Sunday, July 27, 2014

[People] Singapore's Orang Seletar

Panoramic view of Sungei Seletar
Friday, 4pm. The sky saw a mixture of blue and white and the breeze helped to dissipate a bit of the heat. This was the waters that a group of Orang Laut (Sea People) called their home. This is Seletar River and the people who lived here were called Orang Seletar.

The Orang Seletar, a sub-group of the Orang Laut, has made Seletar Island and the surrounding areas their home. Their presence predates Sir Stamford Raffles's founding of Singapore in 1819. It is said that there were "500 Orang Kallang, 200 Orang Seletar, 150 Orang Gelam, 100 Orang Laut, about 30 Malay followers of Temenggong Abdul Rahman and about 30 Chinese".(Talk on Pulau Seking)

Temenggong Abdul Rahman was  a "prominent sea-lord of that time. They fished for him and served as boatmen". (Chou: P52)

In the past, the Orang Laut were closely aligned to their rulers, "and were highly appreciate in the royal Malay court". It was reciprocal as the Orang Laut were very loyal to their rulers of the region. (C. Chou: P41)

They were also the front runners of the rulers as they were mobile. They were the people of the seas who knew how to navigate the treacherous seas and islands around that region.

"The Orang Laut, who had pledged unquestioning allegiance to the Palembang prince, found a new centre. It was only with their help that Parameswara, also known as Sri Tri Buana, founded a new settlement in Temasek, which he renamed Singpaura." (Chou: P.44)

As for the Orang Laut, they were largely linked socially and their relations stretched further southwards towards the islands of Riau Archipelago, currently a part of Indonesia. (Ali: P.276)

The mangrove provided the Orang Seletar with important sustenance
The Orang Seletar, as of all of the other Orang Laut, spent most of time on their boats and lived on their catch offered by the seas. They were also able subsist through what the mangroves proffer. (Ali: P.280)

South Coast of Johor looking towards Singapore
The group of Orang Seletar moved across the Johor Straits easily depending on the tides and season. In the past, there were no territorial borders that the Orang Seletar were not allowed to cross. They could be in Southern Johor and a short while later, move over to Pulau Seletar or deeper into Sungei Seletar when the weather turned for the worse.

Orang Seletar along Sungei Seletar. Taken from: National Archives of Singapore

Though it was said that the life on boat these boats were nothing but difficult. Staying close to the rivers meant that the dwellers would have to contend with mosquitoes and other irritants.

A View of Sungei Seletar looking out towards Malaysia
To find out more about the Orang Seletar, do check out this brilliantly written paper by Mariam Ali.

February 4, 2015 update:

In John Maksic's book called "Singapore & the silk road of the sea", he summarised in English, the Sejarah Melayu or the Malay Annals. In the Annals, it mentioned how the last Sultan of Singapura - Iskandar Syah, escaped from the island after the Majapahit Empire had defeated him. Sultan Iskandar Syah "fled to Seletar, then Muar" and after two years, settled in Melaka in the early 1400s. (2) 

Why did Sultan Iskandar escapeed through Seletar? My take is that the Orang Seletar were already there and they might have helped him to escape the Javanese. Also, there might have already been an established path that led the Sultan from Bukit Larangan (Current Fort Canning) to Seletar. The Orang Laut had previously helped Sultan Iskandar to escape from Palembang to Singapura too. (2)


1. C, Chou (2010). The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia. Routledge: United Kingdom.
M, Ali. (2002). Singapore's Orang Seletar, Orang Kallang and Orang Selat. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore.

2. Miksic, J. (2014). Singapore & the silk road of the sea. NUS Press: Singapore. PP153, 156.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

[Singapore Islands] Sultan Shoal Lighthouse

Frontage of Sultan Shoal

Sultan Shoal is one of the smaller islands of Singapore. (1) Standing on the island is a lighthouse that was built in 1895, a chalet for Maritime Port of Authority staff, and a swimming lagoon. One of the first mention of Sultan Shoal was in the newspaper in 1863. It was about a steamer Behar that was captained by Captain Dundas. The steamer was suppose to be anchored off Sultan Shoal but the captain chose to proceed to the harbour so that there were more time to "transact business". (2) There was a by-mention of the Shoal in the newspapers in 1852. (22)

The Sultan Shoal was a dangerous area for ship as they were still running aground. One example was seen in 1869 where a British government steam launch Mata Mata sustained damage as it ran aground. (3) This was even after the government had erected a stone beacon in 1865 prior to the  building of the lighthouse. (4) (5)

Source: Google Maps

With the ongoing reclamation, the Sultan Shoal is now pretty much enclosed in an area between Tuas and Jurong Island.

Here're ten interesting facts about the Sultan Shoal

Singapore stamp of 1982. Source: Lighthouse stamp society. (17)

1. The granite stones used to build the lighthouse actually came from the quarries of Pulau Ubin. (6) 

2. In 1928, Sultan Shoal was used as a drop-zone for opium smugglers. Two buoys were thrown overboard with each attached with a bundle of opium (Chandu). Three Chinese men were arrested and charged with the "importation of non-government chandu"(Yes, opium was legally grown in Singapore) (7)

3. The light keeper used to keep "two loaded rifles, with fixed bayonets, and three swords" for keeping away pirates. (8)

4. By 1939, the British government had started to place mines in the waters around Singapore. A warning was post in the newspapers warning mariners of "dangerous obstructions" being laid from Tanjong Piai to the Sultan Shoal. (9)  During the early days of the Japanese Occupation in 1942, everything movable on Sultan Shoal were taken away. But prior to this loot, the lighthouse keeper was alert enough to hide all the vital lighthouse equipment away in hard-to-find places such as water tanks and secret storages. (10) Interestingly, most of the lighthouse keepers during this time were Eurasian and during the Japanese Occupation, the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse was taken cared of by Matthew Cunico. (11)  Mr Cunico received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct "in services rendered towards effecting the escape of Brig. A.E. Cumming V.C. (Brigadier Arthur Edward Cumming) and eleven other officers in February 1942". (21)

5. Workers at the lighthouse generally do not have contact with the outside world. Not until the installation of the first talkie sets. (12)  It was only in 1963 that the lighthouse keepers were provided with television sets. (14)

6. The British Troopship - "Empress of Asia" sunk after she was bombed by the Japanese in January 1942. It was located 1/2 a mile East from Sultan Shoal. (13) She was finally salvaged in 1960. (16)

7. Indonesian gunboats had been attacking sampans and other boats just off the waters of Sultan Shoal. Some of these attacks left a number of mariners injured. (15)

8. Drama around the Sultan Shoal prior to the fall of Singapore in 1942. The 30,000 ton troopship HMS Empress of Asia, bringing 2,000 troops from India, was sunk by Japanese dive-bombers off Sultan Shoal. Eyewitnesses said that "thousands of people were seen bobbing in the water making desperate attempts to swim away from the blazing ship". (16) A former lighthouse watchman, Mr Felix Paul Monteiro, said that he saw the attack while being based on Raffles Lighthouse. The surviving soldiers then swam to Sultan Shoal. Artifacts from the wreck were brought to the surface in 1998 by a commercial diving company and these items were donated to the Singapore History Museum. (18) 

9. The lighthouse was converted to an unmanned fully automated lighthouse at a cost of S$500,000 in 1984. Previously, the lighthouse was manned by four lighthouse keepers. (19)

10. Sultan Shoal has more than 2,800 hard coral colonies. To save these coral from destruction due to passing ships, part of it have been relocated to nearby Sisters' Island and St. Johns Island. (20)


2. Untitled. July 4, 1863. The Straits Times. P2.
3. News of the week. December 18, 1869. The Straits Times. P2.
4. Untitled. May 29, 1875. The Straits Times. P3.
5. The Sultan Shoal Lighthouse. February 24, 1876. The Straits times. P2.
6. Untitled. July 18, 1894. The Straits Times. P2.
7. Revenue Officers Catch Chinese Smugglers. July 28, 1926. The Straits Times. P9.
8. Lonely keepers of Sultan Shoal. March 6, 1938. The Straits Times. P17.
9. Obstructions in Singapore Waters. September 4, 1939. The Straits Times. P11.
10. Local Lighthouse Shines Again. March 31, 1946. The Straits Times. P2.
11. Modder, M. June 27, 1948. Singapore Watchmen of the Sea. The Straits Times. P6.
12. Radio link for colony 'lights'. July 31, 1951. The Straits Times. P7.
13. Ship sunk in war to be raised. February 23, 1952. The Straits Times. P7.
14. Lonely lighthouse men: TV helps pass time. March 28, 1963. The Straits Times. P11.
15. RI Gunboat fires at bumboat: One hurt. December 14, 1966. The Straits Times. P24.
16. Daniel, J. December 1, 1974. How eleven ships met their doom off Singapore. The Straits Times. P11.
17. Lighthouse Stamp Society. Accessed on March 20, 2016.

18. Cheng, A. L. July 23, 1998. Ship's "Treasures" found off Tuas. The Straits Times.
19. PSA lighthouse goes to go automatic. December 30, 1983. The Straits Times. P11.
20. Relocating corals at Sultan Shoal. April 26, 2014. The Straits Times.
21. Awards and Citations. June 11, 1948. Morning Tribune. P14.
22. Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. April 23, 1852. P2.

Updated on November 18, 2018.
Additional information about Brigadier Cumming shared by Mr Richard from Marine Heritage Interest Group (SMHIG).

Further reading

Read about how the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse was first built in 1895.

A good story about Sultan Shoal's light keeper of 1937 - Mr. Adolph Monterio and his staff of five

An interview with a former sailor of Empress of Asia troop carrier that sank off the waters of Sultan Shoal.

Website dedicated to the British Ship - Empress of Asia.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

[Military] Steel Pot Warriors

My fellow recruits and I were super elated to have completed our field training

The Singapore Armed Forces started issuing Kevlar helmet from January 1987 onwards. (1) But when you are a recruit, you will never get the best of anything. Actually, you will get all the remaining army stores. So instead of getting those lightweight Kevlar helmets, the recruits received what the army termed as steel pots. Thinking back, I am glad that we had a chance to own those Vietnam War-like steel pots. To add on to that Vietnam War aura, we were issued with well-worn M16s rifles.

Now back to our steel pots. 

Though it made good memories, these steel helmets were the bane of soldiers. Looking back at all the recruit photos that I'd taken, none of them saw me wearing my helmet. Why?

It was heeeaaavy! It was so heavy that a pioneer soldier of 1967 counted his lucky stars as he was a Sikh and was exempted from wearing the steel helmet. (2)

"The old steel pot helmets were very uncomfortable! In a way I was very lucky because I was wearing a turban! You know, I think their helmets were heavier than my turban! You could actually hear them go 'clang'!" (2)
Source: Army Museum Singapore

The helmet consisted of three parts. One was the plastic inner layer that you wear under your steel helmet, and the other part was the steel helmet itself. The third part was the camouflage cloth. We had to use a thick black rubber band to hold it in its place. The rubber band was also used to slot in leaves and ferns when we were learning how to camouflage ourselves.

For recruits, there were something more that we had to include on our helmets. When we inherited these steel pots on Day 1, we were told to write our names on masking tapes using a black marker and stencils. Once that was done, we had to waterproof it using transparent sticky tape. I was not allowed to use my Christian name, only my initials and my surname, which read W. A. Phuah or in hokkien lingo "I'm Phuah". These initials and surname thingy really embarrassed some people, especially the Chinese. We had K. A. Chng (Bottoms), S.H. Chong (Taxi Chong as taxis' number plates start with SH) and A. H. Lee (Ali).     

The worst time to have these helmets on were in the afternoons with the sun in full glory, and during our Standard Obstacle Course (SOC) where we were asked to do a 50m run, clear eight obstacles, and then complete the entire SOC with a 600m run. Running caused our helmets to wobble back and forth and that caused us great discomfort.

My Buddy and I zoning out after completing our SOC
We were also required to wear our helmets when we were digging our little trenches or what is known as shell scrape. I remember a funny incident where we were told by our sergeant to dig a shell scrape. He gave us an hour to complete our digging. After 30 minutes of digging, and with the helmets giving us grief, I told my buddy that I'll be taking off my steel pot and will just wear the helmet liner. He said in hokkien, " Mai Xiao Lah" or "Don't be crazy". I replied," Nevermind lah, Sergeant not here mah", not knowing that Sergeant Rajah had somehow ghosted into our vicinity and he was just standing behind me. Let just say that the punishment I'd received included running around like a mad man, and strengthening my arm power with countless push ups.

So as a tribute to all soldiers past and present, whether it was steel pot or Kevlar helmets, thank you for your dedication and for protecting our homeland. Have a good SAF Day.

Training to be soldiers, fight for our land
Once in our life, two years of our time.
Have you ever wondered, why we must serve
Because we love our land, and want it to be free, to be free. 


1. Cyber Pioneer Issue 109 (Nov 1986).
2. Army Museum Singapore. Retrieved on July 1, 2014.

Other references
1. Remember Singapore. Once in our life. Retrieved on July 1, 2014.

2. Run-down of the SOC Course. Retrieved on July 1, 2014.