17 November 2008

An Orang Laut story

The Orang Laut or Sea Gypsies are tribes who traditionally lived off the sea in our coastal regions, including Peninsular Malaysia, the Riaus and Sumatra. They played an important part of our history. Alas, like many traditional ways of life, these are rapidly fading.

Here's an interview with an Orang Laut in the New Straits Times, recalling days before the Causeway was built, during the Japanese Occupation and more. He laments "However, for the past 10 years, very few fish or crabs have been snagged by our nets and fish traps. The rivers and mangroves that were impervious to bombs and bullets seem to be dying in peacetime."

Dying days of a tribe
By Yang Aseng; Interview by Satiman Jamin
New Straits Times 17 Nov 08;
I WAS born in a small dugout or pau kajang. I have lived off the sea all my life but I never dreamed that the sea around me would die in my lifetime. What surprised me was not that I have lived to such an old age, which is uncommon among my Orang Seletar tribe, but that the sea could lose its life because of callous acts by humans.

Gone were the days when my fellow tribesmen could be guaranteed a good catch at sea or among the mangroves. This has been replaced with the certainty that our way of life will wither along with the catch.

There are not many of us now, even if all the Seletar people from other villages are counted.

In Kampung Bakar Batu Danga (Johor) where I live, there are only 27 families, with fewer than 200 people.

It's a stark contrast with the times of my childhood in the 1930s when one could hardly look at any stretch of the Tebrau Straits without spotting tens or even hundreds of our tribesmen's boats floating in the water.

Before the Causeway was built, our tribe was one large close-knit community as we could visit each other no matter where we lived around the Tebrau Straits.

We could just row our boats from Gelang Patah in the west of the Tebrau Straits to Stulang Laut at the other end, as did the merchant ships plying the waterway to get to the Tanjung Puteri Port.

The Causeway split our community in two as we could no longer visit those on the other side. Travelling there by land was out of the question as we rarely even set foot on dry land, let alone travelled across it.

During the Japanese occupation, we did not venture out to the Tebrau Straits, hiding under the cover of riverine mangroves of Sungai Pulai, Sungai Skudai, Sungai Melayu and other small rivers in the area.

We heard loud explosions in the distance but I was not sure whether they came from Johor Baru or Singapore. It could have been both, because we had seen warplanes shrieking above us and zig-zagging over Singapore on the other side of the Johor Straits.

Luckily, none of the bombs fell near my family's boat. The frail dugout would not have survived even the smallest fragments of the bombs as it was made only to ride the waves of the sea.

The mangroves not only protected us from Japanese atrocities. They enabled us to survive the war for years by providing shelter and food.

The war took human lives, but the mangroves' fish, mud crabs and shellfish flourished.

As we spent the war years hiding in the mangroves, the most notable difference to us when it ended was that we could go out to sea again.

Soon after our country's independence, we were given a piece of land (which later became our present settlement) by the late Sultan Ismail, who said we should change our nomadic ways.

It was a good move as the government, through the Orang Asli Affairs Department, could not provide us with the amenities for a better life if we still lived on boats, moving from one place to another around the Tebrau Straits and the surrounding mangroves.

Those who have lived on land all their life would not understand what a fundamental change it was for us to make the change from living a life at sea to one anchored on land.

We were labelled as shy and unwilling to communicate with others, but it was merely due to our not speaking Bahasa Malaysia as we found it unnecessary, living among our own people on our boats.

Many of us learned to speak Bahasa Malaysia when we resettled on land and it has helped us to adapt to life on land, surrounded by people who did not speak our language.

However, for the past 10 years, very few fish or crabs have been snagged by our nets and fish traps. The rivers and mangroves that were impervious to bombs and bullets seem to be dying in peacetime.

I have seen many things in my life and I have learned to accept things that I once thought impossible, but it really baffles me when the landward buildings seem to be heading towards water and getting nearer to the mangroves.

We moved out of the mangroves to live on land, but they have been so intertwined with our life that we cannot bear to see the mangroves dying when earth movers and fancy buildings move in.

The ketam bangkang (mud crabs) are gone. They were once so abundant here that we immortalised the hunt for them in a folk song. Our tribe's traditional music group, which once played to packed audiences in places as far away as Kuala Lumpur, called themselves "Kumpulan Ketam Bangkang".

It's just a song now. There are no more ketam bangkang, only earth movers with steel claws.

We could only watch as the river delta in front of our village changed into rows of gleaming glass-panelled buildings after the iron machines cleared it of mangrove trees.

I fear for my great-grandchildren's future as Orang Laut when the mangrove forest that once sheltered us from bombs falls to the encroaching concrete jungle.

Yang Aseng, 80, is the oldest individual in the Orang Seletar or Orang Laut community at Kampung Bakar Batu Danga.

More about the Orang Laut on wikipedia.

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