Singapore Talking

Influence of Bugis in many place names

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the latest instalment of a weekly series, we look at Bugis.

Mr Abdul Wafi Abdul Raib (far left) and Mr Sarafian Salleh are co-founders of the Bugis Temasek online community. Behind them at the Malay Heritage Centre is an image of the distinctive Bugis trading vessel, the pinisi.
Mr Abdul Wafi Abdul Raib (left) and Mr Sarafian Salleh are co-founders of the Bugis Temasek online community. Behind them at the Malay Heritage Centre is an image of the distinctive Bugis trading vessel, the pinisi.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mention "Bugis" and most people may think of the MRT station.

Those a little older may recall that Bugis Street, where a street market now stands, used to be a haunt for transvestite sex workers.

In Victoria Street, just outside the Bugis Junction mall, is a model of a multi-hulled trading ship known as the pinisi, a homage to the Bugis community in the area in the 19th century.

The seafaring Bugis, who are noted traders, began spreading throughout the region from Sulawesi, which is in modern-day Indonesia, from the 17th century.

They started arriving in Singapore in droves shortly after the British arrived in 1819, drawn by the promise of more trade, said Mr Sarafian Salleh, 47, a mechanical engineer who co-founded Facebook group Bugis Temasek.

Mr Abdul Wafi Abdul Raib, 29, a customer service officer who is Bugis Temasek's other co-founder, said the Bugis make up only a small percentage of the Malay population here and assimilation into the larger Malay community means very few still speak the language.

The Bugis language, known as Basa Ugi, differs greatly from Malay, he added.

"How are you?" is "apa khabar?" in Malay, but "aga kareba?" in Bugis. "Have you eaten?" would be "sudah makan?" in Malay. In Bugis, the same question is "purani mandre?"said Mr Wafi, who first picked up Basa Ugi from relatives in Johor.

In places like Batu Pahat and Pontian in Johor, those of Bugis descent still proudly speak the language, said Mr Wafi. "Even among the younger generation there, they can still understand it, even if they don't speak it fluently," he added.

Despite the small size of the community here, the Bugis people have produced notable personalities, said Mr Sarafian, including businessman and philanthropist Ambo Sooloh, who died in 1963.

Together with former president Yusof Ishak, Haji Amboh founded Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu, the first newspaper here to be wholly owned by Malays.

His grave, just behind the Malabar Mosque in Victoria Street, features inscriptions in the Lontara script, the written form of the Bugis language. The angular letters of Lontara distinguish it from the Arabic-influenced Jawi script used for Malay. It is one of several graves in the Jalan Kubor cemetery to feature Lontara writing and one of the few remaining manifestations of the language here.

Mr Sarafian also pointed to Singapore Idol winner Taufik Batisah and television personality B.J. Kadir as examples of Bugis personalities.

The names of several places here suggest Bugis influence, he said, noting that Bugis were landowners in the early years. Sengkang and Mandai, for example, are also the names of towns in the Wajo and Maros regions of South Sulawesi respectively, he said.

"The aim of having a group like Bugis Temasek is to get those of Bugis descent to come forward and share their stories," said Mr Sarafian, who is writing a book on the history of the Bugis people here and hopes to get it published later this year.

He is also setting up a society for those of Bugis descent, with Mr Wafi and eight others.

The new society's vice-president, Mr Ibrahim Ariff, 70, said: "The objective is to preserve, promote and foster Bugis culture."

Other efforts have been made to present the culture to a wider audience. Just last weekend, a theatre production called Galigo: The Chaos Within - based on the Bugis creation epic I La Galigo, one of the longest pieces of literature in the world - was staged at the Drama Centre at the National Library Board (NLB) building, by Indonesian students and alumni of the National University of Singapore.

As part of the show, an exhibition on Bugis culture, with items such as reproductions of the original text of I La Galigo in the Lontara script, was held at the NLB building.

The show's co-producer Adinda Mutiara Sabila, 28, said: "We previously put up productions based on Javanese and Balinese culture. We wanted something relevant to Singapore, and realised many would be familiar with the name Bugis, but not know who the Bugis are."

Mr Sarafian hopes more would learn about the Bugis. "We want to remind the present generation of Singapore's early settlers, once known for their trading prowess."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2017, with the headline 'Influence of Bugis in many place names'. Subscribe