My Johor: The simple life at Sungai Pulai

R. Sittamparam, New Straits Times 17 Jan 08;

THE Sungai Pulai estuary has always been the home and fishing grounds of the Orang Laut, an Orang Asli tribe who dwell along coastal areas in Johor. Although I am a Chinese, my family, dating back three generations, has lived with the Orang Laut sharing their trials and tribulations.

Our association started with my grandfather, Tang Tek Chai. He operated a junk at Kuala Redap, on the western bank of Sungai Pulai. He supplied mangrove logs to charcoal kilns, mainly in Singapore.

He was a wealthy merchant who had strong business links with Singapore. But he chose to live with the Orang Asli, hiring them to work on his huge wooden junk.

During the Japanese occupation, the Orang Asli suffered. They were hunted down and their women kidnapped and raped by Japanese soldiers.

My grandfather provided protection, giving them food and teaching them how to plant tapioca and other basic survival skills.

Many of the Orang Laut did not live on land, preferring to stay in their pau kajang, a covered dugout. They were skilled fishermen and expert swimmers who knew when and where to find the best fish, crabs and prawns.

My father, Tang Soon Teck, however, did not take up my grandfather’s trade.

Instead, he started a provision shop and traded with the Orang Asli, buying their daily catch.

When I was 12, I remembered seeing my grandfather’s large junk abandoned near the river.

It was in bad shape and I don’t know what happened to it afterwards as it went missing.

My father had many business dealings with Singapore. He had many friends and relatives in the republic, so when I reached schooling age, he sent me there to stay with a relative.

I studied at St Anthony’s School until Year Three. During a school break, I returned to the village and refused to go back to Singapore.

I was having such fun frolicking with the Orang Asli boys and girls my age at the village that I didn’t want to return.

Life at the village was enjoyable for children as we would swim in the rivers, catch fish and crabs or look for fruits in the jungle.

I lost interest in studying or learning about my father’s business and got attracted to an Orang Asli girl, Rom Anbot, whom I married when I was 16.

Getting married was very easy. All I had to do was give my 15-year-old bride’s parents RM1.15 and a set of clothes, and they allowed her to become my wife.

However, the marriage has not been officially registered. Even after 46 years, we have yet to do this.

Some government officials have urged me to register the marriage, something I intend to do soon.

I started my life as a fisherman then because my father had lost all his wealth after his business ventures in Singapore failed. He was even forced to sell his 40ha fruit orchard cheaply to cover his losses.

My five brothers, two sisters and I were left with hardly anything. We had to fend for ourselves.

One of my sisters and three of my brothers have since settled in Singapore.

My eldest brother, Keng Hiang, is also married to an Orang Asli and has remained in the village.

A younger brother, Keng Ngee, married a Chinese and is now taking care of our father’s provision shop.

In the 1970s, the government relocated us from Kuala Redap Orang Asli village to this spot, Kampung Simpang Arang. It got its name from a charcoal-making factory located beside the village.

Many Orang Asli families from our village have moved to Masai, Plentong and Ulu Tiram. Some have married outsiders, stay in towns and are doing well in life.

Of my five children, four sons are married to Orang Asli girls and have settled down here, earning a living as fishermen. Only my daughter is married to a Chinese.

As the fishermen’s head, I buy and sell the fish landed by the Orang Asli.

However, their catch has dwindled over the last decade because of the destruction to the environment. Mangrove forests are destroyed and rivers are silted because of land reclamation works for projects such as the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, the Second Link bridge and the power plant at the Sungai Pulai estuary.

Dugong were plentiful in the estuary before this and used to be a source of meat for the Orang Asli.

I have tasted dugong meat, but now, the Orang Asli are concerned about the conservation of the animal and the sea-horses found in the estuary.

In 2006, an Orang Asli caught a baby dugong in his net at Sungai Pulai. We kept it in the village pond for a while before it was released into the sea.

A new worry is the proposed industrial estate right in front of our traditional fishing grounds at the mouth of Sungai Boh and Sungai Karang.

Our fishing grounds are affected by an underwater pipe to supply water from Sungai Tiram Duku to the Tanjung Bin power plant.

I hope my grandchildren get a chance to enjoy the natural richness of the Sungai Pulai estuary which I have grown to love. I would not give up living in my village for anything in the world.

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