I learnt the Malay Language till I turned eight. In my early years, it was mostly through the market Malay that was spoken on Arab Street and the folk songs that we were taught in kindergarten. My favourite was Dayung Sampan. It is a Singaporean folk song that arrived on the shores of the sunny island in the nineteenth century from Indonesia.
Like many lullabies, the song is simple and repetitive. It is not uncommon for songs such as these to be sung without knowing the actual meaning of the words. When I was really little, we would learn to sing these songs through transliterations. We may have read the translation at some point, but as our lingua franca changed; so did our ability to understand these songs.
The song has been sung in a medley of different versions, including a pop version that was quite popular a few decades back. The word Sampan is derived from the Chinese term 三板 (sān bǎn). It means three boards. In contemporary usage, Sampan is used to describe small wooden boats. Dayung means to paddle.
A few months ago, I found the musical score and began playing it on the piano. It is a wordless tune, but it retained the melody of the original song. I found myself singing along to the simpler, more repetitive parts of the song that my memory retained. From my rudimentary understanding, it is about the act of paddling the Sampan to the shores of Singapore… or around Singapore. Before cars became the norm, the river was, indeed, a mode of transportation.
The song brings back memories of the many immigrants who came here during the colonial era and stayed. It is the story of the Singaporeans who arrived here generations ago seeking a better life for themselves and their descendants. They arrived on boats, steamers and other sea-based beasts of burden.
Oceanic life is integral to understanding soul of the Southeast Asian region. Whether it is a little sampan or a big bustling port; in my heart, I feel that the sea and the many rivers that lead to it form the pulse of the Nusantara region.
While I have admittedly never been on a Sampan, songs like this inspire me to reminisce about days gone by. They retain the sound of a Singapore that no longer exists in front of my eyes, but that still lives on in my heart.
Happy 57th National Day, my beloved Little Island!