Uncovering Sea Gypsies

sea gypsies, bajau laut, semporna
Clear crystal water where the Sea Gypsies call it their home.
Click here for more photos of the Sea Gypsies

SEMPORNA: A life as interesting as their name, the Sea Gypsies are definitely a community imaginations are based on.

Who are the Sea Gypsies? This historical community is made of Sabah’s ethnic group originated from the Philippines and Indonesia who for years had lived a seaborne lifestyle, making home of small wooden sailing vessels such as perahu.

Though known as the Sea Gypsies, the correct term of their community is ‘Bajau Laut’.

Their origin is unclear as for most of their history the Bajau was a nomadic, seafaring people, living in seclusion, surviving by trading and fishing.

This boat dwelling community see themselves as non-aggressive people who live in peace, close to the sea shore by erecting houses on stilts and travel in lepa-lepa, a handmade boats many also live in.
Basically, their life revolves around the sea. Many of them work as fishermen, their main source of protein is the fish, they make boats and are excellent divers (some say they can even breathe under water for up to five minutes!), which explains their ‘King of the Sea’ title.

Often we were told of the desirable side of the Bajau’s life causing envy to many. However we tend to forget the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

According to a book written by Md Saffie Rahim, Sabihah Osman and Ramzah Dambul (2012), ‘Bajau Pantai Timur’, the earliest survey done to detect the population of the Bajau Laut was in 1931. The second and third survey was done in 1951 and 1961 respectively.

Based on the survey, the population increased especially during the 1961 survey where most of the 17,000 residents of Semporna were Bajau.

The increase is reported to stem from the conflict between the Moro fighters and the Philippines Government leading to the Filipino’s Muslims migrating to the east coast of Sabah.

However, a number of Bajau Laut members also originated from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines and Sulawesi Island, Indonesia as confirmed by Sibuan Island Village Chief, Almasin Almadal.

“I am not going to lie or hide about the fact that most of us were from the Philippines. But we have been here in Sabah for more than 50 years.

“Unfortunately, most of us do not have proper documentations to clarify our Malaysian citizenship, which is heartbreaking as we were born and bred here in Sabah,” he said.

When I first set foot at Gaya Island, Semporna, I was amazed at the sights of people living in houses built on the sea.

This part of Bajau Laut is known as the East Coast Bajau where they live around Semporna, especially at the small islands around there.

The children were rowing the boats, swimming and playing with each other while the elders were cooking and talking to each other.

Despite the hardship and the struggles they have to endure, the Bajau Laut are definitely an exciting community to study and their stories are undeniably motivating.
As fascinating as their life may seem to a stranger’s eyes, truth is their life is anything but rosy. Living far off the mainland where few people know of their existence, stuck, unable to leave as they have nothing to show and prove their citizenship, makes you wonder if living in a ‘paradise’ is really all that easy.