30 December 2008

The Seletar or Orang Asli Laut

It is said they can dive underwater for half an hour without any breathing apparatus. So attuned to the sea are the Seletar or Orang Asli Laut of Kampung Bakar Batu Danga in Johor Baru.

Yet, they could soon be like fish out of water with the onslaught of development that has polluted the sea around them.

Their hearts beat for the sea
Zulkarnain Ahmad Tajuddin, Johor Buzz undated
The Seletar or Orang Asli Laut of Kampung Bakar Batu Danga in Johor Baru are so acclimatised to the sea that some of them can dive underwater without any breathing apparatus for half an hour.

Yet, they could soon be like fish out of water with the onslaught of development that has polluted the sea around them.

The mud crab or ketam bangkang (Scylla serrata) used to be their main catch for generations, but now the large crustacean have left the mangroves around their village due to siltation and water pollution.

Villager Udi Ki, 33, said he could easily get RM60 worth of mud crabs a day 10 years ago, but nowadays he counts himself lucky if he gets RM20 a day.

“They are not here any more, they’ve simply vanished from the mangroves which used to be teeming with them. Now it’s difficult even to see their burrows, let alone catch them in large numbers,” he said.

Such is this community’s attachment to the sea that when the catch from the sea can no longer sustain their livelihood, they would turn to collecting recyclable materials from the sea, even to the point of endangering their lives.

Udi said he once collected about 600kg of scrap metal from the bottom of the nearby Sungai Melayu without realising that the heaviest items were World War 2 bombs.

“One way or another, we will get our catch from the sea or rivers around here. But it never crossed my mind that I would ‘catch’ bombs.”

Luckily, the bombs did not explode and the scrap metal dealer who spotted the bombs among the scrap metal called in the police bomb disposal unit.

Udi said the fishermen’s association had informed them in 2000 that they would be given compensation for their loss of income resulting from the construction of the Danga Bay project.

“We have not heard from the association since then. Nothing.”

Udi said if they had a choice, he and his tribesmen would rather have what they treasured most — unpolluted sea, rivers and mangroves.

“The money cannot bring back our way of life.”

It’s clear that the Seletar community just wants to use their fishing skills to earn a living, allowing them to be independent in shaping their future without sacrificing their way of life.

“We are not against development. If so, we would not be living in the brick houses built for us by the Orang Asli Affairs Department. But we would rather catch fish and crabs than floating bottles and plastic debris with our net,” Udi said.

Another villager, John Toh, 32, does not only fish for a living but he can almost live underwater among the marine creatures.

Almost all the villagers can dive without any breathing apparatus but they agree that nobody dives deeper or longer than Toh.

The villagers said that once, a boat had capsized in the Tebrau Straits and efforts to salvage it came to naught as divers came up with their ears bleeding because of the depth.

But Toh jumped in and resurfaced half an hour later with a rope that was attached to the sunken boat. Since then, the whole village has acknowledged him as the best diver among them.

“It’s nothing, all of us can remain underwater for a long time,” he said nonchalantly when asked about his incredible ability.

Toh said he started diving and spear fishing from the age of 12, insisting that it was a normal thing for the community as their lives revolve around the sea.

What he said is not mere rhetoric as the sea and mangroves have permeated every aspect of their life, and are reflected even in their folk songs like Serampang Laut, Ketam Bangkang, Lagu Siput and many others.

The song Ketam Bangkang, which goes Yok sang, Ke laut di hempas gelombang, Ke darat lintang pukang, Nak cari lubang si ketam bangkang, is not merely a senseless song meant to cheer the heart. In fact, the term “lintang pukang” is indication that their life would be in disarray if they were asked to live on land, cut off from the sea.

“We cannot live far from the sea although our houses are on land now. Our forefathers lived their lives totally in their boats, seeking land only upon their deaths,” Toh said.

It may not be long before their technique of catching mud crabs becomes just folklore, reflected only in the dance moves that accompany the song, as the mud crab population declines further.

The community’s worry now is that the water quality in the Tebrau Straits will worsen as a result of the Danga Bay development of high-end real estate on the river delta just opposite their village. The project is an integral part of the Iskandar Malaysia development corridor.

In the evenings, Seletar children as young as 4 years old can be seen frolicking in the water, diving into the Tebrau Straits — just 100 metres away from the heavy machines that are reshaping the delta.

Their shrieks of joy fill the air as they play, blissfully unaware that the murky water holds the answer to the question of their future existence.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ... I heard a similar tale about a local in Bintan who could do the same thing (back when Bintan was nothing but wild shores). I wonder how they do these breath-holding feats.

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