The Orang Seletar: A Blast from Singapore’s Past

On Saturday, I visited Kampong Sungai Temon, a tiny village in southern Johor (20+ km west of Johor Bahru) inhabited by the Orang Seletar tribe, which is officially classified as part of the Orang Asli (“original people”) ethnic group in Malaysia.  We arrived early evening, as the sun set over the Straits of Johor.  At this point, the strait was only 2km apart.  We could see the electric tower at the northern tip of Lim Chu Kang, at the far northwestern corner of Singapore.  We had a wonderful and affordable seafood dinner (about RM 16 per person) at Restoran Asli, built on a large stilt structure over water. 

The Orang Seletar is a little-known ethnic sub-group that once inhabited on the northern coast of Singapore, in particularly along the Seletar River and on Seletar Island.  The Orang Seletar were one of the three Orang Laut (“Sea People”, also sometimes known as sea gypsies) tribes that lived in Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819.  The other two tribes, Orang Kallang and Orang Selat, have since disappeared in history, after a great plague in mid-19th century and following their relocation to Johor by the Temenggong family who later ascended the throne of Johor. 

I learnt about the Seletar people a few years ago, and thought that they had completely disappeared.  A few months ago, I read a report about the opening of their cultural centre – that to me, was as though I had read about the survival of the Goths and Babylonians till the modern times.  I set about arranging (via email of course) a visit there.  13 of us visited the Orang Seletar that day and a cultural performance was arranged specially for us.

The Orang Laut people were among the earliest inhabitants of coastal Southern Thailand and Malay Peninsula, the east coast of Sumatra and the many islands of the Straits of Melaka.  They were Austronesian by racial origins and perhaps close to the aboriginal peoples of Papua and Australia, which explain their darker complexion and curvy hair.  They worship their own gods and sea deities.  They speak their own language, which some say, is 20% similar in vocabulary with the Malay language.  We were told that Malay speakers would find the Seletar language and accent sound oddly Malay, and yet would not understand it.

Despite being non-Muslims, their command of the myriad islands and treacherous sea channels, during the pre-colonial era, made them master navigators and navy commanders of the Malay sultans of Melaka and later, Johor.  There are accounts that suggest that Hang Tuah, the legendary Melaka admiral and the classical manifestation of the most chivalrous warrior, was in fact of Orang Laut birth.

Whatever it was, the arrival of European colonial powers and the advent of a new Malaya that rely more on industrial and agricultural development had blushed the Orang Seletar aside.  From proud naval guardians of the seas, the Orang Seletar had by the beginning of the 20th century, become a neglected people, bullied by the powers and their neighbours.  When the British needed land to build the Seletar Air Base and Sembawang Naval Base, many Orang Seletar were forced to relocate across the Straits of Johor to Johor State now ruled by their historical patrons. 

Some accounts said that another great migration occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, when a rapidly developing Singapore meant that more land was needed.   Newly independent Singapore was also apprehensive about a nomadic water-borne tribe who crossed borders at will, and possible smuggling activities that could take place.  Indeed, we were told that the Orang Seletar lived on boats and follow where the currents brought them.  Sometimes, they would wake up one morning to find themselves on an unfamiliar island, far from their village.  Eventually, the whole tribe was moved to Johor pursuant to inter-government agreements.  

Since then, the Orang Seletar, removed from the land that gave them their name, has since languished in poverty and official neglect.  A great flood dispersed the tribe across 9 villages in southern Johor.  Many members of the tribe, by then, had also converted to Christianity, which seemed to put them at odds with the Malay Muslim majority population.  A lady told us, “If we convert to Islam, we would lose our culture as Orang Seletar, and become Malay instead.  With Christianity, we continue our customs and traditions. We can eat pork and do whatever we like, just as our ancestors do”

Relations with ethnic Chinese-Malaysians appear to be better.  During WWII, many Chinese children were hidden here by their parents, and looked after by the Orang Seletar.  They rubbed the children’s faces with mud so that they would look like the Seletars.  There have been inter-marriages and liaisons between Chinese and Seletar people.  In fact, the first seafood restaurant in the Sungai Temon village was opened by a Chinese man and his Seletar wife.  Since then, four restaurants have opened in the village.  The largest group of customers are the ethnic Chinese and the seafood was cooked Chinese-style.  The Orang Seletar Cultural Centre was a project that began with the assistance of ethnic Chinese marine researchers who have fallen in love with these people and their way of life, and wanted to help them preserve their culture.

Few among the Orang Seletar go far in education. An online audio interview say that the Seletar children sometimes found themselves bullied in schools because of their different appearance and accents.  Many did not complete school as a result, which condemns them to a hard life at the fringe of a rapidly developing Malaysia. They can no longer continue to fish or harvest crabs and mussels, as the sea is fast getting polluted.  Restaurant and tourism business are possible avenues out of poverty. 

However, even this is under threat.  The new Iskandar Development Region project has included this village in their master plan and the new townships built have reached the edge of the village. “If they force us to move, where do we have to go?  We have already been forced to move so many times the last hundred years.  We now have nothing but this land,” said a worried Seletar woman.  It is indeed unfortunate, as the Seletar people do not have title to their land and the nearby waters upon which their livelihood rely upon.

After our dinner, we proceeded to the Cultural Centre, and were welcomed by Jessie Yap, who is with the Malaysian Society of Marine Science.  She was about to to rush to Johor Bahru as the representative of the Seletar people at the JB Film Festival, where a documentary about the Seletar people would be screened.  She introduced us to Wee Kang, a young university student from Selangor now studying at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.  This was Wee Kang’s first day of internship at the Orang Seletar Village.  He would be our guide and translator tonight.

We visited the gallery which had an informative display about the history and culture of the Seletar people, plus old photographs about the more idyllic, nomadic days.  Then a cultural performance was conducted for us at a thatched platform built across the other side of the pond where the cultural centre was located.  This was what I would call Hawaii meets Hang Tuah!  The Seletar people were dressed in grass skirts and dresses that vaguely resembled the South Pacific; yet the music was distinctively Malay, even with gamelan beats from time to time.  In the old days, the Seletar people were almost naked most of the time, but the modern era has brought some changes.  It was also obvious that the Seletar people have also been influenced by mainstream Malay culture.  Most of the dance moves were similar to those of Malay folk dances but with occasional hints of Hawaiian style hip swaying.  In fact, I was told that many younger people prefer to speak the Malay language and old Seletar customs are fast disappearing. 

The performance, whilst enthusiastic, was hardly professional.  There were also occasional disruptions caused by failing sound systems.  However, these were more than made up by the friendliness and hospitality showered upon us by the locals.  The whole village turned up to watch the show.  It was as much a performance for us as for them as well.  Indeed, the main performance was over in one hour, but stretched for another hour on their request so that they could dance with us.  It was fun and there was so much joy among these people.  What a wonderful evening!  We only left the place around 10pm.

I learnt a lot about the Seletar people, yet there is much more I would like to find out.  I would certainly love to visit again, perhaps during day time, and see how they live.  I wish them the best in their struggle for their rights.  After all, they once shared Singapore with us.  I wonder what the Orang Seletar would have been today, if they had remain in Singapore.  A separate ethnic group recognized by the state and enjoying the fruits of our development?  Or totally assimilated with much larger ethnic groups on this land? 


ash said…
Thank you for this great post! I learnt something new today. Keep on writing :)
elena said…
thank you for sharing and the informative write up.
Michael Fonseca said…
Typo on 9th century. Shd be 19th

There are Orang Ponyan besides the other tribes. 😜✌️
Tan Wee Cheng said…
Michael, Thanks for notifying me. Typo corrected.
Hello. Can I have their e-mail so that I could arrange with them a visit there? By the way, thank you for the sharing. Really informative!!
Tan Wee Cheng said…
I cannot find the original site I got in touch with them, but maybe you can try this: