Orang laut

Singapore Infopedia


Orang Laut (Malay for “sea people” or “people of the sea”) were nomadic sea gypsies organised into suku (divisions).1 They occupied the maritime zone surrounding the Strait of Melaka.2 During the period when the British thought Singapore was uninhabited, the Orang Laut had been using the island as one of the places to live in.As skilled mariners adept at controlling the seas, the Orang Laut played an important role in Malay political history.4

The Orang Laut in Malay political history
The Orang Laut played an important role in Malay political history. Using their skills to guard the shipping lanes for Srivijayan rulers and steer traders towards the Srivijayan port, the Orang Laut helped to establish the Srivijayan empire from the 7th to the 11th centuries.5 Srivijaya was eventually succeeded by Melaka, whose power as a port similarly depended upon the loyalty of the Orang Laut.6 However, the role of the Orang Laut in Malay history began to decline with the disintegration of the Melaka-Johor dynasty. Further, in the 18th century, the Bugis had penetrated the Malay courts and had displaced the Orang Laut in importance.7

Various Orang Laut groups
The Orang Laut were living in Singapore and along the adjacent Johor coast before the arrival of the British in 1819.8 Suku Gelam, one of the Orang Laut divisions from the Batam archipelago, had a settlement of boats and huts near the mouth of the Singapore River, not far from a Malay kampong.9 The Malays and the Orang Laut were governed by a temenggung, who was in turn a subject of the Viceroy of Riau.10 The Suku Gelam served the temenggung as boatmen and supplied him with fish.11 Their headman acted as a messenger for the temenggung.12 A few years after the establishment of Singapore as a British trading outpost, some of the Orang Laut moved to the sea front at Telok Saga and Selat Sinkheh on Pulau Brani, a small island off Singapore.13

From the beginning of the 19th century, another group – the Orang Seletar – who were described as river or boat nomads, lived and hunted along the shores of the Old Strait to the north of Singapore and the mouth of the Seletar River.14 Although they mostly lived in their boats, they collected food from the shores and mangrove forests.15 They also used dogs to hunt wild pigs.16 The Malays referred to the Orang Seletar as Orang Utan Seletar (People of the Seletar Forest).17 The Orang Seletar came under the political protection of the sultan of Johor to whom they provided economic services in the past.18

The Orang Kallang had lived “since time immemorial” deep in the mangrove swamps of the Kallang River.19 They constituted one of the many tribal divisions within the temenggung’s following in Singapore’s early history.20 Though nomadic, they fixed fishing stakes near the mouth of the river to catch fish.21 After the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, they became boat rowers to transport passengers between anchored ships and ports.22 The Orang Kallang also collected and processed nipah (palm tree) leaves to make wrappers for cigarettes as well as gathering mangrove wood for use as fuel.23 The Orang Kallang travelled in large vessels known as nadih, but later used smaller sampan when their mode of subsistence shifted to fishing.24 In the 20th century, they were dispersed to the offshore southern islands, the northern coast area of Singapore island including Tanjong Irau and Punggol, as well as Geylang.25

The Orang Selat, or “Straits People” were plying the waters around the southern coast of Singapore and inhabiting the coastal niches of the island from as early as the sixteenth century.26 They were predominantly a sea-faring people who sometimes traded fish and fruit with passing ships.27 In 1948, because of the curfew during the Emergency, the Orang Selat, who lived in the waters around the southern coast of Johor, moved to the northern coast of Singapore.28 They had extensive kinship networks in some of Singapore’s southern islands such as Pulau Semakau, Pulau Seraya and Pulau Sudong, which had been inhabited by Orang Laut communities in Singapore’s early history.29 As the Orang Selat were night-time fishermen, the curfew made it difficult for them to earn a livelihood.30 As a result, they sought the permission of the Punggol headman to move across the Tebrau Strait to Singapore.31

Over time, the Orang Laut were assimilated into Malay culture; with their conversion to Islam, they became ethnically identified as Malay.32 As a result of development projects, their villages and settlements were demolished, and they were relocated to public housing flats in various parts of Singapore.33

Mazelan Anuar

1. K. Mulliner and Lian The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore (NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 112 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 MUL); Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 396. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Clifford Sather, The Orang Laut ([S.l.]: Academy of Social Sciences in cooperation with Universiti Sains Malaysia, Royal Netherlands Government, 1999), 2. (Call no. RSEA 306.08095951 SAT) 
3. Sarafian Salleh, “The Orang Laut,” in Beyond Bicentennial: Perspectives on Malays, ed. Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Wan Hussin Zoohri and Norshahril Saat (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2020), 104. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BEY-[HIS])
4. Cynthia Chou, The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The Inalienable Gift of Territory (New York: Routledge, 2010), 11–13. (Call no. RSEA 305.899226 CHO)
5. Chou, Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia, 42.
6. Sather, Orang Laut, 4.
7. Chou, Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia, 50–51; Sather, Orang Laut, 7.
8. Sather, Orang Laut, 8.
9. David E. Sopher, The Sea Nomads: A Study of the Maritime Boat People of Southeast Asia (Singapore: National Museum, 1977), 105 (Call no. RSING 959 SOP); Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
10. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 105; Sather, Orang Laut, 8.
11. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 105; Sather, Orang Laut, 8; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
12. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 105; Sather, Orang Laut, 8.
13. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 106.
14. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 107; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
15. Sather, Orang Laut, 9.
16. Sather, Orang Laut, 10.
17. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
18. Sather, Orang Laut, 10.
19. Sopher, Sea Nomads, 108.
20. M. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat: The Last Settlements,” in Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives, ed. Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou (Singapore: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2002), 276. (Call no. RSING 305.8959 TRI)
21. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
22. Chou, Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia, 24.
23. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 276.
24. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 276.
25. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 275.
26. Chou, Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia, 24.
27. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
28. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
29. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 276.
30. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 276.
31. Ali, “Singapore’s Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang, and Orang Selat,” 276.
32. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.
33. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 396.

The information in this article is valid as at March 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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