On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from the radar screens of air traffic controllers at 1:19 am in what has become the biggest mystery in aviation history. The Boeing 777-200R, with 227 passengers and 12 crew, had departed from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 am. It was en route northeast to Beijing when it veered westwards towards the Indian Ocean.
Only a flaperon and wing flap believed to be from MH370 have ever been found. Even as the flaperon was discovered in August of 2015 on the remote French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean 175 km south of Mauritius, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the flight’s “disappearance remained a mystery.” It remains so today despite the most intensive search for an aircraft in history.
A Malaysian bomoh, or shaman, however, claimed the same month MH370 disappeared that he knew the real cause, bringing back to the public eye a class of savanta who rarely come into modern view. But they remain an interesting phenomenon from a pre-industrial world, seeking to adapt themselves to modernity. The bomoh, Ibrahim Mat Zin, describes himself as the Raja Bomoh or chief of the profession, continuing to make headlines although he has also become an unintentional laughing-stock. Four days after the plane disappeared, the Raja Bomoh visited KLIA to search for the flight, incanting Quranic verses and searching the skies with a pair of bamboo binoculars. He also used a rattan replica of the plane, coconuts, fish traps and hooks. He declared at KLIA that the flight had been hijacked by spirits and had entered the unseeable environment (alam ghaib).
The Raja Bomoh called on the 100,000 members of his cult to read the 36th chapter of the Quran and encouraged believers to pray as he continued his search for MH370 and its spirit-hijackers with his eyes and binoculars. Within days, he claimed that MH370 would be spotted on an island. When the flaperon turned up on Reunion 17 months later, he said he was disappointed that the Prime Minister had failed to recognize his efforts, adding that he was also disturbed by the unwarranted reaction of some muftis, or religious scholars, and certain representatives of Islamic departments in Malaysia. A number of muftis had condemned his “un-Islamic” methods of searching, and called upon the Islamic police to arrest him for deviance.
The Raja Bomoh, nevertheless, has continued to fight heat waves and the haze. More recently, after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam at the KLIA, he rose to the occasion to protect his fellow Malaysians. With bamboo cannons, coconuts, seawater and his binoculars, he shielded Malaysia from a possible nuclear attack from North Korea. He also reached out to North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, to attempt to soften his heart. Videos of the Raja Bomoh are regularly uploaded on Suara TV. Believers can contact him through the phone and via Facebook.
For a number of Malaysians and Singaporeans, bomohs are viewed as black magicians and witch doctors. Their followers are often thought to be naïve, superstitious and premodern. As a scholar, I have had the pleasure of meeting and observing dozens of bomohs over the past few years. I have met them in houses, shrines, mosques, cemeteries and in coffeeshops. In return for gifts, they pray for their clients. They are said to heal patients and help their clients overcome all kinds of problems. They communicate with spirits and dispense talismans for the needy. Indeed, all I met with were in their way helping their followers survive challenges in modern Malaysia and Singapore. Moreover, they are conscious of how they have been perceived. Unlike the Raja Bomoh, a number of bomohs in Perak and Perlis were much more clandestine and paranoid about being persecuted by religious authorities.
One such bomoh is a man named “Bearded Ali,” who used to reside at a Muslim cemetery in Singapore, which was established in the early 19th century. The cemetery was removed in 2010, and he now heals clients and followers from a coffee shop. Other bomohs are healers, masters of Malay martial arts, known as silat, and even artists. The Islamic calligraphy and designs of one such bomoh, Mohammad Din Mohammad, have been displayed in art galleries across the region, and in Europe.
Bomohs have had a long history in the Malay Peninsula. While critics view them as charlatans and as relics of the ‘Days of Ignorance’, they are popularly celebrated as pivots of religion and as masters of an esoteric but practical science. A century or two ago on the Malay Peninsula, these miracle workers, ritual specialists and spirit mediums were known by different and interchangeable titles - bomohs and pawangs. Travellers found bomohs to be ubiquitous – healers and physicians, and as Jawi manuscripts showed, they were almost always employed by Malay planters to vivify their rice-fields and to ensure good harvests. Pawangs and bomohs were in fact described in Malay law books of Perak, like the Undang Undang ke-99 (99 Laws, of Perak), as rulers of rice-fields and as “entitled to maintenance from the faithful.”
More than a century ago, travellers often spotted bomohs in mines. Chinese miners in Malaya for example, relied upon them to search for tin ore. In the words of the British Resident of Perak, Chinese miners “always employed the pawang [bomoh] and followed his advice with great confidence, often with the happiest results.” In a similar vein, an Inspector of Mines, Abraham Hale, observed that bomohs of Kinta, as Perak was then known), could “squeeze a hundred or perhaps two hundred dollars out of the Chinese towkay who comes to mine for tin in Malaya” because they had “wonderful noses for tin.”
Like the Raja Bomoh, they scanned forests with special vision and smelled out ore for their clients. Even Europeans were attracted to their charms. In the autobiography of Munshi Abdullah Kadir, known as the father of Malay literature, he described how the British Resident of Melaka, William Farquhar, had paid a bomoh (pawang) to trap elephants.
On the whole, jungles, animals, ore, rice and even metals were thought to have spirits in them. Bomohs as such were indispensable. They spoke with spirits and conducted ceremonies to penetrate the alam ghaib. They were masters of an esoteric science (ilmu) of communicating with spirits, for all activities. Malaysia was, historically, replete with multifarious bomohs. Some more “violent” bomohs were expert hunters, and masters of weapons and of using the keris. Bomohs, then and now, were required even for seducing partners and for sexual fulfilment.
Reformists and skeptics regularly attacked bomohs. It was from the late 19th century however, that religious doctrine was bureaucratized in Malaya and bomohs were increasingly policed. According to the Resident of Pahang, H. C. Clifford, some “magicians” (bomohs) were “dealt out mutilation or death, or the imprisonment in gaol-cages which is worse than death,” in accordance with the strictest spirit of Islamic law. In spite of sporadic persecution, bomohs continue to thrive amongst circles of Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia and Singapore.
The Raja Bomoh as such, is merely a feature of a long Malay history of bomohs. Unlike most of his predecessors, he suffers mockery.
Terenjit Sevea is a Visiting Fellow at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania