Mary's View of S'pore - Vol 5, History

Mary's View of S'pore - Vol 5, History

I will periodically bore you all with what I am learning through my 6 month training course to be a docent (tour guide) for the S'pore History Museum. Actually it is quite interesting - that is why I am doing it.

Lesson #1 Orang Suku Laut

When Raffles was scouting for an alternative port to all the Dutch ones in the area, he came across Singapura (Lion City). It doesn't matter that there weren't any lions - just tigers. More on that later. Anyway, he was met by the indigenous people called Orang Suku Laut - People of the Sea/Sea Nomads.

At this time, 1819, S'pore was part of the Alan Melayu (Maly Kingdom) and was part of a 3000 island archipelago. The ancient capital was on the Riau Islands. These people, despite their name, were really very attached to the land through their ancestors. They were nomadic but were assigned to certain areas and jobs (Suku Galeng = pirates; Suku Tambui = hunters; etc.). It was called a "collective tenure of territorial rights". Actually, this is reminiscent of what happened to the Native Americans. Their land was taken/bought from them. Sound familiar? Raffles pulled a fast one. He found a "substitute" ruler that was sympathetic to him who sold Raffles the island. The ruler that was here was "deposed". HMMMM.

There are only about 3000 modern day Orang Suku Lauts left. Those that live in S'pore have been subsumed into the Malay culture of S'pore. They were forced to become Muslim and do not continue to live by/on the sea. There are Suku Laut who still adhere to the old ways - but not here in S'pore. They are still a sea nomadic people with strong ties to the land.

They are a simple folk with simple ways. If a man asks a woman to go fishing with him and she accepts, they are then married. The more fish caught means a better marriage. It is an egalitarian society. Men and women work together. The man stands in front of the boat and spears the fish while the woman rows. I guess some things never change.

Lesson #2 Tiong Bahru (Area of S'pore where Terry works)

Tiong Bahru means "New Cemetery" (tiong - Chinese for cemetery, bahru - Malay for new). Until the 1920's it was an area dotted with many cemeteries. They were new as opposed to the established cemeteries in Chinatown. The present day Tiong Bahru Rd. was at onetime called " Burial Ground Rd". In 1925 this area was declared unsanitary and designated for improvement. The SIT (S'pore Improvement Trust) cleared out the squatters and moved the graves and then filled in and leveled the area.

Small neighborhoods with privacy between individual homes and open areas for recreation and playgrounds were the plans for the area. Affordable housing was built in 4-5 story units. These units were originally to be sold, but this idea failed and they then were rented out. However, the rent was too high (S$20.00) so only the rich could afford to live there. It was known as "mei ren wo" - the den of beauties. Supposedly this was a haven for mistresses.

By 1941, 6000 people lived in Tiong Bahru. After the war, housing was even more of a priority and Tiong Bahru was an obvious choice for expansion. By the 1950's 17,000 people were accommodated. This "island" of modern housing was surrounded by atap (thatched roof huts) slums which housed "gangsters and undesirable elements", Providentially there were 2 fires (1959 & 1961) which rendered 7,000 people homeless. In 1960, what is now known as the HDB succeeded the SIT and redeveloped the area.

The street names are mostly Chinese pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries (Lim Liak, Kim Pong, Guan Chuan, etc.). One of the early pioneers is memorialized in the name of the wet market - Seng Poh Road market. He was an opium and spirit farmer who was the first Chinese Municipal Commissioner. In the 1950's this market was the model for all future markets.

Today Tiong Bahru is renowned for it's Sunday morning bird singing (actually it goes on every day), it's small neighborhood feel, and the convenience of having everything within walking distance. Shop keepers and residents all know one another and look out for each other. Sadly, it appears that young people are not moving into the area and it becoming an elderly neighborhood. The new and the modern have more of an allure than the sturdy, less glamorous Tiong Bahru with all it's history.