A Good Scare
Model of a bomoh (medicine-man) at work with the patient lying in bed while his child is at his side. Photo from Malay Magic by William Skeat.
I grew up with childhood asthma, which worried my parents incessantly. Each time I suffered an attack during my primary school years, we would visit a doctor. We saw plenty. Once, after a particularly bad spell, my father thought that we could try a different tack. We would consult a bomoh.
My memory about what happened that day is hazy. I recall that we were at an old three-room HDB flat filled by the unmistakably sweet fragrance of frankincense in the air. It was nearing the Maghrib prayer time, the time thought to be the most keras or supernaturally porous, a time akin to the fifteenth day of the Hungry Ghost month, when spirits are at their most active. Just as it was my turn to be ‘treated’, a dishevelled-looking woman suddenly turned up at the bomoh’s door. She was hysterical. The bomoh told my father that this was an emergency, and that he needed to attend to her. He invited her in and then made the grand gesture of inviting others in too, except that there was nobody behind the woman. A couple of minutes later, the woman began growling and speaking in a man’s voice, and I recall this moment unfolding to me like a scene out of The Exorcist. I think we left then. I cannot be sure. I will have to speak to my father about this when I see him next.
One thing that I am certain about is that Abdullah Munsyi, the father of modern Malay literature, would have scoffed at the aforementioned obsession with the supernatural. A section of his magnum opus, Hikayat Abdullah, sees him chastising his fellow Malays for believing in “old wives’ tales” and “paying men to perform stupid and useless ceremonies”. Abdullah was writing at the height of the British colonisation. He witnessed first-hand the power that a mastery of machines and science could bring to a people. He wanted his people to partake in that power.
Today, it would appear that these useless undertakings of the supernatural, myth and magic have made a comeback. Today, as we witness first-hand the dire consequences that our mastery of machines and science have had on the environment and social relations in the form of, say, algorithms of oppression, to use the phrase coined by Safiya Umoja Noble, we need to pay attention to other modes of making sense of the world that can lead to possibly better outcomes. Non-humans matter even if they are not matter.
This feeds into a primary motivation of mine when working on Singa-Pura-Pura. The Malays have had a long history of making myths, a practice that continues today in the form of ghost stories or traditional customs. While these have drawn the ire and ridicule of the rationalists among us, they possess value, even wisdom, that should not be discounted. At the very least, the practice of imagining fantastical objects and scenarios can help us re-wire our minds. It is my hope that this anthology could facilitate that process.