Were the Bugis really pirates? Here are 5 things we found out

Were the Bugis really pirates? Here are 5 things we found out

The Malay Heritage Centre’s latest exhibition looks at proud, seafaring folk from South Sulawesi who made Singapore their home. It also runs parallel to the centre’s annual Malay Culture Fest 2017.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition (wedding)
A Malay-Bugis wedding in contemporary Singapore. Note the Bugis dagger worn by the bride, which is unusual in a typical Malay wedding. (Photo: Jamal Mohamad)

SINGAPORE: They have a couple of malls, an infamous street, a movie, and even an MRT station named after them – but how much do you really know about the fierce and proud seafaring Bugis people?

The Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) is putting the spotlight on the Malay sub-ethnic group in Singapore in a new exhibition titled Sirri Na Pesse.

The show – which means “Honour And Pride” in Bahasa Bugis – runs from Oct 14 to Jun 24, 2018. 

Malay Heritage Centre (Kampong Bugis)
The old Kampong Bugis located along the Rochor-Kallang River. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

Done in collaboration with the Bugis community in Singapore, it features around 40 artefacts as well as interactive installations and an artwork that takes visitors on a journey, from the group’s South Sulawesi roots to how they found their way to this part of Southeast Asia.

It’s the fourth instalment of the centre’s exhibition series on Malay sub-ethnic groups called Se Nusantara (Of The Same Archipelago). Previous exhibitions have put the spotlight on the Bawanese, Minangkabau and Javanese communities.

The Bugis exhibition runs in parallel with MHC’s annual Malay Culture Fest, which kicked off on Friday (Oct 13) and runs until Oct 28. The festival lineup comprises various Malay cultural programmes, including those that highlight Bugis history and culture.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition
Malay Heritage Centre's new exhibition Sirri Na Pesse: Navigating Bugis Identities in Singapore. (Photo: Malay Heritage Centre)

These include the opening night performance Aga Kareba, which looks at the history of the Bugis, several guided trails, language workshops and demos on Bugis Silat and drums.

To start your initiation into Bugis culture, here are some interesting facts to note.



Yes, you heard that right. There’s the masculine male and feminine female, but also the feminine male (calabai), masculine female (calalai), and bissu, an androgynous person who transcends everything.

According to curator Suhaili Osman, for the traditional Bugis, it was less about strict categories and more about what role they play in society. The bissu, for instance, acted as mediums who performed spiritual and magical roles.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition (Bissu)
A bissu, one of the five Bugis genders, conducting a ritual washing ceremony. (Photo: Mohammad Ridwan)

And even in Singapore, these fluid identities were evident. MHC programmes manager Jamal Mohamad, who is Malay Bugis, recalled seeing “joget pondan” during weddings in the 1980s. “These were groups of men dressed up as women who were dancing. That scene has slowly disappeared but that was what we were used to – seeing effeminate men and masculine women who were not queer,” he said.

There are hints of this at Jamal’s own recent Bugis-inspired wedding. His wife, who was also of Bugis descent, wore a badik or a Bugis dagger – something you don’t normally see women wear at Malay weddings.


It’s a mistake people often make, mainly because they’re both seafaring folk, said Suhaili. There’s one main difference: The orang laut or “sea people” in Malay spend most of their time on water.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition (Bugis family)
Portrait of a Singapore-Bugis family. (Photo:: Family of Abdul Wafi Waliyudin)

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. If that sounds familiar, it’s because when the Bugis came in during the 17th century, they basically took over the sea folk’s role.

“The Bugis wanted to be part of the political structures of the times and the orang laut were not interested in that. The British and the Dutch then eventually came to rely on them rather than the orang laut,” she said.


It’s a stereotype that apparently has some ring of truth to it. There were indeed stories of English merchants being taken hostage by roving Bugis on their phinisi – or traditional sailing boats – and tall tales by the Dutch about bogey-men coming to take away children.

But it had mainly to do with the fact that they, at the start, were a pain in the backside of European colonisers, who tended to label people. The Bugis were originally farmers who took to the seas after the Dutch took hold of the port of Makassar, strangling their livelihood.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition (Bugis sailing boat)
An early 1900s photograph of a phinisi, a traditional Bugis ship. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

But Suhaili pointed out that while there were indeed pirates among the Bugis, they are also known as traders and businessmen – something that they continued to do upon migrating to other parts of the Malay archipelago, like the Riau Islands and Johor.

“It’s said we’re quick-tempered, brash and proud but also industrious, adventurous and brave,” said Jamal. “I’ve heard comparisons, that the Bugis were the Vikings of the Nusantara – and that was where the piracy (stories) came from, because raiding was a way of life for people who didn’t have resources. But after the raids, they would trade.”


It’s actually a bit further up the road and nearer Lavender MRT – an area that Raffles had allotted for the Bugis settlement beside the Rochor Kallang River. It’s been slated for development but there’s still a street called Kampong Bugis there.

Malay Heritage Centre Bugis exhibition (Kampong Bugis 2)
The old Kampong Bugis located along the Rochor-Kallang River. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board)

As for Bugis Village of today, story goes that there used to be a canal running through the area where the Bugis would park their boats to trade. They established a settlement in the area from Kampong Glam all the way to Rochor River, before they were asked to make way for an Arab kampong in the early 1820s.

Interestingly, the area – especially Bugis Street – would gain a reputation for both gender-bending folk and sailors on R&R, two things that are closely linked to the Bugis identity.


It would seem they’ve got a penchant for singing as well. Two of the three Singapore Idol winners have Bugis blood in them. Taufik Batisah’s family is apparently of Indian and Buginese descent, while Hady Mirza’s family has roots in Sulawesi.

Taufik Batisah and Hady Mirza
What are the chances that two Singapore Idol winners -- Taufik Batisah and Hady Mirza -- are partly of Bugis descent? (Photo: Wikipedia, Mediacorp Channel 5)

Other famous folk in Singapore with Bugis links? Well, there’s Suria celebrity BJ Kadir and contemporary artist Zai Kuning, for starters. Across the Causeway, there are plenty more, such as pop singer Zaina Zain and actress Lisa Surihani. And don’t forget 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, they needed to speak the language to gain any sort of influence,” said Jamal. “They needed to pretend to be Malay so they adopted Malay culture.”

Source: CNA/mm