Orang laut

by Hwang, Joycelyn

Orang laut, which literally means “sea people” in Malay, refers to the indigenous sea nomads and sea gypsies of Singapore.1 They were one of the earlier immigrants who settled along the coastlines of Singapore during pre-colonial days. The community typically lived off a long dwelling boat, known colloquially as sampan panjang, or “long boat”.

The orang laut who inhabited Singapore at the time of Raffles’s landing in 1819 consisted of different groups. They included the orang laut of the Riau-Lingga archipelago such as the Orang Galang, Orang Gelam, Orang Seletar, Orang Biduanda Kallang and the Orang Selat. These groups shared some degree of Malay ethnicity, and a preference for living on boats rather than on land.3

In early Singapore, the headman of the orang laut, referred to as batin (chief), acted as the messenger for the temenggong and viceroy of Riau. These officials offered protection to the orang laut, who in turn served as boatmen, rowers or warriors on pirate escapades. Otherwise, they lived off the sea as simple fishing folks. Many of the Orang Gelam who lived along the Singapore River served as boatmen for merchant ships, while their womenfolk sold fruit on boats.4

The Orang Selat were believed to have traversed the waters of Keppel Harbour since the early 16th century, making them one of the earliest settlers on the island, according to ethnologist Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill.By the early 19th century, there were more than 1,000 orang laut residing in Singapore, with about 500 Orang Biduanda Kallang, 150 of whom were boat dwellers. In 1840s, at least 450 orang laut, including the headman, were relocated to Tanjong Rhu, while others were moved to Telok Blangah, Selat Singkeh, Pasir PanjangGeylang and Pulau Brani.

The Orang Biduanda Kallang were moved to Johor, leaving only 40 tribesmen in Singapore by the 1850s. Many thus abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, with some settling along the shoreline and assimilating with the natives of the land, leaving only the Orang Seletar, the last remnant clinging on to the nomadic lifestyle. By the early 1930s, the last of the remaining natives who settled around the Kallang River were moved to Kampong Melayu.7


Joycelyn Hwang


1. Mulliner, K., & Mulliner, L-The. (1991). Historical dictionary of Singapore. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 MUL)

2. Gibson-Hill, C. A. (1952). The Orang Laut of the Singapore River and the sampan panjang. [Singapore]: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, p. 165. (Call no.: RCLOS 301.295957 GIB)
3. Mulliner, K, & Mulliner, L-The. (1991). Historical dictionary of Singapore. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, p. 112. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 MUL); Geylang Serai: Down memory lane: Kenangan Abadi. (1986). Singapore: Heinemann Asia, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 GEY)
4. Sopher, D. E. (1977). The sea nomads: A study of the maritime boat people of Southeast Asia. Singapore: National Museum. pp. 105–106. (Call no.: RCLOS 959 SOP)
5. Geylang Serai: Down memory lane: Kenangan Abadi. (1986). Singapore: Heinemann Asia, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 GEY)
6. Geylang Serai: Down memory lane: Kenangan Abadi. (1986). Singapore: Heinemann Asia, pp. 2, 5, 11. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 GEY)
7. Geylang Serai: Down memory lane: Kenangan Abadi. (1986). Singapore: Heinemann Asia. pp. 2, 13. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 GEY)

The information in this article is valid as at 24 January 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Ethnology--Malay Archipelago
Ethnic Communities
Heritage and Culture
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Bajau (Southeast Asian people)--Singapore
Community and Social Services