Thursday, October 24, 2013

Split by religion, bound by beliefs

Malaysia has set a lofty target to becoming a developed nation in seven years but is still rooted in superstitions and witchcraft

At a time when it seems like too many people are getting their knickers in a twist over a name for God, let’s look at another “spiritual” fixation binding Malaysians – belief in the supernatural.
In spite of our skyscrapers, focus on science and technology and dreams of becoming a developed nation in seven years, the country is still rooted in superstitious beliefs and fears of dreadful ghouls.

Two weeks ago, it was reported that an exorcism ceremony was carried out by spiritual healers at Putrajaya’s state-of-the-art hospital to fend off evil spirits supposedly haunting the place.

About 40 healers from a centre run by a prominent faith healer, who also happens to be a politician, reportedly conducted rituals for three days, using prayers, “holy” water, salt and pepper.

It makes one wonder if there is a consultant shaman at the hospital in addition to other specialists.

So far, there has been no official comment from hospital administrators or the health ministry so far.

The hiring of bomohs (witchdoctors) to keep heavy rain away, however, has become almost common practice in the country.

At about this time last year, the Malacca government engaged one to minimise the effects of a wet spell before the opening of the 4.6 million ringgit (US$1.4 million) Rural Transformation Centre (RTC) in Kuala Linggi.

Then Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam confirmed that a bomoh was hired to shift the dark clouds and allow contractors to complete their job on schedule.

When I was staff correspondent in Malacca in 1991, the Durian Tunggal dam ran dry and among those who came forward with offers to fill it up by creating rain was an American.

As his technology sounded rather dubious, I asked if he would consider himself as a “high-tech” bomoh and he agreed.

He claimed that he could create over the dam rain through manipulation of “chi and ether” at a cost of 3.2 million ringgit.

He was not paid the proposed fees because the water level at the dam was not raised by the stipulated time.

Yet, he was back in the country seven years later, claiming that his company’s “technology to guide rain clouds to water catchment areas” in the Klang Valley was a success.

According to news reports, the then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said the government had agreed to allow the company to work together with Puncak Niaga Sdn Bhd and RMAF to move clouds towards water catchment areas for cloud-seeding activities.

As for our regular bomohs, their lucrative businesses appear to be expanding. In addition to offering “love potions” spells, charms, amulets and exorcism rituals, it appears that they have now even elbowed into the field of education.

There is one popular bomoh, for example, who claims to use the skills of djinns (spirits in Arabian mythology) to help students of a college get better grades.

The purportedly English proficient djinn work through charms that come in the form of folded betel leaves sold for 350 ringgit each.

According to a local Malay daily, students who used to get poor results in their English paper had testified that they got better scores after using the charm.

With such beliefs in place, one can only wonder about the implementation of the National Education Blueprint, drawn up by consulting firm McKinsey and Co at the whopping cost of 20 million ringgit.

Continued credence in hocus-pocus certainly won’t propel the country to the top three level in global education rankings.

The belief in evil spirits and supernatural forces is a boon to conmen, based on the number of cases being reported in the media.

The latest involved a woman in Kulaijaya, Johor who ended up 26,000 ringgit poorer last Saturday after being coaxed into taking part in a “cleansing” ceremony to save her only son from “evil spirits”.

Superstitious beliefs can also result in deadly results, as was in the case of the three-year-old girl in Penang who was crushed to death last year during an exorcism ritual by family members who believed she was possessed by evil spirits.

Seven family members and an Indonesian maid were found piled over her under a blanket. She suffocated.

But Malaysians are not alone in believing in evil spirits and supernatural beings.

Even in the apparently progressive countries of the US, Canada and the UK, many people believe in such things. In the US, a poll conducted by the Huffington Post showed that 45 per cent of those interviewed believed in ghosts or life after death.

In Canada, it was 47 per cent and those with children seemed more likely to believe than those without kids.

As for the UK, a recent study conducted by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena showed that 52 per cent of those interviewed believed in ghostly spirits and that women were more likely to be believers than men.

In China, belief in the supernatural is also growing with the popularity of Thailand-made “voodoo dolls” among young women.

The dolls, made out of balls of string, are used for sticking pins and casting curses. M. Veera Pandiyan, The Star/ANN, Petaling Jaya  

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