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 Bugis originally came from the southwestern peninsula of Celebes (now known as Sulawesi), an Indonesian island located between Borneo and the Moluccas (now known as the Maluku Islands). An important seafaring people in Southeast Asia, the Bugis are traditionally known for their fierce character and sense of honour. Like the Malays, the Bugis are Muslims, with Islam being an important part of their culture.
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. This was in response to the Dutch capture of the port of Makassar, which cut the Bugis off from trade in the surrounding areas. The Bugis were thus forced to travel by sea to other parts of the Malay Archipelago, especially the coasts of Sumatra and Malaya, in search of trading opportunities.
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.
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.
In February 1819, shortly after the arrival of the British, a group of 500 Bugis led by Chieftain Arong Bilawa arrived in Singapore, which then became the centre of Bugis trade in the western part of the Malay 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.
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.
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.
When the Bugis first arrived in Singapore, they established a settlement in an area that extended from Kampong Glam up to the Rochor River. This settlement became known as Bugis Town. By 1822, the area was comprised of large compounds that were owned by 20 prominent Bugis merchants and their followers. In 1823, the Bugis were asked to relocate their town to make way for an Arab kampong (“village” in Malay). 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.
Besides Bugis Town, there was also a sizable Bugis community that settled at Kampong Bugis along the estuaries of the Kallang and Rochor rivers. Other ethnic communities such as the Orang Laut (“sea people” in Malay), Baweanese and Palembang Malays also lived along the fringes of these two rivers.
Although the original Bugis Town area is no longer a Bugis enclave, landmarks such as the Bugis Junction shopping mall, Bugis Street and Bugis MRT station serve as reminders of the area’s Bugis connection.
The Bugis, especially those from the Wajo tribe, were considered the leading traders in the region. The Bugis trading vessels typically left Sulawesi for Singapore in October each year to take advantage of the strong east winds. The vessels would carry items such as cotton fabrics, gold dust, nutmegs, camphor, frankincense and tortoise shell.
The Bugis vessels would only sail back to Sulawesi from Singapore in December or January when the west 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 also involved in shipbuilding and repair.
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.
For the most part, though, identifying a strictly Bugis identity is pretty hard 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.
Older info to be integrated with the aboveEdit
The Bugis came from the Celebes Islands in Indonesia. They were well known for a long time as maritime traders. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Bugis were spreading out from Celebes to set up trading centres throughout the region. Often they had to sail to distant lands and fight indigenous tribes. They rarely lost and acquired a reputation as fierce warriors.
The Dutch control of 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. Their migration to what is today Malaysia, Singapore and Riau began around the 18th century or even earlier. At the beginning of the 19th century, the number of Bugis traders in the region increased. Their influence in Riau was strong. 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.
The establishment of a free port in Singapore allowed the Bugis to expand their network in the archipelago. Sailing from Sumatra to north Australia, the Bugis ships brought cargoes of cotton cloth, gold dust, birds-of-paradise feathers, pepper, trepang (sea slugs), sandalwood, tortoiseshell, coffee, and rice to Singapore. Most of these goods were very much in demand by the Chinese merchants in Singapore. The Bugis also traded in slaves.
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.
By the 1830s, the Bugis had established themselves in Singapore and formed the majority of the pioneer communities in the Kampung Gelam area. By 1881, the Census of Population reported 2,053 Bugis in Singapore. The Bugis gradually formed kampongs and settlements in places like Kampung Bugis (around the Kallang River), Kampung Soopoo, Jalan Pelatok and Jalan Pergam.
- Stephanie Ho, "Bugis community", Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, 12 August 2013.
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This article was written by Roy Tan.