Punggawa-Sawi (captain-sailor or patron-client)

Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia

“Punggawa -Sawi:  Patron-Client relationships in Sama Bajo community economies of Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia” [1]

Andrew McWilliam and Nur Isiyana Wianti


In the history of the diverse economies of Indonesia and Southeast Asia more generally, a key relationship that supports economic activity is that between patrons and clients. This brief paper highlights the significance of this enduring relationship from the perspective of certain coastal and maritime communities in Southeast Sulawesi known as Sama Bajo. They use the phrase Punggawa-Sawi to characterise their patron-client connections, which remain fundamental to the conduct of their fishing based livelihoods and the reproduction of their sea-based household economies. Punggawa-Sawi expresses the idea of an economic safety net but also a form of market-based inter-dependency founded on debt.


The peoples known as Sama Bajo are a regional subset of similar maritime-oriented communities across Insular Southeast Asia.  There is an estimated population of 200,000 across eastern Indonesia who live in dispersed stilt house settlements in ‘water villages’ and  inter-tidal zones of coastal waters or crowded into low-lying islands and islets across the archipelago. Historically they have been highly mobile populations and often illegible to state authorities who these days are actively pursuing policies of sedentarization and re-settlement into permanent dwellings along the coast.

The great majority of Sama Bajo are focused on seasonal fishing activities and reef gleaning as a primary source of household incomes. All are practising Muslims,[2] and livelihood roles are strongly gendered with men active in sea-based fishing pursuits and women focusing more on home based and land based activities including small-scale trading. On the coasts of southeast Sulawesi the principal forms of fishing activity, include team-based operations for tidal fish traps (sero), long line fishing techniques (rawé) using outrigger boats with 3-4 crew powered by outboard motors (bodi motor); as well as the use of submerged fish cages (bubu) and floating pens (keramba) for the live fish trade. The harvest of fish and other marine products (shellfish, lobsters, stingrays, octopus, squid etc) are channelled into local and regional markets on a daily basis and on-sold to domestic consumers or export supply chains. In this respect Sama Bajo domestic economies have long been closely integrated with regional commercial markets and investment networks.

Sama Bajo livelihoods are acutely sensitive to changing environmental conditions including the impacts of the southeast monsoon (June-October).  This typically brings strong winds and high seas and over this period fishing activities can be severely constrained.  Most Sama Baja households associate this time with shortages of food and reduced incomes (Indonesian: paceklik) and many rely for their staple food on a processed form of dried sagu known sinolé (rather than rice) along with whatever seafood they can glean along the coast and inshore waters. It is also during this time that the Punggawa-Sawi relationship is especially significant as a source of credit and income support.

Sama Bajo relations of inter-dependency

The meaning of the term Punggawa has a complex derivation[3] but in the context of this review it has the general sense of patron or boss, while sawi is understood to mean a dependent and client of the patron. The distinction is also often translated as ‘boat captain and crew’, and this association reflects the reality that all Sama Bajo households rely on patron-client networks to sustain their fishing and maritime based livelihoods.

These networks of interdependency operate in different contexts and at different scales. In fieldwork areas of Southeast Sulawesi, people often interact on a daily basis with their Punggawa laut (‘sea’ patron)[4]. These men (mostly) are typically locally based owners of fishing perahu (motorised boats) and or larger fish traps (sero). They provide credit and the wages for their crews (sawi) over the course of the fishing cycles which are synchronised with phases of the moon (turo = dark phase 14 days fishing followed by 10 days rest during full moon). Crews record their daily catch and are paid their share (70% of catch value less costs) at the end of each turo fishing period. The remainder is allocated to the Punggawa and his provisioning costs.

In the Sama Bajo village of Bukori where we conducted a series of household surveys, people recognised 8 Punggawa laut households operating in the area. The Punggawa also typically maintained well stocked kiosks and small shops providing staple foods and household necessities as well as fishing gear and supplies. Much of this is given on credit to their clients, especially during the season of wind (musim angin) when foods stocks and incomes diminish. In return, the sawi clients are expected repay their debts in the new fishing season by continuing to work on the Punggawa’s boat or by selling their catch directly to him or his agents. Punggawa look very unfavourably on Sawi who sell their fish to other traders. As one Punggawa commented, “it is like we planted the crop and others have harvested it”. Conversely Punggawa are expected to provide continuing support and care in recognition of Sawi loyalty.

But there is another kind of patron known as the Punggawa darat (land Patrons)[5] who in this case are usually larger scale financiers and investors, often Chinese traders in the main towns, who deal with fishing supply chains and export industries. Punggawa darat are usually financial backers of Pungawa laut and provide larger scale credit to purchase boats and equipment in return for a hefty percentage of the income. In Bukori, people knew of three main Punggawa darat in the provincial capital, Kendari who had financial interests and arrangements with their village.


Patron-clientalism is a form of social and economic protection and interdependency based around enduring debt relationships. This model of political and economic relations is one that thrives in contexts where formal financial and regulatory economic arrangements are constrained or undeveloped. Across Indonesia there are many industry sectors and regions where these kinds of economic relations continue to thrive, including around the coastal fringes of Sulawesi in Indonesia where Sama Bajo communities maintain their livelihoods through patron based market to the wider Indonesian economy.

As a framework and mechanism for social resilience in the face of uncertainty and the vagaries of maritime-based fortunes, the punggawa-sawi relationship has proved its value over hundreds of years. But this form of economic interdependency comes at a cost of autonomy and the freedom to pursue alternative economic choices that might offer more attractive economic returns. There is, in other words, no such thing as a free lunch in Bajo Society and even resilience comes at a cost.


Deswandi Rio 2011 ‘Understanding Institutional Dynamics: The Emergence,Persistence, and Change of Institutions in Fisheries in Spermonde Archipelago, South Sulawesi, Indonesia’, Phd Thesis, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Ecology, Bremen, Germany.

Pelras C. 2000 ‘Patron-client ties among the Bugis and Makassarese of South Sulawesi’  Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 156(3), Leiden, 393-432.

Pelras C. 1996  The Bugis, Oxford UK, Cambridge, Mass. USA : Blackwell Publishers.

Sopher D.1977 The sea nomads : a study of the maritime boat people of Southeast Asia, Singapore : National Museum.

Wianti, Nur Isiyana. 2011. ‘Local Capitalism of Bajonese’ (Case Study Mola Bajo and Mantigola Bajo, Wakatobi Regency, South-east Sulawesi Province). Post-Graduate Thesis. IPB (Bogor).


[1]  This discussion derives from an ARC Discovery Project entitled: Household Vulnerability and the Politics of Social Protection in Indonesia (2014-2018). Data is drawn from field research with Sama Bajo communities of Bukori Island and associated settlements, Southeast Sulawesi. Ms Yanthi is an active researcher of Sama Bajo communities in the Wakatobi islands of Southeast Sulawesi (Wianti 2011) and a collaborator on the ARC project.

[2]  Beliefs and practices associated with Bajo ancestral religion are also expressed through protective mantras and sailing techniques on the open seas.

[3]  Probably derived from the Bugis language of South Sulawesi (Pelras 1996:332), and variously associated with the title of military leader, ship’s captain. Bugis seafarers have had close and long-term linkages with Sama Bajo groups who operated as client traders and allies for powerful Bugis rulers. According to Sopher (1977:151,268) during the nineteenth century, the headman of each Bajo group held the title of Punggawa.

[4] Also referred to as Punggawa kecil (Small Punggawa).

[5]  Also known as Punggawa besar (Senior Punggawa).



Andrew McWilliam

Professor of Anthropology

School of Psychology and Social Science

Western Sydney University

c/- Locked Bag 1797

Penrith, NSW, 2751


E: a.mcwilliam@westernsydney.edu.au


Nur Isiyana Wianti (Yanthi)

Lecturer / Researcher

Fakultas Pertanian,

Universitas Halu Oleo

Kendari, Sulawesi Tenggara.


E: wianti.ni@uho.ac.id;


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