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Preserving the Orang Laut Heritage: Descendants Uphold Singapore’s ‘Sea People’ Traditions

To maintain his recollections of that lifestyle, Firdaus resorted to something adored by all Singaporeans: food. Collaborating with his family members, he initiated the promotion of Orang Laut cuisine through the Instagram account Orang Laut SG, which has now amassed over 9,700 followers.

“Food emerged as a concrete medium to convey our story,” he expressed, highlighting dishes like traditional Malay delicacies such as sotong hitam (squid in black ink sauce) and ketam lemak (crab in spicy coconut milk), albeit prepared in a distinctive Orang Laut manner.


An event organized by Orang Laut SG showcasing typical Orang Laut cuisine. Photo: Instagram/oranglautsg

Since its establishment amid the pandemic, Firdaus has expanded the initial social media presence into a full-fledged non-profit organization. This organization conducts discussions and events to raise awareness about the Orang Laut community.

While Firdaus was fortunate to have a glimpse of island life, many others in the Orang Laut community – considered among Singapore’s earliest inhabitants – have drifted apart from their heritage.

During the latter part of the 20th century, as Singapore underwent industrialization, successive Orang Laut settlements succumbed to urban development, and their residents were relocated to public housing on the main island. A significant number assimilated into the predominantly Chinese society as ethnic Malays, constituting about 15 percent of the population.

Initially, efforts were made to preserve the communities, with land designated in coastal regions like Singapore’s West Coast. However, as Hamzah Muzaini, an associate professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, pointed out, this scenario has changed over time.


Trucks transporting ash from incinerated waste on Pulau Semakau, now utilized as an offshore landfill in land-scarce Singapore. Photo: AFP

“Over the years, many have relocated to various parts of Singapore,” he stated. “Some have even chosen to move to other regions like the Riau Islands in Indonesia, instead of migrating to the mainland.”

Muzaini highlighted that the erosion of the collective Orang Laut culture commenced even before their resettlement.

“With the transition from being Orang Laut to Orang Pulau (‘island people’), a process of deculturalization began,” he explained. This shift involved a shift from a nomadic, boat-dwelling lifestyle to a more settled existence on land, leading to a significant cultural loss, especially for those distanced from the sea.

Nonetheless, recent years have witnessed increased visibility of these communities, attributed to academic research, the disclosure of personal archives, and grassroots initiatives such as Orang Laut SG.

Most notably, the team distributed around 400 bowls of bubur lambuk ikan tenggiri – a mackerel fish porridge popular among community members – to commemorate Ramadan, the sacred Islamic fasting month.

“This initiative, which commenced approximately four years ago, aligns with the spirit of giving back during Ramadan,” Firdaus shared. “While bubur lambuk is familiar to the Malay community, our unique twist lies in using fish as a primary ingredient.”

Younger generations, hitherto unaware of their Orang Laut lineage, have begun reconnecting with their roots.

Zuhaira Syaza Amir Khaled, recounting her experience to This Week in Asia, unveiled her ancestral ties to the community while researching her final-year project at Laselle College of the Arts.


A 1990 photograph capturing two matriarchs enjoying a beachside meal at Pulau Semakau. Photo: Instagram/oranglautsg

During a performance by an Orang Laut descendant, she discerned similarities between the dialect spoken and that of her late grandmother.

“This revelation struck a chord as it reminded me of my grandmother’s speech,” she shared. “It dawned on me that my grandmother was part of the islander community.”

Delving deeper into her lineage, Zuhaira unearthed connections to relatives who resided on islands like Bukom Kechil, Pulau Semakau, and Pulau Seking.

“On weekends or holidays, they would embark on boat trips to these islands, and through archival findings, I stumbled upon images of my great-grandmother at a kampung entrance,” she elaborated.


Children enjoying a swim off the Pulau Semakau jetty circa 1980. Photo: Instagram/oranglautsg

Though her project on the islanders’ lifestyle concluded, Zuhaira, aged 25, embarked on a quest to delve deeper into her family’s history.

“Since completing the project last year, I’ve been inquiring with island residents about my grandmother’s identity due to the close-knit nature of the community,” she disclosed.

However, the passing of her grandmother has posed challenges in piecing together the narrative.

“Even direct relatives lack memories of island life as they relocated to the mainland at a young age,” she lamented. “It’s disheartening that with each islander’s demise, a part of the culture and practices fades away.”