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Orang laut, which literally means “sea people” in Malay, refers to the indigenous sea nomads and sea gypsies of Singapore. They were one of the earlier immigrants who settled along the coastlines of Singapore during pre-colonial days. The community typically lived off a long dwelling boat, known colloquially as sampan panjang, or “long boat”.
The orang laut who inhabited Singapore at the time of Raffles’s landing in 1819 consisted of different groups. They included the orang laut of the Riau-Lingga archipelago such as the Orang Galang, Orang Gelam, Orang Seletar, Orang Biduanda Kallang and the Orang Selat. These groups shared some degree of Malay ethnicity, and a preference for living on boats rather than on land.
The Orang Selat were believed to have traversed the waters of Keppel Harbour since the early 16th century, making them one of the earliest settlers on the island, according to ethnologist Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill. By the early 19th century, there were more than 1,000 orang laut residing in Singapore, with about 500 Orang Biduanda Kallang, 150 of whom were boat dwellers. In 1840s, at least 450 orang laut, including the headman, were relocated to Tanjong Rhu, while others were moved to Telok Blangah, Selat Singkeh, Pasir Panjang, Geylang and Pulau Brani.
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