Last Updated On : Saturday, November 29, 2014 11:36:22 AM

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Sea Gypsies of Malaysia - The Pala’u

The Pala’u community were first discovered 300 years ago and were believed to have originated from the isles of Riau Johor specifically Lingga Island. They then migrated to the islands south of the Philippines and North Borneo 100 years ago after the fall of the Malacca Empire.

These people are known as sea gypsies due to their nomadic lifestyle in the seas and majority of them still live on boats and live as sailors. The majority of the Pala’u live in the waters around Semporna, Kunak, Lahad Datu and Sandakan.
Though known as the Pala’u or Sea Gypsies, the correct term for the community is “Bajau Laut”. The Land Bajau are known as Sama but generally known simply as Bajau.

Basically, the life of the Pala’u revolves around the sea. Many of them work as fishermen, their main source of protein is 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.

According to a book written by Md Saffie Rahim, Sabihah Osman and Ramzah Dambul (2012), ‘Bajau Pantai Timur’, the earliest survey on the population of the Bajau Laut was in 1931. The second and third surveys were in 1951 and 1961.
Based on the survey, the population increased especially during the conflict between the Moro fighters and the Philippines government forcing many Filipino Muslims to flee to the East coast of Sabah.

The Bajau Laut also originate from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines and Sulawesi Island, Indonesia.

The Southeast Asian island world is home to several maritime communities whose people often are referred to as "sea nomads" or "sea gypsies," names that appeal to the exoticist imagination of Western  travelers.

The Sama Dilaut, one of these sea-going peoples, live all over the Philippine Sulu Archipelago, southwestern Mindanao, Sabah in Borneo, east Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and many of the eastern Indonesian islands.

In East Coast Borneo, the Bajau Laut, as the Sama Dilaut around Semporna, Sabah/Borneo call themselves, have strong ties with their related communities in the Philippines.

Some of these Bajau Laut have maintained their nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in houseboats and only temporarily setting up makeshift huts on small islets in the Celebes and South China Seas.

However, some have become sedentary, living in the stilt houses  "floating villages" that started to grow considerably in Semporna during the 1960s.

“Bajau Laut”: “Sea Bajau.”

Traditionally, the families lived on houseboats, coming ashore only to stock up their water and food supply and to trade with the shore-based communities their  fish for items they needed for daily life on the sea.

Their creed is syncretism of ancestor spirit worship and Sunni Islam: healing rites, annual ceremonies dedicated to specific spirits, and other religious events nearly always include both the invocation of ancestors and spirits, and an Imam’s prayer.

Wherever in the Southeast Asian archipelagos they live, other communities consider the Bajau Laut to be on the social ladder's lowest rungs.

Adding to profound social discrimination and economic poverty, the armed conflict in the Southern Philippine Sulu Archipelago has deprived many Bajau of free access to their "home waters;" a great number of Bajau from this area, impossible to define because of their frequent lack of official citizenship, have fled to the Northern Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysian Borneo.

Especially in the Northern Philippines' urban areas, they scrape out their living bereft of their two most important possessions—their boat and their mobility.

Sabah's Bajau Laut Community Ready To Embrace Development

By Haslin Gaffor

SEMPORNA, Feb 22 (Bernama) -- At one time, Imai Ulaiman, 50, used to live on his boat at sea but now has resettled on terra firma along with his family at Pulau Bodgaya.

In spite of the initial apprehensions, Imai still went ahead with his decision to end his nomadic lifestyle on the boat with the direction literally set by the winds.

This was the typical life of the Bajau Laut or the Pala'u community who are known as the sea-farers of Sabah.

But what prompted Imai to take the plunge, he told the writer through an interpreter, it is to embrace development for the sake of his future generations.

Imai's family is among the 30 odd families living in the settlement and the sea is still close to their heart.

Their house stands on the sea and the boat still serves them as their main transport mode. The Bajau Laut's change in lifestyle has helped the government and the non-governmental organisations to channel assistance, especially employment opportunities based on marine resources.


Imai made the right decision because he will be among the settlers to partake in a seaweed culture project under the Semporna Island's Darwin Project meant to improve their socio-economic standing.

Under this project, the participants are provided equipment and the know-how in implementing the seaweed culture project.

The Semporna Island's Darwin Project is an initiative to rope in the local community to preserve the marine life especially the corals at the Tun Sakaran Marine Park.

The project took off in 1998 and maintained by the Marine Preservation Organisation with the cooperation of Sabah Parks to preserve the biodiversity around the park by encouraging the sustainable use of the marine resources.

Imai said he is eager to get on with the seaweed culture as it promises regular income for the family.

"At present, we live on the catch and coconuts collected from nearby islands. I want to change my present way of life so that my coming generations can enjoy development and they can go to school," said Imai who only speaks in his native language.

Imai lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in two adjoining houses, and the houses are cramped as 15 people are living in them.


The dwellers in the island don't have steady source of income and valuable catch like shrimps and fishes are sold to fishermen or bartered for rice or clothes.

Many from the Pala'u ethnicity still hold strongly to their traditional ways with most without identification documents or formal education. They speak only in their mother-tongue.

Another member of the community who is also seeking the winds of change is Injalmani Masewani, 50, who is also eager to participate in the Semporna Island Darwin Project.

"I cant wait to get on with this project as it promises a bright future for the whole family and free us from the shackles of poverty," said the father of nine.


It is estimated that at present there are only about 150 Pala'u families in the district who still live on boats. The major Pala'u settlements in this district is at Kampung Labuan Haji, Pulau Bum-Bum and Kampung Bangau-Bangau. Many live in homes built under the Hardcore Poor Housing Programme.

The Bajau Laut community in Pulau Bodgaya has been offered the seaweed culture project as it has proven successful in several coastal districts.

The seaweed culture activity is a viable income generator for the locals and is helping to enhance Semporna district's economy as the leading seaweed producer in Sabah. In this district the seaweed culture project has already been implemented in Pulau Selakan, Kerindingan, Bum-Bum, Sebangkat, Sibuan, Pababag and Omadal.

The project has transformed the lives of the settlers in the village and they are now no longer left out from development.




The Bajau people came from 2 tribes : 1)  Bajau tribes of Kota Belud and 2) Bajau Laut tribes of Semporna

The Bajau tribes of Kota Belud are known for horse-riding while the Bajau Laut tribes of Semporna are known for their seafaring skills.

Bajau Laut tribes are known as the sea gypsy people like other island people of the Pacific Ocean in southern Philippines and other small islands.

For many years Bajau Laut lived in the ocean on make-shift house boats. Only in recent years they made settlements on coastal area with houses built on stilts. The ocean is still their main source of living - fishing, collecting clams and mussels, and pearl farming in Bodgaya Island and Boheydulang Island.

Traditional Festival Costume of Bajau Laut tribes (sea gypsy people) of Malaysia

Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau) traditionally lived  on house boats. Recent years they made settlements on coastal  houses on stilts. The sea is still their main source of living.

INDEX : CULTURE OF SABAH  November 29, 2014 11:36:22 AM

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