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Firdaus on the Orang Laut

Updated: Feb 17


Collage of satellite image showing oil refinery on an island, and faded lines from old map showing how there were multiple small islands in the past, with drawings of fish, a person fishing in a boat, a crab and a tree on top
Collage of satellite image and 1930 British Admiralty sea chart, showing Pulau Semakau and Pulau Bukom

At last year's People in Crisis rally, Firdaus from Orang Laut SG shared about how indigenous history and knowledge should play a part in the green transition. Indeed, a recent report by Oil Change International and Indigenous Environmental Network found that more than 700 million metric tons of annual carbon emissions were prevented by indigenous resistance in the US and Canada. This speech also connects to our theme of "Return", and we have produced a simplified illustrated version, as well as the full speech and video below.

Three frames from top to bottom. Frame 1 shows a side view of a coastal area coloured in green with a few trees, a simple house, a figure sitting on a platform, and another figure on a boat by the shore. Text: “My name is Firdaus. My family was one of the Orang Laut communities, or people of the sea.” Frame 2 shows the same view coloured in brown, where the trees have been cut down and house demolished, with an excavator clearing the land. A boat with two figures and some boxes are on the water, leaving the island. Text: “They used to live on Pulau Semakau. In 1977, they were asked to leave the island.” Frame 3 shows the island coloured in grey, with many chimneys emitting thick smoke and industrial structures. Text: “Others lived on Pulau Bukom, which was also evacuated and enlarged to host Shell’s largest oil refinery”
One large frame with a figure in straw hat and brown clothes in a blue-grey boat on top, holding a fishing line that goes into the water. Under water, there is lots of life, with many fish, sea grasses, anemone, a crab, sea urchin, sea cucumber, hermit crab, and starfish. Text: “My grandparents would share stories about life on the island and their favourite fishing spots. They would only take what they needed, understanding the importance of living in harmony with nature.”
Four frames from top to bottom. Frame 1 shows a view of the sea in the background and HDB flats and greenery in the foreground, with text “Many of the Southern islanders relocated to Telok Blangah, and still go fishing together today.” Frame 2 shows a side view of the sea and a shore on the right, with a figure in a boat leaving shore with a fishing cage, under clear skies. Text: “Nowadays, they talk about the changing seascapes, a once-familiar space now feeling like a stranger.” Frame 3 shows the same view but it is now stormy and raining. The boat is back at the shore, and the figure stands in the boat with palms outstretched, facing another figure in brown on the shore with the same pose. Text: ”Sometimes, they would come back empty-handed from a day of fishing and foraging.” Frame 4 is a zoom-in view of Frame 1, showing that there is a port in the background with dark green cranes amongst many containers. One crane is loading containers onto a barge. Text: “Could it be due to the rapid development of our busy seaports, or the warming seas?”
One large frame with a figure in straw hat and brown clothes fishing in the sea. In the background is the shore with trees, two figures planting a seedline, two figures cycling, and two housing blocks with solar panels. On the right are three plates with ketam lemak (flower crab in gravy), sambal udang (prawns in sambal), and siput sedut lemak (chut chut in lemak). Text:”As an Orang Laut descendant, the one thing I would like to ask is for their concerns and voices to be heard – the indigenous people of Singapura whose livelihoods and culture are eroding as we speak. The future of Singapore shouldn’t only be climate-resilient, but one that allows every community to thrive, with a space to practice and continue our traditions.”


Transcript

Firdaus is a fourth-generation Orang Laut, whose ancestry can be traced to the Riau islands. In 2020, Firdaus started Orang Laut Singapore (@oranglautsg), an Instagram page dedicated to retelling stories of Pulau Semakau, one of Singapore’s Southern Islands, through photographs and stories based on his family's experience. He also works at an environmental non-profit and strives to bridge the gap between sustainability and island traditions.


Hello everyone, my name is Firdaus and I go by he/him pronouns. Today I am wearing a green shirt, taking this call in my room. My family has a special connection with the sea. They were the Orang Laut or people of the sea, and I am a fourth-generation descendant. My great grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles used to live on Pulau Semakau, and just FYI, my background photo is taken from the now-demolished jetty of Pulau Semakau. It is of my cousins swimming at sea. In 1977, my family was asked to leave Pulau Semakau, along with many Southern islanders from other islands who shared the same predicament. Distinctively, one of the neighbouring islands that were evacuated was Pulau Bukom. It was to make way for a petrochemical site that is still in existence today. But not many people know that Pulau Bukom of today is made up of four islands – Pulau Bukom Besar, Pulau Bukom Kechil, Pulau Ular and Pulau Busing.


I’ve always wondered what life was like on Pulau Bukom. My grandparents would share stories about the islands, their friends who used to live there, and the memories of their favourite lubuk ikan (or fishing spots). Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit the Southern Islands while I was growing up, particularly Pulau Semakau where my family was from. As you may already know, it is now Singapore’s only landfill. However, the landfill is not made up of only Pulau Semakau, but also a neighbouring island – Pulau Seking. An island that had many amazing stories which I hope people would know of. There were many of them from the Southern islands who relocated to Telok Blangah, a place that I grew up at. Telok Blangah was chosen because they wanted to be near the open waters, with the hopes of returning to the sea to practice their island traditions. I remember having a special connection with the Southern islanders. It was a connection like no other – the understanding of similar hardships and a sense of displacement, bonded us together. When living in mainland Singapore, the one thing that identified them was their Jiwa Laut (or spirit of the sea). They would talk about their days on the island, their pantang-larangs (or beliefs), and tips on fishing. We would sometimes even head out to sea together. A stretch of beach at West Coast Park was where their sampan used to be located. Today, most of the beach has been developed into water breakers, and only a small part was retained for the islanders and their boats.

I am speaking here today on behalf of my uncles and aunties who are worried about losing what’s left of their culture, and the Southern islanders who still rely on fishing as a way of life, sustenance and income – because it's one of the few things that they know of. Through my conversations with them, they talked about the changing seascapes – the idea of a space that was once familiar, feeling like a stranger. Sometimes, they would come back empty-handed from a day of fishing and foraging. Tak ada rezeki, (or today there’s no fortune) they would say. Could it be due to the rapid developments of our busy seaports delivering your Taobao orders, or could it be the warming seas that are impacting the seascapes and their livelihoods? I am still finding the courage to tell them the answers as to why the sea is vastly different as compared to just 20-30 years ago. As an Orang Laut descendant, the one thing I would like to ask is for their concerns and voices to be heard – the indigenous people of Singapura whose livelihoods and culture are eroding as we speak. I personally believe that there are many things that can be learned from indigenous cultures, with knowledge and values about sustainability ingrained in their way of life. I believe indigenous history and knowledge still retains value today and should be introduced in our education system. Lastly, I hope that the future of Singapore shouldn’t only be climate-resilient but one that allows every community to thrive, with a space to practice and continue our traditions. Thank you.