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An Inch of Space

Updated: May 17, 2023


with Air Da Tohor (19 & 20 May 2023)

From its very title, air da tohor is a conjuring of space. The water is shallow, the tide is low, the sea levels are falling. The more one unpacks the term, at least in its literal meanings, the more the scale of the space it refers to grows ever larger. Consequently, the impact of the statement grows, from perhaps personal and innocuous, to global and potentially dangerous. As they say, context is key.

But the term is not just a term. It is also a signifier, calling out for further attention.

In Singapore, Bahasa Melayu has been somewhat codified – as a National Language, recognised for being the language (mother tongue) of the Malay people, as a formal language taught in schools, documented in kamus, books, and further transmitted in formal and informal settings. In practice, the Malay language can be very adaptable. I’m fond of some colloquialisms borrowed from English, such as “taparweh” for “tupperware”, and have less love for others, like “ekspreswe” for “expressway” when the word “lebuhraya” exists.

Often, it is the formal language that can be very resistant. For modern standardisation’s sake, words like “chegu”/”che’gu” and “datok”/”dato’” are now “cikgu” and “datuk”. But resonances of the past continue to haunt, like the word “kampong” that persists in certain road names. It is here that we can locate the word “da”, a contraction of “sudah” (already), sometimes written as “dah”.

And what of “tohor”? Shallow, evaporated, dried up, words conjuring negative space, and perhaps a lack.

Growing up, I had not heard of the word “tohor”. I would have used the word “cetek”, which refers to water being shallow. I recall how the word was taught to me – usually to describe the state of a river or a creek, especially with regard to whether a human could cross the water safely, or not.

So why “tohor”? Why this use of classical Malay (توهور‎ / tuhur)? I am no scholar of the Malay language, but research tells me its root words may have proto Malayic origins - the tuhua of the Minangkabau, the tuug of Manobo of Central Philippines, the du’ur of Sumba-Flores, the *tuquʀ of Eastern Malayo-Polynesia. It is a reflection of lineage, travel and sea migration.

Entry points and the shifting of tides

The conjuring of space is not a thoughtless act. Nor is it a neutral one. To do so thoughtlessly, without meaning, would be a waste. But those who act out of love and urgency are indeed the most resourceful, not least with their words.

For both Firdaus Sani and Kak Asnida Daud, the use of performance, particularly how they play with language, is strategic. As descendents of Orang Pulau and Orang Laut from Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sudong, they are in their own ways trying to document and champion the culture of their people.

But what of the politics of air da tohor?

On the one hand, there is a lot of baggage to unpack. Singapore’s offshore islands, its rivers and straits were once home to multiple island communities, before they were resettled on the mainland to make way for modern Singapore’s development plans. Pulau Semakau was turned into a landfill; Pulau Sudong became a military live firing zone; others became sites for tourism, refineries, military training. Along the way, the islanders were gradually subsumed into the ethnic Malay category, and took on Islam as their religion.

These stories of displacement and loss are important and valid.

On the other hand, there is so much more to the culture of Orang Laut and Orang Pulau that many of us may not know about. Firdaus, in his work with Orang Laut Sg, uses the food of Pulau Semakau to open up conversations about history, culture and the skills and knowledge of the Orang Laut. Kak Asnida, as a researcher and artist, is interested in documenting its unique culture and spreading it to a larger audience.

They have their own entrypoints into their roots, and acknowledge that not all descendents have a desire to continue the cultures of their family and ancestors. Even in terms of the audience, it’s interesting that there is more appetite to listen to the stories of the Orang Laut and Orang Pulau. One could even say that it is cool to be a former islander today.

But perhaps awareness is a crucial first step to counter erasure.

Finding oneself in the gaps

A key texture used in air da tohor is music. The script makes heavy use of spoken word, storytelling, and song, and these textures fit seamlessly with the cadence of the language of the Orang Laut/Orang Pulau. The vocals and music, a collaboration between Luqman Hakim, Jeffrey Zauhari, Syurga Jeffrey and Kak Asnida herself, add sonic textures that occasionally help in locating spaces, and at other times, recall moods, characters, and worlds upon worlds.

While poetry and song draw on the strengths of the artists in this performance, they also leave room for interpretation. Such is their beauty, that one can try to locate oneself in the gaps.

For me, these gaps and the inclusion of multiple individuals in the performance are a way to also acknowledge that there are many ways to narrativise an experience – the story of a descendent is different from the story of a former islander is different from the story of an audience member who has no connection to islander communities.

There are multiple gazes into this work, into this community.

It feels apt then that we have a former islander in the show: Cik Am, Kak Asnida’s 67-year-old uncle, will be part of the show as a craftsman of bubu – fishing traps fashioned out of chicken wire which are extremely efficient for catching fish.

I look forward to seeing the sharing of space and energies in the theatre, and what new thoughts and learnings that might bring.

Neutral is not neutral

The politics of space, or the negotiations of space, is a large part of the show.

On one of our research trips, we meet Cik Am and his brother in a corner of West Coast Park that has been fenced off specially for former islanders with boats. Not everyone can enter the area. Doing so requires registration under the watchful eye of a friendly security makcik.

While this space does theoretically give them a view of their former home of Pulau Sudong, it's one that is obstructed by luxury yachts, the containers and cranes of the Port of Singapore Authority, and the chimneys of oil refineries. I’m also told that this generation of islanders will likely be the last to use the space, which they use to launch their boats, chit chat or make bubu.

Limited as it is, it was obvious that this communal space was a last bastion of islander culture that can be found on the mainland. Cik Am shares with us his signature design for his bubu – a form of innovation, and quiet pride – which quickly differentiates his traps from others. There are everyday challenges of course: quibbles over unpaid boat fees, bubu being stepped on, fish stolen.

The animistic/mystic roots of Orang Laut and Orang Pulau are another interesting contestation that will be explored in the show. Mantras reside next to prayers, while Firdaus will recite a reimagined form of the mantras of his grandfather in the first section of the show.

Cik Isiah Majid, a veteran teacher and practitioner of silat gayong who is also part of the show, tells us how its more animistic rituals have been outlawed in Singapore. While Dato’ Meor Abdul Rahman (read this article for a taste of his legendary status) founded and popularised silat gayong in Malaysia, it is said to originate from his former home of Pulau Sudong in the early 1940s. Legend has it that during World War II, the Japanese were unable to find anyone on the island, thanks to his powers. Cik Isiah will perform a short segment alongside her disciple.

mika nak ke pulau

For air da tohor, I get a sense that these artists feel a sense of responsibility to do things right, both by their own families and the larger Orang Laut and Pulau community.

Kak Asnida tells me that she frequently calls her aunts to check that she is getting the pronunciations right, capturing the right telo (intonation) especially. They gently correct her – there is an art to the singsong way of speaking that sets it apart from Bahasa Melayu. Even the way the mak-mak (mothers) scold their children is unique. Firdaus tells me that one’s attempt at cooking might be met with “tawar hebeh macam puki hantu” (tasteless like a ghost’s vagina).

kami: I/we

kawan: I

mika: I or you

diko: you

The words for “I”, “you” and “we” can differ from pulau to pulau, and even use the same words, which I find beautiful. It is important to recognise the richness and diversity of Orang Laut and Orang Pulau culture, and not conflate them as one and the same. The pulaus in the South share many similarities, having close links to the Riau provinces in Indonesia.

Encapsulated in the title air da tohor is the transmission of knowledge.

It is a lamentation. It’s a celebration. It’s a warning. It’s a story of the resilience of a people. It’s a story of stories. I don’t believe it’s a reclamation, which historically has been a tool of violence for the islander communities, but it is an act of claiming one’s culture in order to share. It is collaborative and open.

One’s relationship to the sea does not stop at low tide. It is at low tide that one can forage in the sea, build jetties and stilt houses. In fact, with climate change causing sea levels to rise at dangerous levels, air da tohor can also refer to the maritime expertise of the islanders, and their continued longevity.

Its meanings belie its simplicity, its compressed message(s), its speaker(s). In fact, air da tohor is first and foremost an utterance. It needs to be voiced. The space must be conjured.


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