Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Sea People': What happened to Singapore's Orang Laut?

Dec 11, 2008

I WAS delighted to skim through the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies publication, Singapore - The Unexpected Nation" by historian Edwin Lee. It is part of the History of Nation-Building Series. I totally welcome it.

However, I was intrigued that the learned writer found it expedient, in the chapter 'Beginnings: From Temasek to Singapore', to classify, quite explicitly, the Orang Laut as a separate community from the Malays.

I found his words in this regard most intriguing: 'A trading settlement began to form in Singapore in the late 13th century and grew in importance in the 14th century. This was Temasek, whose people were Malays, Orang Laut and Chinese. The Malays were the rulers who opened the port, for trade generates taxes and gifts and attracts foreign traders and people, increasing the population, all of which would contribute to the wealth and prestige of their kingdom. The Orang Laut, Malay for 'Sea People', were directed by the Malay rulers and chiefs to man war fleets and to harvest produce from the resource-rich marine environment.'

Is Dr Lee trying to provoke Singaporeans into searching for the descendants of the Orang Laut because they are part of our history and reportedly were the first to receive Stamford Raffles and introduce him to the Malay ruler in Singapore?

Today, because of the pragmatism of the Government, the Orang Laut live individually in HDB flats in Clementi and elsewhere in Singapore. But what happened to the Orang Laut as a micro Proto-Malay community within the larger Malay community?

There are many names for the Orang Laut, including Orang Kallang, Orang Seletar and Moken. I found their cousins in Pulau Karimun, living in houses on stilts by the sea. The Moken off the southern shores of Myanmar came to light after the tsunami. As the only people in the world to live permanently in the sea, they were quite used to the hazards of such a tough life, but I wonder what happened to them after Cyclone Nargis. The term Moken probably arose from their sale of fish in the delta area of Myanmar. Perhaps it is derived from the term 'mahu ikan' ('want fish').

Coming back to our Orang Laut, a university thesis, The Landed Sea-Gypsies, had been written in the 1970s by a neighbour of mine who spent two years researching the Orang Laut in the region. He stayed with them in the mangrove swamps of Singapore,where they caught fish and crab, reared dogs and moved on rafts. I kept a few of his photos. He also visited their kampungs on the Johor coastline and on Pulau Daik. You can see these kampungs from Pulau Ubin. Some helped to set up fishing kelongs.

I was told by an Orang Laut leader in Pulau Karimun that the Orang Kallang live nearby. Did the Orang Kallang migrate to Singapore from there or was it the other way around? He left me with two lnes from a typical Malay pantun:

Pulau Karimun ayernya sejuk
Jarang jarang mandi pagi

(Pulau Karimun the water is cold
Very seldom bathing in the morning)

From hazy memory, I recollect the last two lines:

Andai jodoh datang menjenguk
Pastikan kita bersua lagi

Perchance Fate peeps
We would certainly meet again.

Zainuddin Mohd Ismail

1 comment:

El Lobo Loco said...

Chrystel Ng,
This is a news clipping "blog" with news clippings from The Straits Times and other e-newspapers I get to read. The author of the article and person who met the Orang Laut is Zainuddin Mohd Ismail (name at the bottom of the article). You may wish to write to him at SPH. I am just collecting news clippings.