials have gone to extreme lengths to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible, although the early signs suggest there is still some work to be done.
Millions of dollars have been poured into developing the infrastructure in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. Five new hotels have been built and several new roads constructed. A village, to house more than 4,000 people, has been built along with state of the art media facilities. Each of the existing sports venues, including the centrepiece Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium, have been refurbished just for the games.
And in a country where no one pays income tax and strict Islamic rule is enforced, there are few concerns about crowd disturbances, particularly as the Sultan of Brunei has decreed that his subjects can watch the games for free.
Even so, state officials have deployed a force of more than 2,000 police and soldiers, though mainly to test security arrangements ahead of the APEC summit.
Despite their best intentions, there have still been several glitches which threaten to overshadow the sultanate’s preparations for its first major international sports event.
Fears of smog smoking out the games has been refuelled with the return of a thick blanket of haze caused by man-made fires in the neighbouring east Malayasian states of Sabah and Sarawak which border Brunei.
And concerns over the safety of the new building sites were raised after more than 300 foreign media were forced to evacuate the main press centre when the roof of a nearby convention centre, which will be used for the APEC summit, collapsed. Two policemen were injured and several parked cars were damaged.
Brunei officials readily acknowledged the early shortcomings but were upbeat about the prospects of the multi-sports event.
“As a first time host of the SEA games, we do expect some minor hiccups but we are rectifying these,” the head of the SEA games secretariat Pg Haji Matusin said. “It is an aspiration of Brunei to make this an exciting event – to make this the best.”
For the competitors themselves, the biennial SEA games are like a mini-Olympics, bringing enormous pride to the 10 competing nations: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
More than 4,000 athletes will compete in 21 sports, down from the 33 contested at the 1997 SEA games in Jakarta, ranging from traditional events such as athletics and soccer to the more exotic pencak silat and sepak takraw.
Although the various teams boast a number of world class competitors in almost all of the disciplines, particularly badminton, SEA countries generally excel in non-Olympic and combat sports.
With national pride at stake, the competition is fierce. The Asian economic crisis may have forced a number of countries to cut back on their sporting programmes, but their wallets have been reopened with the return of the games, which started back in 1959 with the Southeast Asian Peninsular games.
Without exception, each of the competing countries has offered some sort of cash bonus for any athlete who wins a gold medal. Brunei, which has only won three gold medals since it made its first appearance at the SEA games in 1977, has even called in some of Australia’s world-beating coaches to help its medal chances.
But the team considered most likely to dominate the competition is Indonesia. With 348 competitors, they are the biggest team here and topped the medal table at the 1997 games.