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Malaysians Must Fight Demon Possession With Psychology, Not With ‘Bomoh-logy’ – OpEd


It was reported last week that several schools in the town of Pengkalan Chepa in the Islamic Party-ruled state of Kelantan were struck by a case of mass hysteria; students possessed by demons and screaming and yelling and gyrating, seeing one particular Malay ghost called ‘pontianak’. In Indonesia this evil half-dead woman is called ‘kuntilanak’. There were movies made of these two ugly-looking, foul-smelling, blood-dripping, and nail-stuck-in-the neck shrieking or ‘mengilai-ing’ female poltergeist.

The case of girls in school dorms or dorm-like habitats in micro-chip assembling plants such as those in Penang is not new. Growing up, I recall elite boarding schools such as those Mara Junior Science Colleges experiencing ‘mass hysteria’ and group-dynamics demon possession as well.

In in East Coast town of Kuantan in the mid-70s, it was that one ghost that looked like an angry belly-rubbing monk from Thailand, that ‘bomoh-Siam-looking’ ghost sitting pretty on the rooftop of the girls’ dorm. On girl ‘saw him’ and the girls’ dormitory was humming and screaming and ghost-dancing and praying, and the bomohs were called in. He brought a live chicken as a tool for healing.

The school, or ‘Bauxite High School’ based on the concept of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science, was in chaos for a good two weeks. More than dozen girls were said to be possessed by evil spirits. The schools authorities, through the daily efforts of the ustazs and ustazahs or the teachers of Islamic Religion, orchestrated daily readings of verses from the Quran. Not much improvements were made for almost two weeks. There was more than just “demon possession” en masse. It was a case of young girls in a residential school under tremendous amount of stress or growing up pains. It was perhaps related to love-sickness or “boy-craziness”, since the school was co-educational.

In the town of Seremban during that time, it was the ‘green ghost’ the students saw. A half-dead lady perhaps from the Seremban Lake Garden who was half-dead and all green, with red-blood blood dripping, that was in the collective unconsciousness of the girls.

And in the town of Pengkalan Chepa in Kelantan these past few days, all of them saw the same ghost – that daughter of the Demon Ponti – The Pontianak. But why? Why did they, in all the three cases above see the same evil half-human half-spirit grateful dead being?

I think because when these girls were wide awake and congregating, huddling or perhaps cuddling in those dorms while outside it was ‘a dark and stormy night…’ for an opening scene of an Alfred Hitchcock Raven-like-story, they love to tell stories of ghosts.

They would love scaring themselves to sleep, and add more vital statistics of these bad spirits not only to their own consciousness but also to the ‘sociology of knowledge’ of it. And hence, everybody agrees to the shape, characterisation of the ghost.

When stress, which can kills brain cells and us, set in or when teenage love-sickness like a blanket of Kuantan Bauxite engulf the self and when one girl started screaming like the poor soul in Edvund Munch’s painting ‘Scream’, and when these happen a chain reaction is triggered. And when one screams bloody murder of that blood-dripping pontianak or the Seremban green ghost or that Siamese ghost, everybody got possessed and sees the same ghost. That is the logic.

This is a psychological explanation of demon possession in Malaysia. Every soul possessed would tell the same story. Something like those possessed by the massive blood-and-money dripping ghost of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated case of the 1MDB. The demon of Malaysia’s capitalism and the ghost that is haunting the nation and killing the citizens.

But Malays love to call the bomoh or the shaman or the pawang or the dukun or the tok batin or the Malay-Muslim ghostbuster when it comes to cases like the Kelantanese pontianak run amuck. Understandably, knowledge is power as French philosopher Michel Foucault would say; that these merry band of bomohs make comfortable livings speaking the language of demon banishment.

Malaysia saw these bomohs in the news of late. We saw them attempting locate the missing Malaysian airplane MH370, we saw a federation of them pledging allegiance to the current regime, and we saw three decades ago a Mercedes Benz-driving TV-genic female bomoh from the norther state of Perlis, Mona Fandey, brutally murdering a Malay politician by cutting him into 18 pieces.

The poor politician was seeking help in winning elections and advancing his career and ended buried in 18 parts under a concrete slab behind the bomoh’s house. It was a sad and gory story.

My advice

But here is my advice to the Kelantanese, concerning the pontianak possession of the school girls.

It is about repression and the way education is approached as well as human relations are perceived and most importantly how the human mind is nurtured throughout. This not new. The ghost and bad spirits are always unfairly blamed, Not their fault, They might not even exist. The bomohs will benefit from this crisis.

Those who developed the anti-hysteria kit will benefit and make huge profits. It is a psychological, socio-cultural, and pedagogical issue. Don’t blame everything on the polong and the pontianak. They are already retired – on a pension scheme, And with the invention of the electricity, the ghosts have all escaped through the electric cables poles and are probably dancing in those poles before they die of old age. But seriously, these girls in the dorms are repressed.

Read Freud or study adolescence psychology. Probably too much control and telling them what to do, dumbing down teaching or simply a common case of love-sick or boy-sick en masse.

Look at these and humanise the system and make the school a happy place. Make learning more active – the mind has a life of its own. It is more philosophical and cultural than religious. Understand this premise of the foundation of teaching and learning. Maybe that is the cure for mass hysteria in a mass-babysitting enterprise called schooling.

I wrote this on my Facebook page:

If you think the mass hysteria cases are about demon possession, you will make the makers of the anti-hysteria kit rich

If you start thinking there are about psychological repression, you will make the system open up to dialogue on mental health and liberation… choose wisely your diagnosis and your treatment. You may even learn more about adolescent psychology in a religiously-repressive society.

The Malay mind is repressed. Depressed and possessed. Set them free. Using mental health technology.

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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