The Baweanese (Boyanese)

Singapore Infopedia


The Baweanese are a significant community among the Malays of Singapore.1 They were originally from Pulau Bawean (Bawean Island) in East Java and migrated to Singapore from the early 19th century. In the early days, many of them found jobs as drivers and horse trainers. They lived in communal houses called pondok. Today, many Baweanese still maintain ties with their relatives in Pulau Bawean, though most of the younger generation have not visited the island.

The Baweanese in Singapore came from Bawean Island, which is situated 120 km north of Surabaya, capital of East Java.Merantau (migration) is an important part of Baweanese a tradition – men leave their homes to earn money, later returning to their homeland.Hence, Bawean Island is sometimes called Pulau Putri (island of women) to denote the predominance of women.4

The islanders of Bawean call themselves Orang Bawean or Orang Babian, but in the areas where they have migrated to, including Singapore, they refer to themselves (or are referred to) as Orang Boyan.The word “Boyan” is a misnomer derived from a mispronunciation of “Bawean” by European colonials and has since remained.

The establishment of a British trading post in Singapore in 1819 attracted many migrants from the region. Compared to other ethnic groups from the Malay Archipelago such as the Bugis and the Javanese, the Baweanese came to Singapore later and in smaller numbers.6

Historically, the Baweanese were sea traders, sailing their small crafts to Borneo, Celebes, Madura and Java to barter.7 It was said that Bawean seafarers who joined forces with the Bugis of the Celebes had visited Singapore during the early days of British rule. Upon returning, they impressed their fellow Baweanese with tales of Singapore’s prosperity, hence making the British settlement another destination for the Baweanese.8

There is no record of the first arrivals of the Baweanese in Singapore.They were officially recorded in Singapore’s population census in 1849. However, it is highly probable that they had come as early as 1828 and could have been included in the category “Bugis, Balinese, etc.” in the census that year.10

The Baweanese population in Singapore increased tremendously between 1901 and 1911, because of the imposition of individual assessment by the Dutch on their territories around 1900. This meant that in addition to paying rent for the land, Dutch subjects had to pay tax based on the number of persons living on the land.11 To avoid this, many moved from the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to other areas, including the Baweanese who flocked to nearby Singapore.12

The Baweanese initially came to Singapore by sailing ships. With the advent of steamers towards the end of the 19th century, the rate of Baweanese arrivals intensified. Two shipping companies provided regular services between Bawean and Singapore: Dutch Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij and Heap Eng Moh Shipping Company of Singapore. Both companies made handsome profits by ferrying these migrants. Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij had a direct service from Singapore to Bawean until it was disrupted by World War II and later the Indonesian revolution. The vacuum left by the Dutch shipping firm was filled by sailing ships of the Madurese and Bugis.13

During the Japanese Occupation, many Baweanese came to Singapore to avoid starvation from the famine in Bawean. After World War II, the flow of Baweanese into Singapore dwindled following the tightening of immigration regulations in Singapore and Malaya. They migrated to other Indonesian islands, such as Tanjong Pinang and Riau.14

Singapore also attracted the Baweanese through its pilgrimage activities, as the advent of steamships had made it the launching pad for the Hajj to Mecca. Being devout Muslims and emboldened by the Baweanese merantau trait, the Baweanese came to Singapore by steamers to find work, so that they could save up and begin the Hajj journey from Singapore. This was also true of many Javanese. Some never made the Hajj journey and stayed on permanently.15 For those who did, many stopped in Singapore to work when they were on their way back from Mecca, so as to pay for their homeward journey. Many also pledged their labour to Singapore plantation owners in return for their debt to the shipmaster.16

Economic activities
When the Baweanese came to Singapore during the mid-19th century, European estates were facing a labour shortage. The Europeans relied on the Javanese and Baweanese for labour, not inclined to employ workers of other races.17

In 1842, the Europeans employed many Baweanese for the construction of a racecourse in Singapore. Subsequently, many Baweanese found work as horse trainers at the old racecourse. The Baweanese were also employed as gharry drivers, having worked and become good with horses back home.18 With the advent of motorcars at the end of the 19th century, the Baweanese switched to become drivers for the colonial class, commonly referred to as tuan and mem (in reference to colonial masters and mistresses).19 Another subgroup of the Baweanese, the Daun, was employed by the authorities of the Singapore port, which supplied fresh water to ships in the Singapore harbour. The Baweanese also held jobs such as bullock cart drivers and gardeners.20

Many Baweanese who migrated to Singapore between the 1840s and 1950s settled at Kampong Kapor, known to the Malays as Kampong Boyan. The Baweanese were a tight-knit community, and many lived in pondok (also spelled ponthuk; lodging houses), which were headed by the pak lurah (headman).21 As the Baweanese seamen were away for months, the pak lurah would take care of the sailors’ belongings and family members during their absence.22

The pondok was more than a communal dwelling space for the Baweanese.23 It was a social institution aimed to ease the lives of their fellow migrants especially those newly arrived Baweanese who needed support to settle in a foreign land.24 It was organised along the desa (village) from where the Baweanese originated. By the 1950s, there were between 130 and 150 pondok scattered in Singapore.25 Ponthuk Gelam at Club Street was last pondok in Singapore. It was cleared in 2000 and marked as a historic site.26

Modern-day Baweanese
Many Baweanese in Singapore are still in contact with their relatives on Bawean Island, but most of the younger generation have never set foot there.27 With money and goods sent back to the island, the Baweanese in Singapore (and Malaysia) have been an important source of income and wealth for the native islanders.28

The Baweanese in Singapore have assimilated and intermarried with the Malay population in the country, and many regard themselves as Malays. The Pondok Gelam Peranakan Club, a community club for the Bawean Malay community, was set up in 1932. Between 1960s and 1980s, the club organised a number of religious and social activities at its former premises at 64 Club Street.29

The Persatuan Bawean Singapura, or Singapore Boyanese Association, set up in 1934, continues to play a pivotal role in the community. At an annual meeting held in 1966, then adviser Encik Mansur bin Haji Fazal urged the Baweanese community to adjust to the fast-paced developments in Singapore. The Baweanese were also asked to cooperate with the Singapore government during the national registration of the issue of new identity cards and to join the Vigilante Corps.30 Today, Persatuan Bawean Singapura actively provides updates about the Bawean community and heritage, particularly through its publications, some of which complement earlier works by Ahmad Haji Tahir who wrote Shair Saudara Bawean in 1930. A piece of classical literature relating to the Baweanese is Shair Kampong Boyan dimakan Api, published by Persatuan Jawi Peranakan in 1883.31

Baweanese who have excelled in the sports and entertainment industry, especially in the 1950s to 1970s, include soccer player Majid Bin Ariff, singer Jaffar-O and actor Aziz Sattar.32 Prominent Baweanese Singaporeans include Ridzwan Dzafir, former director-general of the Singapore Trade Development Board (now known as International Enterprise Singapore), and Hawazi Daipi, former member of Parliament for the Sembawang Group Representation Constituency.33

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman and Marsita Omar

1. Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, 2006), 70. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Sundusia Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura: La-A-Ob (Singapore: Persatuan Bawean Singapura, 2015), 1. (Call no. Malay RSING 305.8009598 MAS)
3. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 70.
4. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 1.
5. Mansor bin Haji Fadzal, “My Baweanese People,” Intisari, 11, no. 4 (1964): 11–14 (Call no. RCLOS 959.5005 INT); Koentjaraningrat, “Bawean Islanders,” in Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, ed. Frank M. LeBar, vol. 1 (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972), 59. (Call no. RSEA 301.20959 ETH)
6. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 23, 43. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
7. Jacob Vredenbregt, Bawean Dan Islam, trans. A. B. Lapian (Jakarta: INIS, 1990), 85–98. (Call no. Malay RSEA 305.89922 VRE)
8. Haji Fadzal, “My Baweanese People,” 11–14. 
9. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 6.
10. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 357–60. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
11. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 5–6.
12. Vredenbregt, Bawean Dan Islam, 85–98.
13. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 6.
14. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 6–7.
15. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 5.
16. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 23, 43.
17. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 23, 43.
18. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 70.
19. Rosdi, Masyarakat Bawean Singapura, 5.
20. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 23, 43.
21. Siti Andriannie, “Singapore’s Last Pondok Named a Historic Site,” Straits Times, 31 January 2000, 42 (From NewspaperSG); Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 70.
22. Andriannie, “Singapore’s Last Pondok Named a Historic Site.”
23. Andriannie, “Singapore’s Last Pondok Named a Historic Site.”
24. Haji Fadzal, “My Baweanese People,” 11–14. 
25. Sundusia Rosdi, Ponthuk Bawean di Singapura (Singapore: Persatuan Bawean Singapura, 2018), 4, 11. (Call no. Malay RSING 305.89922059597 SUN)
26. Andriannie, “Singapore’s Last Pondok Named a Historic Site.”
27. Zuzanita Zakaria, “Keeping an Ethnic Heritage Alive,” Straits Times, 25 February 1999, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Haji Fadzal, “My Baweanese People,” 11–14. 
29. Rosdi, Ponthuk Bawean di Singapura, 148–58.
30. “Boyanese Urged to Keep Up with Changes,” Straits Times, 28 April 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Rosdi, Ponthuk Bawean di Singapura, 3, 114–16.
32. Rosdi, Ponthuk Bawean di Singapura, 96, 102, 233.
33. Zakaria, “Keeping an Ethnic Heritage Alive.”

Further resources
MediaCorp and Suria, “Anak Bawean,” Wajah Pendatang, videocassette. (Call no. Malay RSING 959.57 WAJ-[HIS])

Oak 3 Films, MediaCorp TV12 and Suria, “Baweanese (Bawean),” Semarak Budaya. 4, Antara Kita, videocassette. (Call no. Malay RSING 305.89928 SEM)

Roksana Bibi Abdullah. (2006). “Pengalihan Bahasa Di Kalangan Masyarakat Bawean Di Singapura: Sebab Dan Akibat,” in Bahasa: Memeluk Akar Menyuluh Ke Langit, ed. Paitoon M. Chaiyanara, et al (Singapore: Jabatan Bahasa dan Budaya Melayu, Institut Pendidikan Nasional, Universiti Teknologi Nanyang). (Call no. Malay RSING 499.2809 BAH)

The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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