IN the January 19, 1992 debut column I wrote about the then Prime Minister, (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad lamenting about the penchant of a section of the Malaysian mass media for highlighting mass hysteria in schools and factories.

That was 26 years ago. Dr Mahathir is no longer the Prime Minister and I am no longer the Group Editor-in-Chief of the New Straits Times Press (NSTP). I resigned in 2001 and Dr Mahathir retired in 2003.

The media landscape has changed. Then the mainstream media ruled supreme. Newspaper circulation was on the rise and the NSTP group could afford to reward the staff with six to seven months bonus. Today the online media is the king and the newspapers are fighting for survival.

The Malays too have changed. Today they are less concerned about the ghosts, devils and demons. Urbanisation, electric lights and modern housing have lessened their fear of ghosts.

In the Malay minds, the hantu and the jembalang live in the dark corners and up in the attics of the creaky wooden houses by the belukar or the swamps.

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Those were the better days

Swamps are especially spooky as they are thought to be the abode of the dreaded bloodthirsty vampire called langsuyar.

Langsuyar is said to be the revenant of a woman who died during pregnancy or childbirth. It feeds on blood of newborns, preferring boys over girls.

As such it was customary that when a baby was born, the thorny mengkuang (pandanus) was place under the stilted house directly below where the mother and infant slept to keep the langsuyar at bay.

Fearful that its exposed entrails would get caught in the mengkuang thorns, the langsuyar would keep away.

The real reason was to discourage the ducks and chickens from messing up the puddle created by the bath water of the mother and the infant, and to thwart peeping toms.

In those days, Malays would rather believe in myth than listening to scientific explanation.

When I was in the English primary school back in the 1960’s, there was a story in our Malayan Readers series book that explains the langsuyar phenomena. It was believed to be the combustion of the marsh gas.

Now that most Malays live in sturdy brick houses in brightly lit housing estates, they are less fearful of hantu believing that their brick and mortar houses are less hospitable to the pontianak and hantu raya.

If at all, nowadays ghosts came into their living rooms only through the Malay dramas on television and the re-runs of Hollywood’s Ghoshbusters.

Occasionally the fashionably-dressed flying ghosts would join the screamfest via the opera-type Chinese movies.

See the difference? The Malay ghosts are either unclothed or shabbily dressed. The Chinese ghosts are dressed in flowing fine Chinese silk.

For the younger Malays, the hantu exists only in bedtime stories and in ghost house exhibitions. Ghosts have gone commercial.

But there are still a sizeable number of Malays, especially those in high places, who are totally committed to the unseen world where the hantu, bomoh, kiai, mystics, tarot card readers and soothsayers rule supreme.

I have been told that these people would crisscross the Malay Archipelago in their sleek private jets in search of mythical kiai and bomoh to help them fulfil their ambitions, ward off their adversaries and keep their spouses loyal.

I would not make any judgement. Suffice to say that if you are Muslim, anything verging on sihir (blackmagic) is haram (forbidden) and believing in the power of the hantu is syirik (idolatry or polytheism).

In some Muslim countries the crime of sihir is punishable by death. So if Tuan Guru Abdul Hadi Awang of PAS succeeds in implementing a full blown Hudud, those Muslims who dabble in sihir could risk being stoned to death.

A Kadir Jasin

– http://otherthotsblog.blogspot.sg