Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the kon seletar of singapore

houses on stilts near the seletar dam - orang seletar lived here?

orang laut families, johor straits

seletar river, orang laut village

photos from national archives of singapore

today, i walked at the re-developed lower seletar reservoir park. not only was i pleased to find new additions at the park, like the heritage bridge and the family bay, but i was also being enriched to learn of the existence of a certain group of people who once lived in that area. i had not known or heard of the kon seletar who had settled in singapore long before sir stamford raffles landed on our shore.

kon seletar or orang seletar is now classified as an orang asli tribe in malaysia. they were named after the seletar area in singapore (or it could be the other way around), where about 800 of them once lived. these people could be considered sea gypsies or orang laut. however, they did not belong to the same group that raffles met when he stepped shore. the orang seletar were descendants of the orang laut from the spice islands of indonesia.

are there still orang seletar in singapore? i believe there are. some have assimilated into the malay community and some have even inter-married with the other races. i read about two orang seletar women who had chinese husbands. most, however, had migrated to sungai pulai in south-west johor.

at one time they lived on both sides of the johor straits, especially along the banks of the rivers. they also lived in boats or temporary huts in the mangrove swamps. they were happy-go-lucky people who were quite contented fishing, catching crabs and collecting bakau wood for making charcoal to eke out a living.

in the early days, this group of maritime people, being nomadic, used to move freely between johor and singapore. until 1967, there were still orang seletar living on the island of seletar.

the orang seletar did not speak malay and they were not muslims. they were animists who believed that spirits roam the world inhabiting trees, water and rocks.

i do not know if i have met any orang seletar in person but from the pictures that i have seen of them, they appear to have a slightly darker complexion than the malays and most of the men seem to have short, curly hair.

although the information panels about them are displayed at the redeveloped part of the lower seletar reservoir park, i think the orang seletar were, at one time, settled nearer to the seletar dam which i blogged about here in 2009.

two new developments at lower seletar reservoir park

the heritage bridge at lower seletar reservoir

the family bay - a nice place to cool down on a warm day


noelbynature said...

that's such a great find. I always thought the Orang Selat in Singapore have largely assimilated to the Malays in Singapore. I remember reading an academic paper about them from a book published in Singapore (I can't remember where exactly but I can dig up the reference).

yg said...

noel, i was not aware of the existence of the orang seletar or orang selat until i visited the re-developed lower seletar reservoir recently.

yg said...

today, i was at kranji reservoir park when i met a group of seven people, adults and children. my intuitions tell me that they are orang seletar. they were packing fish to sell to some local buyer/s. i don't think they are singaporeans because none of them uttered a word of english. they were speaking in malay all the time. i wanted to strike up a conversation with them but could find the opportunity. the males have short, curly hair but the females, except for one, all have long hair.