For a Living Ocean

”The Only Documentation They Get is from Detention”

In the end of April I visited Semporna where I attended the International Conference on Bajau Sama Maritime Affairs of Southeast Asia (ICONBAJAU2019). During the conference, a number of speakers presented papers on topics such as the ethnography of “urban” Sama Dilaut, the material realm of Sama Dilaut boat-dwellers, initiatives for strengthening the Sinama language, use of ethnoherbals among Bajau of northern Sabah, and much more. The proceedings can be found there: Proceedings of the International Conference on Bajau and Maritime Affairs in Southeast Asia


One of the speakers, Sanen Marshall from University Malaysia Sabah, presented a paper about detention of Sama Dilaut in Kota Kinabalu. A recent problem is that many Sama Dilaut have left the life at sea and started to dwell in cities as beggars and vendors, which put them at risk of detention and deportation. As of today, the Sama Dilaut have a different status than other so-called illegal immigrants from the Philippines, and as long as they stay on the sea and do not involve in illegal fishing (e.g. fish bombing, use of cyanide, targeting of turtles and red-listed shark species, fishing inside marine protected areas) they have not much to fear from migration police. In fact, one of the unofficial ethnic categories used by the Malaysian authorities to classify migrants is “Pala’u”, which is a degenerative term for Sama Dilaut and which literally means “to live on boats”.

Ongoing decline in fish stocks, however, have forced many Sama Dilaut to move into the cities, just as thousands of Sama Dilaut have already done in the Philippines. As city-dwellers, they fail to identify themselves as Pala’u, and therefore hundreds of them have been put in detention camps and eventually deported to Bongao in the Philippines, a place which most of them have no connection to since the majority of them were either born in Malaysia, or left Philippines at an early age. As a consequence, many of them return to Malaysia shortly after deportation, and some of them have been deported two or even three times. In the process, they receive the only documentation they will get in their lifetime: detention papers. 

During detention they can be hold in remote inland camps for up to six months along with members of other ethnic groups, as for example the Tausug. The situation in the camps is difficult, especially for those who don’t get support from the outside. “Many young children don’t learn how to speak inside the camps”, Marshall said.

Are They the Last Generation at Sea?

During the conference, I made a presentation about the future of boat-dwelling among the Sama Dilaut in Semporna. Researchers and journalists have suggested that the boat-dwelling lifestyle is on the verge of disappearance, but I tried to show that boat dwelling have actually had a renaissance in Semporna and that the nomadic lifestyle is still flourishing. I also concluded that the boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut are often better off than their house dwelling kin.Sama Dilaut at Pulau Sibuan

After one of the social anthropologist Harry Nimmo’s re-visit to Tawi-Tawi in 1997, he concluded that there are no more boat-dwellers in the area. In the epilogue of his book Magosaha he wrote:

Their unique boat-dwelling culture is now part of the realm of the mbo’, or ancestors. The loss of that culture is a loss for Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and ultimately humankind. (Nimmo 2001: 233).

However, the Sama Dilaut culture has thrived in Semporna during the last few decades, and there are still more than 100 houseboats in the region. As a matter of fact, many of the boat-dwelling Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi escaped to Semporna during the clashes between Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine army in the 1970’s, where they have hold on to their nomadic lifestyle. There are also many examples of Sama Dilaut who actually were house dwelling in Tawi-Tawi but who took up the boat living lifestyle in Semporna.

What then are the factors that have contributed to the preservation and even renaissance of the nomadic lifestyle in Semporna? Here comes a number of factors I have identified:

  • Lack of national recognition and support. The Sama Dilaut in Malaysia are stateless and get no or very limited support from the government. They can’t access health care or education and have no right to work, which keeps them traditional.
  • The Sama Dilaut are stateless but as long as they stay on the sea and in the proximity of islands, they rarely face risk of deportation. As a consequence, they cling on to the life at sea and can hardly look for other means of livelihood.
  • The Malaysian authorities do not let everyone settle in the islands around Semporna. Only native Bajau from Semporna with land ownership, traditional Sama Dilaut and a few other migrant groups as for example Sama Laminusa and Tausug who arrived in the 70’s and 80’s, are allowed (or perhaps tolerated) to live in the area. For others it’s is very costly to acquire land ownership or to lease land.
  • The traditional lifestyle of the Sama Dilaut plays a crucial role in the advertisement of Semporna: photos of remote Sama Dilaut stilt houses show up on international hotel booking websites, and photo safaris are being organised regularly. The Sama Dilaut community nearby Bodgaya is probably the most well-known “sea gypsy” attraction which alone creates large annual tourism revenues for Semporna. Why would the authorities displace them?
  • There is a high level of security in the region. There have been a number of kidnappings of mostly tourists carried out by Philippine militant groups such as the Abu Sayyaf in Semporna during the last decades which has prompted the Malaysian government to increase their military presence. There is also an ongoing land dispute between Malaysia and the successors of the Sulu Sultanate (one of them is the Philippines) regarding the eastern part of Sabah. In 2013, an armed group sent by Jamalul Kiram III, another claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Sulu, arrived by boat at Lahad Datu claiming the territory. In that standoff, 56 militants along with 6 civilians and 10 Malaysian soldiers were killed. Consequently, the Malaysian military have outposts in many of the islands along the coast, and they patrol the sea regularly. The Sama Dilaut benefit from the military presence as they don’t need to fear piracy, as they did in the Philippines.
  • The tourist industry creates incentives to maintain healthy coral reefs. Marine protected areas such as Sipadan National Park and Tun Sakaran Marine Park contribute heavily to the diverse marine life in the area, thus enabling traditional Sama Dilaut fishing practises. It has been estimated that shark diving activities alone create revenues for more than 12 million USD a year 2017 (Vianna etc. 2017). However, some members of all ethnic groups in the islands outside of Semporna do engage in destructive fishing, and there are increased tensions between marine conservationists and local fishermen. If the status of the marine life declines further, more Sama Dilaut may be deported to the Philippines or in other ways prevented from engage in fishing. We must remember, though, that there are many factors contributing to the decline in marine life, such as climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, plastic waste, pollution and large-scale fishing (mainly trawling).
  • There are also economic reasons why many Sama Dilaut choose to live on boats. The increased mobility of boat-dwelling makes it possible for the boat living Sama Dilaut to stay longer at sea, as well as to sell fish to a higher price without relying on middlemen and buy commodities to a lower price in town compared to those who stay nearby Semporna or in the islands. For example, Sama Dilaut fishermen from Bangau Bangau must invest a higher price for making daily fishing trips, so called omkos (which apart from gasoline also include drinking water, staples such as rice and cassava, and cigarettes). House-dwelling Sama DIlaut residents in islands as Mabul and Maiga, on the other hand, largely depend on middlemen for selling their catch, and they also have to pay considerably more for petrol as well as for staples and drinking water. In the long run, the economic equation simply makes sense.
  • Lastly, we must also consider the physical connection that many boat dwelling Sama Dilaut have to the life at sea, which is also partly backed up by science. According to a study in Current Biology, rocking (as for example the rocking of waves) shortens the time it takes to fall asleep, and also to reach non-REM sleep, which correlates with improved sleep quality (Perrault, etc. 2019). We also know that natural sounds from water and waves increase or concentration and make us more relaxed (Gould van Praag 2017). It is also well-known that grounding contributes to reduced inflammation and increased well-being, and proximity to water or even better – swimming in the ocean – is a strong source of grounding (Oschman 2015). It has also been found that consumption of fish improves sleep quality (St-Onge 2016). Many Sama Dilaut claim that they are strongly interconnected to the sea, and as we have seen there can be physiological reasons to that. Many Sama Dilaut also say that they become land-sick if they stay away from the sea too long.Picture1

In Semporna today, there is also a tendency for larger houseboats. The more traditional boats as for example djenging have for long disappeared. The lepa is still used, even though it is more commonly used by Sama Dilaut from Sitangkai. Among the Sama Dilaut from Tawi-Tawi other types of boats, which are not traditional Sama Dilaut boats, are now being used. They are called lansa and motol, of which motol is the largest and which can accommodate up to 20 people. Lansa and motol are typically run by a big diesel engine, good for longer slow-paced trips at sea, and some of the boats are also equipped with smaller gasoline engines for pumping out saltwater from the interior of the boat through a small pipe. A large fully equipped motol can cost up to 50 000 ringgit to construct.

Hence, Semporna is still today a stronghold for Sama Dilaut boat nomadism, and those who live in houseboats are mostly more well-off than other members of their kin. We have to keep in mind, however, that the relative success of many Sama Dilaut boat dwellers correlates with the use of fossil burning engines and higher investments in fishing (as for example large drift nets). Many house dwelling Sama Dilaut say that they would prefer to live in a houseboat – if they could afford it.

Boat dwelling Throughout Sabah

In the presentation “Ethnography of the ‘Urban’ Sama Dilaut: Displacement and Survival”, we were told that there is a small Sama Dilaut community, some of whom live in houseboats in Tun Mustapha Marine Park in Kudat. This means that there is boat dwelling Sama Dilaut in at least four places in Sabah: Kota Kinabalu (Pulau Gaya), Kudak (in the marine park), Lahad Datu (near the city and in nearby islands and, Semporna (near town and in multiple islands).

Poetry Depicting the Traditional life of Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangau

During the conference, I met the author Zubir Osman, whose mother is Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangau. In the book “Yang Terhempas Dan Yang Putus” (whicroughly “The crashed and the broken”) he describes the hardships of the Sama DIlaut fisherman, who struggles under the fierce sun, not knowing if he will bring back any fish to his family that day. But even if he does, he is still dependent on the middleman, who will profit from his hard work. 

Semporna was Part of Long-Distance Trade Network More than 3 000 Years Ago

Bukit Tengkorak (which literally means “Skull Hill”) is an important archaeological site in Semporna. Here, archaeologists have found large amounts of pottery which is up to 6 000 years old (Chia 2003b) Interestingly, this pottery is very similar to the present pottery tradition in some of the local communities in Semporna. At the site, the archaeologists have also found many remains of shell and fish bones. This has raised questions about the history of the Sama Bajau, since linguistic research has shown that the Sama Bajau originated from a proto-Sama-Bajau speaking people inhabiting the Zamboanga Peninsula at around 800 AD.

At the Bukit Tengkorak Archaeological Heritage site, the archaeologists have also found large amounts of obsidian artefacts used to make small flake tools that are estimated to be between 6400 and 2900 years old. The youngest artefacts have been chemically traced to the Kutau/Bao obsidian sub-source in Talasea, New Britain – north of New Guinea – which means that the obsidian must have been transported 3 500 km, thus representing the longest traded obsidian in the world for this time period (Chia 2003c).


Stephen Chia, Professor at the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, University of Science Malaysia, Penang, who was the leading excavator at Bukit Tengkorak, presented a paper entitled “Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on Sama-Bajau Origin and Culture in Sabah” during the conference in which he raised the idea that Bajau may be direct descendants of the Austronesian language speakers who originated from South China/Taiwan at around 4500 BP and dispersed into Island Southeast Asia. However, even if the lifestyle of the early inhabitants at Bukit Tengkorak somehow reflects the lifestyle of present day Sama Dilaut, if it is difficult to tell how long Sama Bajau been on the sea. Nevertheless, the findings at Bukit Tengkorak show that collecting of shellfish, seafaring and long-distance trade have been of importance for thousands of years – thus reflecting a more maritime oriented past throughout Southeast Asia.

Antarbangsa Dance Festival

In conjunction with the ICONBAJAU 2019 conference there was also a dance competition, called Festival Igal Antarabangsa (FIA2019). The competition was designed as a dance battle between different dance groups from Sabah, performing in three traditional dance styles. The well-known community of Bangau-Bangau (which is largely inhabited by Sama Dilaut from Sitangkai) participated with two teams, of which both went on to the semi-finals vividly supported by their friends and family members in the audience – where they faced each other. In the final a team from Kampung Simunul won over the Bangau Bangau finalist in a spectacular and colourful dance show. One of the teams from Bangau-Bangau – dressed in green and white like the traditional djin (shaman) received price for best costume.

One fascinating fact about the Sama Bajau dance is that their feet movements reflect the smooth wading in shallow water as they gather shellfish. It is also said that the gracile hand movements imitate the movement of fish.

Regatta Lepa Festival – 25th Silver Jubilee

During my stay in Semporna I also attended the annual Regatta Lepa festival in which the traditional houseboat, the lepa, and the Sama Bajau culture is being highlighted and celebrated. The festival attracts thousands of visitors from all over Sabah, other parts of Borneo, peninsular Malaysia as well as foreign tourists. Big sponsors, as for example Petronas (a Malaysian oil and gas company), supports the event.

Every year, new lepa’s are being constructed around Semporna to participate in the festival in which prices to the finest boats and best “igal-igal” dancing are awarded. The brand-new boats are mostly done by local Bajau Semporna boatbuilders in for example the island of Bom-Bom – where the famous Bajau Kubang once made lepas that were often purchased by Sama Dilaut fishermen from Sitangkai. Many local schools also participate with the making of their own boats.

This year many Sama Dilaut from Bangau Bangaui participated in the festival bringing their own lepas and decorating them with flags, called sambulayang. However, they were not brand new. In total, more than one hundred boats took part in the boat parade around Semporna harbour. During the festival their was also a hand-out of free food by organizers which caused a rush of Sama Dilaut families at the docking station – and that partly explains why they showed up at all. There was also a showcase of traditional Sama food as different kind of bang bang (sweets) and panjam (rice cake).

Final days in Semporna

During the Regatta lepa festival I also met Kirihati and his family who were anchored in the harbour. He told me that they did not participate since they had no flags. He also said that only a few Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi participated in Regatta lepa since they were busy “magosaha” (roaming the seas for making a living).

After the festival I stayed a few days more in Semporna spending some time with Kirihati and his family. He showed me his diesel engine which he has owned for 20 years. He also told me that he had another houseboat under construction and that he had already purchased all the materials and payed 5 000 ringgit to a skilled boat builder who currently was constructing it. In the meantime, Kirihati was fishing the islands, collecting money for another 5 000 ringgit to be payed during the final state of construction. “I will use my old diesel engine in the new boat”, he said proudly.

Kirihati also told me that he and his family use to make weeklong fishing trips in the islands before returning to Semporna. For a one-week trip they normally need 700 ringgit for buying staples, diesel and gasoline. He also promised me that I could follow him on my next visit to Semporna.

Thus, his life went on, searching and harvesting the sea – just as his forefathers have done for generations. They call it magosaha.


Chia, S. (2003b) Prehistoric Pottery Production and Technology at Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah, Malaysia. Society Journal, 20, 45-64

Chia, S. (2003c). Obsidian sourcing at Bukit Tengkorak, Sabah, Malaysia. In J. Miksic (Ed.), Earthenware in Southeast Asia (pp. 187-200). Singapore: National University Singapore Press.

Gould van Praag, Cassandra D. (2017) Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sound. Nature: Scientific Reports volume7, Article number: 45273 (2017) <>

Nimmo, H. Arlo (2001) Magosaha: An Ehtnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut. Ateneo de Manila University Press, Manila.

Oschman, James L., etc. (2015) The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. <>

Perrault, Aurore A., etc. (2019) Whole-Night Continuous Rocking Entrains Spontaneous Neural Oscillations with Benefits for Sleep and Memory. Current Biology: VOLUME 29, ISSUE 3, P402-411.E3.

St-Onge, etc. (2016) Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Advances in Nutrition: 2016 Sep 15;7(5):938-49 <>

Vianna, Gabriel, etc. (2017) Shark-diving Tourism as a Financing Mechanism for Shark Conservation Strategies in Malaysia. PeerJ Preprints — the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences. <>

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