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The Orang Laut

The Orang Laut of Natuna Island 

By Judistira GARNAZ



Land settlement is the predicate and the original place of the Orang Laut who are known as Mesuku people. They live in Nation and the surrounding of Amanitas Island of which fishing as the main sources of income to fulfil their daily needs.


The number of population of the orange lot in Riau archipelago is 2,710 persons or about 626 households which are spread out in 24 land settlement areas of 19 villages on 9 sub-districts. The Muse people consist of 619 persons (120 households) is one of the groups of the sea-nomad who has not been developed by the Government through Ministry of Social Affairs. The Muse living place seems to change from Sap (temporary shelter) to floating house within a complex of dwellings due to environmental factor and adaptation to the surrounding.


The appearance of their belief systems to be a syncretism of Sangyo (Chinese belief), Islam, Christianity together with their port Malay principle. The long period of the land settlement has not change their original characteristics as long as their opportunity of fishing is still good and maritime cultural transformation to the young generation smoothly. 



1 Paper for International Seminar on Bajau Communities Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPIO, Jakarta, 22-25 November 1993.


2 Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, Padjadjaran University, Bandung- Indonesia.



1.  Orang Laut of Natuna Island


The Orang Laut in Natuna Island and those in its surrounding islands are known to the inhabitants of these islands by the name Orang Mesuku, whilst they call themselves as Orang Laut instead, making a distinction from orang pulau (Malays and Chinese). Besides, roaming in the sea as their, they also have on-land settlements, such as on the islands of Mengkait, Temiang, and several smaller islands in their surroundings within the western territory of Indonesia, in the South China Sea, or on 2° 55’ North Latitude and 106° 8’ East Longitude (Figure 1). The settlements, according to the Governmental, administrative territory, are in Kiabu village, sub-district, Siantan, regency of Riau Islands. The area is about 1,2 square kilometres with the height of 0 – 15 meters above the sea level. They have built there on land settlements in the northern parts of the islands, protected against the north wind, and the beaches of which are of white sand compared to those of the southern parts which are covered by granite. The northern part of Mengkait Island is protected by Temiang Island. (Located between 106° 7’ - 106° 10’ East Longitudes and 2° 23’ - 2° 51’ North Latitudes).

     The Orang Laut in the Regency of Riau Island amount to 626 households in number or 2,710 people, spreading in 24 on-land settlements, 19 villages and 9 sub-districts (Office of the Social  Affairas Department of Riau, 1993). Since 1982 the government, by means of the Department of Social Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, has been conducting development, namely a number of efforts in respect to enhancing their standard of living as a whole by having determined definite settlements. Those who have been resettled amount to 840 people of 209 family chiefs, located in 5 island settlements, in Sei Buluh Village (Singkep Sub-District), penoba Village (Lingga Sub-District), Karas Village (Galang Sub-District), and Kelong Village (Bintan Timur). This means that thete still 1,870 people or 417 households who have not been resettled (Office of the Dept. Social Affairs of Riau, 1993).

     The number of Orang Laut in the on-land settlements of Mengkait Island, in accordance with the record of Department of Social Affairs of Riau amount to 44 household or 194 people, and those of Temiang Island 60 households or 276 people. In the meantime, in accordance with 1992 observation there were 619 Mesuku people of 120 households, in Air Sena there were 500 people and in Pemutus Island there amounted to 45 people or 15 households (Zen, 1992). In Siantan Sub- District there are four on-land settlements of Orang Laut, namely besides in the Islands of Mengkait and Temiang there are also in the islands of Nyamuk (76 people) and Air Asuk (25 people). At the beginning the 0n-land settlements were temporary in nature, during the West Wind monsoon, which gradually tended to settle definitely for the purpose of domicile at a place deemed suitable while waiting an opportunity to fish along the coast and in the sea. During this monsoon,the waves are invariably so great that they are required to wait on land. A humble shelter was built,called sapao,of which the walls made of tree bark,and with a thatch roof of nipah leaves (Nypa fruticans),or remained to live abroad perahu kajang as their dwelling.

      The Orang Laut in Riau Islands may be classified into detail of their number which have on-land settlements in each sub-district,as inscribed on Table 1 below.


Table 1. Orang Laut in Riau Islands,1993.
Sub-District Village Location Family chief People
Binatn Timur Kelong Air Klubi       15    69
Toi Island        9    32
Malen Island        4    11
Sengkuang        5    21
Mapur Mapur        20    30
Bintan Utara Berakit Beratit        31   155
Galang Sembulang Sembulang         5    20
Rempang Cate Rempang Island         7    25
Karas Nanga Island        25    151
Mundur West West
Tng Batu Tng Batu        34    142
Tng Tng
Batu Town Batu Town        35    187
Sebele Sebele        59    276
Senayang Senayang Kentar Island        25    135
Hantu Island         8     33
Mamut Metutu/Air
Batu Island         38    190
Lingga Kelumu Kelumu         35    146
Duara Duara         32    133
Mentuda Mentuda         30    126
Penuba Lipan Island         70    307
Singkep Sei Buluh Sei Buluh         50    144
Siantan Kiabu Mengkait Island         44    194
Temiang Island         16     82
Nyamuk Pemutus Island         19     76
Air Asuk Air Asuk         10     25
Total        626    2,710

Source: Compiled from the data of the Office of the Department of Social Affairs of the Regency/the Second Level Region of Riau,1993.


      The roaming region of Orang Laut covers smaller islands in the second level Region of Riau Isles and Batam Administrative Town, or they are within the fold of Riau-Lingga Isles. The name orang they also use to indicate a community, such as Orang Kelong of isles of Toi and Air Klubi; Orang Senayang or Orang Kentar; Orang Kiabu or Orang Mengkait (Figure 2). The community may further be divided into kinships, each of which takes after their place of dwelling to refer to their community. Although they have their own name of community,the Malay people still use various other names, such as Orang Sampan, Orang Laut, Mantng and Orang Barok for all Orang Laut (Sembiring, 1993). In Batam area there are also Orang Laut, and they who have settle and lived there, their number amounts to 163 people in Batam Timur Sub-District (the isles of Malang, Toidak and Kubung), and the still roaming oner are 79 people; in Batam Barat Sub-District (the isle of Padi and Boyan) there are 61 family chiefs; in Belakang Padang Sub-District (the isle of Belakang Padang, Kasu, Pemping) there are 55 family chiefs or 391 people (Sembiring, 1993).

      The areas of Natuna and Anambas Isles have been of new comers’ destinations as resourse to earn living since time immemorial. In the end of 19th century the people from Kuantan and Kampar ares (now Riau mainland) came to the area of Tujuh Isle (Natuna and Anambas Isles) to be workers in coconut plantation (Adarrechtbundel XX, 1920, No. 31). Later, many of them who did not return to their original places, settling in the area of Afdeling Poelo Toedjoch, namely the North and South Natuna Isle and Anambas Isles, which were then populated by 22,000 people, comprising Malay community, Orang Kuantan, Kamper and Rokan; Chinese who were 2,000 people in number and several hundred of Orang Laut (Staatsblad 1911, No. 599). Orang Laut in the group of Siantan Isle had been settled on the coasts, separated from the Malay and Chinese settlements, their number was estimated about 300 people, including those who still dwelled aboard sampan. Previously, according to Kroesen’s record (1871) Orang Laut Anambas, Natuna and Tambelan Island scattered to Serasan Isle (160 people), Subi Isle (120 people), Bunguran Isle (350 people), Siantan Isle (220 people), and those who were in Jemaja isle 100 people in number.

        The first arrival of Orang Mesuku to Mengkait Isle was pioneer by a small group of Orang Laut, they were about 10-15 people making use of gubang sampan (the local calls it is a kajang sampan) headed by a barin. Besides, gubang as a name for a sampan there is also a gubang song, namely singing and receiting with two or more persons singing quatrains at a wedding ceremony and other adat parties.

       The number of the population of Mengkait Isle is now 619 people (120 cottages), whilest in 1964 there were 170 people with 40 cottages (Zen, 1992). Population growth besides caused by birth it was also due to local migration of Orang Mesuku from the isles of Pemutus and Air Sena, added by the people from Flores, East Nusa tenggara (East Lesser Sunda Islands) and Chinese from their surroundings of other places. The region of Riau Isles is an important resourse of oil in Indonesia, together with Mengkait isle as the center of fishing of a national private enterprise, has attracted the arrival of a new inhabitants. The existence of fishing centre has also made use of the skills of Orang Laut there as fishermen, such that various kinds of new social institutions have entered into their daily life. Traditional fishing is supplied with easy movement by means of diesel-motor, or their small boats are carried out by a fishing boat to off-shore seas. Those small boats are then disembarked to catch fish, whilest the fishing boat acts as a storage of the fish yielded   by Orang Laut.

      Orang Mesuku has a Mongloid characteristic which is more salient, although in several groups there prevail Negroid characteristics. Both characteristics are probably more emphasized by cross marriage between the Chinese and Malay with Flores people who have come as evangelists. The Flores people, besides spreading the skills of catching fish, work in the garden in Teming Isle. At the present time, cross marriage between Malay people and Orang Mesuku have scarcely taken place, mainly due to the difference of rightful and prohibited things. And Orang Mesuku are considered as animistic and less likable due to probably having black magic.


2. Livelihood in the Sea and on the Land


Besides the vast sea waters, the swallow sea waters or the sea waters near the coast where mangrove grows, estuaries and coral reefs are the area of Orang Laut’s livelihood to catch fish and other sea biota. At night they earn the sea products by nyuluh, by means of a kerosene lamp with pump fixed at the bow end of the sampan to light a catch target in the shallow sea waters. The important tools which are most preferred to for catching fish and sea biota are tempuling and serampang, which have long cylindrical handless made of wood; they also conduct ngedik or angling and nyala or fishing with a net, although they do not like the both ways verymuch.

         Most of the sea products are sold, such as kerapu (Cromileptes altivelis), kerapu batu (Epinephelus tautavina), kakap putin (Lates calcarifer), kakap merah (Lutganus altifrontalis), tripang (Holothuria scabra), lola (Trochus niloticus) and several kinds of oyster, such tiram bakau(Plicatuia plicata) and tiram martil (Malleus malleus). Besides, fishing and catching other sea biota some of Orang Mesuku are good carpenters to build their sampan and cottages, raise goats and ducks, plant clove trees and coconut. The characteristic of breeding and planting have indicatedthat they tend to be a settled on-land community, although the work of fishing by making use of the sea they still carryout. The boat they use to dwell and catch the fish is called jongkong or jong, possibly this name has come from Chinese jung;whereas a motorized boat is called pompong(in 1990 there were three pompongs belonging to Orang Mesku there). The pompong owners had made the Siantan Sub-District become the activity centre of Orang Mesuku,besides there was also afleet of pompongs belonging to a private fishing enterprise(Zen 1992). The cooperation between a private enterprise and traditional Mesuku fishermen as user of jongkong is to pull a number of jongkongs to the sea of exclusive economic zone, then they catch fish according to their tradition. The yield of catching fish is purchased every ten days, on average got 250,000.00 rupiahs. Two telecommunication radios which could communicate Orang Mesuku in the sea with the surrounding sub-district towns had been able to make their activities run smoothly. Party and ceremony at night in Mengkait isle were merrily held with electrical light produced by two generators belonging to two owners of Orang Mesuku. Information from outside entered there through television-set and radio receivers.

         The way of keeping fish alive has been imitated from that of a private enterprise which temporarily tends various kinds of fish that have fairly high price. Waiting for buyers,the fishes are tended in pens along the coast,namely kerapu (Epinepheluus tauvina), kakap putih (Lates calcarifer) and kakap merah (Lutganus altifrontalis), and fishes knon by local names as ketipas, ketipung, and kertang (Zen, 1992).

         The live stock raise there are duck, chicken and goat (although goats are let live freely such that they often feed on the plants of the inhabitants). Tilling the soil is much conducted by Orang Mesuku, Flores, Batak and Chinese. Many of the Chinese who have got married with the group members of Orang Mesuku, in 1964 the only owned by a Chinese got married with a Mesuku women; the marriage was apparently encouraged also by the Chinese belief in Siantan that if one gets married to a Mesuk women he will obtain great hoki (luck) (Zen, 1992). The solidarity of Orang Mesuku community has also supported such luck, and outsidrs who get married with the women of their community will be considered as part of them, therefore they are more convince to do business with the members of the new group. It is no wonder that if there were many Chinese traders and shop owners who had got married with the local women; their descendants later took control of economic activities, particularly shop ownership in the isle of Mengkait, Pemutus and Matak (Air Sena Village). Besides they have been successful in business, the Chinese descendants are also skillful in working in garden and as fishermen. Inter sub-district transportation in the Tujuh island is fairly smooth by interinsular pompong motor.


3.  Pattern of Settlement: from Sampan Kajang to Sapao and Floating House


Orang Laut usually dwell aboard a boat as lng as the sea condition enables them to catch fish and other sea biota. It is only later they build cottages on the coast if the weather is bad as the result of he monsoon. Before Orang Mesuku determine the location of on-land settlement deem suitable, they remain aboard a boat as their dwelling,which is considerate to make them move ease to follow the flow cycle of the types of fish and other sea biota. The size of the dwelling boat is on average 6-7,50 meter in length and 1,70 metre in breadth that they build themselves. The roof of that boat is made of kajang as shelter against the rain and glare of the sun, therefore their boat is also called sampan kajang by the members of local community. Kajang is woven of throny pandanus (mengkuang and jakas). Besides it is used as a shelter, kajang is also used as important material for wall, cottage roof, kitchen utencils and mat. A group of settlement aboard sampans usually consists of 10-15 sampans kajang, aboard each sampan is billeted by a nucleus family, the member of this settlement are close kinship. A girl who has come of age usually sleeps aboard another sampan os sampan tunda (sloop in tow) close by the sampan kajang of her paents. Thus the smallest family unit of Orang Laut is still on boat, or a nucleus family.

          They will move in group led by a batin, each consist of about 10 boats, aboard each of which is occupied by nucleus family. Besides, each sampan kajang will have one or more sampan kajang of which the size is smaller. Orang Laut will decide to select a place for their sampans to be at anchor, then they build a temporary cottage (sapao) on the coast due to the monsoon calculation and repairing sampans which have been used continuously for three to four months. Sapao is a temporary cottage made of kayu bakau (Tizuphora), having a floor of bamboo and a roof and a roof of kajang. The boat is required to dry on the coast to prevent it from decaying. Therefore, as a matter of fact, Orang Laut do not always roam in the sea, periodically they are required to settle on land, although it is temporary in nature. The need of a temporary settlement for them has apparently arouse the government’s attention and a private enterprise, participation to build an alternative model of settlement in the form of rumah apung (a floating house), or houses on the coast and on land in the effort of changing them to settle on land permanently.

           Afloating house is called rumah beranyur, which is one of the endeavours to settle Orang Laut in the water region of Batam and Bintan island (in 1991 in Gara Bay near Batam Isle and sea waters of Batam Municipality). Sampan kajang is tied one side of the house, ever ready to move and go fishing. In the North Wind monsson they will operate in the sea waters of Mantang and Mapur Islands, during the East Wind monsoon they are in the waters of the islands of Batam, Galang and Karas, and in the West Wind monsoon they operate in the sea waters of the islands of Bintan and Kelong. In these settlements there gether several groups of Orang Laut, namely Orang Barok (Dabo Singket Island), Orang Mantang (Mapur Island), Orang Tambus (Lingga Islands), Orang Galang (Galang Islands), Orang Sekanak (Loban Islands), and Orang Mesuku have come the islands of Tibelan, Serasan and Siantan (Zen,1992).


4.  Belief and Pantang Larang (taboo): Norms and Social Control


Orang Laut belief that at a certain time the soul of the ancestor will pay a visit,therefore each year a feast day is commemorated by lighting candles which is conducted three days after a Chinese feast day (Imlek, Hsin nien). They also clean the graves of their parents and relatives. The graves are watered with limon eater. Then, offerings are provided and candles are lit on the graves. After the candles have been extinguished, then they visit each other, to relatives, with the group.

         The mysterious world and magical powers that accompany it cannot be separated in the life of man. Natural phenomena are connected with the possibility of having taken place a violation against pantang-larang. The violation is enterpreted as the cause of the occurance of a disaster which can shake fast and hard the life of the whole community since they have lost their tranquility. In order to restore harmony it is held a ceremony of tolak bala (denial of disaster), namely to deny all disasters that will take place and have taken place. Batin is assisted by pawing to lead the ceremony, here he acts as the owner of magical powers.

        A man who is suffering from sickness is considered to have been disturbed by an evil spirit, a witch doctor comes to cure by means of reading incantations in the effort to move the evil spirit to a wooden puppet which has been provided. The ritual is called buang saker (saker means disturbance) or to cast out evil spirit as a disturbance. Each visitor is obligated to comply with pantang larang, for a man who comes in the day light may not put his jacket on and without any adornment, and for a woman she must wear batik cloth up to her breast and wearing no adornment, either. In the meantime a visitor who comes at night may wear casual cloths. Now-a-days, modern medical treatment which is conducted by a medical doctor or a health officer is usually conducted as the same with traditional cure by a witch doctor.

       Penawar is one of the incantations which besides healing is also preventive in nature; usually such incantations at the beginning and the end have essence and a touch of Islamic teachings, for example (Zen,1992), jampi penawar of the rib-ache, as follows: 




Tak nama Bapak

La nama Mak 

Kutikam pagi 

Kucabut pagi

Kutikam dengki 

Kucabut dengki 

Pulang kau dengki    

Kau tau kau penyakit Rusuk

Kau baliklah ke kayu are,

Di bukit rindang 

Kau naik tawa  

Kau turun bise  

Bukan aku punya Penawa 

Allah punya penawa 

Tawa Allah

Tawa Mohammad 

Berkat Allah

Ya Rasulullah

In the Name of Allah

Tak Father’s name                                  

La Mother’s name

I stab in the morning

I draw in the morning

I stab jealously

I draw jealously

go home you jealously

you know you are a rib-ache

you do return to a bunyan tree

on the shady hill

you promote cure

you lessen poison

not I who have cure

Allah has cure

the cure of Allah

the cure of Mohammad

the blessing of Allah

Ya Rasulullah.

Besides, it contains Islamic teachings as indicated at the inception of a prayer, including incantation by saying bismillah (in the Name of Allah) and ended in the power of Allah together with His divine messenger, Mohammad; there appears the load of Malay culture. Incantation amongst several groups of Orang Asli in mainland Malaysian Peninsula, for example, they who have a salient Negroid characteristic and Mongoloid, also contains Malay culture. The first couplet of the love potion incantation of Orang Kanaq of Johor Baru region, Malaysia, having stated that they have also come home the Riau Isles, as the important source of Malay culture, appears with fairly strong influence of the said culture (Garna, 1987), such as follows:

Buluh perindu 

Buluh perindang 

Selasih tumbuh atas baru

Duduk rindu  

Berdiri bimbang 

Kur semangat! 

Kau cinta!

Berahikan aku!

Bamboo of love charm

Bamboo of shade

Selasih grows on the rock

Sitting just longing

Standing ever doubt

Less spirit!

Love me you!

Arouse my love potion!



The burial of corpse is still conducted in the manner as their ancestors did. Before their house a bonfire is made, having been burning as long as three days before the corpse is buried and three days after the corpse has been buried, in order that soul does not return. The corpse is bathed with sea water and fresh water, one after another, then it is continued by showering water mixed with soil, limon water and sandal wood. The corpse is later out in clothes in which he or she used to be during his or her life, then wrapped in white cloth and tied in five knots. The mouth of the corpse is filled with small change, customarily the coins of fifty rupiahs, which is prepared for the guard of the gate of heaven. Apart from that it is supplied into the grave various kinds of things most preferred during his or her life, such as fishing spear and adornment. The grave is also customarily given a shelter, the size of which is 2x2 square metres and 1.5 metres high, with a roof at night it is even furnished with lamp lighting for the purpose of those family members alive who are still longing for him or her may sleep in this hut. Twice a day during the first one hundred days an offering is sent to the grave; after this period has passed the shelter may be pulled down or abandones there, such that it falls into decay in the coast weather.

According to their account, once in Mangkait Island, batin was a group leader under datuk kaya appointed hereditarily by the Sultan of Riau-Lingga. After the sultanate power had faded away, to the upper relation changed and batin became firm as the central figure of Mesuku leadership who must maintain pantang-larang to be complied with by their community members. What has been determine by batin is kata putus (decision), which means everything determined by batin must be obeyed or abided by every member of Mesuku group. It is batin that incurs sanction against the violator of pangtang-larang, customarily by means of tolak-bala, namely the ritual to deny disaster that may strike a Mesuku member.

In order to maintain pantang-larang, the relation between the Mesuku members and cosmos, and many kinds of prediction of life in the future based on the past and present, they have pawing. He is considered as a man who is most able to predict the future, including to tame natural phenomena by means of the magical powers, such as to ask for ans stop rain, and to determine the location of sapao.

According to their account, once in Mangkait Island, batin was a group leader under datuk kaya appointed hereditarily by the Sultan of Riau-Lingga. After the sultanate power had faded away, to the upper relation changed and batin became firm as the central figure of Mesuku leadership who must maintain pantang-larang to be complied with by their community members. What has been determine by batin is kata putus (decision), which means everything determined by batin must be obeyed or abided by every member of Mesuku group. It is batin that incurs sanction against the violator of pangtang-larang, customarily by means of tolak-bala, namely the ritual to deny disaster that may strike a Mesuku member.

In order to maintain pantang-larang, the relation between the Mesuku members and cosmos, and many kinds of prediction of life in the future based on the past and present, they have pawing. He is considered as a man who is most able to predict the future, including to tame natural phenomena by means of the magical powers, such as to ask for ans stop rain, and to determine the location of sapao.


5.  Family Life


The opinion about the existence or position of a child in a family is different from one another, depending on his or her heredity, whether he or she is indigenious or of Chinese descendant. For indigenious Mesuku a girl and a boy considerate as productive labour in earning their living, with an emphasis that a boy is expected to roam in the sea to catch fish  whereas a girl is expected to help and to take care of her parents if they are sickly. Having many many children is considered normal, since baby morality is high Taboos, norms, maxims, quatrains, and other tales are told by mothers to their children. While playing the children also try to catch fish by means of several kinds of tools, swimming,diving and boating. Those children who have been to school just do the same thing. on the way home from school, for example, the pupils go to the beach as their arena of playing-and-training. One of the important tools is a jong, a boat for play made of kayu kumbar (Zalacca wallichiana) which floats easily in the water. The bigger children are used to playing with jongkong, a slim boat which is often used to store fish, to gather fuel wood on smaller islands in the surrounding of their settlement.

         Elementary school was first introduced in 1964, which for the children of 9-10 years old is now considered as the way they spend their time before they go to the sea. In 1977 elementary school buildings were build based on the presidential instruction to replace the old buildings in that condition. Until 1992, the number of the whole pupils was 105, and only six of them who had been sat in the six grade, or indicating 57% of them quit before graduation (Zen, 1992).

        Orang Mesuku of Chinese descendants differ the position of a child in the family based on sex. They make a difference of the existence of a boy and a girl. A son is as internal child and a daughter is considered as an external child. It means that a son will remain in the family, although he has got married. Therefore, a son will remain to live in the nucleus family of origin. In the meantime, a daughter as an external child after she has got married will leave her original family for her husband’s family, instead.



1. The name of Orang Laut Mesuku is first based on their roaming areas in the sea, deemed as having had no relation between one group and another. In their processes with their adaptive capability the external influence of culture and technology has become parts which have been integrated, such that their group names they preferred those names of their on-land settlements.

2. Orang Mesuku are a group of Orang Laut who have a double pattern of settlement in accordance with the time in their life activities and earning a living,which although each pattern has its own function, it cannot be separated from their social system. ~


3.       The system of belief which is characterized by cultural elements of the migration era of the proto-Malay is connected with the new influences of sanjiao (Chinese belief), Islam, Protestant Christianity and Catholic. The influences appear very syncretic; therefore, in general, the external influences have brought about of less change to their life system, but they have furnished the ritual parts in their social system.

4.       The number of the drop-out Mesuku children at the elementary school level which is relatively high indicates that the schooling expectation is only to know how to read and write Latin letters and not to acquire skills of earning a living in their life in the sea. The tradition of fishing is perpetuated by making maximum use of technology of the private fishery enterprise, the existence of which is also made use of the traditional skills of fishing of Orang Laut.




 Adatrechtbundel XX, (1920), No.31.


Judistira Garna (1989). Pembauran dan Batas-batas Interaksi Antar Etnik. Bandung:Fakultas pascasarjana, Unpad.


Kantor Departemen Sosial R.I. (1993). Pembinaan Suku Lauut di Kabupaten Riau.


Mohammad Zen. (1992). Pofil Pendidikan Orang Laut sebagai Rujukan Operasionalisasi Pendidikan Nasional. Dissertation draft. Bandung; IKIP Bandung.


Staatsblad. (1911) No.599.


Sudarman Sembring; (1993). ‘Orang Laut di Wilayah Kepulauan Riau-Lingga’. In: Koentjaraningrat, et-al., Masyarakat Terasing di Indonesia. Jakarta: Gramedia.



Orang Suku Laut Ethnicity and Acculturation


A malay teacher;

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 custom. They are extremely backward, very dirty, they smell like fish, their body is scally, they are disgusting. They do not want to live in house, they are born in their boats, eat ,sleep, obey the call of nature in the boats and do not have any feelings of shame. Where there is fish, then they go. Their everyday principle is only to eat and to drink. They always avoid mingling 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 mistake. Oherwise, 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. In the course of time we all shall become backward.

The Suku Laut communities live in small groups. Social life is based on tribal views and they  are always suspicious of everything coming from outside, especially if it is intended to influence their traditional value system. However, the development of the Suku Laut people has to be implement to renew their way of life, to drive forward the wheels of development of this region more quickly, so that they become equal with the already progressive Indonesian society, without intending to abolish their customs and traditions as long as these are not contradictory to current ordinances.

These statements by a Malay teacher  and a local official are  typical for many land dwellers with whom I talked during field research on the Orang Suku Laut or Sea Tribe people for the Riau archipelago,a region  that is part  of the republic of Indenasia. However, it belongs culturally and historically to the Malay world, and is now undergoing a process of rapid modernisation. The Orang Suku Laut have always been confronted with prejudices and pejorapive behaviour by out siders. Contact between them and members of the Malay majority and other ethnic groups is still the exception rather than the rule. On the other hand, economic, ecological and demographic changes in this rapidly modernizing region and government projects of directed change conducted among the Orang Suku Laut have proven to be the main factors pushing for change in their present way of life. Today, their sendentarization is regarded as the first step to release them from the misery of  nomadism, or a way of life which is thought to be suspect, uncivilized, 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.

This paper deals with Orang Suku Laut ethnicity  with regard  to interethnic contact and acculturation. It takes up and extends and my account of the Orang Suku Laut’s concepts of the ethnic self with reference to basic and situational identities. The emphasis is to examine non-Orang Suku Laut views, such as those of  the Malays  and other population segments of the Riau islands as well as of government official, on the Suku Laut people in the context of a Malay region and a modernizing postcolonial state.

In first section, I start by drawing an outline of the region and its history. Then, I give an overview of the striking characteristics of the Orang Suku Laut as a unique ethnic group. In the second section, I discuss acculturative effects on the Orang Suku Laut’s present way of life. I sum up the economic, ecological and demographic changes accompanying the modernization process in the Riau islands that affect of the natural habitat and the social environment of the Orang Suku Laut. In this section, I will also describe government programs of directed change conducted among them. In the third section, I look at the Orang Suku Laut  through the eyes of the Malays, government officials and other population segments in the region. I compare these opinion with those of the Orang Suku Laut on themselves. The non-Orang Suku Laut’s views  on the Orang Suku Laut are specifically shaped by the majority’ self-other ascription of malay versus Orang Suku Laut identity which on the part of the Malays, some time still refer to a social reality during the time of the past Malay kingdom. These views continue to influence current interethnic contact and have proven to be a hindrance to the Orang Suku Laut’s acculturation. The government programs of directed change conducted among the Orang Suku Laut, and indeed the whole Indonesian policy regarding ethnic minorities, are molded by a view of such peoples as backward, isolated tribal. This policy, an integral part of Indonesian development nation-building policies, aims at the integration of these peoples into the wider Indonesian society. Thus, that is also why the accompanying measures are hastening the pace of the Orang Suku Laut’s acculturation. Because Malays and officials differ with regard to the cultural, spatial and temporal orientations that frame their particular perspectives, the discussion of Orang Suku Laut ethnicity in the views of those in daily contact with them and those who intend to integrate them into wider Indonesian society considers the various realities constructed by them and imposed on a presumed being of the Orang Suku Laut in region and the state.

In the forth section, I discuss reaction of a Orang Suku Laut community that has recently been resettled in a village built by the government. Against this background, I examine some striking problems of resettlement, not only for the purpose of the gaining a deeper understanding of the acculturation process experienced at present by the Suku Laut people,but also to examine measures to avoid interethnic conflicts.


The Region

 The Riau archipelago has a long history as highly conspicuous area because of the position as a “bottleneck for the movement of culture and trade” between India, Southeast Asia China. The migration of different ethnic people to this  malay region, and the national and international political as well as economic interest in this area have been enduring phenomenon since the time of former native maritime kingdoms and British and Dutch colonial powers up to the postcolonial area. The forces of globalisation that have evolved over the last centuries, and which today strongly affect the economic, political and cultural landscape of Indonesia, have also become increasingly tangible again in this region. The process of globalisation has given renewed relevance to the old, still unsolved problems of regionalism as well as of localism, and raises questions about the cultural affiliation of majorities and minorities.

        The Riau archipelago is located at the far northwestern Indonesian border. In 1950,this area became part of the republic of Indonesia,which had declared its independence five years before. Nowdays,the Riau archipelago is devided into two administrative units, the sub-district kabupaten Kepulauan Riau and the municipality  Batam,with its autonomous status as an area for industrial development. Kabupaten Kepulauan Riau and Kotamadya Batam are the part of the province of Riau.

       The population of the Riau archipelago consists of about 565,000 people(1990),with half of them living on the main islands of Bintan and Batam in the north. The rate of population growth in Kabupaten Kepulauan Riau now amount to 5.9 percent(1988-1992) and in Katamadya Batam to 13.6 percent(1983-1990) (Mari Pangestu 1991:82) These figures are excepted to increase again in the course of the coming decade due to an ongoing influx of migrant workers from all over Indonesia. All connection with the rapid economic development in this region (Mari Pangestu 1991:82-3). The population comprises various ethnic groups with different religious denominations, namely the Malay as the majority, followed by the Japanese, Baweanese, Minangkabau,Buton, Flores, Batak and other native Indonesians who profess Islam or Christianity as their religion. The Chinese (Teochiu, Hokkien, Hailam, Hakka, Cantonese and others) are mostly Buddhists. The aboriginal ethnic groups comprising the Orang Suku Laut in the Riau-Lingga area, the Orang Suku Hutan who are also called Orang Suku Dalam or Orang Suku Asli in Rempang, and the Orang Suku Akit and Orang Suku Kuala in Kundur from the minority groups. The majority of these aboriginal groups still follow animistic beliefs, although some have nominally become Muslims or Christians (Bappedadan Kantor Statistik Kabupaten Kepulauan Riau 1988:32). The location of the different groups of the population show a more or less clear ethnic differentiation accompanied by a distinct ethnic division of labor. These features are typical for most Southeast Asian states (Uhlig 1988:512). In Riau, the majority of the Indonesian ethnic groups live in rural areas and are for the greater part fishermen and horticulturists. The Chinese, for the most part, have settled in the towns or the hinterland and are engaged in local and regional trade. Higher positions in administration, the police force and military are mostly held by the Javanese.The lower positions are occupied by members of other Indonesian ethnic groups, but rarely by the Chinese. Members of the aboriginal groups do not play any role in the political and economic hierarchy(Wee 1988:198-209).

        Until the beginning of the 1970s, Riau was not only a periphral geographic region of Indonesian state territory with a subordinate political and administrative position, but also a rather neglected area in the context of the national economy. This situation has changed rapidly due to the subsequently forced national politics of economic development for Riau. The focus has been on the exploitation an industrial use of the rich natural resources of the islands and the sea (minerals, for example, oil, gas, bauxite, tin, and forest and marine products), the development of tourism, agro-base industries, manufacturing of the electrical and electronic products, food processing, ship repair and maintenance, textiles, warehousing and transportation. Economic development has been accompanied by the creation of an infrastructure that fits the industrial needs, an influx of  migrant, workers from other parts of Indonesia, and-because of a special conditions granted to foreigners-of foreign investments that bring a large amount of foreign capital into the region in edition to the unstable rupiah. Up to 1990, economic development activities were mainly concentrated on Batam, which in 1970 had become a designated area of industrial development and, some years later, a bonded area or duty-free zone. Since 1990, the whole Northern part of the archipelago has been included in economic development politics. At that time it became part of a regional economic community or Growth Triangle, with Riau/Indonesia, Johor/Malaysia and Singapore as partners. The aim of this Growth Triangle is to build up an economically integrated area with free movement of goods, services and people to make the whole area attractive as one investment location. On the part of Indonesia, the economic co-operation with Johor and Singapore in the long term is intended not only the whole area of the Riau islands,but the entire province of Riau(Mari Pangestu1991:75-115)

    Culturally and historically, the Riau archipelago has always belonged to the Malay world(alam Melayu) of genealogically related kingdom. The Region had already been a peripheral area of the Malacca-Johor sultanate ruled by a Malay dynasty who resided on the Malayan penisula (1400-1699), and subsequently became the centre of power of the Riau-Lingga sultanate governed by a coalition of Malay and buginese dynasties whose courts were seated in the Riau archipelago itself (1722-1911). The nobility of the Riau-Lingga sultanate constituted and ethnically segmented as well as politically and socially stratified society. It also assumed an important political role until the first decade of this century when the area came under the direct rule of the Dutch colonial government. However, more importantly, it represented a Malayan cultural continuity. Until today, the Malay majority of the population of the Riau islands is highly aware of its history and cultural heritage, which in the opinion of some is still represented by the successors of the Sultans. However, the features ascribed to Malayness (kemelayuan), a category of cultural affiliation that is basically associated with the adherence to Islam, the Malay language and the practice of Malay custom (Nagata 1974:335-7; 1982:98-100; Wee 1985:448-64), are to a certain degree variable. For some, Melayu is a rather strictly defined category with fixed subcatagories. It can be ascertained on a continuum between two poles of pure Malayness (Melayu murni) and impure Malayness (Melayu yang tidak murni). The successors of the ruling nobility of the sultanate view themselves as subsumed under the first subcategory, and the successors of the former vassals as under the second rubric. This view still connects Malayness with zaman sultan (the era of the sultanate), where by descent (keturunan) and rank (derajat) in the sultanate’s societal hierarchy demanded the submission of the lower ranking population segments to members of the ruling houses. However, this ‘rear-view image of zaman sultan’ (Wee 1985:166) is not uniformly shared by all. For others, Melayu is a fluid category that has to be traced within a field of a mixed Malayness (Melayu kacukan), which encompasses different cultural influences.


The Orang Suku Laut

The Orang Suku Laut or Sea Tribe People of the Riau archipelago-one of several small ethnic groups found scattered throughout Southeast Asia, popularly known as sea nomads or sea gypsies are descendants of a Proto-Malayan population who probably immigrated before AD 1000. They are estimated to number between 3,000 to more than 5,000 people (Walikotamadya Kepala Wilayah Kotamadya Administrative Batam 1986:3-6), having their own ‘language of the sea’ (bahasa laut), or more precisely, speaking various Suku Laut dilects closely related to Riau Malay. Their way of life is well adapted to the ecological zone of the sea, mangrave swamps and adjacent coastal areas. At the very most, approximately half of them still follow a nomadic way of life. The others life in coastal settlements or recently built villages given to them by the government. Some of the Orang Suku Laut still return seasonally to their boat-dwelling way of life.

      The Suku Laut people navigate through the archipelago by following ocean currents and tides, winds, fishing grounds, position of the sun, moon and stars, about which they bear a remarkable knowledge. Also, their beliefs and convictions refer to their natural environment, which they experience as animated nature. They make their living from fishing and strand collecting of marine products for both subsistance and small-scale trading with Chinese middlemen (tauke). Besides this, some are seasonally employed as woodcutters and workers at the tauke’s charcoal kilns. For a time not too long ago, they bartered some of their products for things to cover their daily needs (such as oil, matches, rice) without using money. Now a days, they sell and buy things instead of bartering. However, they still do not accumulate stocks, goods or money. Their social organisation is characterised by the principles of independence, equality and seniority. Its basis is kinship ties and the ideal of marriage is endogamy. They travel around in small groups of kinsmen under the leadership of an elder, or live in corresponding groupings in settlements ashore. The most common form of a household comprises members of a nuclear family. Orang Suku Laut society as a whole is segmentary consisting of several clans (the Suku Galang, Suku Mapor, Suku Mantang and Suku Barok, etc.) which are further divided into various subgroups.

        According to historical sources, most of the forefathers of the present Orang Suku Lait were an integral part of the population of the kingdom of Malacca-Johor and the sultanate of Riau-Lingga respectively, and belong to the stratum of the nobility’s vassals (orang kerahan). One of their duties consisted of supplying the local rulers with marine products such as tripang (sea cucumber), the pearls, sea weed and birds’ nests for international trade, specially with China. A few Orang Suku Laut clans living close to the centres of power gained an important role in politics as the Sultans’ military forces and coastal guards. The other clans of the peripheries form the lowest status groups who were difficult to control and could often escape their feudal duties. Besides these, some clans on the peripheries were not regarded as subjects and were therefore, able to continue their life under the leadership of their tribal chiefs (batin). In the 19th century, certain members of the kingdom’s ruling nobility who had lost their former position of power and who had started to engage in piracy-which was hardly regarded as a criminal act-were supported by some of their Orang Suku Laut loyalists (specially members of the Suku Galang). In the course of time, those Orang Suku Laut clans who had played an important role in the politics of the former kingdoms have experienced a continuous assimilation process. Today, Their life style and customs do not differ very much from those of the Malay population. The other clans, which since former times have lived far away from the centres of power and have not been assimilated to other population segments, have remained geographically peripheral and socially marginal until now.


Acculturative Effects on the Orang Suku Laut in a Rapidly Modernising Region

The manners of the qualities of contact between the Orang Suku Laut and members of the other ethnic groups cannot be discussed without considering the Riau archipelago as a region undergoing a process of rapid economic and technological modernisation. The measures of economic development affect not only the natural habitat of the Suku Laut people, but also their social and cultural environment. Besides this, as an integrated part of government programs for economic development of the region, projects of directed change are being conducted among the Orang Suku Laut and aim at their integration into the wider society of the islands and Indonesian society as a whole.

       Interrelated economic, ecological and demographic factors shaping the development process in the Riau island are pushing for the Orang Suku Laut’s acculturation. Because of them, the habitat and ecological niches used by Orang Suku Laut as a basis for securing their material and cultural existence are altering and under serious threat.

      The growing mechanisation of old-established economic sectors (such as fisheries, agriculture and quarrying of mineral resources) and the establishment of new small-scale and medium-scale industries, accompanied by the building up an infrastructure to ensure a more effective distribution of products from production centres to customers, affect the natural environment. Striking examples are extensive logging and levelling down of hilly formations to quarry bauxite in Bintan, or population of the sea by sewage and feces from the biggest pig farm in Indonesia, as well as other effluent from various industrial plants in Batam. Simultaneously, the continuous and increasing migration of workers from all over Indonesia the previously thinly populated Riau islands (its skilled and non-skilled manpower not being sufficient to cope with economic development), are changing demographic patterns. The extra ordinary population growth, as well as mechanisation and commercial marketing strategies in various economic sectors, result in growing competition for resources in general, and natural resources in particular. Competition has a reverse effect on the resources. If their exploitation reaches a still greater extent, sooner or later they will be reduced drastically. Therefore, alternative economic resources are needed. This reinforces industrialisation measures.

       The factors mentioned affect the Orang Suku Laut’s traditional way of life, which is characterised by adaptation to the specific ecological zone of the small islands and the mangrove coasts. In this habitat, the Orang Suku Laut can survive because of their nomadic or semi-nomadic spatial behaviour; the living in small groups of kinsmen rather on their own, under the leadership of the respective groups’ elders; and their utilisation of natural marine and coastal resources mainly for subsistence needs, without endangering the ecological balance, supported by beliefs that refer to an animated nature with the Orang Suku Laut as part of it.

        Today, as a result of on going economic and accompanying ecological and demographic changes, the Orang Suku Laut have to face the problem and that other population segments are beginning to show an interest in spatial and ecological niches Orang Suku Laut previously possessed alone. This questions every aspect of the Orang Suku Laut’s traditional way of life, such as nomadism or semi-nomadism, subsistence economy, patterns of social organisation and beliefs. Due to the growing competition for space and natural resources, possibilities of withdrawal are decreasing. On the other hand, interethnic contact is intensifying and with this, main stream values continue to spread. All this leads not only to growing sedentarism among the Orang Suku Laut and to the modification of their economic activities or adoption of others; but widening interethnic conflict also accompanies sedentarism, and the social and cultural orientations of the Orang Suku Laut are influenced as well. Their confrontation with new values-of which many do not coincide with their traditional cultural and social values-and strong pressures to assimilate to the wider society of the Riau islands, are undermining their ethnic self-awareness. The undermining of the Orang Suku Laut’s ethnic self-awareness is compounded by special government projects of directed change imposed on them to accelerate their acculturation.



Directed change

As one of several hundred numerically small ethnic groups living in Indonesia, the Orang Suku Laut are officially categorised as isolated communities or isolated tribes (masyarakat terasing, suku terasing). All of this groups are remnants of an old immigrant population that settled in regions now belonging to the Indonesian state before the arrival of the dominant populations. Based on various decrees by the President and the Minister of Social Welfare of the Republic of Indonesia (Menteri Sosial Republik Indonesia 1988) and conducted under the auspices of the Department of Social Welfare (Department Sosial) and associated government institutions in the context of a program entitled ‘Development of the Isolated Tribal Communities’ (Pembangunan Masyarakat Suku Terasing or PMST), projects of directed economic, social and cultural change aim at the integration of these minorities into the wider Indonesian society. Scheduled as a first step is the adaptation of the masyarakat terasing to the regional majority society. This is regarded as a precondition for reaching their political maturity and as a change to integrate them into the national society. It is stated that in modern Indonesia neither the masyarakat terasing’s subsistence economies can be maintained, nor their social life within the close boundaries of their respective communities. Instead, they should become an integral part of the super-ordinate economic and social life of the country and accept new values, namely individual independence, self-fulfilment and orientation to the future to enable them to cope with modernization. Also, according to the first principle of the state philisophy of Pancasila, they should believe in the one and only God and therefore, abandon their animistic beliefs. Their cultures or at least their respective folklores should continue to exist in so far as they do not hinder the development of the regions and the national economic, social and political aspects of the Indonesian nation-building process (Gatot Soeherman 1993:ix-x).


     Projects for the Orang Suku Laut and some other groups in the province of Riau,which are included in the category masyarkat terasing,are part of the government measures for the regions development. They are based on the guidelines of the fifth Five-Years Plan of Development,and are expected to be translated into action by province,district and subdistrict authorities. The measures for the masyarkat terasing of the region are carried out in the context of program of the Department of Social Welfare, entitled ‘Building-up of Social Welfare of the Isolated Tribal Communities of Riau.

      Until the beginning of the 1990s, the authorities were able to motivate about 19% of the Orang Suku Laut population to move to resettlement sites in the terget areas of Singkep, Lingga and Galang located in Kabupaten Kepulauan Riau and the islands of Kotamadya Batam. In view of the intense efforts to hasten Orang Suku Laut resettlement, I suppose that this figure has already increased. The project reflected three approaches to sedentarization/ resettlement as developed by the innovators, namely: sedentarization/ resettlement in houses on land, in pile dwelling in the sea with a connecting bridge to the land, and in floating dwellings that are moored near the coast. The last two approaches have resulted from the relative failure of the first. However, all of them, to varying extent, face the general problem that formally boat dwelling Orang Suku Laut tend not to take to resettlement in houses for long. Many leave the resettlement sites and returned to their housesboats. The main measures intended are resettlement of nomads, supported by construction of houses in special large-scale resettlement sites; formal education of children in schools and campaigns to increase the literacy rate of adults; religious education; political education regarding Indonesian history and present politics; measures to improve health conditions and increase involvement in the national-birth control program; teaching of alternative or supplementary livelihoods; and assistance program.


Views on the Orang Suku Laut in Malay Region and a Modernizing Nation State

The Malays and other population segments in the region as well as government representatives concur in considering the Orang Suku Laut to be a marginal minority in the region and the state, and in need of development. Even so, with regard to social intercourse with the Orang Suku Laut, the arguments of the regional majority prove rather to be a hindarance to the Orang Suku Laut’s acculturation, whereas the official view is conductive to it. The underlying conceptions in evaluating contact with the Orang Suku Laut are different and, to a certain degree, reflect spatial, temporal and cultural oppositions, namely, the Riau archipelago regarded either as part of the Malay world or as part of the Indonesian state; the construction of ‘past-in-the-present’-day reality according to either a ‘rare-view image of the past’ as in the time of the early immigrations and the era of the Malay sultanate, or the image of the modern state undergoing a process of nation buildings; and a cultural focus either on Malayness or on Indonesianess.

         Not only in the present, but also in a historical perspective it is pure fiction to regard the Orang Suku Laut as an isolated ethnic group. Due to their extensive local mobility, they have always been in contact with members of various other ethnic groups in the region. During the time of the Riau Lingga sultanate, most Orang Suku Laut clans were an integral part of the kingdom’s society. However, those contacts were mostly confined to the fulfillment of feudal duties and bartering or small-scale trading activities. At present, both sides meet in daily life from time to time and in different places, but nevertheless still tend to avoid social contacts apart from economic transactions. Besides these situations of interaction, Orang Suku Laut and officials who conduct projects of directed change today meet in various Orang Suku Laut resettlement sites.

        In daily life, Orang Suku Laut and members of other ethnic groups for various reasons withdraw from most social contact. From the perspective of the non-Orang Suku Laut, the Orang Suku Laut are a people without religion and culture. People who profess to Islam also regard the Orang Suku Laut as impure. The avoidance of the contact is justified with ideas about the Orang Suku Laut way of life, namely the unhygienic conditions of Orang Suku Laut families who are crammed into their small house boats, and the Orang Suku Laut habit of hunting and eating wild pigs, drinking alcohol and keeping dogs. Non-Orang Suku Laut are also afraid of the extraordinary magic powers that they ascribe to the Suku Laut people. Also, Orang Suku Lauts themselves normally avoid social contact with the non-Orang Suku Laut. The Orang Suku Laut are aware of the arguments used against them and often experience negative behaviour based on these attitudes. Moreover, the Orang Suku Laut reinforce outsiders’ fears by creating an awesome and ominous magic aura around themselves, thereby contributing to maintaining the interethnic status quo of mutual contact avoidance.

        Normally, officials meet with Orang Suku Laut in various resettlement sites while carrying out measures of directed economic, social and cultural change in order to fulfil their political task of developing the Orang Suku Laut as an ethnic minority in the context of the region and the state, and to integrate them into the wider Indonesian society. For these reasons, their social intercourse with the Orang Suku Laut is quite intense, although in a private capacity, their ideas about the Orang Suku Laut way of life and culture concor with those of the regional majority. In the beginning, many Orang Suku Laut exactly understand who the officials were, or which institution they represented. Many of the Orang Suku Laut were not aware of their citizenship-and some are still not-and could not define the pemerintah (government) accurately regarded it as an athority similar to the ruling houses of the former Malay sultanate, the president being equated with the Sultan. However, now that the official goal of resettlement has become widely known among the Orang Suku Laut, they have started to learn about their citizenship.

        During field research, I interviewed non-Orang Suku Laut officials as well as non-officials in contact with Orang Suku Laut about their knowledge and their opinion of the Orang Suku Laut way of life. These research findings give an impression of the negative image of the Orang Suku Laut that influences the extend and quality of interethnic intercourse. This also explains why the Orang Suku Laut are considered to be a people in urgent need of development. The evaluation by officials and non-officials concerning the character and appearance of the Orang Suku Laut, their attitudes to life in general and their attitudes and behaviour regarding interethnic contact in particular, did not differ much. According to the most extreme items mentioned, Orang Suku Laut are shy individuals, have ugly black skin, a dirty, foul-smelling body and like to wear clothes with garish colours; they are backward, ignorant and pitiful ethnic group, take each day it comes and show no concern for the future; they do not want contact and isolate themselves, frighten other people and are vindictive, for example, and they like to take revenge by using black magic. Also, my interviewees said that they had no personal interest in the Orang Suku Laut culture and traditions. All of them shared the opinion that the Orang Suku Laut must leave their backward lifestyle behind and be developed. On my question as to whether the cukture of the Orang Suku Laut should be protected in the course of on going economic and social change in Riau and what measures could be taken to do so, nearly all interviewees answered that the Orang Suku Laut must adapt to conditions of modern life, which inevitably necessitates the change of their culture. At the most, some respondents agreed that folklore aspects of culture, for example the Orang Suku Laut’s traditional dances, could be preserved. Some of my interview partners did not accept this question and instead of answering, asked me if I thought that the Orang Suku Laut were really a people with an original culture worth preserving.


The Malay View

The views of the Malay majority and other population segments living in the Riau archipelago often encompass a comparision between the Orang Suku Laut and Malays as the indigenous inhabitants of this part of the Malay world in Indonesia. In principle, subsuming the Suku Laut people under this generic group-which with regard to language, traditional beliefs and customs of both groups is obviously true-implies that their Proto-Malay aboriginals or orang Malayu asli, whereas the Malay majority who immigrated later are therefore orang Malayu and dagang/ pendatang. However, if membership is defined in items of cultural affiliation-thus referring to Islam being the Malays’ faith, to Malay customs and Malay language as the main criteria quoted for being Malay-Orang Suku Laut are marginalized or even expelled from this group as bukan Malay.

      The debate on the inclusion of the Orang Suku Laut into the category of Malay is more relevant to the Malays themselves than to the other population segments. A specific form of inclusion, combine with the idea of superiority virtues inferiority, is expressed by some of the successors of the sultanate’s nobility, who construct a relationship between themselves and the non-aristocratic parts of the malays, including the Orang Suku Laut, with reference to the past societal reality of the sultanate. The Orang Suku Laut’s possible inclusion as Malays is weighed in regard to the various degrees of Malayness that can be detected by reviewing descent and inherited rank. According to the Malays, the Orang Suku Laut as the first inhabitants of the region are indeed orang (Melayu) asli, whereas they themselves are orang dagang of the Johor-Malay and Bugis descent. Further more, they regard themselves as orang Melayu murni (pure Malays), because they are of noble birth and have had a high rank in sultanate’s hierarchy, due to which they became not only nominal Muslims, but true practitioners of Islam and were able to develop a refined Malay language and sophisticated manners. This, in their view, proves not to be the case for the population segments in the indentified as descendants of the vassals of the past kingdom, including various Orang Suku Laut clans who are therefore regarded as impure Malays. Within the group of the former vassals, the Orang Suku Laut clans are further divided. Some Orang Suku Laut are ranked lower than others. For example the Orang Suku Mapor rank lower in comparison to the Orang Suku Galang. In contrast to the views expressed by the aristocratic Malays, the common Malays normally regard the Orang Suku Laut as not being Malay. The Orang Suku Laut’s general image, particularly the boat-dwelling sections on the peripheries, among most Malays is that of a people who have no culture, because they do not profess a faith and because their language and manners are uncouth.

        Among the Suku Laut people, the different opinions expressed with regard to their culture affiliation with the Malays are also more relevant to some and less to others, depending on the different rates of contact between individual Orang Suku Laut groups and Malays as well as on these group’s knowledge and valuation of the outsiders views of them. However, some Orang Suku Laut go so far as to emphasise that they are orang Melayu asli, whereas others explain that they are orang asli (aboriginal people), but not orang melayu, whom they regard to be the most extreme opposite to themselves.


The Official View

The official view, expressed by the government representatives, implies a comparison of refinement between the Orang Suku Laut and wider present-day Indonesian society. As mentioned, the Orang suku Laut are subsumed under the minority category of isolated communities, that is, small ethnic groups who still lead a life of backwardness, and therefore-in contrast to the majority- prove to be neither able to adapt to modern conditions nor to take part in the process of nation building. Hence, in order to integrate them into the wider society and to let them profit from modernisation they have to be made a subject of directed development. The official view approaches the need for change in the way of life and cultures of the masyarakat terasing on different levels of argumentation. First, the official defination of the masyarakat terasing focuses on a cultural, social, economic and political gap between the tribal communities and the majority, thus accounting for the necessity for change. Second, the conception of dominant and subordinate groups as complimentary parts of a multi-ethnic society justifies the need to direct change from above. Finally, the formative ideas of Indonesian nation building explain why change is indispensable in a context of more general, national needs. All these conceptions mold the ethnic minority policy as a part of the state’s development policy, by which they are transformed into concrete measures carried out in the regions.

       According to the defination of masyarakat terasing given by the Department of Social Welfare, the isolated tribal communities have the following characteristics. Their social organisation is based on kinship ties, they practice subsistence economics, follow animistic beliefs, thus have no future orientation; they isolated themselves and reject interethnic contact and innovations from outside, due to their fear that in the course of development their cultural values and social norms might be destroyed. This defination is related to the conception of dominant and subordinate groups as complimentary parts of a multi-ethnic society. It is argued that history shows that the dominant group’s culture has the potential for functioning as a model or orientational frame, guiding interethnic communication and the structuring of interethnic relations. With reference to this conception, the masyarakat terasing are regarded as subordinate groups or backward micro societies in modern Indonesia, which are not able to develop by themselves to become responsible citizens. It is argued that due to their backwardness in their way of life and culture, their development can only be achieved by the leadership of the representatives of the dominant group and that they therefore have to be made a ward of government officials. The guidance of the tribal communities’ development from masyarakat terasing to as integrated part of the population of modern Indonesia necessitates not only the inducement of economic and social changes, but also implies cultural development, understood as the directed selection of cultural traits. Some of these traits are seen as worth preserving and others such as the belief in and practice of ancestor-spirit worship as better forgotten. The intended changes are regarded as indispensable not only in the interest of these minority groups, but also in the interest of Indonesia as a whole. That is why the ethnic minority policy which translates minority development goals into action is conceptualised as an integrated part of the nation-building policy. The nation-building policy or pembangunan nasional (national development) is understood as the interrelated processes of technological/economic modernisation and creation of a national society and culture. The building up of a national identity shared by all citizens is seen as one of the most critical tasks in the process of national development, being the precondition of modernisation and continuous economic growth that, in turn, contributes to the improvement of the living conditions of the populations. It is hoped that this national identity will develop on the basis of a national culture, as already conceptualised in the Constitution of 1945, Article 32, in the form of a synthetic mixture of selected traits of those Indonesian cultures regarded as superior such as Javanese, Sundanese, Buginese-Macassarese and Malay, enriched by Western values of humanism. It is argued that, to reach the goal of instilling a consciousness of national unity and a shared feeling of belonging to the nation among all citizens, the development of this national culture has to be directed by representatives of the government.


    Applied to the case of the Orang Suku Laut, the oficial logic reads as follows. Due to its general backwardness, this marginal sector of the society of the Riau islands is not only at disadvntage,but also abstructs regional and hence national development. In the Orang Suku Laut’s own interest, as well as in the interest of Riau and Indonesian society as a whole, their backward way of life and their inferrior culture have to be changed by measured directed from above. This has to be based on evoking a sense of Indonesian identity and consciousness of national unity, being preconditions for the measures of change to lead to the goals of turning the Orang Suku Laut  into an integrated part of the wider society and into beneficiaries of the region’s modernisation. Furthermore, the projects for the Orang Suku Laut have to be evaluated against the regional cuktural setting. As part of development and national building-policy,they should also oppose Malay regionalism as well as the ethnic segmentation of the society of the Riau islands that over centuries have evolved in the context of the sultanates,so that the various population segments of this region together with all parts of the ethnically diversified Indonesian society can melt into a big whole.


       The officially induced changes concern the very basic way of life and culture of the Orang Suku Laut,and so have become consciously disscussed themes among the Orang Suku Laut. Therefore,I now turn to the way the Orang Suku Laut cope with directed change.


Some Remarks on Orang Suku Laut Reactions to Directed Change

Although this paper focuses on non-Orang Suku Laut’s perceptions of Orang Suku Laut in conception with the acculturation process they are experiencing at present,I will not end without  giving some attention to Orang Suku Laut’s reactions. I reffer to the example of a settlement where the Orang Suku Laut had already been living for some years when it become a designated resettlement site. First,I describe reactions of different factions of this settlement at the time government initiatives started. Following that,I want to draw attention to some problems of resettlement which I noticed two years later.

      During field research(1988-90,and 1991),I realised that the Orang Suku Laut were aware of the negative image in the views  of others. In addition,I observed various behaviour strategies used by the members of this settlement to cope with problems arising from interethnic contact with regard to their ethnic affiliatin. These strategies were influenced by the outside stereotypes to which  they themselves refer,either in a confirming way,or to refute them.

       When contact with officials started,I recognized that the behaviour  of individuals correlated with basis  attitudes with regard to contact,in which they had different interests and expectations. Against the background of these basic attitudes and manners,the members of this settlement could be divided  into three factions labelled as modern minded,tradition minded and doubting minds. Each of these factions coincided with one  of the three groups of kinsmen living in the settlement. These groups showed a high degree of internal interaction and exchange of opinions. Howeve,contact and communication between these groups were rather  infrequent. The three groups differed in the degree of sedentarism   of  outside influence  penetrating into their immediate living sphere;and the importance attached to outside  acceptance.


      The modern-minded  Orang Suku Laut had become  sedentary  house dwellers  many years ago,and since then only rarely left the settlement for temporary fishing trips. The forefathers of a few of them were of Chinese or Malay descent. The doubting Orang Suku Laut had been living a semised-entary  way of life for a couple of years,but some of them regularly returned to their houseboats. They had no non-Orang Suku Laut forefathers. The tradition-minded Orang Suku Laut had become house dwellers only recently and still returned to the boat-dwelling habit for months at a time. Among them were some  families who oscillated between being exclusively house dwelling or exclusively boat dwelling. All of them were descendants of Orang Suku Laut. Each of three groups had nomadic relatives who frequently visited the settlement for days or even for a couple of weeks.


       When government officials visited the settlement,the modern-minded Orang Suku Laut normally joined the meetings. They also regularly attended gatherings to learn the tenets of Islam and took part in joint work programs to built a house of prayer and other projects proposed by the officials. They agreed fairly quickly to the officials even if they had not understood the inentions of the officials very well. The tradition minded Orang Suku Laut,on the other hand,were not ready to accept any kind of contact and attended neither meetings nor joint activities. In principle,they tended to refuse everything. When the officials came to the settlement,they avoided contact by withdrawal. They did this either by not leaving their houses or leaving the settlement before the officials arrived. The doubting Orang Suku Laut took a position between the two other groups. Interests expressed by the modern minded Orang Suku Laut with regard to contact with officials were material expectations. Furthermore, they hoped that their relationship with the officials would,in the long run,help them to become accepted by the members of the surrounding  sociaty. In contrast,the tradition minded Orang Suku Laut showed no interest and expresssed the wish to be left alone. The opinions of the doubting Orang Suku Laut oscillated between those expressed by the two others groups. With regard to ethnic self-ascription in situations of interethnic contact inside and outside the settlement,I was able to observe that the modern-minded and to a lesser degree the doubting Orang Suku Laut tend to avoid ethnonyms such as orang suku laut,orang sampan,orang suku Mapur as symbles of identity. This was so even with those who,among themselves and while talking to me,had no problem speaking openly and with pride about Orang Suku Laut culture and way of life. Situationally,some of them assigned themselves in a vauge way to another ethnic for example by stressing that ‘anyway,actually we are also,Malays’,and simultaneously try to disguise features characteristic of Orang Suku Laut ethnic affiliation. In contrast,the tradition-minded Orang Suku Laut did not try to get in line with outsiders and always referred to themselves as orang suku laut,or even as orang sampan,terms which,if used by non-Orang Suku Laut,have pejorative connotation.


     Two years later,in 1993,I revisited this settlement,which had then become a site with more than 30 houses. This settlement now included some of the old ihabitants and many newcomers from nearby as well as distant location. Among them were also a few newly settled nomads. At that time,the population had increased from about 70 to more than 150 people. Many new houses were nearly ready to be inhabited. I met many of the people I had known from my first and second protracted visits. However,some I did not meet again because they had left the place. Among the people I met were all those who formerly had shown a modern-minded attitude;and now they expressed their satisfaction with the development. The tradition-minded and the doubting ones had either left or still tried to continue their avoidance pattern of behaviour with decreasing’success’. Obviously,not all Orang Suku Laut could cope with the development and innovations in the same way. This was especially so among those who were continuously torn between the alternatives of conformation or withdrawal. Those who were not able to make a decition seemed extremly insecure.


As for resettlement,I noticed some striking problems arising from both project planning and daily project reality. A basic problem on behalf of the planning authorities proved to be their lack of knowledge about the Orang Suku Laut’s way of life and culture, which in turn affected the activities in the resettlement site. Also, the social workers living on the resettlement site had not been sufficiently trained for their job. They had some difficulties in explaining their tasks. These workers were also quite young and were therefore not accepted by many members in the resettlement site. A fundamental problem for the Orang Suku Laut emerged in that they were neither used to living on land, nor in settlements with a dense population. The fact that the Orang Suku Laut had been used to living together in small groups of kinsmen, corresponding groups now had chosen neighbouring houses in the resettlement site, but seldom interacted with other such factions of their new community. Therefore, social workers had problems in co-ordinating and involving many people in activities concerning the community as a whole. A communal spirit had not developed because the different factions were unable to agree on an official representative for the various groups of kinsmen. Also there were regular quarrels between the factions. The material aid provided to the Orang Suku Laut also led to dependence on others while decreasing their self-confidence. I observed that many Orang Suku Laut, specially those in the younger generation exhibited a certain laisser-faire manner. For example, they stayed in the settlement instead of going out to fish and often drunk too much. Finally, I recognised that accelerated proselytization had not led to religious conviction. The new converts seldom fulfilled their religious duties. Many community members referred to the old beliefs again; and suddenly some began to favour another faith (Christianity), which seemed to me to be a choice of strategy rather than a choice based on conviction.

        In my opinion, which I share with some local members of the ranks from the Derpartment of Social Welfare as well as the Indonesian anthropological community, the problems summarised above could be reduced by taking the following measures. In general, one has to rethink whether resettlement really makes sense. Resettlement puts the Suku Laut people in a position apart from the other sections of the Riau population. In this respect, resettlement is contradictory to the aim of integrating the Orang Suku Laut into the wider society. Also, as a general precondition for avoiding the failure of projects, it makes sense to consider the fact that the Orang Suku Laut are neither used to living on land nor to socialising in numerically big groups. Therefore, houses and settlements provided for them should be pile buildings in moderately scaled accumulations on the coast. Moreover, instead of large amounts of material aid, promotion of self-help programs would be much better. Measures to strengthen ethnic self-awareness could also be considered. More persuasive work rather than prescription is needed. With regard to the projects, preparatory research prior to the implementation of the program on the Orang Suku Laut and continued research during the implementation of projects are necessary. The course of a project should also be monitored by mid-term and post-implementation evaluation reports. Simultaneously, better training is needed for the social workers engaged in the projects. These measures would help to change the commonly held ideas about the Orang Suku Laut that, at present, influence the project’s designs and according to which stagnation in development is attributed all too simplistically to the obstacles of stubbornness in backward individuals sharing a static culture. This is hardly conducive to considering the potential for development. Further more, the projects have to be oriented to local needs, that is, to include the views of and address the needs perceived by the Orang Suku laut themselves and to concede a formative part in culture-changing measures for them. This can be done by building up village councils and in giving local leadership positions to some of their members.


Final Statement

My anthropological work is concerned with issues relating to the inherited cultures and identity articulations of ethnic groups, as well as their responses and cultural adaptations to changing environments. Hence, because I look upon change as an inherent aspects of culture, I by no means subscribe to the idea of living museums preservation programs, or more precisely, freezing persons and cultures. Against this background, I do not dismiss the fact that global modernising processes are affecting even the most remote areas and their peoples. Further more, I understand that every state with a multi-ethnic population has to solve the problem of integrating the different cultures and ways of life of majorities and minorities for the sake of the whole.

     With regard to the Orang Suku Laut in the Riau islands, I am realistic enough to see that the possibilities of withdrawal necessary for them to continue with their traditional way of living are decreasing. The impact of development on the Suku Laut people-who are only gradually getting used to dealing with this situation- should lead neither to social and cultural assimilation nor to social and cultural estrangement. In my opinion, persuasion should take the place of regulations in every single measure concerning Orang Suku laut affairs. That implies taking them as autonomous individuals who are able to think about matters fundamentally affecting their way of life. This also implies working toward dismantling the disparaging stereotypes about them that are still shared by the majority and are influencing interethnic contact. By pursuing alternative ways of communication and interaction, numerically small ethnic groups with an equally worthy cultural heritage will also have the chance to take a position in the Indonesian society that the majority groups already possesses, in accordance with the state motto of national unity in cultural diversity.