Bintan, Phoenix of Malay Archipelago

by Marc Thalmann & Gilles Massot

This article is from the book - result of research and field trips during 3 years (2000-2003)

The contents of the article run through the history, the arts and the traditions of the Malay world, from the times of Sriwijaya until the current Millenium, covering the global area from Palembang to Malacca and from Lingga to Natuna, and Bintan.

One important part of the article is looking at the almost forgotten scenic art of Makyong on the island of Mantang and in Kijang, which is in danger of vanishing.

The book is dedicated to be a bridge between the people of Bintan and the tourists coming to the island from the whole world. In the late 1980’s, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta agreed to embark on a long-term project termed ‘the growth triangle’. The basic idea was to link Singapore, Johor and the Riau Archipelago with a mutually benefiting development plan. This so-called ‘triangle’ was in fact nothing more than the resuscitation of the original boundaries of a region that had been robbed of its natural coherence by the intervention of colonialist powers and the emergence of independent nations in the ensuing post-colonial era.

The island of Batam took the bulk of the industrial investment. People from all over Indonesia came looking for job opportunities unheard of elsewhere in the country. From only 6,000 souls in the late sixties, Batam’s population figure had swelled to over half a million by the late 1990s. Plans for the neighbouring island of Bintan were of another kind. Following a survey sponsored by the World Bank, Bintan’s pristine sandy beaches on the northern coast were designated a possible alternative to Bali in Indonesia’s tourist market. On 28 August 1990, an agreement between Singapore and Indonesia was signed that provided the framework for the development of Bintan Resorts in Lagoi.

Over the following ten years, resorts were built, offering the latest facilities in sun-drenched tropical holidays, and by November 2000, Bintan Resorts welcomed its one-millionth visitor. Azure pools, manicured golf courses and blooming gardens had come to adorn the original exotic wilderness. The resort area originally developed as a self-contained zone, with little contacts with the island’s hinterland and Tanjung Pinang, Bintan’s main town on the south-west coast. To most visitors, Bintan seems nothing more than a sleepy backwater. Yet, physically standing at the very heart of a region known as The Malay World, Bintan occupies a place of great importance in the history of South East Asia. From the Sixteen to the Nineteen-Century, it stood as a centre of commerce and power, a legitimate successor to the Malacca Empire and a proud predecessor to modern Singapore. Fame and greatness have faded away, but vestiges and memories are many, readily available traces of a long and troubled history.

The Malay World is a region broadly defined as encompassing the Malay Peninsula, Western Borneo, Eastern Sumatra. Most of it is part of the Sunda Shelf,a currently stable geological formation that extends south of the Asian continent. At the end of the last Ice Age, the rising sea level formed the Java Sea, and early Malay inhabitants developed a way of life centred on maritime activities that followed the fluid rhythm of rising and falling sea and tidal estuaries. A typical Malay settlement usually took the form of a port located beside a coastal estuary, next to a zone of irrigated agricultural land. The river gave direct access to the jungle that provided rainforest products such as camphor resin and rare wood – items of profitable maritime trade.

The region assumed a pivotal role when a convenient alternative to the famous Silk Road was found by going through and around the Malay Peninsula. The maritime route relied upon the seasonal monsoons that allowed boats to travel at predictable periods of the year. Via these itineraries, gold, tropical spices, and rainforest products were made readily available to the world. The control and management of this trade progressively took the form of entrepot ports where goods could be stored, exchanged, and duties levied, while boats were waiting for the winds to change direction.

From the 7th to the 11th centuries, the Srivijaya empire in south-east Sumatra grew rich and powerful from this commerce. Referred to as San-fo-ts’i in Chinese writings, Sribuza by the Arabs and Sriwijaya by the Indians, the Srivijaya empire’s very existence long remained virtually mythical due to lack of physical evidence. This mysterious empire was also known to have developed as a renowned centre of Buddhist learning and Tantric practices. I Ching, a Chinese monk of the late 7th century, recommended that his fellow monks spend time in Srivijaya in order to learn Sanskrit before journeying on to India.

From its capital located inland along the Musi River near present-day Palembang, Srivijaya pursued a monopoly over the trade carried by boats passing along the coast. Srivijaya’s strength sprang from its well-organised government and a system of loose suzerainty made possible by the loyalty of the Orang Laut, whose fighting and maritime skills formed the backbone of Srivijaya’s navy. The Orang Laut or ‘people of the sea’ are also Malays, although till to this day many of them remain non-Muslim and non-sedentary. Also known by the local population as Melayu Asli or ‘original/aboriginal Malays’, they are often described as ‘sea gypsies’ because members of a traditional Orang Laut family follow a semi-nomadic existence in their tiny boats on the water, living symbiotically with the coastal mangrove. Today mostly peaceful, yet fiercely independent, the Orang Laut in the past easily turned to piracy as a way to complement their basic mode of subsistence which centres on fishing. Thus, the allegiance of the Orang Laut was a decisive element in the stability of the trading ports. Srivijaya’s economical and political predominance attracted the jealousy of other kingdoms and the empire fell in 1025 to an attack by the Indian kingdom of Chola.

Was Srivijaya’s civilisation ever present in Bintan? Not so if we are to believe Marco Polo who mentions Bintan in 1292 as a “very savage place”. On the other hand, Arab accounts of the 13th century do mention the existence of a centre of power at Bintan, known to have existed at least until 1323 when it sent a mission to China. Bintan, often called Riau in historical sources, is one of the largest islands of the Riau Archipelago that lies between Sumatra and the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, at the crossroad of an almost inevitable route for sailors travelling between India and China. The island offers a sheltered bay, overlooked by the rather distinctive silhouette of Gunung Bintan, a 380 metres high summit that must have been used as a navigation landmark from an early stage of maritime trade history.

Bintan’s most prestigious mention in early Malay history is to be found in the third chapter of the Sejarah Melayu, or Malay Annals, a semi-mythical account of Malacca’s history, generally regarded as the finest of all Malay classics. In it, a legendary prince by the name of Sang Nila Utama, miraculously appears on a hill in Palembang with his two brothers, and present themselves as direct descendants of the legendary Raja Iskandar Dzu’l Karnain (the Arabic name of Alexander the Great). One brother was invited to rule the Minangkabau country in west Sumatra, while the other was called upon to rule Tanjung Pura in north-east Sumatra. As for Sri Tri Buana, he reigned for a short while in Palembang before leaving in search of a suitable site on which to establish a new city.

Sang Nila Utama sailed to Bintan where he was welcomed by Queen Wan Seri Benian, who recognised in him the heavenly king sent to rule the Malay World. She is credited on that occasion for initiating the use of the nobat, a set of musical instruments that became the most important regalia of diverse Malaysian states, a tradition still in use to this day. The miraculous deeds of Sang Nila Utama continued with his meeting a strange animal, identified as a lion by his companions, on a beach of the nearby island of Temasek. This auspicious vision led Sri Tri Buana to choose the island as the site of his new city, which he named Singapura, the ‘Lion City’.The port of Singapura grew strong and prosperous under his reign and continued thus under the rule of his descendants.

Long regarded as legendary, this story was given some concrete ground in 1984, when archaeological findings on Fort Canning in Singapore established with certainty the presence of a sizeable Hindu-Buddhist trading port that prospered throughout the 14th century. According to the Sejarah Melayu, the port of Singapura fell under Javanese attack during the reign of Iskandar Shah, Singapura’s fifth ruler, and Iskandar withdrew to the Malay Peninsula where he founded the port of Malacca. Portuguese sources, however, mention Parameswara, another prince from Palembang who appears to have been as charismatic as Sang Nila Utama, albeit in a much more boisterous way. Strangley, his deeds closely echo that of Sang Nila Utama, albeit a century later!

Riouw War in 6 January 1784

Recorded history today keeps the name of Parameswara as the founder of Malacca’s port. Malacca – the famed port below the winds – has always been described in the most lyrical terms. As many as two thousand ships at one time could be anchored off its coast and their contents protected from fire and theft in warehouses. Srivijaya was the most powerful Malay kingdom ever and Malacca thrived to reproduce this feat. For over a century, Arab, Indian and Chinese ships and traders from all horizons came to Malacca to exchange their goods and the regional importance of the Malay language grew in tandem with the economic expansion. Jawi, an Arabic written transcription of the Malay language, became the diplomatic written language used by kings from the Malay World to communicate with their European counterparts.

Most importantly, Malacca’s supremacy marked the establishment of Islam in the region. The history of religion in Southeast Asia is inextricably linked with that of commercial trade. As early as the 8th century CE, Muslim traders from India and the Middle East settled in the ports of the northern coast of Sumatra where they called for food and water after crossing the Indian Ocean. From this foothold, Islam began its rise in Southeast Asia around the 13th century, with such success that by the 16th century, the word ‘Malay’ came to be synonymous with ‘Muslim’. Indeed Malacca’s greatest glory was the flowering of Malay culture and society.

The glorious age of Malacca lasted until 1511 when the Portuguese armada led by Afonso de Albuquerque captured the port. By this time the Malay state had become a formidable power and the city counted around 100,000 inhabitants, a cosmopolitan society who had come to share the port’s prosperity. When faced by superior Portuguese firepower, Malacca forces, however, posed little resistance. On 10 August 1511, Sultan Ahmad Syah – the last ruling Sultan of Malacca – and his father, Sultan Mahmud, fled to Bintan in search of a strategic place from where to fight back. There, Sultan Mahmud (who meanwhile had had his son killed!) built Istana Kopak, a new palace on the western slope of Gunung Bintan, defended by two forts at the river mouth. In 1526 the Portuguese managed to break through the Malay defence. Kopak went up in flames and Sultan Mahmud fled to Kampar in Sumatra where he passed away in 1528.

Mahmud’s third son became Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah and laid the foundation of a new settlement on the Johor River in the 1530‘s. This location marked the establishment of the first Johor Sultanate that included large parts of Malacca’s original territory and which would be occasionally governed from Bintan or Lingga, Riau Archipelago’s second largest and southern-most island. There followed a long period of complex interaction between three main regional powers, namely Aceh in north Sumatra, Patani in southern Thailand and Johor in southern Malaysia, all of them fighting one another for territorial supremacy. Meanwhile the Portuguese entrenched behind the walls of A famosa, the famed Malacca fortress, hold fast onto their control of the spice trade.

But in 1595, two Dutch brothers, Cornelis and Frederik Houtman, sailed with four ships to the East Indies, as far as Bali, and managed to break the Portuguese monopoly. By 1619, the Dutch East India Company had established a base in Batavia, today Jakarta. From there, the Dutch began looking for ways to overthrow the Portuguese in Malacca and joined the fluctuating pattern of alliances characterising Malay politics of the time. Finally, in January 1641 after a seven-month siege filled with horror stories galore, Portuguese Malacca fell to the Dutch with the help of a Johor contingent. The Malays initially benefited from this situation. The Dutch, who wanted to retain Batavia as the main port in the region, were not keen on returning Malacca to its former glory, and ports in Johor and Riau thereby experienced great expansion during the second half of the 17th century.

After the disastrous Portuguese attack of 1526, the centre of Bintan’s unfolding saga moved from Bintan Bay to the estuary of Sungai Riau (Riau River), where it has been located ever since. The name ‘Riau’ appears to have come into use at that time. One of the possible explanations for this springs from the Malay word riuh, meaning ‘festive in a noisy way’ – alluding to the many ships and traders coming to port. But while Bintan’s port prospered, Malay politics was about to reach another dramatic climax.

In 1699, the childless Sultan Mahmud Shah II was assassinated in Kota Tinggi, capital of the Johor Sultanate. This regicide,marked the end of the original Malacca royal line, and proved to be a traumatising event with far reaching consequences. The murder is told through diverse versions of a colourful legend based on a piece of nangka or jackfruit, from the Sultan’s orchard and eaten by the wife of the Laksamana. Modern historians, however, rather credit a version that involves the plotting of the Bendahara or Prime Minister and other aristocrats. The reputedly depraved Sultan paid little attention to his kingly duties. Piratical raids had increased dramatically and the kingdom was in dire need of leadership. On 3 September 1699, Bendahara Paduka Raja became Sultan Abdu’l-Jalil Shah and in June 1709, the kingdom’s capital was moved to Bintan.

The new dynasty at first proved quite successful at reviving the entrepot on the Riau River. But in 1717 a pretender claiming to be a natural son of Sultan Mahmud Shah II came to power in Siak, Sumatra. Taking the name Raja Kecil or ‘Little King’, he won the allegiance of the Orang Laut who trusted that he was the direct heir of the legendary power transmitted by descent since Alexander the Great. With their support, Raja Kecil captured the capital on the Riau River. It is within this context that the Bugis made a decisive entry in Johor-Riau history.

The Bugis, originally from Sulawesi, are renowned as the most feared adventurers of the Java Sea. Following a civil war in Sulawesi, the Bugis exodus of the late 17th century had seen many of them settle in Selangor on the peninsula. If one is to believe the Tuhfat al-Nafis (a pro-Bugis chronicle written in the 19th century), the Malay prince Raja Sulaiman, recruited five Bugis brothers in 1721 to force Raja Kecil out of Riau. However, modern historical research rather show that Raja Kecil, wary of Bugis power, attacked them in a number of sea battles, which he eventually lost. After their victory, the Bugis took charge in Riau and installed Sulaiman as Sultan in order to be accepted by the local population. Raja Kecil’s defeat resulted in a new government in which power was divided between a Malay Sultan and a Bugis Yang Dipertuan Muda or ‘Junior Ruler’. Although the negotiations apparently left a good chunk of the power in Malay hands, the Sultan and his family held in fact honorary titles and the Yamtuan Muda truly controlled the state.

By 1728, peace and prosperity had returned to Bintan. The Bugis capitalised on the tradition of a maritime state that had dominated the Strait since Srivijaya. Under their rule Bintan experienced its golden era. In 1777, they built a fort at the apex of the river, known as Kota Piring or ‘Plate Fort’ after the Chinese porcelain plates embedded in the mortar as wall decoration. To many private merchants the port was an attractive alternative to Dutch Malacca and Sungai Riau offered a glorious sight with dozens of Chinese junks, Bugis pinisi and western schooners anchored side by side along the river. The wide range of goods available had no equivalent in the region. The population, estimated at between fifty to ninety thousand people, made Bintan the regional capital.

The glory of the Bugis era in Bintan lingers in Penyengat. A mere 10 minutes boat ride from bustling Tanjung Pinang, the paths of this romantic little island are paved with history and here, everyday life continues to follow the age-old rhythm of previous centuries. The island developed as a gracious centre of living following the wedding of Raja Hamidah and Sultan Mahmud in 1804. On the occasion of this wedding, conceived as a way to solve the difficult relationship that existed already for almost a century, the Sultan presented the island as a wedding gift to the Bugis family. In 1806, Raja Jaafar, the brother of Hamidah, moved the siege of the Bugis government there. The Sultan resided in Lingga, where his successors would remain until 1900.

An important facet of the Bugis era in Bintan was the introduction of a large rural Chinese community. According to the historian Carl Trocki, the earliest recorded instance of a settlement of Chinese agriculturists in the Malay world seems to have taken place in Bintan. Faced with a serious manpower shortage, the 2nd Yamtuan Muda decided to bring in Chinese workers to answer the growing demand for the cultivation of gambier. An extract from the gambier leaves had long been used as an astringent and flavouring agent for chewing betel nut. When it was discovered that the extract could be prepared to produce a powerful leather-tanning agent, its cultivation was extended to large plantations in order to satisfy a growing demand. Chinese workers arrived en masse and by the 1780s as many as 10,000 Chinese were living in Bintan. The extensive culture of gambier was also to have a lasting negative impact on the ecosystem The extraction process required large quantity of wooden fuel and gambier plantations devastated a large part of the original rain forest cover.

The Chinese quickly began to organise themselves into clans and associations that provided the basis for their rise in local economy. Today their presence in Bintan is focused around the village of Senggarang, across the river from Tanjung Pinang. Most of the village is in the form of a maze of walkways connecting the stilt houses built over the water, an environment of suspended streets offering all the facilities necessary to daily life. Facing the entrance of the estuary, three temples forming the Vihara Dharma Sasana complex are regarded as the most ancient Chinese temples in Bintan, if not the the region. The oldest tablet found in the temple T’ien-hou Sheng Miao at the centre of the complex is dated 1811, but considering the earlier settlement of the community, the founding of this temple probably goes back further in time. There are a few more temples in Tanjung Pinang too, in particular, the Vihara Bahtra Sasana, located on Jalan Merdeka, the main thoroughfare. The elaborate wooden architecture of this temple built in the 1820’s is the reflection of an already wealthier community, granting social status through financial participation in communal projects.

The expansion of the Chinese community wasn’t the only change of importance taking place in Bintan’s society as a result of the Bugis government. This movement was counterbalanced by another one that saw the Orang Laut progressively loose their power. From the days of Srivijaya, the Orang Laut fulfilled an important military role in Malay society. When this position was over-taken by the Bugis, the Orang Laut lost their original pride and strength. Many followed the Sultan to Lingga, where they remained at his service in his immediate entourage. But by the time the sultanate was terminated by Dutch colonial power in 1911, the Orang Laut had lost so much of their prestige that, finding themselves ostracised and rejected, they became the pariahs of the archipelago. This sad state of affairs, still a reality of today’s society, is to a large extent due to the fact that Malays regard the Orang Laut as experts in black magic. According to one of the most established beliefs, should one offend or harm them in any way, the Orang Laut have the ability to curse the offender so that he or she will then be compelled to follow them and share their lifestyle.

Today, one has to venture deep into the depth of the archipelago to meet some of the Orang Laut families remaining faithful to their ancestral way of life. The most unusual aspect of their way of life, remains their ability to pack all the necessities of a four to five-member household within the space of a boat hardly more than three metres long. Their few possessions are always very neatly arranged to maximise the limited space under the thatched roof that occupies the centre of the boat. The Orang Laut’s encounter with the modern world poses a very serious threat to their traditional semi-nomadic way of life. Many now choose to become sedentary, an evolution fostered by government projects providing houses and access to schools. In the process they receive an identity card and often give up their animistic beliefs to convert, at least nominally, to Christianity or Islam.

Tanjungpinang's situation map when Arong Bilawa struggle in 1819

The establishment of the Dutch government in Tanjung Pinang (Cape of Areca Palms) took place in 1785 when David Ruhde, the first Dutch Resident, took office in a thatch-roofed building on Pulau Bayan (Parrot Island) in the middle of the estuary. The Dutch presence in Riau all the while had a military purpose and the colonial presence eventually brought to an end the role of Tanjung Pinang as a major trading port. A faint sense of the colonial era lingers on the hill overlooking the town centre. The Dutch presence was centred around a naval base on nearby Bukit Batu Hitam, now the regional command centre of the Indonesian Navy. The former Navy Hospital still functions as the main hospital for the entire archipelago. Across the road from the ferry terminal, the stately Gubernemen Building, built in 1830, has been renamed Gedung Daerah and is used as the Regent’s residence.

The first half of the 20th century brought major changes to Bintan with the apparition of two new urban settlements, Tanjung Uban on the north-west coast and Kijang in the south-east. In the early 1930’s, Tanjung Uban, closer to Singapore than Tanjung Pinang, was selected as the site for a petroleum storage terminal. By the 1940s, a few entrepreneurial Chinese storeowners were operating a successful mini-entrepot exporting rubber and importing rice. The town experienced another boom during the Second World War when it became a place of refuge for many people who had fled their homes in Singapore. In the 1930’s, the town of Kijang developed around the only bauxite ore mine found in Indonesia. The port facilities developed for shipping the ore were put to good use in the 1970s when fast-developing Singapore started to import large quantities of sand and gravel extracted from Kijang’s granite quarry. The larger passenger ships commuting between Jakarta and Bintan also use Kijang’s deep-water channel, thus making Kijang the port of entry for sea travellers from other Indonesian provinces.

The island’s present population, currently around 300,000 inhabitants, has seen drastic changes in its composition, with a large influx of migrants from all over the country. There is no doubt that the island is on the verge of another major shift in its identity. Resorts and industries have brought a new-found prosperity, a fact revealed in the rash of concrete houses which are progressively replacing the wooden huts, the increase of motor vehicles on the road and the ongoing sophistication of the shops in Tanjung Pinang. Yet, for the majority of the people, the core of Bintan’s economy still revolves around agricultural and fishing activities.

Plantations have always represented a sizeable aspect of Bintan’s rural activity. Miles of luxuriant coconut palm plantations grace the seashore, particularly in Trikora on the north-east coast. During the 18th and 19th centuries, gambier remained the only crop of importance that Bintan ever produced, but by the turn of the 20th century, it had been replaced by rubber trees. Today, the extent of rubber tree cultivation on Bintan has been dramatically reduced, although a limited amount of latex continues to be produced locally as a cottage industry. Over the last years of the 20th century, the opening of a pineapple juice processing plant created a new demand that was answered with much enthusiasm by the local population, so much so that the fast developing pineapple plantations are currently bringing yet another aspect of change to Bintan’s landscape.

Fruits orchards and kampung (Malay villages) make the serene background of an excursion to Bintan’s hinterland, but the soul of the island lives and breathes by the sea. From the sondong (a triangular net used in shallow waters and pushed over a sandy seabed), to the solitary fisherman on his sampan, to high-sea fishing ships along the banks of Sungai Riau, fishing techniques in Bintan are many and diversified. The original Malay motto was ‘the sea is our garden’, by which they meant that one should take from the sea only the resources needed for oneself and no more. Modern economy has naturally upset this early ecological concept and today Bintan’s seafood industry thrive in Pelantar II, where shops offer a staggering range of dried specialities, from tiny transparent fries and lovely rosy shrimps, to large oily herrings. Most of this processed seafood is the output of numerous kelong scattered across the archipelago, a traditional type of Malay fishing rigs in the form of platforms built on stilts over shallow waters, while the product of high-sea fishing is exported to Singapore.

One of Bintan’s traditions that does need prompt attention and support, if it isn’t to be completely forgotten within the next decade, is the theatrical art of mak yong. According to oral history in Bintan, the mak yong reached the Riau Archipelago at the turn of the 18th century, where it remained a highly popular form of entertainment until World War II. Following the official adoption of the theatre troupe by the Sultan in 1722, the actors gave up their nomadic life and settled on the island of Mantang. Despite this association to the royal court, mak yong in Bintan always remained close to the farmers and fishermen. Indeed the local stories and theatrical principles reveal that the Riau mak yong became an important means of communication between the aristocracy and the commoners, an art form that promoted bonding and cohesion of the society through laughter and distraction. This art form experienced a short revival in the 1970’s, which was unfortunately short lived and today mak yong is barely surviving in Pulau Mantang and Kijang.

Stepping into the 21st century along with the rest of the Indonesian nation isn’t exactly easy for Bintan and its inhabitants. Many adjustments have yet to be implemented in order to meet the new economic and political challenges. Yet the island pulsates with an eager energy that sees it developing at an unprecedented pace. For example, the long-term consequences of the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2003 between Singapore and the United States, which at the last minute included Bintan and other parts of Riau, are anybody’s guess. Another project from the Regent’s office may see a new administrative capital built in the centre of the island. This shift of tremendous significance would signify the return of local political power to the original location of Bintan’s centre of power, at the foot of Gunung Bintan, as described in the Sejarah Melayu.

1 comment:

tuahbugis said...

Good Day sir,

I would like to use your article and publish it in my blog. Ii is an excellent write-up and a good reference for Bugis who wish to seek their true identity.
Thank You