Piracy and the Orang Laut: A Reflection on the Nature of Piracy


Tan Jian Xiong David

Piracy has been an intrinsic part of maritime activity in archipelagic Southeast Asia since the 14th Century, and has been associated in particular with the practices of the indigenous groups inhabiting the region’s coasts. One such group is the orang laut, or ‘people of the sea,’ who are a tribe of sea-nomads that were widespread along the coasts of the Riau-Lingga Archipelago. Although their numbers and range are largely diminished in the present day, historical accounts of the orang laut have established a strong link between the orang laut and piracy and commonly depict them as having been formidable maritime raiders during the early 19th Century. This recurring theme of piracy suggests that for the orang laut in particular, such piratical activities are closely tied to their way of life, a view reflected in C. M. Turnbull’s The History of Singapore 1819–1975, in which she described the orang laut as “organised into pirate armadas, led by Malay war-boats, and … feared throughout the archipelago” (Turnbull 5). The problem with such a depiction, however, lies with the way in which the word ‘piracy’ is entangled with a complex set of assumptions and value judgments that result in the term being more than a description of an activity or phenomenon. Such a tension is clearly in evidence when contrasted with the National Museum of Singapore’s account of the orang laut, which presents their piratical activities as a product of politico-economic circumstances as opposed to an essentialised feature of their way of life.

Describing the orang laut in her account of early Singapore, Turnbull focuses on the idea of piracy being a key part of orang laut social structure. She links piracy and social hierarchy by noting how high-ranking tribes among the orang laut were largely engaged in piratical activity, implying that the practice of piracy among the orang laut was one very much held in high esteem. In addition, her mention of the orang laut being dependent on piracy for their livelihood further strengthens the implication of piracy being deeply embedded within orang laut society. This aspect of the orang laut is closely coupled with Turnbull’s characterisation of the piratical activities of the orang laut as being both brutal and savage. Depicting the orang laut as being “feared throughout the archipelago” and portraying them as “pillaging helpless craft and slaughtering their crews” (5), Turnbull imputes a degree of moral reprehensibility to the piratical activities of the orang laut which, when viewed together with the idea of piracy as an inherent part of orang laut life, suggests that the orang laut were brutal and cruel –piratical—by nature. The use of the label “pirate” then, when applied to the orang laut, is taken to encompass this idea of intrinsic savagery and brutality.

In the National Museum’s narrative, however, the assumptions embedded within Turnbull’s account of the orang laut are called into question. In the History Gallery of the National Museum, although the same themes of social inherence and the brutality of piracy are raised, these themes are discussed within the larger context of the politico-economic influences that shaped orang laut society. Indeed, although the visitor is initially presented with an ostensibly placid exhibit consisting of framed paintings surrounding a display case of pirate weapons in a scene that evokes neither violence nor brutality, the graphic narration in the introduction of a character having “his penis cut off and stuffed into his mouth” (History Gallery Companion Script by pirates leaves the museum visitor with no doubt as to the cruel reality of piracy. Where the tension emerges, however, is when the cause of piracy is called into question. Directly addressing Turnbull’s assertion of piracy being inherent in orang laut society, the museum asserts that such a view is the product of colonial prejudices. Instead, the museum argues that it was the British who were responsible for forcing the orang laut into a life of piracy due to their control over the port of Singapore resulting in the loss of the orang laut’s traditional livelihood. Furthermore, in displaying an image of a small British boat being attacked by pirate ships, the museum makes certain to include the observation that “perhaps the impression is to convey the determination of the anti-piracy effort by having the smaller boat firing on the larger pirate boats,” which implies that the spectre of piracy was exaggerated on the part of the colonial powers. The overall effect generated by the museum thus recontextualises the root cause of orang laut piracy as expounded by Turnbull in a new light and casts aspersions over whether her account of the orang laut, while not factually untrue, was influenced by colonial prejudices that coloured the way in which the facts were presented.

This in turn alters the way in which piracy is defined. In highlighting that “one person’s navy is another person’s pirate fleet” (History Gallery Companion Script), the museum’s narrative contends that the nature of piracy itself is the product of perception, since orang laut piracy could instead be viewed as an act of self-preservation rather than opportunistic aggression. This contrasts directly with the assumption made by Turnbull, for whom piracy is a function of a way of life, and argues instead that the concept of piracy itself is very much linked to the question of perspective. This approach adopted by the museum, however, turns the concept of piracy into a moral argument. By disputing Turnbull’s characterisation of the orang laut as being inherently piratical and portraying them instead as rational actors adapting to punitive British policies and colonial political economy, the museum distils the entire debate into a conflict over whether the practice of piracy by the orang laut was ‘good” or “bad”—whether a practice as savage as piracy was one that stemmed from an inherent savageness or whether such a practice was forced upon the orang laut by circumstance—and having to choose one perspective over the other thus turns the debate into a moral one.

In comparing the two sources, the issue of piracy and the orang laut thus undergoes a transformation. No longer does the issue revolve around whether or not the orang laut were pirates, since both sources agree that the orang laut did take part in piratical activities. Rather, the tension now lies in the moral stance adopted by the sources, and to favour either interpretation of the relationship between piracy and the orang laut would be concomitantly to pass a moral judgment on the orang laut. It is important to note, however, that such a moral dimension only emerges fully when the museum’s viewpoint is contrasted with Turnbull’s; Turnbull’s account on its own makes no such distinction. The emergence of such a moral dimension therefore points toward an attempt at recontextualising and appropriating the history of the orang laut on the part of the National Museum in its construction of Singapore’s national narrative. By assimilating the orang laut as part of the larger narrative of the History Gallery, the National Museum lays claim to the orang laut as being a part of Singapore’s heritage, thereby necessitating an approach that directly addresses and justifies the brutality and savagery that has been associated with the piratical activities of the orang laut. In highlighting the moral dimension of orang laut piracy, the National Museum therefore challenges the essentialisation of moral reprehensibility which would tarnish a coherent national narrative, one which identifies orang laut as the indigenous peoples of Singapore. But whether this appropriation of orang laut history is justifiable remains very much open to debate.




Works Cited


History Gallery Companion Script. National Museum of Singapore, 2006. Print.

Turnbull, C. M. A History of Singapore 1819–1975. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.

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