Seafaring Orang Laut strive to stay afloat

When Stamford Raffles landed on Singapore on Jan 28, 1819, the island was largely populated by seafaring nomads. Two centuries on, The Sunday Times visits an Orang Laut community in Johor to find out how they are faring, and speaks to descendants of Orang Laut in Singapore.

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Just 25 minutes' drive from Singapore, Kampung Sungai Temon in Johor is home to the Orang Seletar community. Also known as the Orang Laut, the sea nomads face the incursion of rapid development in the area, which has affected their livelihood.
Left: Fisherman Muhammad Anuar Sulaiman, his wife Nurul Hanani, and their two children have been living at sea on a giant raft which he had fashioned from planks and zinc sheets. Above: The Orang Seletar live in houses on the beach, some of which are
The Orang Seletar live in houses on the beach, some of which are on stilts.

Tucked away among luxurious waterfront apartments and European-style bungalows on Johor's southern coast lies an enclave of Orang Seletar, indigenous sea nomads. While Johor is their home now, their ancestors were living in Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles made his historic landing on this very date in 1819.

They are believed to be Singapore's earliest inhabitants.

The Orang Seletar moved to their Johor coastal village, called Kampung Sungai Temon, several decades ago when Singapore developed into a modern city. It is one of the few Orang Seletar settlements left in Malaysia's southern state.

In the old days, they lived on boats near the mouth of Seletar River - hence their name, Orang Seletar. Today, the kampung, which faces the Strait of Johor, consists of 400 people and sits within the multibillion-ringgit Iskandar economic zone, its wooden houses a quaint contrast to the five-star hotels, condominiums and malls being built just across the Causeway.

Led by their "tok batin", or village chief, Mr Salim Palon, they are among 1,620 Orang Seletar in Malaysia. Together with 3,525 Orang Kuala and 148 Orang Kanaq, they form the Orang Laut tribe who reside on the southern and western coasts of Johor. Pockets of Orang Laut also can be found living near river deltas in Indonesia's sprawling Riau islands, and in Singapore.

In Kampung Sungai Temon, the Orang Seletar live in houses on the beach, some of which are on stilts. They still lead a seafaring lifestyle, catching fish, crabs and mussels to sell to seafood wholesalers or cook in the few restaurants they run.

"When I was young, Malaysia and Singapore were no different from each other. We were free to sail anywhere... and had lived on boats in Seletar, Kranji, Jurong," Mr Salim, 58, told The Sunday Times from his house. "Now all that's left is history."

There are about 1,620 Orang Seletar in Malaysia. Together with 3,525 Orang Kuala and 148 Orang Kanaq, they form the Orang Laut tribe who reside on the southern and western coasts of Johor. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

He paused, before adding: "I'm worried the same thing will happen here. With these developments, we might become history, too. We are the original people here. If they take our land away, where will we go?"


A group of Orang Seletar were sitting near the village jetty, chit-chatting, when The Sunday Times visited. "Hey, did you meet the tok batin first? Not scared of getting shot by his blowpipe?" one said jokingly, to laughter.

Mr Fendi Salim, 37, a son of the tok batin, said: "Village chiefs used to shoot darts at unwelcome visitors... Don't worry, now no more."

Over the years, the Orang Laut have tried to adapt to mainstream society, giving up their life on the boats for houses on land, attending government schools and learning to speak and write Malay. They converse with another in the Orang Seletar language, which sounds nothing like Malay.

Some have intermarried with the Chinese or Malays and moved to the cities, while others have abandoned their animist beliefs for Christianity or Islam.

They are known to have been sailing in the region's waters from the 16th century. Back then, they wore leaf loincloths and fished with spears, said fisherman Karim Palon, 53. He added that in earlier times, it was easy to spot the Orang Seletar. "Anyone with uncombed hair, walked in groups with no clothes or shoes on, that's us, lah!"

Mr Basri Abdullah, a Malay seafood wholesaler who buys fish and shellfish from the Orang Seletar, said it is hard to tell them apart from ethnic Malays now. "When they were living on boats, they would sometimes come to shore. The villagers would make them recite Malay pantun before they could enter." The pantun is a Malay poetic form which is passed on orally.

"When we held parties, we would also invite them and we would all dance 'joget lambak' to Nona Singapura song together," he said, referring to the traditional Malay mass dance originating from Malacca.

Despite years of trying to fit in, the Orang Seletar still hold on to some aboriginal customs, and believe in the presence of spirits.

Young fathers such as Mr Ripin Non, 24, still practise the tradition of placing a mother's placenta on a tree for good health.

Before, when there were no hospitals or doctors, the men used to help their wives deliver babies on the boat. But not now. "I will faint if you ask me to deliver a baby!" Mr Ripin said. "When I held the placenta and climbed the tree, I was told to look straight ahead. If I looked left or right, my child would be cross-eyed."

When the Orang Seletar are out at sea and encounter a tideline, or a sinuous line where two currents converge, they will still lift their oars and ask permission from the sea "genie" to cross over.

Another of the tok batin's son, fisherman Eddy Salim, 38, said a nephew who failed to heed the taboo was taken ill after an eerie encounter with a long-haired female spirit. "He had a hard time pulling up his net which was full of prawns, so he cut it off halfway. He didn't realise the 'hantu laut' was sitting on his boat. Villagers later found him unconscious, foaming at the mouth. His mother uttered some mantra to make him well again or he would surely have died," he said.

The Orang Seletar still go to the nearby woods to kill wild boar, deer and other animals. When The Sunday Times visited, two boys had just killed and skinned two pythons.

"We eat everything. You name it, we eat it, except poison," said Mr Fendi Salim, his eyes lighting up.

"Chicken is not as tasty as curry snakes or black pepper crocodiles. But the most delicious is grilled scorpions, they are more crispy than fried calamari," he added.

Being able to adapt to change is perhaps the reason for the Orang Laut's survival.

"(They) have no problems coping with modernisation," Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Colin Nicholas told The Sunday Times. "It is when the outside development does not recognise their rights, or discriminates against them, that their ability to participate in mainstream society becomes difficult or even jeopardised."

Mr Ripin said he was ridiculed by Johor locals when he tried to sell fish at the market. "They told customers that my freshly caught fish is rotten. Once or twice is okay, but the bullying becomes hurtful after a while."

His sister, Maslinda Romi, 18, said she and two other Orang Seletar students had to put up with name-calling at the government school they had attended. She said: "They say we are dirty. We want to mix, but they don't. Now that I've finished school, it's better for me to stay in kampung and find work here. Nobody outside will accept us."


Being able to adapt has helped the Orang Laut survive. But with modern development projects rising on their doorstep, they now risk losing their land. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Lining the main streets outside Kampung Sungai Temon are banners for residential projects which proclaim in English, "World-class waterfront living", "A new dimension to urban living", "Dive into endless pleasure".

Nearby in the Johor Strait, a parcel of reclaimed land sits empty. Plastic bottles and rubbish accumulate among mangroves and marshes. Fish and shellfish struggle to survive in the brackish water.

Modernisation has reached the very doorstep of the Orang Seletar, and they are on the brink of losing their customary land and sources of livelihood.

However, the community did win a hard-fought civil case against the state and federal governments last February, when the Johor Baru High Court ruled that they had customary rights to 138ha of their traditional land and waters in the Danga Bay region, which lies in the Iskandar development corridor.

The court had also ordered that they be compensated for the loss of land based on market value. The amount is not known but estimated to be sizeable, given the centrality of its beachfront location, only 5km west of the Causeway.

While they were happy their rights over the land and, for the first time, surrounding waters, were finally legally acknowledged and recognised, they would rather have their land back than compensation. They have since appealed the decision, and the case is pending.

In an e-mail to The Sunday Times, the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, a Malaysian statutory body that oversees the development area, said it is unable to comment as the case is under appeal.

Mr Eddy Salim said their cultural identity is tied to the sea. An old ritual to determine Orang Laut even dictates hurling newborns into the sea to see if they could float. They become skilful swimmers as toddlers.

"You can't separate us from the sea. We will feel awkward living on land. Our heart and soul will still be close to the sea," he said.

isherman Muhammad Anuar Sulaiman, his wife Nurul Hanani, and their two children have been living at sea on a giant raft which he had fashioned from planks and zinc sheets. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Fisherman Muhammad Anuar Sulaiman, 28, his wife Nurul Hanani, 27, and their two children are part of the village but have been living at sea on a giant raft which he fashioned from planks and zinc sheets.

He said: "It's hard to get approval for a house on the beach, so we stay here because where else can we go? The water is all we know. We are Orang Laut. The sea is our home."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 28, 2018, with the headline Seafaring Orang Laut strive to stay afloat. Subscribe