For centuries, the Orang Laut were guardians of the sea, shoals, islands and swamps with great familiarity with currents, reefs and the regional maritime environment.
Leaders in Island Southeast Asia had their seats of power at the mouth or upstream of a river (for instance, the main river in Singapura) relied on the Orang Laut to be their seaborne envoys, toll collectors, guides, traders and warriors. Even their raids, which were seemingly acts of piracy, were a means of redirecting trade to key ports controlled by rulers allied to the Orang Laut. Since the era of the Srivijaya empire, the Orang Laut’s policing of the waters enabled the rulers’ control over large trading areas in the region.
Orang Laut: the Key to Malay Power
After the fall of the Srivijaya empire, power was transferred to Singapura as chronicled in the story of Sang Nila Utama. His marriage to the daughter of the Orang Laut Queen of Bintan, Sakidar Shah, and his subsequent coronation sealed the loyalty of the sea people to his bloodline. As the ruler of the Orang Laut, Sang Nila Utama came to the island of Temasek to revive the greatness of the Srivijaya empire through the Singapura Kingdom.
The Orang Laut’s support was also what helped Singapura’s last ruler re-establish his power in Melaka, a location they suggested with their good knowledge of its terrain and botany. When Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511, the then-ruler of Melaka simply shifted to Johor with continued support from the Orang Laut. Singapura, the spiritual centre of the alliance between the Orang Laut and Sang Nila Utama, evolved as a naval base under the Melaka Sultanate, and Shabandaria under the Johor Sultanate.
Rivalries and Eventual Decline
The sacred connection and centuries-long loyalty between the Orang Lauts and Sang Nila Utama’s descendants was broken when the childless Sultan Mahmud Shah II was killed in 1699, and led to a period of contestation and struggle. Raja Kecik, the leader of Sumatran migrants and the son of a slave woman, gained the loyalty of the Orang Laut by claiming to be a descendant of Sang Nila Utama, and proceeded to attack the Johor capital with his Orang Laut followers. In the fights that followed, the ruler of Johor, Sultan Abdul-Jalil Shah, was assassinated. His son, Raja Sulaiman, recruited the war-like Bugis diaspora from Sulawesi to fight Raja Kecik. Naval battles began taking place frequently in Singapura’s waters, including one that was said to take place in 1767 at the mouth of the river in Singapura. After the Orang Laut withdrew their support from Raja Kecik, Raja Sulaiman and his Bugis allies emerged victorious, and the Orang Laut became sidelined from the Johor court.
Meanwhile, the Ilanun migrants arrived in the region, having been forced out of their home in Mindanao, Philippines due to a volcanic eruption in 1765. With superior firepower, ships, and use of modern maritime technology such as compasses and telescopes, they conducted raids in the region that overwhelmed the Orang Laut.
After pledging their allegiance to the Johor Sultan and settling in eastern Sumatra, the Ilanun conducted more raids and attacked Orang Laut settlements, enslaving many of its people. In the end, the Orang Laut never recovered, and Singapura faded into the shadows.