Malaysia’s Bomohs: Witch Doctors in Modern Society
Fight demon possession with psychology, not shamanism
Last week, students at several schools in the town of Pengkalan Chepa in the eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan suddenly began screaming and gyrating, seeing a particular Malay ghost called Pontianak, also known as Kuntilanak in Indonesia — evil, half-dead, foul-smelling, dripping blood with a nail stuck in her neck, a shrieking female poltergeist.
The case of girls in school dorms or dorm-like habitats in multinational microchip assembly plants such as those in Penang is not new. In the 1970s and 1980s they were regular occurrences, with factories filled with screaming women, and western multinationals kept close contact with bomohs, or Malay shamans, to dispel the spirits.
Nor are they are unique to Malaysia although Malaysia seems a particular center for the phenomenon. They have been observed since the Middle Ages, where nuns in a French convent simultaneously began mewing like cats, according Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Good, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer in May of 2000. Episodes, the two wrote, typically occur in small, tightly knit groups such as schools, factories, convents and orphanages.
Growing up, I recall elite boarding schools such as those Mara Junior Science Colleges experiencing mass hysteria and group-dynamics demon possession as well In a Kuantan town in the mid-1970s. One ghost was said to look like an angry belly-rubbing monk from Thailand, a “bomoh-Siam-looking ghost” that sat on the rooftop of the girls’ dorms. One girl said she saw him and the dormitory exploded into humming and screaming and ghost-dancing and praying, and the bomoh was called in. He brought a live chicken as a tool for healing.
The school, based on the concept of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science, was in chaos for a good two weeks. More than a dozen girls were said to be possessed by evil spirits. The school’s authorities, through the daily efforts of the ustazs and ustazahs, Islamic teachers, orchestrated daily readings of verses from the Quran. Few improved immediately.
There was more than just en-masse demon possession. It was a case of young girls in a coeducational residential school under a tremendous amount of stress or adolescent pain. In the town of Seremban during that time, it was the “green ghost” the students saw – a half-dead woman perhaps from the Seremban Lake Garden and all green, dripping with red blood.
In the town of Pengkalan Chepa in Kelantan over these past few days, all of them saw the same ghost – the daughter of the Demon Ponti, the Pontianak. But why? Why did they, in all the three cases above see the same evil half-human half-spirit being? I think because when these girls were wide awake and congregating, huddling or perhaps cuddling in those dorms while outside it was ‘a dark and stormy night, they love to tell tales of ghosts.
They would love scaring themselves to sleep, and add more vital statistics of these bad spirits not only to their own consciousness but also to the sociology of knowledge of it. Hence everybody agreed to the ghost’s the shape and characterization.
When stress sets in or when adolescent sexual tensions engulf the self and when one girl starts screaming, it triggers a chain reaction. And when one screams bloody murder of that blood-dripping pontianak or the Seremban green ghost or that Siamese ghost, everybody gets possessed and sees the same ghost. That is the logic.
This is a psychological explanation of demon possession. Every soul possessed would tell the same story. Despite living in a rapidly industrializing society, Malays love to turn to the bomoh or the shaman or the pawang or the dukun or the tok batin, the Malay-Muslim ghostbuster when it comes to such cases. This merry band of bomohs make a comfortable living speaking the language of demon banishment.
Malaysia saw these bomohs in the news two years ago, attempting to locate the missing Malaysian airplane MH370. We saw a federation of them pledging allegiance to the current regime, and we saw three decades ago a Mercedes Benz-driving telegenic female bomoh from the northern state of Perlis named Mona Fandey, brutally murdering a Malay politician by cutting him into 18 pieces.
The poor politician was seeking help in winning elections and advancing his career and all 18 pieces ended buried under a concrete slab behind the bomoh’s house. It was a sad and gory story.
But here is my advice to the Kelantanese, concerning the pontianak possession of the school girls. It is about repression and the way education is approached as well as the way human relations are perceived and most importantly how the human mind is nurtured. This not new. The ghost and spirits are always unfairly blamed, Not their fault. Whether or not they exist, the bomohs will benefit from the crisis.
Those who developed the anti-hysteria kit being recommended will benefit and make huge profits. It is a psychological, socio-cultural, and pedagogical issue. Don’t blame everything on the polong and the pontianak. They are already retired – on a pension scheme, And with the invention of the electricity, the ghosts have all escaped through the electric cables and are probably dancing on the poles before they die of old age.
But seriously, these girls in the dorms and the factories are repressed. There is probably too much control and telling them what to do, dumbing down teaching or simply a common case of en masse adolescent sexual tension.
Look at these and humanize the system and make the school a happy place. Make learning more active – the mind has a life of its own. It is more philosophical and cultural than religious. Understand this premise of the foundation of teaching and learning. Maybe that is the cure for mass hysteria in a mass-babysitting enterprise called schooling.
Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has written seven books and more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia and global issues. He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies. He blogs at http://azlyrahman-post.blogspot.com/