Saturday, January 24, 2009

Black Magic or Allah?

From The Malaysia Star online:

Grocery Shop Owner Brushes Off Claims of Sorcery


KEMAMAN: The owner of a house in which a starving burglar claimed he was trapped has brushed off any claims of sorcery.
Grocery shop owner Che Ibrahim Che Abdullah instead believes it was punishment from the Almighty for the burglar who claimed he was mysteriously trapped in the shop for three days.
The 57-year-old Che Ibrahim said he was a constant victim of burglaries whenever he and his wife returned to their village in Selising, Kelantan.
“This time, I asked for divine intervention as I could no longer tolerate it,” he said when met here.
He said he had recited some prayers before leaving for Kelantan with his 52-year-old wife to celebrate Hari Raya Aidiladha.
Last Friday, Che Ibrahim returned to his shop and found the 36-year-old man lying in a room, starving and dehydrated.
The man, who begged for forgiveness, claimed he had broken into the house-turned-grocery shop three days earlier.
Upon entering the shop, the man claimed he was immediately blinded and the place felt like a cave.
“Each time I wanted to flee, I felt a ‘supernatural figure’ shoving me to the ground,” he told police during interrogation later.
He added he had no choice but to stay put in the room for three days as his shouts for help were in vain.
Meanwhile, Kemaman Deputy police chief Supt Abdul Marlik Hakim Johar said the burglar had been warded at the Kemaman Hospital for the last four days.
It is learnt that the burglar was still traumatised after the incident.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Latah and Amok: Dissociative Behaviour

One of the more interesting quirks of Malay culture is that they are capable of dissociative behaviour in that there is a separation of the body and behavior from the will, separation of thought from appearance and, in body movements, of part from the whole. Child-rearing practices may promote this dissociation:

(Photo: Colleague with child.)

“Mothers throughout the region encourage passive molding of the child’s body to their own, and proceed from this to a manipulation of the child’s body as if it were an extension of their own. In part this may be due to the cultural demand that the small child make certain religious [Islamic] and social gestures [Malays’ high attention to protocol and ceremony] long before he is able to understand what he is doing. Whatever the reason, the result is that the child learns many body movements passively and in a dissociated fashion. … Under such a system of learning, one can only learn if one is completely relaxed and if will and consciousness as we understand those terms are almost in abeyance.” (Murphy, 1976)

“Moreover, among Malays such [trance] states are traditionally learned early. They are (or were) manifest in the form of certain children’s games noted by colonial scholars in certain periods. One of those described by R.J. Wilkinson was main hantu musang (the polecat spirit game). One child was put into a trance by the other children. Then, possessed by the musang [polecat spirit], this child would proceed to climb trees and leap from branch to branch like a polecat.” (Winzeler, 1995)

One common form of dissociative behavior is latah, a nervous affection characterized by an exaggerated physical response to being startled, the subject involuntarily uttering a cry [often vulgar speech and swearing] or executing movements in response to command or in imitation of what they hear or see in others.

One of my Malay colleagues has indicated to me that she is latah and I have observed, and unknowingly triggered in her, this behavior, albeit a very mild response. There are several theories as to why Malays, especially women, are prone to latah, but all involve some degree of the dissociation described above.

Another less common expression is amok, a condition whereby an affected person goes on a murderous rampage through a village without being aware of his actions. From amok we English-speakers derived our expression to “run amuck”. There are probably three or four cases of amok reported in the newspapers each year.

Murphy, HBM, 1976, Notes for a theory on Latah, In Culture-Bound Syndromes, Ethnopsychiatry, and Alternate Therapies, The University Press of Hawaii, pp. 3-21.

Winzeler, RL, 1995, Latah in Southeast Asia, Cambridge University Press, 172 pp.

I tried to find an example of latah on youtube, and the following video is probably the best available. Typically, latah is manifested by older women. When you see younger people melatah (to be latah), they are joking around and pretending. As you will see, Malays like to tease people who are latah.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

I don't have any friends like that...

Many of my colleagues, especially the women, have really taken to the social networking phenomenon of MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster. Nearly every week I get emails from former students asking me to add them to my social network or else join their social network.

The problem is, my social network is all offline. The phenomenon beggers the question, who do you really count as a friend? Can you borrow money, or ask for a ride home from these friends?

More academic titles...

Emotions of Culture: A Malay Perspective, Edited by Wazir Jahan Karim (1990). Part of the Oxford University series of South-East Asian Social Science Monographs, this is a collection of five studies on the Malay psyche. Some of the topics included are the language of emotion in courtship and early marriage, the martial arts and Malay Superman, the amok phenomenon, and latah.

(Photo: Marriage is a community event; Malay colleague and husband.)

A Share of the Harvest: Kinship, Property, and Social History Among the Malays of Rembau, Michael Gates Peletz (1988). Dr. Peletz did his PhD. research in a Malay kampung in Negri Sembilan. This book presents the bulk of his doctoral research, I believe.

Reason and Passion: Representations of Gender in a Malay Society, Michael G. Peletz (1996). This book, again based upon his doctoral research, emphasises the role of gender in Malay society. His fieldwork covered parts of 1978-80 and 1987-88.

Bewitching Women, Pious Men, Editors Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz (1995). A collection of studies from around Southeast Asia, it shows the similarities between the various ethnic groups in the region. The main thesis of the collection is that women tend to be ruled by emotion, while the men -supposedly guided by religion- are more in control of their emotions. Actually, one could use a title like: "Nurturing Women, Cheating Men" and be just as true to the mark. (Of course, not all SE Asian men cheat; there are many who are wonderful husbands and fathers.)

Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance, Carol Laderman (1993). Another book based upon the author's PhD. research, Dr. Laderman spent part of the period 1975-77 in Malaysian state of Terengganu, researching Malay medicine and folk performance, particularly the Mak Yong. Fascinating study and well-written.

Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia, Aihwa Ong (1987). Ms. Ong is probably a Malaysian Chinese and spent parts of 1979-80 doing fieldwork in Kuala Langat, Selangor, amongst factory women. She documented the trouble that Japanese factory managers were having with mass hysteria amongst factory women, mostly young Malay ladies from local kampungs. Basically, her main thesis (question) was: "Why are Malay women workers periodically seized by spirit possession on the shopfloors of modern factories?"

That should be enough titles for now should one of you readers want to delve more deeply into Malay culture from an anthropological perspective.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Academic studies of Malay culture...

It is monsoon season now on peninsular Malaysia's east coast. Perfect weather to sit in the house and type up summaries of some of the interesting academic studies that have been published in regards to Malay culture. The rain has been coming down now for three days straight and my cat refuses to go outside and "do her thing" in the garden. With some prodding, she will make a quick dash to a spot under the Gardenia bushes, and then quickly race back into the house, wet.

(Photo: Jalapeno pepper plants drowning under monsoonal rain.)

Fishermen of South Thailan
d: The Malay Villagers, Thomas Fraser, Jr. (1966). This now out-of-print book is part of the Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology series published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, back in the 1960s. I picked up a very used copy at Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, one of the world's largest bricks-and-mortar bookstores with nearly one million titles under their roof. Fraser went and lived in the Malay fishing village of Rusembilan, Pattani district of south Thailand. It is a very indepth look at the economics, social structure, and lifestyle of Malay villagers, and includes an entire chapter dealing with the supernatural, i.e., how the villagers dealt with spirits and illnesses.

Women & Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam, Wazir Jahan Karim (1992). A Malay anthropologist, Ms. Wazir produced one of the more interesting books concerning adat (Malay customs) and its intersection with Islamic practice. From the back cover: "...the author argues persuasively that an imported Islamic orientation toward gender is working at cross-purposes in Malaysia with the indigenous value system adat." Out of all the books that I have read regarding Islam as practiced in Malaysia, this one makes more sense to me in that it shows the dynamic that is truly at work in the culture. I doubt that too many men have read this or would agree with its thesis.

The Malay Magician, Richard Winstedt (1951). Part of the Oxford in Asia paperback series, this book is Mr. Winstedt's view of the development and role of the Malay bomoh (shaman, witch-doctor) in Malay culture. Winstedt was another one of those prolific British diplomat/scientists who made such valuable contributions in their study of the subjects which they oversaw.

The Heat of the Hearth: The Process of Kinship in a Malay Fishing Community, Janet Carsten (1997). Another Oxford Studies book, Dr. Carsten lived in a Malay kampung on Langkawi Island during the 1980-82 period and focused upon family (kinship) relations both within the house and outside of the house. It goes into greater depth regarding the family than did the Fraser study, but paired, these two studies give a good overview of Malay fishing communities.

Huaqiao in Malaysia...

Before I show a list of academic studies on the Malay community, there is one book that I truly enjoyed reading regarding the Chinese diaspora:

Sons of the Yellow Emperor, Lynn Pan (1994). Ms. Pan, an overseas Chinese (huaqiao) herself (raised in Brunei), put together an excellent compendium regarding the various waves of emigration out of China, and a summary of the various places of immigration, including Malaysia. She describes the distinctive differences between the various Chinese overseas communities. For example, she gives plausible answers to the question as to why the Chinese in Malaysia did not integrate into Malay society, unlike what happened in the Philippines and Thailand. She also describes the different sub-cultures of Chinese huaqiao. For example, before reading her book, I did not know the difference between Hokkien, Hakka, and Teochiu speakers.

(Photo: Chinese students of mine from my Kuala Lumpur days.)

As mentioned before, Understanding Multicultural Malaysia, by Asma Abdullah and Paul Pedersen (2003), is another book which covers the history, customs and role of Chinese within Malaysian society.

I have enjoyed teaching Chinese students my entire time in Malaysia -13 years- in addition to a year that I spent in the north of China at a foreign language high school. For my first four years in Malaysia, I was at a college that was predominantly Chinese (>90%) in one of Kuala Lumpur's burgeoning suburbs. Although I enjoyed it, I felt like I was still in China. Thus, I chose to move out of KL and find a school where there was a larger percentage of Malay students. This should not be construed as disliking Chinese students or culture, but rather that I wanted a different experience.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Non-academic titles about Malaysia...

I have found the following books to be good introductions to various aspects about Malaysia. I am separating the academic books (to be posted later) from this list of non-academic, general interest books.

A Nocturne and Other Malayan Stories and Sketches, Frank Swettenham (1993, Oxford in Asia Paperbacks). First published in the 1870s, this account was written by one of the United Kingdom's Residential Advisors, who were sent to give advice to the Malay Sultans of the Straits Settlement: Singapore, Malacca, and Penang. Swettenham wrote very insightful essays about Malay society, with his best being the essay entitled The Real Malay. The views presented are as valid today as they were in the 1870s when Swettenham was writing.

The Long Day Wanes: The Malayan Triology, Anthony Burgess (1956, 1958, 1959). This novel contains three stories: Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East. Burgess spent some time in Malaya during the war, and he created stories that basically show British expats behaving badly, a popular theme for British Literature considering the amount of history that is available from the colonial days.

The Soul of Malaya, Henri Fauconnier (2003). Published first in the 1930s, this novel is the story of a French rubber plantation manager in Malaya (original title Malaisie). Very surreal in feel, it reminded me of the tales of the South Pacific about -what else?- French planters living in the dreamy, languid South Pacific.

A Company of Planters, John Dodd (2007). I haven't read this one yet, but it is, again, a true story of British planters in Malaya during the 1950s.

The Consul's File, Paul Theroux (1978). This is a novel about a diplomat from the USA living in the backwater town of Ayer Hitam in southern Malaysia. Theroux did live in Singapore for about three years and, thus, had some exposure to Malay culture. The consummate storyteller, Theroux's little book, more than any other, wetted my appetite to visit Malaysia.

I Am Muslim, Dina Zaman (2007). This is a collection of essays written by Ms. Zaman, a Muslim woman, who is trying to reconcile her Islamic beliefs with the reality of a modernising Malaysian society. I would consider her's a fairly representative viewpoint of middle-class, young professional Malays who are beginning to push at the edges of Malay society and asking some tough questions of their elders and government. Ms. Zaman covers some sensitive subjects that I have not seen addressed elsewhere. Highly recommended.

Ceritalah: Malaysia In Transition, Karim Raslan (1996). The only book of his which I have read, Mr. Raslan, like Dina Zaman, is a young Malay intellectual who portrays the tension in Malaysian and Malay society quite well. I have seen Mr. Raslan on CNN interviews and he presents himself very well, and navigates the delicate balance of criticism and respect with aplomb.

A Malaysian Journey, Rehman Rashid (1993). Another collection of essays from a former Malaysian journalist. Similar to Mr. Raslan's set of essays.

Understanding Multicultural Malaysia, Asma Abdullah and Paul B. Pedersen (2003). This is the best introduction that I have seen to the three main cultures present in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese and Tamil (Indian). The major distinctive of this book is that the lead author, Ms. Asma, is a Malay academic who provides an insight not always possible with western authors. Highly recommended.

Culture Shock: Malaysia!, Heidi Munan (1991). Part of the Culture Shock! series, this is an surficial introduction to the customs and etiquette. This is an okay read for tourists and expats who don't really want to go beyond the surface differences in culture. For a deeper understanding of Malaysian (and Malay) culture, one would need to read some.....

.....academic texts. And some of those will be listed and reviewed (very briefly) next.

What I read...

After lurking for several years online, I have begun to post comments to various blogs and online forums.

If you are interested in teaching overseas, especially Southeast Asia, I highly recommend checking out Dave's ESL Cafe ( which contains a variety of forums regarding living, working, and surviving in the TESL/TEFL/TESOL world. I myself am not an English teacher, but the forums are useful for anyone really, who lives and works outside their home country (the definition of an expatriate).

Another site of great usefulness is the Stickman Bangkok site (, which started out as a site to describe the notorious nightlife in Bangkok, Thailand, but has become a good overview for living and working in SE Asia, including the difficulty of cross-cultural relationships.

There are other good forums and blogs, I am sure, but I don't have any other favorites at this point. Occasionally, I will add links which I find useful.

Like many North Americans, I was not very aware of Malaysia until I was older and happened to meet a Malaysian Chinese lady who was studying at a university in my hometown. My wife and I spent some time with her and were invited to visit her family in Malaysia. We did so, in 1992, and afterwards did some research on the country.

An excellent overview, at least during the colonial period, is Anthony Burgess's The Long Day Wanes: The Malayan Triology. This book has three stories, Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Beds in the East, and basically describes British residents behaving badly during the waning days of the British administration of Malaya.

The story Time for a Tiger made the local brew Tiger Beer famous, although it is a fairly middle-of-the-road lager. The protagonist, Nabby Adams, is your typical lager lout who opens the trilogy in a drunken state.

Another introduction to Malaysia were the movies A Town Like Alice (1981) and The Killing Beach (1992). A Town Like Alice tells a love story about an Australian prisoner-of-war and the British lady that he meets in the midst of the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Shot partly in Malaysia, it shows the reality of living in a tropical climate -the heat and humidity- and also gives an introduction to Malay life in a small east coast village (kampung). In reality, the story was based upon the true account of some Dutch prisoners-of-war in Sumatra during World War II. (

The Killing Beach tells the story of an Australian journalist (played by the wonderful Gretta Scacchi) who tries to report on the violence attended on Vietnamese boat refugees. It was controversial in Malaysia and not shown in local theatres. (