A Sea Change in Singapore’s Indigenous Historiography

Just Food: How Singaporeans Are Nourishing Visions of a Better World

Firdaus Sani wants people to remember something that they might not even know yet. The driving force behind the archival project and food delivery business, Orang Laut, Firdaus is a fourth-generation descendant from Pulau Semakau—one of the 64 islands surrounding the “main” island of Singapore. As members of the indigenous Orang Laut community, displaced by Singapore’s settler colonial thrust into modernisation, his family’s history is marked by loss: their island, to the south of Singapore island, now serves as the country’s landfill. And yet, this is also a history marked by survival—after all, four generations later, they are still here. It is this very fact of survival—of his family lineage, of their traditions and their foodways—that Firdaus honours and carries on through Orang Laut. “I tell my mum, you know, people love your food, people love your history,” he says. “She was once this shy woman living with her aunt at Telok Blangah when she was first shifted to Singapore. Where there’s opportunities for me to share my history at talks, I’ll bring my mum and she’ll be able to share her piece of history as well. People are receptive to it and I can see her getting more confident and owning her narrative. This is the kind of thing I want to do: giving my family back their livelihood in some way, so they can share their story—and making sure that they are confident in it as well.”

Memories of Singapore indigenous community, the Orang Laut, through storytelling and cooking

Orang Laut does two main things: it’s an archival project which uses family photographs and oral histories—mainly recordings of Firdaus’s mother and aunt, Madam Nooraini Rani and Madam Rohani Rani, recounting their way of life on Pulau Semakau—to piece together and make visible a people’s history of the island. At the same time, Orang Laut also sells food made by Firdaus’s family: sotong hitam, asam pedas, ketam lemak—fished and foraged seafood and vegetables; the things which his family ate when they lived on Pulau Semakau, and which they continued to make after the government relocated them onto Singapore island, continuing their connection with their island’s foodways. But the use of these ephemeral media to tell the story of Pulau Semakau isn’t just by coincidence or by artistic choice—it’s born of necessity. “The sad thing is that we have lost everything,” explains Firdaus. “A lot of the time people ask me, do you guys have any artifacts you brought from the island? And we don’t have a lot. Many things that we had, we actually gave to our relatives in the Riau Islands.” Left with few concrete traces of their history on Pulau Semakau—the kind of evidence that a history of victors tends to look for as proof—Firdaus’s family must instead write their history by recreating memories of the past, through storytelling and cooking. 

“This is the kind of thing I want to do: giving my family back their livelihood in some way, so they can share their story—and making sure that they are confident in it as well.”

By using food alongside other materials like photographs and oral histories, Orang Laut intervenes in the silence of social studies textbooks and state narratives, and creates its own sovereign history and presence—knowable to anyone who will take the time to listen, read, and taste. “The thing is, there’s no representation, so in a way, we don’t exist,” Firdaus tells me. “The struggle for me is to make sure that we are able to create a narrative of our own, and I feel that I’m starting from scratch.” The Orang Laut community is so often and easily forgotten by heritage institutions, let alone by the uninitiated Singaporean public. When left to their own devices, recorders of official history seem ready to allow the existence of the Orang Laut community to disappear into a broader narrative about different Malay ethnic groups who arrived and settled in Singapore as they traversed through Nusantara. In Firdaus’s view, the narrative of the Orang Laut communities is only a footnote in Singapore’s context because of the perception that they have fully assimilated themselves into today’s wider Malay community. “But the Orang Laut and islander community—not just from Pulau Semakau, but Orang Laut Kallang, Selat and Seleter, and other offshore islands like Pulau Sekijang and Ubin—has always been in the region which we now call Singapore, on their islands, until they were relocated.”

Firdaus knows that memory is important, and that food, photographs, and oral histories can make things suddenly become part of a reader, eater, or listener’s memory where it wasn’t before. Orang Laut’s Instagram is filled with beautiful, intimate pictures of children swimming; men and women fishing on sampans; family gatherings around food. But Firdaus is deliberate about naming every single person in the pictures: this is Nenek Ninah, his grandmother. That is Cik Ahmad, his uncle. And he explains the details of what they did and what they cooked, whether it was making a snack of lato (seagrapes) mixed with grated coconut to thank the young Malay men who came from the mainland to teach, or cooking asam pedas with not just tamarind but also belimbing buluh, a relative of star fruit that added a different kind of sourness to the broth. On the island and in Firdaus’s family, they identified and continue to identify squid with more than one name: more than just sotong, there are comek, torak, nos, and sotong batu, all of different shapes and sizes and tastes. These distinctions from the mainland extend to other parts of their language, like the word “ngepong” meaning “to fish”, and the word “auk” for “yes”. The particularities of how Firdaus’s family lived on Pulau Semakau are infinite, each detail revealing more about their way of life and their ancestry.

“Left with little concrete trace of their history on Pulau Semakau… Firdaus’s family must instead write their history by recreating memories of the past, through storytelling and cooking.”

The hope is that when more people are able to help remember Pulau Semakau, it can become part of Singaporean memory at large. The burden of remembering a rich and storied Indigenous history, heavy with the weight of so many lives lived, should not be carried by the Orang Laut community alone. “I worry for our future generations, like my nieces and my nephews, because I don’t think they would fully understand our livelihood back then—because they didn’t experience it,” Firdaus says. “There were about 700 individuals on Pulau Semakau. I once asked my aunt, how did the island look like? And she drew a diagram, pointing out all the different houses and the names of the people who actually lived there.” But as resilient—and amazing—as these memories are, and though they have been preserved over generations through tireless work, they are at risk of slipping through the cracks of Singapore’s history if we fail to recognise their existence, and their importance. As settlers, especially, it is our distinct duty to share in bearing the weight of these Indigenous memories, even though they’re not our own. Memories and knowledge, after all, don’t just lie dormant—they have the potential to change us, to help us reconsider reality, to alter the choices we make. When more of us can share in mourning what was lost, when enough of us remember that Singapore is Orang Laut land (and sea), what kind of seismic shifts might follow?

Using sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, Firdaus’s project makes it not only possible for Singaporeans to fulfill one of our many obligations to the Orang Laut community—it also makes it pleasurable. Orang Laut invites us to feel, to somewhat know, and perhaps begin to hold, a history that exists beyond us. It asks us to imagine what life in Singapore was like for Indigenous people, before Singapore was turned into Singapore through the workings of the British empire and Chinese settler colonialism; before the islands were turned into mere outer territories, fodder for the ravenous machinations of a capitalist nation-state obsessed with growth. To be able to remember the happiness of before is a thing both wonderful and sad. But by teaching us about the before, by making space for a communal history of Pulau Semakau to exist in Singapore’s cultural memory where it might otherwise be forgotten, Firdaus just may be creating possibilities in the now and the future for the descendants of Pulau Semakau’s original inhabitants. “I want to be able to capture this for the other people who also lived there once. It’s so easy to just ignore history and say, I’m Singaporean now, I’m basically working day to day, and trying to make a living in Singapore. That’s the kind of vision that people usually have for the Southern Islands. But I’m hoping that moving forward, we could tell a bigger story, not only for my family, but as an island and community as well.”

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