The act of berkarang — foraging for intertidal creatures — was common practice for the coastal Malays. The Sulalatus Salatin (Malay Annals) teaches us that when Sang Nila Utama first came ashore on Temasek, the first thing he and his men did was to forage along the coasts for shellfish and seaweed (Johari, 2021, p.120).
For my mom, aunts and grandmother back on Pulau Ubin, berkarang was a fortnightly affair, often coinciding with the lowest tides of the month. My mom shared with me her experience back on the shores of Chek Jawa:
At times, the women of my family would bring parangs with them as means to forage for these creatures. For example, they would slice up the sand on the beach to surface the remis (Donax cuneatus) and kepah (Mertix meretix). As the kerang (Anadara granosa) and siput mata lembu could stick stubbornly on the surface of rocks, they would use their parangs to pry them off. But since the gong-gong (Strombus canarium) could just be found crawling on the surface of mud flats, they could simply pick them up using their bare hands.
Berkarang was in fact a fun activity to do, but it is important to note that for people like my mom and others from the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut communities, berkarang was their form of sustenance.
The coastal Malays of Singapore have developed an intricate and intimate understanding with the environment that the Nusantara brings. It had been nurtured into them this relationship of respect and co-existence with nature; for it is with her provisions that they were able to flourish as a people. However, with the drastic change in Singapore's natural environment, comes an equally drastic change to the lives and common practice of the coastal Malays.
For example, the beaches of Kampung Telok Mata Ikan, Kampung Ayer Gemuroh and Kampung Padang Terbakar were reclaimed to become Changi Airport; meandering rivers with thriving mangroves were transformed into giant concrete longkangs; and hundreds of Orang Pulau were evicted from their islands to resettle in the mainland, only to witness their ancestral island homes turn into industrial, military training and recreational zones.
It becomes clear that as more intertidal spaces become inaccessible, that there is already very little spaces left for the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut community to keep their heritage alive today.
Back in June 2021, nature enthusiast communities and concerned members of the public have called for authorities to take action after witnessing crowds of people harvesting intertidal creatures on Changi Beach. Shortly after, signs were placed on intertidal zones all over Singapore.
While the signs only served as an advisory notice on what one should and should not do in the intertidal areas — with no mention of fines, penalties, or restrictions — it has left the islander and coastal dweller communities, who engage in foraging for molluscs and shellfish on these beaches, feeling concerned and vulnerable.
Almost overnight, it felt as though the traditions and cultural practices of the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut communities were wrong and potentially on the verge of being criminalised, eradicated and forgotten; due to the actions of an irresponsible group of people.
While this attention towards the protection of marine life has mostly toned down in recent months, this issue was raised once more over the Lunar New Year holidays when crowds were once again flocking to Changi Beach and harvesting the marine life indiscriminately.
On 4th February 2022, Minister for National Development Mr Desmond Lee had written on his Facebook page regarding the incident. In it, he mentioned that NParks will be discussing with stakeholders — mostly comprising of nature guides and nature groups — on solutions for better visitorship management on the intertidal areas (Lee, 2022).
Once again, the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut communities of Singapore enter a heightened state of vulnerability as more calls are made by concerned members of the public for authorities to impose firmer restrictions or penalties to those found removing the intertidal life from their homes, in the name of marine life conservation and protection.
While this is a welcomed move to ensure that Singaporeans are able to protect and appreciate their natural heritage, I humbly plea for the concerns and voices of the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut communities to be addressed and included in these discussions as well. I believe that in doing so, it helps us all to create a more inclusive, insightful and well-informed decision.
We may hold strong positions when we are passionate about our causes, as noble as they are in their own unique ways, but we should strive to not allow ourselves to be blinded on the impact that our passion might leave for people of other communities as well. I believe that there is so much that we could learn from each other moving forward; so much that we could love about one another, too.
I hope my two cents' worth will be considered, and I pray that the voices of the Orang Pulau and Orang Laut communities be heard and matter as we progress as a nation, together.
Johari, K. (2021). The Food of Singapore Malays. Marshall Cavendish.
Lee, D. (2022, February 4). Facebook Post. Facebook. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.facebook.com/desmondtslee/posts/4804217034482048
This post was originally posted on WUJ's Instagram page on February 6th, 2022.