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Meet the Singapore family reviving Orang Laut cuisine and putting the community’s history in the spotlight

Ask the average Singaporean about Pulau Semakau and chances are, they would only know it as a landfill.

But little do they know the island’s history as once home to a thriving community of Orang Laut – also known as people of the sea – who were among Singapore’s earliest inhabitants. The Orang Laut were made up of various seafaring groups and tribes, including those who lived on Pulau Semakau. In the quest for urban progress, many of their villages and settlements were demolished and the communities were moved into public housing flats in the mainland.

32-year-old Firdaus Sani’s grandparents, Ninah Gap and the late Rani Bin Omar, were among those who were asked to evacuate the island. Their home in Pulau Semakau was an attap house that faced a long wooden jetty symbolic of their lives on their island – it was the bridge where they docked their sampans, the vessels of their livelihoods, and from where islanders used to jump into the water.

Famously, Rani made headlines when he chose to leave his designated flat in Telok Blangah to return to Pulau Semakau, the only home he had ever known. He was joined by his wife two years later and the couple would sleep on boats, on the jetty or in their former home. The two were officially the last residents to leave the island.

Spirit of the sea

Today, their jiwa laut, meaning spirit of the sea, lives on in their descendants. In fear of this rich heritage being forgotten, Firdaus has taken to honour his community’s traditions and old ways of life via Orang Laut SG.

What began as an Instagram account that relayed narratives has since expanded into an educational project that spans dinners combined with storytelling sessions and online food deliveries. Below, we speak to Firdaus about life in Pulau Semakau and the culinary traditions that characterise Orang Laut cuisine.

Firdaus Sani’s grandparents, Rani Omar and Ninah Gap in a newspaper cutting from 1991

What drove you to start Orang Laut Singapore?
The idea started over dinner conversations with my mother, Mdm Nooraini, who is native-born of Pulau Semakau. She would cook our favourite dishes like Asam Pedas and Sotong Hitam for family dinners. While we ate, she would share the most interesting stories of how seafood was caught and prepared on the island. A bowl of sotong hitam carried a deeper meaning to her.

Although Orang Laut only started in 2020 during the circuit breaker, it’s an idea that I’ve had for many years. The silver lining of the pandemic is that it gave us a sense of focus to evaluate what really matters to us. For me, it was making sure that my family’s stories are heard, and to reclaim the narrative that Pulau Semakau is more than just a landfill – I would say that it is a land filled with love.

Tell us a little about your family’s history on the island.
Starting with my great-grandmother, she used to be a midwife along with her two sisters who relied on local plants and seafood as a medicinal source.

Before marrying my grandfather (Rani bin Omar) and moving to Pulau Semakau, my grandmother (Ninah Bte Gap) was originally from Pulau Seking, a neighbouring island in the South of Singapore. At Semakau, my grandparents had 10 children, one of which is my mother, Mdm Nooraini.

Ninah Gap, Firdaus Sani’s nenek, or grandmother.

In 1974, the islanders of Semakau received an evacuation notice. They were asked to leave the island. In 1977, my family left for mainland Singapore and resettled in a one-room HDB flat at Telok Blangah. As people who had no monetary debts, the cheapest option seems the most appealing even when it means living in a small apartment among 12 people.

A short while later, my grandfather who had lived on the island almost all his life decided that the city’s air wasn’t for him. He decided to move back to the island when it was not fully restricted. My grandmother followed him soon after. Until the early ’90s, they would spend many nights at Semakau – sleeping on the jetty, in their sampan and sometimes in the abandoned clinic on Pulau Semakau.

My grandparents survived by fishing for food and cooking on a kerosene stove, and taking on odd jobs like breaking down old tongkangs (tugboats) that paid them about $30-$50 per boat. On some days, they would go back to Telok Blangah to visit their children and grandchildren, most of the time bearing little treasures like fish they’d catch from the reefs of Semakau.

What was the way of life on Pulau Semakau?
In the words of my aunt, Mdm Rohaini, Pulau Semakau was ‘heaven’. While it didn’t have much infrastructure, life was easier. She has also said that “one cannot be lazy if you want to survive the island”. The sea was their main source of sustenance.

As the two eldest daughters in the family, my aunt and mother had to take on the role of the matriarch when my grandparents were at sea. In the day, they would send their younger siblings to school, gather firewood, fish for food and cook over an open fire. In the wee hours of the night and in their sampan, they would help my grandfather fish for squids using a kerosene lamp. These were sold to Chinese merchants in mainland Singapore in the morning.

The way of life among the islanders was closely knitted. The island embodied the spirit of gotong-royong. During celebratory occasions such as weddings, the islanders would gather to collectively make desserts such Kueh Bakar made of coconut and gula Melaka. For Hari Raya, I was also told that the islanders would share one baking mould that would be passed over from one house to another, to make Kueh Bahulu.

At its peak, Pulau Semakau was home to about 600 individuals who shared hardships and special moments together.

Swimming in the waters of Pulau Semakau.

What are some of the fondest memories for your aunts and grandmother?
When I was young, I had the opportunity to visit Pulau Semakau up until the mid ’90s. My grandparents used to bring my cousins and I to the southern islands like Pulau Semakau and Pulau Hantu. We were taught the ways of an Orang Laut such as the different techniques of catching seafood, how to train your eye when scouring for siputs (sea snails), and cooking traditional recipes.

There was a jetty that stood on the edge of Semakau. It was built purposefully long for the islanders to easily ferry themselves, and for teachers and nurses to go onto the island. My cousins and I would jump into the water from the jetty and occasionally fish on it. It was where our grandparents would also put up a make-shift tent out of tarpaulin sheet and ropes, a temporary shelter for us to sleep at night over the starry skies.

My grandparents were some of the most generous people I’ve known. Growing up, I’ve witnessed them sharing a few slices of bread and Asam Pedas with other fishermen who happened to be fishing near our boat. We grew up having so little but to me, they had so much to give like their skills and knowledge, respect for the sea, and their unconditional love.

Share with us some interesting historical anecdotes of life in Pulau Semakau.
Before Singapore’s independence, Pulau Semakau didn’t have much infrastructure. When Singapore separated from Malaysia, the ruling party installed a long jetty to give easier access to islanders and visitors like nurses and teachers who came from mainland Singapore. Along with the jetty, a post office, a community centre and a police station were installed on the island.

My late grandfather, who was a proud supporter of Lee Kuan Yew, mentioned that he used to carry the late Prime Minister on his shoulders to board him ashore during his visit to Pulau Semakau. Like my grandfather, he won the hearts of many islanders and promised a seemingly better future.

What characterises the food of the Orang Laut?
Our food is fundamentally based on vegetables that can be found on the island and the seafood that was collected or caught. There is a strong emphasis on the type of seafood, its freshness, and the pairing of the seafood with our recipes.

An example is the Asam Pedas Ikan, a dish that can be found in many Malay households. However, we were taught that not all fish can be cooked with this dish. The best types of fish to be paired with Asam Pedas are Ikan Kachi, Ikan Lebam and Ikan Sembilang, to name a few.

At the island, to appreciate the freshness of the fish, it is simply gutted, cleaned and grilled over an open fire, to be paired with air asam. This is a chili concoction that is best served with a plate of hot rice. During the low tides, the sea offers a different kind of opportunity. For hours, we would collect siput ranga on the seabeds. The siput ranga will be boiled with seawater and eaten rightly after. The bonus is the orange roe that sometimes comes intact.

More importantly, the food that we eat today reflects life on the island and our livelihoods. From the methods of fishing, trapping crabs or using gill nets to catch prawns, it is an important narrative that shapes our cuisine.

How does it differ to what we know as Malay food?
There are some unique dishes that are different in our cooking such as the use of Ikan Buntal or the pufferfish. Having been taught the techniques of de-poisoning a pufferfish by our great grandparents, this dish is a delicacy to our family and can only be prepared with the right circumstances.

To get a pufferfish, one is to lay a bubu trap at a specific location in the deep sea where the fish is likely to be found. Once caught, it would be cleaned, de-poisoned and boiled – its innards, liver, and gills included, with almost every part used. The preparation for the dish would take about a day. In this recipe, simple ingredients like dried chilli, garlic, onions, lemongrass and kangkong are used to bring about the flavours that pair greatly with the tenderness of the pufferfish.

As people from the Orang Laut community, we do identify ourselves as Malays and have considered our food under the category of Malay cuisine. The difference in our food would be the fundamental use and reliance on vegetables and seafood, the different methods of cooking, the spices used in its recipes, and the absence of meat in our cuisine.

Tell us about some of the signature dishes of the Orang Laut, as well as what you’re serving to the public.
Some of the dishes that we love are the Sotong Hitam, Gulai Nenas and Ketam Lemak.

With the Sotong Hitam, a specific type of squid is used. More accurately, Sotong Nos is used, long, big and a little boxy in shape, it produces a high amount of squid ink that is an important ingredient for the dish. With every type of squid, it may produce a different kind of taste in the dish.

The Gulai Nenas is a staple in our household. It is usually paired with a type of fish like the Ikan Kembong or Ikan Dingkis. Pineapples are used to bring about sweetness and tanginess to the spicy prawn broth. It is best paired with hot rice and sambal belacan.

The Ketam Lemak is also a family favourite. Only flower crabs are suited for this dish, best paired with jasmine rice and sambal belacan. On the island, crabs are usually caught in bubu traps during low tides. The sweetness of the crab can also be appreciated more with a simple boil and a dipped in Air Asam – a light chilli concoction.

How have people responded to your food so far?
Thankfully, the responses have been great. There is an acknowledgement of traditional cuisine, its recipes and the stories that come along with it. Through mostly word of mouth, our food has been shared among Singaporeans and people of other nationalities who are keen to hear our story. We are extremely grateful that food can be a vehicle for us to tell a little more about our island, Pulau Semakau.

What is your vision for Orang Laut Singapore?
In the long run, I hope to be able to shape part of Singapore’s history from the perspective of the indigenous Orang Laut community through food and digital storytelling. Eventually, I also hope to be able to have a physical space to represent Orang Laut cuisine and share the stories of its people.

With oral interviews, I am working towards publishing a book that aims to capture the life of an Orang Laut: our fishing methodologies, beliefs, livelihoods and reliance on the sea for sustenance. Through this, I hope that our stories can be narrated not for us, but by us – with the help of a fourth-generation Orang Laut descendant.

This story was first published on Prestige Singapore.