“Ooops! What’s this?” I exclaim aloud after a small brown envelope falls out from between the pages of a book. Inside is a mint pair of multi-coloured stamps with the words ‘PENUBUHAN WILAYAH PERSEKUTUAN LABUAN’ printed on them.
My interest is piqued as I can’t recall placing the envelope in its well concealed hiding place. Oh well, it must have been used as a temporary bookmark years ago and I’d completely forgotten all about it.
A quick check online date the stamps to April 16, 1984. On that historic day, the island off the coast of mainland Sabah was declared a federal territory after the Sabah government ceded it to the Federal government.
Keen to know more about Labuan, I head over to the State Library to check out the references there. Surprisingly, there are quite a lot of publications on this relatively small island which belonged to the Brunei Sultanate back in the 15th century.
The earliest record on Labuan mentions its association with Alexander Dalrymple, an officer of the British East India Company (BEIC) based in Madras. In 1761, Dalrymple concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu, permitting him to set up a trading post in the North Borneo (today Sabah) region.
After a series of hydrological surveys, Dalrymple made Balembangan Island his choice. Two years later, in 1763, he hoisted the British flag there and renamed the island Felicia. Soon after, another BEIC officer, John Herbert was sent to build a settlement on Balembangan but the place was doomed to failure from the start.
Mal-administration and rampant acts of piracy brought the trading post to a fiery end in 1775. Herbert and his men fled to Labuan. At that time, the Bruneians referred to the island as Labuhan as fishermen and traders favoured its strategic location as a safe port.
During Herbert’s brief stay, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II was said to have offered him the island but after much deliberation, the BEIC officer declined the royal gesture of goodwill as he remained hopeful of returning to Balembangan.
By 1803, several quarters began toying with the idea of turning Labuan into a British naval base. The British East India Company officials, however, merely gave it a lukewarm response. They didn’t want problems similar to those that unfolded soon after Francis Light acquired Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah to repeat themselves.
BEIC was worried that, like the Sultan of Kedah, the Brunei monarch would seek military assistance once Labuan was handed over to them. The BEIC was not prepared to be involved in costly skirmishes, especially when Labuan was so far away from their Far East base in India.
An attempt was made to revive Balembangan that same year by the Governor-General of India, Lord Arthur Wellesley. The plan then was to turn the island into a military station. Sadly, it was another failure and Balembangan was finally abandoned in 1805.
Things didn’t remain stagnant for long, especially in politics and business. It took just another 40 years for the British to change their minds about Labuan. It’s interesting to note that at this juncture, the name James Brooke started appearing in my reference texts.
In 1844, the Rajah of Sarawak, together with Admiral Cochrane and British naval officer, Captain Rodney Mundy, approached the Sultan of Brunei regarding the cessation of Labuan. They intended to use the island as a naval and coaling base, as well as to act against rampant piracy. The British were certain that once these feats were achieved, Labuan would become the centre for booming regional trade.
At the same time, the trio also harboured hopes of being immortalised in the annals of history by turning Labuan into another economic miracle similar to that of Stamford Raffles’ Singapore. On Dec 18, 1846, the Treaty of Labuan was signed in which the Sultan ceded the island in perpetuity to the British Crown. Brooke became Labuan’s first governor as well as Queen Victoria’s Consul-General in Borneo.
At this juncture, the pile of books on the table offer three contradicting versions leading to the Brunei Sultan’s assent. While the first two state that the island was handed to the British in exchange for assistance rendered in either quelling an internal power struggle or extinguishing acts of piracy, it’s the sinister twist of the third version that fires my interest.
The third plausible reason involved the high handed manner in which the Sultan was forced to give away Labuan. Mundy was said to have trained the guns on his ship, HMS Iris, on the Sultan’s palace and threatened to level the royal residence should the monarch refuse to put pen to paper.
The British then began luring investments into Labuan to kick-start its economic engine. In 1849, the Eastern Archipelago Company became the first of several British companies that tried to exploit the island’s rich coal deposits. Unfortunately, during its endeavour, the Eastern Archipelago Company ran afoul of Brooke after a dispute surfaced.
After that incident, a series of misadventures, which unfolded in quick succession, led the founders to realise that their beloved island was not going to live up to their expectations of even becoming a mini-Penang, let alone Singapore. Labuan was a malaria-prone region and lacked the basic amenities necessary for growth.
The introduction of steamers was the final nail in the coffin for Labuan at that time. More manoeuvrable and efficient than their wind-powered predecessors, these steamers effectively channelled all goods from Borneo directly to Singapore, which was fast gaining traction as the universal emporium of the region. Labuan merely served as a subsidiary and an unimportant collecting station.
Then on, a chequered history awaited Labuan. The island’s administration changed hands when the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) took control in 1890. BNBC’s tenure was largely peaceful but there were occasionally manifestations of local resentment, especially when taxes were imposed and land was forfeited to European-owned plantations. The building of a submarine communications cable linking Labuan with North Borneo, Singapore and Hong Kong in 1894 marked the high point in BNBC’s time in Labuan.
By Oct 30, 1906 the British began exploring the idea of extending the boundaries of the Straits Settlements to include Labuan. The proposal finally took effect on Jan 1, 1907. Largely a non-event for a vast majority of the population, this changeover created a buzz among the least expected group of people — philatelists!
The stamp-collecting fraternity made a mad rush for the last remaining Labuan issued stamps in the island’s only post office which had been opened since 1864. Collectors knew that Labuan would cease issuing its own stamps after its entry into the Straits Settlements. After this administrative change, adhesives used in Labuan could only be identified based on the island’s postmark on Straits Settlements stamps.
Sifting my attention to a thick stamp catalogue, I learn that it took another 35 years for philatelists to expand on their Labuan collection. During the Second World War, Labuan was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army starting from Jan 3, 1942. Governed as part of the Northern Borneo military region, commanding officers of the Japanese 37th Army renamed the island Maeda-shima (Maeda Island) on Dec 9, 1942.
The name change was made in honour of Lieutenant General Marquis Toshinari Maeda who drowned in the sea off the coast of Bintulu, Sarawak on Sept 5, 1942. Prior to his death, Maeda was the first commander of the Borneo Defence Force who was determined to establish a permanent and legitimate rule. He visited the rulers of Brunei and Pontianak, assuring them that their religious authority would be respected and continuous financial support from the Japanese government was assured.
On that fateful day, Maeda and his personal assistant Captain Usui had no other alternative but to use a single-seater chok kyoki reconnaissance aircraft as the larger planes were already commissioned to take a military delegation to Saigon. Usually, an officer of his rank wouldn’t be permitted to use such as small craft but Maeda, being a flying enthusiast, welcomed the opportunity.
Leaving Kuching, pilot officer Ano traced the north-east coastline as far as Bintulu before turning sharply towards Labuan. At the same time, Ano switched over from one gravity feed fuel tank to the other. During what should have been a routine operation, the engine stalled and the plane fell into the sea about three kilometres from shore.
A massive search and rescue mission was launched soon after wireless communications ceased at 11am between the aircraft and Kuching. Finally, on Oct 17, 1942 the wreckage was spotted and the bodies of the three men recovered. Post-mortem investigations determined that Ano erred in making the fuel switch at less than the minimum prescribed 1,000 metre altitude.
Funeral rites were held at the Sarawak Club in Kuching on Nov 7, 1942. The club’s bowling alley, which was converted into a shrine, was filled by about 2,000 mourners. During the ceremony, it was announced that Maeda was posthumously promoted to the rank of General and Labuan was renamed in his honour.
The event heralding the end of Japanese rule happened on June 10, 1945 when Allied forces began attacking enemy installations in Borneo. Eager to use Labuan’s airstrip as the staging point for their aircraft, the Australian Army launched a successful attack with support from airstrikes and sea bombardments. On Sept 9, 1945 Japanese Lieutenant General Masao Baba officially surrendered and the island’s original name was restored.
After the war, Labuan was administered under the British Military Administration together with the rest of the Straits Settlements. A year later, Labuan became part of the North Borneo Crown Colony on July 15, 1946.
The last few parts of the books mention events leading up to the formation of Malaysia in 1963 where Labuan, as part of Sabah, became part of the federation. This inclusion proved to be the turning point in the island’s fortunes. The attainment of Federal Territory status in 1984 and the decision to turn it into an international offshore financial centre and free trade zone in 1990 made Labuan a force to be reckoned with in the international stage.
Before leaving the library, I head back downstairs to catch up on the news. It’s a pleasant surprise to read about the Labuan Development Blueprint 2018 - 2030 recently unveiled by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. The slew of development plans, which include a link bridge to the mainland and affordable housing, will definitely herald a bright and prosperous future for the people of Labuan.