Singapore’s forgotten first people

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“There are only descendants of the Orang Laut left in Singapore today,” said anthropologist Vivienne Wee, who has done extensive field research on indigenous communities in Singapore and the Riau Islands. “There is no more tribal context. The younger generations only have the memories of the older generations.”

That’s true for Asnida, who remembers seeing her late grandmother crush spices with a batu giling when she was just four. Today the same batu giling sits in her mother’s home as a prized family heirloom. She has memories of eating boiled belangkas (horseshoe crab) eggs – creamy with a texture and taste similar to salted egg yolk – and siput ranga, blanched with hot water poured into the shell, on her visits to Pulau Sudong.

She also recalls learning the Orang Laut dishes that are perceived to have health benefits. Asnida’s aunt, for example, would prepare a nourishing sea cucumber rice porridge to eat after she gave birth; while Firdaus’ late great-grandmother, a midwife, used to make a raw sea cucumber salad with buah cermai (Malay gooseberry), asam (tamarind), dried chilli, belacan and fried coconut.

“Orang Laut food is not just about survival but one of the tangible means of expressing our identity,” Asnida said. “Our dishes reflect the knowledge and experience of our people. For instance, the use of asam in asam pedas is not a coincidence. Asam has antibacterial properties, and its sweet and sour taste complements the flavour of fish, the Orang Laut’s main source of protein.”

To Mohamed Shahrom Bin Mohd Taha, the Orang Laut way of life hints at how we can live more sustainably, too. “Food is a gift from the sea. Respect the sea and don’t overfish,” said the history teacher, whose paternal grandparents were Orang Laut, from the Orang Biduanda Kallang and Bintan Penaung tribes. “Today we are very disconnected from our food chain. I don’t fish but I bring my kids on intertidal walks, and our holidays are spent at the sea.”

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