The Bugis, who came from the Celebes islands in Indonesia, were among the first groups of people to arrive in Singapore after the British established a trading settlement on the island in 1819. Many of the early Bugis settlers came as maritime traders and made significant contributions to the development of Singapore as a regional trading hub. People of Bugis ancestry who reside in Singapore today are regarded as part of the larger Malay-Muslim community. In 1990, the Bugis formed 0.4% of Singapore’s Malay-Muslim population.
The home of the Bugis people is Makassar, the capital of Indonesia's South Sulawesi province on the island of Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes), an Indonesian island located between Borneo and the Moluccas (now known as the Maluku Islands).
Although Bugis merchants' activities in the Malay Archipelago were recorded as early as the 16th century, the Bugis were originally farmers and their involvement in maritime activities only gained momentum in the 18th century. Bugis, especially those from the Wajo tribe, were considered the leading traders in the region. They spread out from Celebes to set up trading centres throughout the region. Their sailing vessels typically left Sulawesi for Singapore in October each year to take advantage of the strong easterly monsoon winds. Their journeys to Singapore would take an average of 15 to 18 days, and up to a month if wind conditions were poor! Sailing from Sumatra to northern Australia, they traded in spices, nutmegs, camphor, frankincense, tortoise shells, gold dust, cotton cloth, birds-of-paradise feathers, pepper, trepang (sea slugs), sandalwood, coffee and rice. Most of these goods were very much in demand by the Chinese merchants in Singapore.
The Bugis craft would only sail back to Sulawesi from Singapore in December or January when the westerly monsoon winds had picked up. The Bugis traders would return to Sulawesi with goods such as opium, European and Indian cotton goods, iron and tobacco. In addition to material goods, the Bugis also traded in slaves from various parts of the Malay Archipelago such as the Lesser Sunda Islands, Buton, Mindanao, Sulu and northeast Borneo. Some Bugis merchants even subjected their fellow Bugis to the slave trade. Due to their dependence on maritime travel and trade, the Bugis were involved in shipbuilding and repair too.
Often they had to sail to lands distant from their home and fight indigenous tribes. They had a sense of honour, were tenacious, never surrendered and rarely lost - qualities which led to their acquiring an image as fierce warriors. This enabled them to extend their political influence to Kedah and Perak and to establish a Bugis sultanate in Selangor. They therefore played an important part in the political development of the Malay Peninsula in the 18th century.
Occasionally, they also put their sailing prowess to less benign uses and gained a reputation in the region for being a race of bloodthirsty pirates. The stereotype of the Bugis as pirates apparently has some ring of truth to it. There were indeed stories of English merchants being taken hostage by roving Bugis on their pinisi or traditional sailing boats (see below), and tall tales by the Dutch about Bugis bogeymen coming to take away children. But it had mainly to do with the fact that they, at the start, were a nuisance to the European colonisers who tended to label people.
While there were indeed pirates among the Bugis, they were also known as traders and businessmen, occupations they continued to partake of upon migrating to other parts of the Malay archipelago like the Riau Islands and Johor. They are said to be quick-tempered, brash and proud, but also industrious, adventurous and brave. The Bugis have even been called the Vikings of the Nusantara and were much respected. Unfortunately, this was also the source of the piracy stories because raiding was a way of life for a people who did not have resources. But after their raids, they would engage in peaceful trade. Among the Bugis traders were also members of the nobility like Engku Karaeng Talibak who married the daughter of Raja Ali Haji. According to Raja Ali Haji in his work, Tuhfat al-Nafis, the presence of Karaeng Talibak brought more Bugis traders to Riau.
Settling in Riau
From the 18th century onwards, many Bugis settled in the Johor Sultanate, especially in Riau, which became an important port. In addition to trading activities, the Bugis became involved in the political intrigues of the region. At different points in time, they acted as mercenaries fighting for various Malay princes in the Johor Sultanate succession disputes. Some Bugis also married into the royal family of the Johor Sultanate and were able to gain control of the office of Yang Di-Pertuan Muda (junior king), a position that was subsequently passed down through the Bugis lineage.
Dutch invasion of Makassar
In 1687, the Dutch captured the port of Makassar, cutting the Bugis off from trade in the surrounding areas and strangling their livelihood. The Bugis were thus forced to travel by sea to other parts of the archipelago, especially the coasts of Sumatra and Malaya, in search of trading opportunities. In 1784, the Dutch invaded Riau in an attempt to quash their trade competitors, the Bugis, who were driven out of the area. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Dutch territories in Southeast Asia were temporarily handed over to the British to administer. This arrangement allowed the Bugis to resume their commercial activities in Riau. After the Dutch returned to the area in 1819, armed clashes broke out between the two trade rivals. As a result, a number of Bugis left Riau for Singapore, where they could trade more freely under the British.
Settling in Singapore
At the time of the founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819, Bugis traders were already sailing up Singapore's southern waterways, mooring their boats and trading with local merchants. The establishment of a free port in Singapore allowed the Bugis to expand their network in the archipelago.
By 1820, the distinctive traditional Bugis schooners called palari (known in Malay as perahu Bugis) were a familiar sight along the Kallang River. With white hulls, green tripod masts, gaffed rigs and twin steering oars manned on outboard galleries, they were impressive to behold under full sail.
Also seen were smaller Bugis vessels such as the leteh-leteh and padewakang. The padewakang was a more basic, alternative vessel to the iconic and impressive pinisi. Variants of the padewakang exist throughout the Indonesian Archipelago and even as far away as Madagascar.
The largish palari was the older design of the two types of pinisi (also spelt "phinisi"), a traditional Indonesian two-masted sailing ship mainly built by the Konjo tribe, a sub-ethnic group of the Bugis, who were mostly residents at the Bulukumba regency of South Sulawesi. The pinisi was, and still is, used widely by the Bugis and the Makassarese, mostly for inter-insular transportation, cargo and fishing purposes within the Indonesian archipelago. In 1824, a total of 90 Bugis ships were reported to have called at Singapore. The following year, the number of Bugis ships visiting the island had increased to 120. A British sailor named James Cameron gave a description in 1865 of the various ships that would visit Singapore's harbour. According to him, each year during October and November, the Bugis ships would come from Bali and the Celebes. Bugis sailing vessels were a common sight off Singapore's sea front even up to the 1960s.
19th century Bugis maritime contributions (much documented in Bugis Street's atrium displays and which are unfortunately being obliterated and lost by vendors) were vital to Singapore's entrepot sophistication. At first, the Bugis intermingled with the aboriginal Orang Laut who had long established settlements along the swampy area of the Kallang River. At the time of Raffles' landing in Singapore in 1819, half of the island's population of 1,000 residents were these Orang Kallang, (also called Orang Biduanda Kallang), an ethnic group which originated in Java. They were a shy, primitive, boat-dwelling people who sustained a subsistence living by fishing and collecting other materials from the nearby forests. They had lived for centuries in the swamps at the mouth of the Kallang River, which purportedly was named after them.
In the 1835 G. D. Coleman Map of Singapore, a long stretch of the coast along Kallang is seen lined with sand and mud with mangrove marsh and swampland blanketing the Kallang Basin. Coleman's map also showed a Bugis Village between the Rochore and Kallang Rivers.
Many people often mistake the Bugis for the Orang Laut mainly because they are both seafaring folk. However, there is one difference - the Orang Laut spend most of their time on water. Being the aborigines of Singapore, they were also already present in this part of the region before the Bugis even arrived, acting as middlemen, navigators and hired guns for sultans. When the Bugis came during the 17th century, they basically took over the sea folk’s role. The Bugis harboured ambitions of becoming part of the political structures of the times and the Orang Laut, who were used to a more simple life, were not interested in that. The British and the Dutch eventually came to rely on them rather than the Orang Laut.
After 1819, the Orang Kallang were relocated by Temenggong Abdul Rahman to the northern Singapore Straits at Sungai Pulai. Interestingly, the Temenggong, who was from Riau but had Bugis blood, settled in Singapore in 1811, set up gambier and coconut plantations and then colluded with Raffles to make the island a British colony. There were about a hundred families when Raffles first landed but in 1847, a smallpox epidemic reduced them to merely 8 families. By 1948, they were virtually extinct.
Thanks to their seafaring prowess, Bugis traders, who dominated the commerce of the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago, flocked to Riau, where their countrymen were strongly entrenched politically and held influence and power there for a long time. When the Dutch began to exercise a trade monopoly in the region in the 18th century, the Bugis' seat of power in Riau was threatened. The Dutch control of Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies) and their blockades cut off the Bugis from their traditional spice trade routes from Celebes to Java. This forced them to migrate to other areas to continue trading. Armed clashes with the Dutch in Indonesia resulted in 500 Bugis fleeing from Makassar to settle down in the fledgeling British colony of Singapore with their chieftain, Arong Bilawa, in February 1820. The first appearance on the horizon of the fierce, warlike Bugis fleet terrified the inhabitants of Singapore, who were relieved to find they came as settlers, bringing their women and children. This was the largest single body of immigrants, and John Crawfurd, the Resident of Singapore from 1823-1826 was delighted to welcome a balanced community of families who would attract the prized Bugis trade. He refused to hand Arong Bilawa over to the Dutch envoy who demanded his extradition, and instead granted him asylum in Singapore. The Bugis then proceeded to build their kampong along the Rochore River. Bringing with them their invaluable trade network, the Bugis quickly formed an important component of the island's economy. Their presence was significant enough for Stamford Raffles to take notice.
By 1824, there were some 1,851 Bugis in Singapore making up slightly more than 10 percent of the island’s population. The Bugis population in Singapore peaked at around 2,000 people in the 1830s when Bugis merchants had a virtual monopoly over trade with the eastern islands of the Malay Archipelago.
Raffles' 1828 master plan for the settlement, known as the Raffles Town Plan or Jackson Plan, followed a racial approach to allocating residential spaces to the various communities in Singapore. It allotted the Bugis the land between Kampong Glam and the Rochor River, near where Lavender MRT Station is today. This area, on the right bank of the river and originally occupied by the Orang Laut, was logically named "Bugis Town" or Kampong Bugis. It was near the Sultan's compound and not to be confused with the contemporary Kampong Bugis at Kallang.
The name "Bugis Town" appeared on a map of Singapore from 1825. It was larger in extent than even the generous area allotted for the Bugis trading community and labelled "Bugis Campong" in the Jackson Plan, Singapore's town plan drawn up by Lieutenant Jackson by December 1822. The old "Bugis Town" of early 19th-century Singapore seems to have persisted in its original location for a few years longer than planned, despite Raffles' directives of October 1822 to remove the Bugis from the area around what is today Bugis Junction. In any case, Bugis and Makassarese merchants and traders in Singapore actually lived and owned properties all across Singapore Town, including in the areas labelled as "Chinatown" today.
The Bugis settlement later expanded to the north and left banks of the Rochor River near today's Kallang Bridge, as well as to the banks of the Kallang River. This location was also convenient and practical because the Bugis could moor their trading boats nearby. By 1822, the area was comprised of large compounds that were owned by 20 prominent Bugis merchants and their followers. Bugis women were prominent entrepreneurs too, such as trading magnate Hajjah Fatimah, who came with her Gowan Prince husband as early as 1818, and not only set up a mosque in her name but also (according to her descendants) bought the 100 acres of land that became Geylang Serai. She was not even the only Bugis businesswoman who donated buildings for Muslim charity. In 1823, the Bugis were asked to relocate their town to make way for an Arab kampung. A new Bugis Town was subsequently established at Kampong Rochor in what is today the area between Lavender MRT Station and the Crawford housing estate.
The Dutch eventually allowed Arong Bilawa to return to Riau but he had settled in Singapore by then and, along with many of his followers, chose to remain. A considerable proportion intermarried with the local Malays and became assimilated into Malay culture. The community thrived and Singapore soon became the headquarters of Bugis trade in the western archipelago. By the time of the first census in 1824, there were 1,951 Bugis recorded in Singapore, over 18% of the island’s population of 10,683. By the 1830s, the Bugis had established themselves in Singapore and formed the majority of the pioneer communities in the Kampong Gelam area. By 1881, the Census of Population reported 2,053 Bugis in Singapore. The Bugis gradually formed kampongs and settlements in places like Kampong Bugis (around the Kallang River), Kampong Soo Poo, Jalan Pelatok and Jalan Pergam.
Various factors led to the subsequent decline in the Bugis population in Singapore. In 1847, Makassar was converted to a free port. The lifting of trade restrictions and the growing dominance of Western ships and steamers in the Malay Archipelago increased competition for the Bugis traders operating out of Singapore. In the latter part of the 19th century, the role of the Bugis as maritime traders was reduced along with the local sea trade. The Bugis traders now complemented modern shipping lines by serving as a link to isolated areas that were often located in shallow waters. As a result of these structural changes in the regional sea trade, the Bugis lost their dominant maritime trading position and their numbers in Singapore declined accordingly. By 1860, there were only about 900 Bugis left on the island.
With other Malay groups and the Arabs settling in this vicinity, the Bugis area became a Muslim heartland. Notable Arab entrepreneurs developed the shophouses of the area into a multicultural business zone by the late 19th and early 20th century. The intellectual enrichment of the area by pilgrim travellers and Muslim publishing businesses and intellectuals made Singapore circa 1900 one of the great centres of Islamic scholarship and information.
Between the First and Second World Wars, flourishing businesses were established in the area, especially by Japanese proprietors who may have nursed the ulterior motive of being an intelligence-gathering source.
In modern day Singapore, "Kampong Bugis" no longer refers to a kampung (Malay hamlet or village in a Malay-speaking country) but is the name of a quiet lane on the left bank of the Rochor River which leads to Kallang Riverside Park. It is home to a scattering of factory buildings, a Hindu temple, a park and a hipster café frequented by teenagers. Up to the late 1990s, an unmistakeable landmark, the cylindrical metal stucture of the old Kallang Gas Works was situated right next to it.
During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, a number of Bugis were resettled in Pontian, Johore while others moved out to Beach Road and Arab Street. Today the Bugis have been assimilated into the Malay community, with most living in HDB flats.
It was after these people and their settlement at Kampong Bugis that Bugis Street was named. Bugis traders would come to Singapore from Sulawesi for trade and after disposing of their goods, they would gather at Bugis Street to eat, drink and make merry until the wee hours of the morning. Despite the recognition of 5 distinct genders within Bugis culture, including the non-heteronormative bissu, calabai and calalai (see main article: Gender in Bugis society), the road, which later became famed for its nocturnal congregation of transgender people, was not named after the Buginese for this reason.
Haji Ambo Sooloh (b. 1891–d. 1963), also known as Haji Embok Sulo, was a prominent Malay community leader, businessman and philanthropist of Bugis descent who is best remembered as one of the founders of the Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu. Haji Ambo came from a wealthy Bugis merchant family who owned a fleet of ships that conducted regular trade between Singapore and the rest of the Malay Archipelago. He owned substantial property as well as pepper and gambier plantations in Borneo and Sumatra.
Haji Ambo Sooloh's grave, located behind Malabar Mosque along Victoria Street, features inscriptions in Lontara, the written version of the Bugis language. It is one of several graves in the area to have inscriptions in the script :
It would seem the Bugis have a penchant for singing as well. Two of the three Singapore Idol winners have Bugis blood in them. Taufik Batisah’s family is of Indian and Buginese descent, while Hady Mirza’s family has roots in Sulawesi.
Other famous folk in Singapore with Bugis links are Suria celebrity BJ Kadir and contemporary artist Zai Kuning. Across the Causeway, there are plenty more, such as pop singer Zaina Zain and actress Lisa Surihani, not forgetting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The sultans of Selangor and Johore are also descended from the Bugis.
For the most part, though, identifying a strictly Bugis identity is quite difficult today, simply because they swiftly integrated into the Malay community. When the Bugis came to this part of the world and immediately participated in the politics of the region, they needed to speak the language to gain any sort of influence. They needed to pretend to be Malay so they adopted Malay culture.
From 14 October 2017 to 24 June 2018, the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) held an exhibition on the Bugis in Singapore entitled, "Sirri Na Pesse" which means “Honour And Pride” in the Bugis language.
Organised in collaboration with the Singapore's Bugis community, it featured around 40 artefacts as well as interactive installations and artwork that took visitors on a journey from the group’s roots in South Sulawesi to how they found their way to this part of Southeast Asia.
It was the fourth instalment of the centre’s exhibition series on Malay subethnic groups called "Se Nusantara" (Of The Same Archipelago). Previous exhibitions had shone the spotlight on the Baweanese, Minangkabau and Javanese communities.
The Bugis exhibition ran in parallel with the MHC’s annual Malay Culture Fest, which ran from Friday, 13 October to 28 Oct 2017. The festival lineup comprised various Malay cultural programmes, including those that highlighted Bugis history and culture. These included the opening night performance, Aga Kareba, which looked at the history of the Bugis, several guided trails, language workshops and demonstrations on Bugis Silat and drums.
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This article was written by Roy Tan.