The Staunch Disbelievers

Saturday April 22, 2006.
The Staunch Disbelievers.

BomohGlossary of Malaysian ghosts:
Pontianak or kuntilanak – A type of vampire in Malay folklore.
Langsuir – A version of pontianak but said to be the deadliest banshee in Malay folklore.
Manananggal – The spirit of an older, beautiful woman capable of severing its upper torso to fly into the night with huge bat wings to prey on unsuspecting pregnant women in their homes.
Toyol – A mythical spirit in Malay mythology. It is a small creature created from a dead human foetus using black magic.
Orang bunian – Said to inhabit jungles and are similar to elves except they are invisible to most people.
Orang minyak (oily man) – According to history, Satan offered to grant worldly desires if the orang minyak raped 21 virgin girls within seven days and worship Satan as a God. These orang minyak usually douse themselves with oil and run around naked. Although the orang minyak is believed to be human, there are countless stories of them being related to the supernatural world.
Orang halus (invisible people) – These dwarfs usually cannot be encountered unless one is purified by cleansing the body and wearing clean clothes. They live in the jungles and are conversant in Malay!
Hantu galah – A male ghost, believed to be gigantic, with extremely long and thin limbs.
Hantu pisang (a Mah Meri belief) – A beautiful ghost that is supposedly formed when the heart of the banana bud is pierced with a nail attached to a thread.
Mumiai (pronounced moo-mee-eye) – A poltergeist who throws things around and attacks people who are especially lazy or criminal. – Compiled by Revathi Murugappan

The Staunch Disbelievers.
IRSHAD MOBARAK – Naturalist.
“It’s all superstition. If you see a vampire movie at night, when you walk home on a dark road, you will tend to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ things and end up sprinting the last 100 metres home,” explains Irshad, a nature guide based in Langkawi.
“My late father used to tell me the cemetery is the safest place in the world. It’s the living you need to worry about, not the dead.”

Irshad thinks a community’s ‘belief structure’ ends up playing tricks on the subconscious – which is how bomohs can con people.

“There are (Malay) stories about the hantu galah, for instance. If you believe it, you end up seeing a ghost in every tree swaying in the wind,” says Irshad. “The mind is a powerful playground.”

He has been leading jungle walks for 15 years and has never encountered anything strange.

“I’ve been lost before in the forest too. It happens,” he quips.

Irshad thinks that some of the taboos originated as ‘common sense’ warnings.

“My late auntie used to tell us not to climb trees at night as there was a kind of momo or ghost there. One kid who disobeyed even supposedly had slap marks from the ghost.

“Of course, at night, it’s dangerous to climb trees. That’s just common sense. As a boy I didn’t listen. When I fell, my face hit a branch. That was my ‘slap’,” he recounts.

In his opinion, many superstitions have rational explanations. He cites the example of Haiti’s infamous zombies where it has been discovered that witch doctors use a toxin from the puffer fish that can turn a person into the “living dead”, or zombies, by harming the brain.

“I say let science unravel these so-called mysteries. It’s like David Copperfield. Did he really walk through the Great Wall? But he’s an illusionist. Everything that people cannot understand, they say it’s supernatural or ghosts.”

He believes that Islam’s concept of jinn (genies) has been misinterpreted to mean spirits. In the Hadis, he clarifies, the Prophet admonished people against playing with the bones of the dead as they were said to be the “food of jinns”.

Says Irshad, “People believe this refers to spirits. I think that it refers to anything unseen by the naked eye, such as harmful bacteria, which of course, would be found on such bones.”

He adds that bomohs are said to be able to cast spells.

“If these bomohs really have the power,” asks Irshad, “why don’t they send some spirits to deal with (President) Bush? Oh . . . they say that Bush has a bigger jinn with him.”

It’s all hogwash. That just about sums up Dr Tan’s opinion of the supernatural.

“People see so-called ghosts in the jungle due to a combination of tiredness and easy suggestibility,” explains this psychiatrist from Penang.

“The mind plays tricks. Like when two tree trunks rub together and make strange sounds. There’s usually a rational explanation. If not, then it’s inexplicable. The explanation has not been found yet. But that doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.”

“It’s like David Copperfield,” he continues. “He cuts his body in half with a laser and carries it around on stage. If he didn’t say he was a magician, people would say he was God. Yet it’s all an illusion.”

Tan highlights that many paranormal societies are willing to offer up to US$1mil (RM3.8mil) if a single ghostly event can be duplicated in a controlled environment. Yet no one has claimed any prizes. Similarly, he asserts that paranormal researchers in universities have not found “any shred of evidence” after years of study.
“It’s all scientifically unproven. No one can conclusively prove that ghosts exist. Or Bigfoot for that matter,” he underlines.

He points out that many of his mentally ill patients claim to hear voices and see visions.

“I have seen cases where mediums have failed to so-called exorcise the spirits, supposedly because there were too many of them. In cases of hysteria, for instance, even if the bomohs do not treat them, they will recover by themselves.”

The belief in jungle spooks is one type of what he calls a “cultural-bound phenomenon”. Another example is that of epidemic hysteria, which Dr Tan notes is more common among Malay women, especially at Islamic schools or factory hostels.

“Perhaps the school is too monotonous or the cultural shock of factory life for kampung workers is too great. When people are under pressure, there is a tendency to hysteria,” he clarifies.

“Similarly, when camping, when one person ‘sees’ a ghost, everybody sees it. This is due to suggestibility and cultural beliefs in ghosts. Basically, if you want to see a ghost, you will see a ghost.”

To debunk these beliefs, he came out with a book three years ago called Common Sense and the Supernatural.

In it, he calls into question everything from feng shui and fire-walking to Christians “speaking in tongues” and faith healing.

For instance, he explains that a medium’s ability to extract needles by rolling an egg over a sick person is no longer a mystery – a red hot needle was inserted beforehand and the hole was sealed with powdered starch.

Similarly, Hindu religious statues that ‘weep’ can be easily explained by the “capillary action theory”: the porous statues made of ceramic soak up milk (which is often used to “bathe” them) but the glaze on the statues prevent the liquid inside from flowing out. But if there is a small crack near the eyes, then ‘tears’ of milk will appear.

Why has he taken such strong stands against the supernatural?

In his psychiatric practice, he has seen many patients who have been hoodwinked by the black sheep among traditional healers. So, he does not want to see a society of superstitious people “trapped by fears” of the supernatural, even though that would increase the number of phobic and neurotic patients consulting him.

In his book, he wrote (on May1, 2003) “AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL GHOSTS, EVIL SPIRITS, DEMONS . . . ” which went like this:

“I do not believe any of you exist. I challenge you to reveal yourself to me or possess me . . . Show yourself now or forever remain silent. You are given three months to accomplish your objective. If nothing happens to me by the time this book is published, then you will have lost your credibility . . . you are nothing. You simply do not exist.

“There is a remote possibility that I am dead wrong,” he says now. “But it’s up to people to prove that I am. Maybe one day we will have scientific instruments to detect or measure these paranormal things. But I’m sceptical.”

In the meantime, his three month ultimatum to the nasty ghosties has long passed and his book has been safely published. Far from being dead wrong, Dr Tan is alive and well today.