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.

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