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The Assimilation of the Orang Suku Laut

"ORANG LAUT, literally men of the sea, or sea people. This is the most frequent name given by the Malays to the rude class of their own nation whose permanent dwelling is their boats, without any fixed habitation on shore". This is an article about my work as a consultant working on social cohesion and the challenges of resettlement, I have titled it ,'The Salt and Sweet Water of the Orang Suku Laut' for obviose reasons that will become apparent as you read further...

The Salt and Sweet Water of the Orang Suku Laut

ORANG LAUT, literally men of the sea, or sea people. This is the most frequent name given by the Malays to the rude class of their own nation whose permanent dwelling is their boats, without any fixed habitation on shore. They are also called rayat-laut, or abridged rayat; literally 'sea subjects, '... the phrase meaning the sea subjects of the kings of Malacca and Jehor. ... The native locality of this people, for it cannot well be called country, is the straits or narrow seas of the many islands between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula , towards the eastern end of the Straits of Malacca. (Crawford, 1783)

At the Tanah Merah ferry terminal in Singapore a small nondescript ferry departs four times a day for an Indonesian Island called Bintan. A 45 minute journey, 29 transitionally significant miles across the South China Sea. A political, cultural, social and fiscal transition from one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of modernity and civilisation, densely populated, a wealthy city state with a multicultural population of 5.3 million over 255 Sq Miles, where ‘1 in every 30 households is a millionaire’ (Wealth Intelligence Center, 2015) to an island once related, now separated through contemporary state boarders and national identities. The Island of Bintan in stark contrast, is a sparsely populated island, part of the Riau Archipelago Province located in the northern part of Indonesia, an island which once served as a trading post during the heyday of the spice trade between China and India. These days however, it is an island suffering from tensions between the centripetal forces fostering national integration and centrifugal ethnic forces which are tearing Indonesia apart (Kral, 2011). The inhabitants struggle with economic disparity, localised aspects of corruption, land dispute and the rights to sea ecology. Problems which are amplified by governmental ambitions for the Island’s precarious reinvention process, aiming to turn it in to an international tourist destination to complement Bali’s successes.

Once at the Bandar Bentan Telani (Bintan Ferry Terminal) a 4x4 vehicle and guide can be hired, driving north west overland to the district under Berakit jurisdiction then continue over dirt tracks and broken wooden bridges to a small coastal settlement in and amongst the mangroves called Panglong and it is here you will meet the ‘Orang Suku Laut’.

The Orang Suku Laut were up until recently a gathering of families that live on the sea – although they dislike the pejorative term ‘sea gypsies’ it can typify many of the groups characteristics although the term ‘peripatetic peoples’ is a more semantically neutral and fair description . The Orang Laut live, work and play at sea. They would give birth on their boats and arrange marriages directly related to maritime abilities. They would roam their region of the sea in sync with tide, seasons and the elements, working the sea bed and mangroves, (cultivating sea cucumbers and crustaceans) as farmers would the land. When the tide and time was right they would meet other Orang Laut clans either out at sea or in sacred mangrove clearings.

Since their sedentarization the Orang Laut have faced tension from local islanders who are wary of them, believing them to be darkly enchanted, dirty, ignorant, a drain on their resources and a threat to their way of life. Those that didn’t ostracise or mock them, exploited them. Loan-sharks visit daily, Chinese fishermen or dredgers damage their ecosystem and fish stocks, whilst the Orang Laut become divided through the introduction of religious affiliation as a result of an aggressive nation-building policy from the Indonesian government. The Orang Laut are poorly equipped for sedentary life. With no entrepreneurial grasp of economics or real opportunity to broaden and diversify what skills and knowledge they have, the community has begun to dissolve. As a result The Island foundation (TIF) a Singapore based NGO has stepped in.

This paper will explore the difference an NGO is making to the Orange Suku Laut in Panglong and in particular the challenges of an initiative to introduce a fresh (sweet) water system to the settlement. This paper is divided into three chapters titled, The People, The Power and The Project. All three chapters will touch on issues of acculturation whilst revealing key cultural challenges faced by the Orang Laut community. Chapter one ‘The People’ will explore the Orang Laut identity whilst chapter two ‘The Power’ will highlight aspects of structural and cultural violence by the Indonesian Government in their attempts to develop a modern and unified nation whilst also acknowledging localised problems regarding dual power dynamics between the ‘head-man’ and the government elected state official within the Orang Suku Laut community, as well as the effects competition for resources is having on the group and the religious aspects of political manipulation and bias. Finally Chapter three ‘The Project’ reflects on the results an intervention from an international NGO has had on the community.

The People

'The sea tribe people in this Malay area do not know any religion. They also do not know how to socialize, and do not have any kind of customs. They are extremely backward, very dirty [...] they smell like fish, their body is scaly [...] they are disgusting. They do not want to live in houses [...] they are born in their boats, eat, sleep, obey the call of nature in the boats [...] and do not have any feeling of shame. Where there is fish, there they go. Their everyday principle is only to eat and to drink. They always avoid mingling with us, the Malays, and they do not want to become too familiar with us. We, ourselves, are afraid just to approach them [...] they like to use magic powers against people, therefore we must be careful not to make any mistakes. Otherwise, their magic will get us. They can make us ill or we must follow them. This aboriginal lifestyle, whether willingly or not, has to vanish totally [...] if not, in the course of time we all shall become backward.' (Lenhart, 2001)

In 2010 The Island foundation NGO was founded in Singapore by a consortium of companies in Singapore and Indonesia with the intention to “work with coastal communities in the Riau Archipelago to help improve their income, health and education”. (The Island Foundation, 2013). The NGO focused their attentions on the coastal villages on the island of Bintan and in this case the small Orang Suku Laut village of Panglong. The NGO set out to promote projects that established a clear sense of ownership and economic development that fosters skill transfer and self-reliance. To do this authentically the NGO first needed to understand the local perception of ‘self’ and engage with past and present issues of identity and other social dynamics.

On Bintan the Orang Suku Laut are viewed with suspicion, curiosity and fear. As the quote above by a Malay school teacher ( 1989 ) suggests, locals believe them backward, human-‘like’, capable of black magic, able to converse with animals and they are the subject of many a myth of abduction and piracy. They are seen at best, as ‘Customary Strangers’ as Berland and Rao suggest, strangers or wonders, who are not perceived or respected as "owners of soil" - a negative stereotyping that has led to the perception that the Orang Laut are strange, free-moving peoples engaged in an extractive economy with no sense of responsibility to the environment, others or the state. (Berland and Rao, 2004).

The Orang Laut were not always seen as mysterious outcasts. For generations, the sea and coastal places have been the life and living spaces of the Orang Suku Laut and they claim ownership to these territories based upon customary laws. (CHEONG, 2014) In his account published 1856, John Crawford explains that the sea peoples of the Southern Melaka Straits had played an important role in the rise and fall of trading states in the region for centuries, if not millennia. By the eighteenth century, however, they were to become a group, easily overwhelmed by both Europeans and Southeast Asians who surpassed them in power on the seas and movement over it. This was the period from which the Orang Laut would never recover. They were to become a 'rude class', a marginalised group which was to become an object of government scorn and anthropological enquiry (Crawford 1856)

“They had already faded from their former glory to become, in the words of John Crawford, the 'rude people' who formerly were 'sea subjects of the kings of Malacca and Jehor” (Crawford 1856)

It wasn’t until the early to mid-twentieth century when the nation building of Indonesia took hold after the country’s independence in 1945 that the Orang Suku Laut became vulnerable to structural and cultural pressures of nationhood. With Malaysia gaining independence in 1957 from the British and Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, nation boundaries were drawn and the process of nation building began in earnest. The territories of the Orang Suku Laut were divided and ethnic groups like the ‘sea people’ were deemed as the backward aspects of Indonesian society which were a source of embarrassment to a modern and progressive state. So here began a process of sedentarization, a process which Lenhart explains further, “ sedentarization was seen as the first step to release them from the misery of nomadism, or a way of life which is thought to be suspect, uncivilized, and insufficient and a hindrance for nation building and economic development. Their integration into the wider society is intended to imply the continuous merging of their culture and way of life into that of the mainstream culture”. (Lenhart, 2001)

Sedentarization had a huge impact on the Orang Suku Laut. As the different clans settled throughout Indonesia a growing tension developed between the non- Orang Suku Laut and the Orang Suku Laut. Issues of identity, authenticity and belonging developed. The sea people were perceived as a threat to the majority’s identity, in their shared sense of belonging, communicated through ‘cultural amplifiers’ such as seamanship, stories, songs, food and especially realistic and fantasized mental images of their history – symbols and signs that are a source of pride. (Volkan, 2009) A process of distancing took place. The ‘Indonesian’ locals began to idealize one group (their own) and denigrate the other (The Orang Laut) “painting them white and black. In this way, the black emotions of disgust and repugnance filth are used to keep the ‘Other’ at a psychological and sociological distance”. (Dala, 2009) The members of the ‘us’ group began projecting unwanted aspects of themselves into the ‘them’ group’s identity. (Dala, 2009) Stranger anxiety developed promoting dangerous negative stereotyping and generalisation. The relatively current collective trauma of independence serves as a bonding agent for the majority and casts the Orang Suku Laut as ‘suitable targets for externalization’ (Volkan, 1998) Compounded by historic narratives of the Orang Suku Lauts’ fall from grace, piracy and their imagined supernatural powers, the committee finds itself marginalised, feared and a victim of cultural and structural violence.

The Orang Suku Laut in Panglong on Bintan Island continues to struggle with acculturation, finding it difficult to compete for resources, social status and feeling themselves slowly pushed to transition from sampans (traditional boat) to sapao (traditional timber accommodation on stilts) to modest modernised cement housing blocks provided by the government. This is a municipal transition strategy that is consciously and effectively eroding their ethnic identity and reinforcing a nationalised agenda of modernisation, ethical and religious conformity.

The Power

The Island Foundation (TIF) developed a strategy based on education and economic improvements which was strengthened by a growing understanding of the complex and fluid nature of identity within the village community; a village that still wrestles with the distressing factors of acculturation. Before projects could begin to germinate, the fundamentals of local participation, ownership and a value attribution process associated with the work, had to be established. The dynamics of social power within the community had to be continually monitored whilst acknowledging the disruptive potential of an additional member (i.e. an international NGO) within the power structure. Identifying systems within which the Orang Laut share and process information were important to establish. Plus high and low power group members had to be identified (Inesi and Neale, 2007) and a working trust gained, before any project could realistically be developed. The dynamics of power were and still are particularly complicated in Panglong village as there are multiple seats of power. The Head Man is the unofficial head of the village but a governmentally elected representative is the official person in charge. Religious leaders and the landowner have powerful positions of influence and standing. Village characters have political and economic agendas to acknowledge.

French and Raven propose five factors of social power which are a useful set of criteria to help unpack the situation in Panglong, the factors are described as reward, power, coercive power, expert power, legitimate power and reference power (Shafritz, Ott and Jang, 2015).

‘Reward power’ is the ability to reward others. Within the village context this would suggest that the Chinese traders that bought the land, the government official and religious leaders are the most powerful. The Orang Laut rely heavily on the Chinese traders to buy their fish and trade for essentials like fuel, sugar and flour, whereas the government official provides access to civic essentials, on condition that they have an official ID card or passport. In the 1960s all ethnic groups like the Orang Suku Laut had to choose a religion in order to receive citizenship and obtain an ID card which allows access to medical, financial and educational support. The choices available were Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. At the time the Orang Suku Laut chose Christianity mainly due to practical reasons of diet and accommodation. The Orang Suku Laut ate a lot of pork and hunted wild pig in the mangroves, which were at the time an essential aspect of their subsistence lifestyle. It is also forbidden to live on a boat according to Islamic law.

“Malays believed that their success in getting the Orang Laut to build their houses on land could be correlated with a greater chance of Islamizing them”. (CHEONG, 2014, p39)

Many of the villagers are converting to Islam due mainly to the fact that this was the practical way to receive housing material, an education and governmental assistance in an Islam centric nation.

“Indonesian government sees the cultural refinement – in this case the Islamization – of the Orang Laut as necessary for nation building to be successful”. (CHEONG, 2014)

Coercive Power is the ability to punish others and within the village this would suggest that the government officer symbolises the coercive power. This however depends on your interpretation of punishment. The government can incarcerate, fine or reprimand but punishment in an Orang Suku Laut context is often administered socially and group exclusion can be the highest form of punishment.

Expert Power, as defined by French and Raven as “having expertise desired by others”. (Shafritz, Ott and Jang, 2015). This would suggest that the Head Man (Pak. Bone Fasius Boncet) holds the expert power in the village due to his unrivalled understanding of the seamanship, marine biology, the seasonal advantages and the spirit world (which manifests itself as a gift of healing and a familiarity with ancestral spirits from the sea kingdoms). Although the title of Head Man is not hereditary Pak (Sir) Bone Fasius Boncet’s youngest son has been earmarked to succeed his father due to his inherited ‘gifts’ and a rather modern facet of power which was his ability to attain a high school diploma and speak English.

Legitimate Power is as French and Raven put it “the conferral of power by a legitimate outside source” (Shafritz, Ott and Jang, 2015). This would indicate the government officer and the religious leaders as holding most of the legitimate power. However if you consider an International NGO as a legitimate outside source then there is potential to unwittingly unbalance this power alliance which is an important factor to be aware of and guard against.

And lastly Reference Power which is created through the respect by others according to French and Raven. For the majority of the village today this power lies in the hands of Pak Bone and his family however, the power held by the religious leadership supported by the government officer has developed considerably and has served to divide the village’s loyalty and trust.

The NGO understood the importance of identifying and understanding the elements to an Orang Suku Laut social structure especially during this difficult period of their ethnic assimilation to a homogenised way of life on land - a traumatic upheaval of ethnicity, identity, social values and access to the sea.

Pre-project and post-power analysis, the NGO had identified a troubling concern. Rather than power, it was the trust dynamic or more to the point the distrust dynamic. Trust is, as Inesi and Neale suggest, the key component to information sharing and without some semblance of trust the projects could suffer. Fortunately as the initial small pilot projects revealed in their development, a little bit of suspicion is a good thing, which is substantiated in reference to Inesi and Neale’s research explaining:

“A completely trusting environment may not be best for information processing. Instead a combination of trust and suspicion within groups has been shown to be beneficial to group interaction …..The suspicious speaker systematically processes more of the information in the environment”. (Inesi and Neale, 2007)

The Project

Following the TIF’s initial start-up projects geared towards the economic development of traditional craft and skills, the foundation began to develop trust and recognition within the community as a whole. The modest foundations of acceptance were further enhanced by the introduction of several educational units strategically placed and accessible to all, taught by a selected team of Indonesian teachers and supported and managed by local salaried teams around the island. TIF had begun to embed a scene of home-grown values and authenticity to their work. TIF built on these initial successful interventions by introducing an island wide football league managed and developed locally, helping to unity the younger generations through sport and positive social interaction. The league created economic and social spin-off opportunities, developing coaching skills, social status within communities (Bourdieu, 1985) and developing neglected plots of land as social spaces giving nondescript settlements an enhanced sense of place, identity and orientation.

Three years ago the foundation proposed its most ambitious project which was to focus exclusively on the Orang Suku Laut village of Panglong. The plan was to address the issues of sweet water - clean drinking water. The villagers were surviving with just one well in the centre of the village and there were serious concerns over its hygiene and sustainability. TIF planned to provide a fresh water production system and plans were drawn-up in collaboration with the Head Man Pak Bone and the project was to be funded by an ambitious plan to auction a Swarovski crystal inlayed fishing net fabricated by women in the village. The foundation enrolled the services of an internationally renowned jewellery designer, and a curator who would work closely with the Orang Suku Lau and act as a communicative conduit between Swarovski Asia, The Island Foundation and The Singapore National Museum who agreed to host the auction event and provide space for a month long exhibition dedicated to the Orang Suku Laut in Panglong.

Almost immediately after the project had begun, issues of trust, power politics and favouritism began to surface within the village community. The Muslim leadership felt the Muslim part of the community had been excluded and questioned how the water would be shared out, who owned the water facility and who would manage it. Concerns were raised by the government official as to the apparent lack of constitutional consultation and involvement. Tensions developed over the sweet water resource and looked to worsen the underlying distrust between ethnic groups within the area.

In response to the recognition that development aid was contributing to the ethnic differences (Boulden and Kymlicka, 2015) the foundation re-evaluated their position within the community. Kenneth Bush developed a set of strategies (ReliefWeb, 2016) for avoiding or limiting these types of negative outcomes. These strategies centre on a Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA). In this case, packaged as ‘Social Reconstruction and Empowerment’. Bush has defined it as an Impact on: “quality of life; constructive social communication (e.g. those promoting tolerance, inclusiveness and participatory principles); displaced people; adequacy of health care and social services; incompatibility of interests; trust/distrust; inter-group hostility/dialogue; communications; transport; resettlement/ displacement; housing; education; nurturing a culture of peace”. (Austin et al., 2011)

However it was a very different kind of trauma that realigned the situation for the foundation - the catastrophic appearance of typhoid. The village was struck by the typhoid disease and sadly the fever accounted for a number of deaths in the village. TIF immediately reacted by implementing a village wide sanitary and cleaning programme, supplied bottled water, medical screening and medication. This had a massive impact on the community and past grievances and suspicions were put aside in favour of clean water and ensuring the protection of the community. Transparency and diplomacy became the key methods of an all-inclusive communication for the NGO and the project grew in strength.

The net was constructed by the ladies from the village managed by the Head Man’s wife Ibu Sakna, consisting of 14,500 crystals and took 2 years to weave. The net was publicly auctioned to wealthy capitalists in Singapore and was eventually secured by a Scottish business man and his wife who live in Edinburgh. The exhibition drew attention to the Orang Suku Laut’s situation and developed an interesting discourse between communities within the Singaporean public (many of whom ascended from an Orang Laut linage) and the Bintan community. The local politician has endorsed the project and an all-inclusive water management team of elected villagers is undergoing training and is heavily involved in communicating the project’s progress. The project is due to be completed in 2016


There are an estimated 10 million (Non Ogovernment Organisations) NGOs worldwide, the term non-governmental organisation was created in article 71 in the charter of the newly formed United Nations in 1945. Since then the NGO movement has grown rapidly. If NGOs were a country they would be the 5th largest economy in the world. (, 2015)

This paper explored the difference a small NGO is making to an Orang Suku Laut community in the process of sedentarization on Bintan, an island in the northern part of the Indonesian territory. A country deep in the throes of modernisation and an aggressive nation-building process of political, religious and cultural homogenisation.

The study was split into three sections titled The People, The Power and The Project, three chapters developed to examine the challenges faced by the Orang Suku Laut through the lens of an International intervention to provide educational facilities, economic developmental support and an ambitious fresh water fabrication project to supply the village with clean drinking water. The objective of this paper was to provide a practical and theoretical insight into structural challenges, pitfalls and potential within the ‘everyday’ dynamics of power, trust and systems of communication involved in the process for delivering humanitarian aid.

In the contemporary context of relentless globalisation the Orang Suku Laut and their struggles of assimilation seems inconsequential. We should however guard against complacency. Perhaps there is an ideological genesis to be found in these modest involvements; the DNA profile in miniature to answers of large scale issues of ethnic conflicts, terrorism, political violence and civil war.

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