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.

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