The mysterious peaks we sing of in “Di Tanjong Katong”

26 12 2017

The tune “Di Tanjong Katong”, a National song, is one we are most familiar with in Singapore. The lyrics of the song contain this rather peculiar verse:

Pulau Pandan jauh ke tengah,
Gunung Daik bercabang tiga;
Hancur badan dikandung tanah,
Budi yang baik dikenang jua.

While the lines of the verse, which seem to have little to do with Tanjong Katong and with Singapore, are borrowed from an age-old Malay pantun or poem, they seem to want to invoke an unexplained longing for the places that are named.

Tanjong Katong

Di Tanjong Katong.

Singapore’s obsession with its recent past has allowed an amnesia for the time when Singapore’s place was in the Malay world to set in; a time when singing of three peaks of Daik (the line “Gunung Daik bercabang tiga” translates into “Mount Daik has three peaks”) might not have sounded odd at all. The distinctive summit of Daik is a most and recognisable of features on Pulau Lingga, an island that is thought of by some as the Malay world’s motherland1. Lingga is spoken of as a heartland of the Malay culture and language and it is on Lingga, where Malay is spoken in one of its purest forms.

Gunung Daik bercabang tiga.

Pulau Lingga took its place in the old Johor empire of the 16th to 19th centuries as an outpost the sultans could find a retreat in being located at the southern reaches of the widely spread sultanate. Positioned along an ancient maritime trade route to Palembang and Jambi, principal centres in the days of Srivijaya, and there are suggestions that it may have already come to prominence well before it served as a Johor outpost.  Paul Michel Munoz, in his 2006 book “Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula”, opines that the island kingdom identified by Marco Polo as “Malaiur” in accounts of his return voyage to Europe could quite possibly have been Lingga – based on estimates provided of distances travelled [Malaiur is a name that was also associated with a Malay kingdom centred around Jambi in Sumatra, which was at one time also part of the Srivijaya empire].

Pulau Lingga also took its place as the seat of Johor’s royal court on two occasions; in 1618, when the capital was moved there as the Acehnese threatened – only for the capital to be sacked by the Portuguese in 1625. Old Johor’s last sultan, also moved to Lingga in 1787, in an attempt to isolate his court from the Bugis (the increasing influence exerted by the Bugis meant that they were effectively running the sultanate from its capital in the Riau). The turning point for Lingga came with the Johor Sultanate’s breakup, a point at which the Dutch and the British were extending their influence. Singapore, in which old Johor could trace its roots to once again prospered when the British East India Company set up its trading post while Lingga was left to the remnants of a sultanate that had lost its clout.

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore

Lingga (Lingen) in relation to Singapore (Pulo Panjang) in an 18th century Hydrographic Chart seen in the National Archives of Singapore’s online site. (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/maps_building_plans/record-details/755f2349-a18d-11e6-9af5-0050568939ad).

The advances of the modern world has not made it much easier to get to Lingga and the group of islands around it that takes its name. The islands, now also part of the Lingga Regency within the Riau Islands province, are served by ferry services from Batam or Bintan. Even with the fast ferry, it involves a four-hour journey. This I had the chance to find out for myself when I made the same journey to attend the four-day Festival Gunung Daik, at the kind invitation of the Lingga Regency. With invitations extended to groups outside of Indonesia for the first time, the festival, which was held from 19 to 22 November, attracted an invasion of several hundreds.

On the road to Dabo on Pulau Singkep.

Dabo, on the more populated island of Pulau Singkep, was best equipped to absorb this influx. A 45-minute road journey from Singkep’s northern maritime gateway at Jago, Dabo wears the look of an town which has left its best days behind. It was indeed the case. The town grew out of the riches the extraction of Singkep’s sizeable deposits of tin had provided, until some two decades ago when the last of the mines closed. The extraction of a deposit, found in the darkened interiors of the narrow and windowless structures that now dot Dabo’s urban landscape, seems to be a new but less lucrative gold. The dark spaces mimic the caves in which swiftlets nest and the nests, which the birds make with deposits of their saliva and nesting material, are much valued by the Chinese for their purported medicinal properties.

A disused mining pool that scars Pulau Singkep’s landscape.

The sleepy town’s main draw, at least for the Singaporeans I was with, was an old coffeeshop named Bintang Timur. Time seems to have stood completely still in this Chinese owned coffee shop and the Eastern Star is very much reminiscent of the kopitiams of the Singapore of decades past. If not for the lack of time, it would quite easy for me to waste a morning away over a cup or two of the kopitiam’s strong aromatic brew, made just as it was in the coffeeshops of old Singapore.

Time stands still at the Kedai Kopi Bintang Timur.

The town has culinary offerings that may also delight the Singaporean. Fried kway teow, seemingly prepared exclusively by Chinese men with well weathered faces from roadside pushcarts, is a local favourite. So is laske (or laksa), prepared and served in a manner that will explain the many ways a dish of laksa is served across the region.In Dabo, its base is a noodle made from coils of sago starch. The dish is served fried or as we are used to in Singapore, with a delicious spicy gravy poured over.

A char kway teow seller in Dabo.

In the evenings, a more substantial meal can be obtained from the town’s ikan bakar or grilled fish stalls, which are probably the town’s real treat. In addition to having fresh catch from the sea grilled over a fire, there also is the opportunity to savour it served in the more sweet than sour version of asam pedas gravy popular in these parts.

A popular ikan bakar stall.

The guidebooks point to Dabo’s religious buildings as its tourist sights. The town’s mosque is impressive, as is a large Chinese temple. The temple, the Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna, and a large building in the vicinity in which the local Chinese association is housed, suggests that there is a substantial immigrant Chinese community in Dabo. Some in the community apparently have ties with Singapore. As with much of the Nanyang, the community’s forefathers arrived as part of the diaspora of southern Chinese to the region in the 19th century. In Dabo’s case the tin mines provided work. Today the Chinese run many of the local businesses. Beside being involved in the birds’ nest trade, there also are a number of  food and beverage outlets and sundry shops owned by the Chinese. Chinese vendors can also be found in the town’s pair of markets. The markets, one for the sale of fish and the other for vegetables are both worth a look at.

Klenteng Cetiya Dharma Ratna.

A vegetable seller at Dabo’s Vegetable Market.

Chinese labourers working at the Singkep Tin Company eating a meal (photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures via Wikipedia Commons). Many Chinese came over to Singkep to work in the tin mines.

The townsfolk’s favourite spots lie further afield. These include a waterfall, several beaches, a hot spring bath, and an oddity of an attraction in the form of an awkwardly positioned cannon. The artillery piece, the meriam tegak, is found at the edge of a beach southeast of Dabo. Buried with only its upwardly aligned muzzle exposed, the locals offer several explanations for the odd alignment. One thing that the differing accounts agree on is that the contributing factor for the cannon’s position is the wrath of a woman!

Meriam Tegak.

The cannon is close to Dabo’s favourite beach, Pantai Batu Berdaun. A popular spot for swimming and a picnic, the beach is named after a rock on which a tree is perched – the “leafy rock” or “batu berdaun“. A house with a curious collection of animals in its compound near the rock was however the centre of attention. It turned out that the house was some kind of animal shelter. The animals, all of which were abandoned, had been taken in and cared for by the house’s kind owner.

Pantai Batu Berdaun.

An animal shelter near Pantai Batu Berdaun.

The waterfall and the hot spring bath will take a little more effort in getting to. The 3km long unmetalled road to the spring bath provides more than a bumpy ride. The path it takes is interesting as it is line with the large waterlogged scars that the extraction of tin has left on the landscape. The baths, which are especially popular with the local folk, seemed much less appealing in the tropical heat as compared to the cool waters found in the pools at the waterfall at Batu Ampar.

Batu Ampar Waterfalls.

The hot spring baths.

The less populated Pulau Lingga with its three projections does have a lot more mystery about it. Lingga, which lies on the Equator just north of Singkep, actually derives its name from the tallest and largest of the three high points. The projection, also named Daik, was thought in the old days to resemble a linggam – Sanskrit for phallus.

A view towards Lingga and its three pronged peak of Mount Daik from Jago on Pulau Singkep.

Penarik near Daik.

Among Lingga’s main attractions is the Resun Falls – the largest waterfall in the Province of the Riau Islands. There are also several  sites that will provide some understanding of Lingga’s colourful past. One, the Museum Linggam Cahaya, has an interesting collection of artefacts. Some show the external links the island had, and a sense of the position it held. Pottery on display, recovered from the depths, include pieces that are thought to date to Song dynasty China. The museum’s most noticeable and popular exhibit is however from a more modern event and is a skeleton of a curious and yet to be identified creature from the deep, named locally as a “Gajah Mina” or Sea Elephant. The bones are from one that was found on the shores of Lingga and one of two similar carcasses that washed up in the Riau Islands in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Museum Linggam Cahaya.

The island’s historical sites provide links to the Lingga of the last days of the Johor Empire and to the Lingga of the post Johor days when it was the seat of the Riau-Lingga sultanate. One is the ruins of Istana Damnah, a 19th century palace built in Daik by during the reign of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam II (1857-1883), which lies close to the museum. An adjacent site contains a 2002 interpretation of the palace and its main hall, the Balairung Seri. Left abandoned after the Dutch took positive control of Lingga in 1911 and with Riau-Lingga’s last sultan, Abdul Rahman II, having fled to Singapore, the original wooden palace was left to fall into ruin.

Ruins of Istana Damnah.

Another view of the site of Istana Damnah.

The replica Istana Damnah as seen from the replica Balairung Seri.

The site of the Lubuk Papan baths is also nearby. A bathing spot used by those in the palace, the baths were located at a bend in the Tanda River. Today, concrete sides and gazebos placed around it have altered the charm the baths would have had. A natural stretch does exist upstream and this may provide some sense of the attraction as a bathing spot that the entire bend may have had.

Finding peace upstream from the Lubuk Papan baths.

A former fort at Benteng Bukit Cening, and the graves of several of Lingga’s rulers, pre and post break-up are some of Daik’s other royal sites.  Old Johor’s last sultan, Mahmud Shah III, is buried at Daik’s Masjid Jami’ Sultan Lingga. The remains of his son, the half-brother of Hussein of Singapore and Johor and the Riau-Lingga’s sultanate’s first ruler, Abdul Rahman I, can be found on Bukit Cengkeh.

The concretised Lubuk Papan baths at Daik.


Getting there:

There are fast ferry services (daily I believe) from either Tanjung Punggur on Batam or Tanjung Pinang on Bintan to Jago in the north of Pulau Singkep and it typically involves a 4 hour journey. Jago in the north of Singkep is a 45 minute drive to its main town, Dabo.  There also are ferry services between Jago and Tanjung Buton on Pulau Lingga. Getting around seems quite challenging and recommendations range from hiring ojeks (motorcycle taxis) or renting motorcycles. It would be best to inquire locally.

For travel products such as ferry tickets, hotels booking and, local tours and transfers in the Riau (primarily Batam and Bintan), do visit Wow Getaways.  More information on the Riau Islands can be found at https://discover.wowgetaways.com/.

Jago, one of the maritime entry points into Pulau Singkep.


Note:

1 One who feels strongly about this is Ahmad Dahlan, Batam’s mayor from 2006 to 2016 and a student of Malay history. In his 2014 book “Sejarah Melayu”, he speaks of the move Sultan Mahmud Shah III’s court to Daik in 1787, even if it was in an effort to isolate himself, as a return to the the mother’s lap.


Lingga and Singkep in photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157690104466625
https://www.flickr.com/photos/47093227@N03/albums/72157689803316854


 





Blood and politics at the Cape of Stakes

28 05 2010

In writing a recent post relating to the news of the shift of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as in my recent wanderings around the Tanjong Pagar area, I was reminded me of two events in which the Tanjong Pagar area came can be said to have come under attack. The first, is a fourteenth, or perhaps fifteenth century tale from the Malay Annals, the Sejarah Melayu, a myth which has more recently been retold to our children as the story of how Redhill (Bukit Merah) got its name. The tale was perhaps better known previously as Singapura Dilanggar Todak, which was popularised by the Malay movie of the same name, made during the heydays of Malay cinema in the early 1960s, which was filmed on location at a beautiful coastal village in the north that Singapore has forgotten, one that I have my own fond memories of, Kampung Tanjung Irau. An record of this is provided by Salizah Mahmud in her tribute to her kampung.

Tanjong Pagar or the 'Cape of Stakes" is where one of the busiest posts in the world, the Port of Singapore, developed from., and laid the foundation for the many financial institutions in nearby Shenton Way.

The other attack was one that we are sure did happen, although advocates of opposition representation within the political system, were pinching themselves in disbelieve at what they had then witnessed. It was also one that shook the ruling party, and which took them a while to come to terms with. It was an event that was significant for its impact on the political landscape in Singapore, loosening the tight grip that the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) had on Singapore’s Parliament. That was then 1981, when for some 15 years, the PAP had absolute control of Parliament, holding every seat. With the appointment of the late Mr. C. V. Devan Nair, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Anson (Anson Constituency had occupied the southern part of Tanjong Pagar), to the Presidency of the Republic of Singapore, a by-election was called, in which, much to the astonishment of the PAP whose campaign was led by Mr. Goh Chok Tong, the opposition candidate, the late Mr. Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam from the Workers’ Party (WP), overturned a huge majority in favour of that the PAP had garnered during the 1980 General Elections, to win with 51.9% of the votes. Mr. Jeyaretnam or Jeya as he was referred to, retained his seat in the next General Elections in 1984, before being disqualified as an MP, being jailed and fined for making a false declaration in accounts of the WP. What Jeya did though, was significant enough, and it removed the fear that many in Singapore who harboured disaffection with the political system, had for voting for the opposition. This led the way for other opposition candidates to fare better in the elections that followed, with some managing to increase opposition representation, albeit small, in Parliament, and the event can be said to be the catalyst for the more open style of government that we see today.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam at his moment of triumph in Anson in October1981.

Back to the myth of the Singapura Dilanggar Todak, the story is one that involves an attack on Singapore’s inhabitants by todak, which are described, in the recent interpretations of the tale, as swordfish, jumping out of the water. A barricade of men, placed by the ruler, Paduka Sri Maharaja, did little to stem the tide, and resulted only in further loss of lives. Desperate to save the local population, Paduka Sri Maharaja and his advisers took the advice of a young boy who suggested erecting a barricade of banana stems. When the swordfish did attack again, they were caught in the stems allowing the ruler’s men to kill the fish. Feeling threatened by the boys genius, the advisers persuaded the ruler to kill the boy, spilling his blood, as our modern interpretations of the tale would have it, on a hill which we now call Bukit Merah or Redhill.

The building blocks of the stakes of today, a skyscraper, being laid in Tanjong Pagar.

The name Tanjong Pagar, translated into the Cape of Stakes, is thought by some circles to have originated from this myth, the stockade of banana stems being the “stakes” in the name. Some would have it though that it was the kelongs in the area was known to have that gave Tanjong pagar its name, in reference to the fishing stakes of the kelongs, with Munshi Abdullah recording that the first kelong in Singapore was set up around the corner at Tanjong Malang (which I believe is the area where Mount Palmer is). Whatever it was, the name is quite appropriate. Tanjong Pagar is indeed a cape of stakes today … it is now dominated by the stakes of modern Singapore – the skyscrapers that we see in the area today.

Modern "stakes" now dominate the Tanjong Pagar area.