Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

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The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.





The sun sets as dawn breaks

1 11 2012

It has been a while since I last took the effort to welcome the new day. The haze filtered sunrises of late have been somewhat subdued and rather uninspiring. One sunrise that I did manage to catch was on the morning of Hari Raya Haji, as the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha is known to us in Singapore, at what has become one of my favourite spots to welcome the day in Singapore, the water’s edge where the former Kampong Wak Hassan once was. The show of colours that accompanied the sunrise were not one of the more spectacular shows that I have observed at the spot. It was however one that was unusual – the cloud laden sky that might have provided the canvas for a dull pink and grey painting did instead find itself decorated with a purple hue at first light, with pockets of gold in places where the clouds had parted.

6.25 am, 26 October 2012.

7.09am, 26 October 2012.

In the glow of the light of the rising sun, I am for a brief moment fooled into thinking that I had found myself in the world that once. I see the silhouette of a man standing by a net. It is not the net of fishermen however that I see, but one of the modern world to keep us from a part of the sea wall which is in imminent danger of collapsing. The sea wall is perhaps one of the last that’s standing in the area to remind us of that world that once was, its resistance against not just the forces of the environment but also of the winds of change, proving somewhat futile. The winds of change do in fact seem to be blowing in the direction of the area – a large part of undeveloped land to the south of the former kampong has been placed behind hoardings – possibly being cleared for the beginnings of the huge sea of grey that is to be Simpang New Town, a new Housing and Development Board (HDB) estate planned for the area that will stretch eastwards to Sungei Seletar (Seletar River).

It is not the nets of fishermen that we now see.

The sea wall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan is collapsing.

The land which has been placed behind hoardings was for a while a wild and partly wooded area. Cleared out at the end of the 1980s, it had been a piece of land in an area dominated by rivers that ran through it, the swamp land around the coastal and estuarine areas, fish ponds that were carved out of the swamps, kampongs, rubber plantations and coconut groves. It was one hidden from most of us and one that I have very little knowledge of, except for the stretch on the northern coast where Kampong Wak Hassan was, eastwards to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang.

A once beautiful area seen which is now being cleared for possibly what is the beginnings of the HDB’s new Simpang estate, 1 April 2012.

My first encounters with the piece of land were in the mid 1990s. It was not more than a barren piece of land then, land which had just been cleared and levelled of the undulations that had once shaped the landscape that was then used for military training. Each encounter was one that required a bumpy passage, which, when seated at the back of a 3-tonner, often meant inhaling an unhealthy dose of dust that the trucks threw up.

A different mood on a misty morning, 28 August 2012.

My brief encounters with the piece of land in more recent times had been happier ones. Besides it being a wonderful place to catch the varying moods that accompany the brightening of the new day, it also is a piece of greenery in which I could find great peace in. I am greatly saddened that as with another place not so far away that I had enjoyed celebrating the new day in, it may never again be.








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