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3 Reasons Why Ghosts were Important to the Malays

I have not heard of anyone who has not heard of stories about ghosts especially Malay ghosts. Pontianak tales abound and, more often than not, we are informed of such sightings in the dead still of the night, at those moments when one least expect. Seeeraaaam (scaaaarrrryyy), as the Malays would say it!

I am not here to contest whether ghosts exist or not. I prefer to leave such paranormal speculations to our ghost buster specialists and vampire slayers and anyone interested in things that weak mortals like you and me could not see too clearly. As a trained historian of the Malay World, I always wondered why Malays believe in a whole variety of ghosts more than any other groups the world over. There are more than 50 types of ghosts, ranging from those residing in our homes to those who seek comfort living in the seas to those with over-sized assets, which Malays believe in for perhaps thousands of years. These beliefs persist till today and if you do not believe me, try calling Alfian and say, “Assalamualaikum, Pontianak speaking.”

To me, such horror stories of beings with sharp fangs and badly-done hair are interesting beyond their horror value. If one actually spend time listing down all the 50 over ghosts, one will find that the majority of ghosts and perhaps the most dangerous of them all are women. Why is this so? Why aren’t there as many male Malay ghosts as there are females? Why are women ghosts more powerful than even male ones (sounds a bit unfair for all the talk about male domination in society!)? Why are ghosts so important to the Malays to begin with?

The reasons are actually quite straightforward if we care to think deeply about ghosts beyond the fact that they freak us out all the time, everytime. Ghosts, or rather, scary stories about ghosts, fulfilled the following functions in the Malay World in history, and to some extent, right here, right now:

1. These stories act a Form of Moral Fences for Women in societies where the rule of law was plain absent. Back in the days before an effective police force that we know today has yet to be put in place, Malay women were often in danger of being sexually harassed by men. This is so especially during night time in kampungs where visibility can be almost close to nil. Stories about Female Ghosts lurking at night actually helped to prevent women from falling prey to crimes committed by rapists, serial molesters and abandoned hubbies or boyfriends, whichever came first. These budding criminals would themselves be in fear of the likelihood of the person they sought to harm to be other than that pretty Maimunah but a Penanggal. Fear of Ghosts by Men protected the Womenfolk.

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2. Ghost stories also ensure that women were Taken Care of in the best of ways by their Husbands, relatives and people around them. The Pontianak is a classic case of a pregnant woman who was neglected and died at childbirth. To avoid women from turning to pontianaks, most men in traditional Malay societies would give the best treatment possible to their pregnant wives to avoid the coming into being of Pontianaks or to avoid them from disturbances from other female ghosts. Even midwives and relatives were always on their toes and sought to do their best to make pregnant ladies deliver in the smoothest and safest ways possible. Pontianak stories did pregnant women a great service just as it encouraged women to get pregnant. Someone should tell this to our policymakers who are now struggling hard to increase the fertility rates.

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3. Above all, ghosts aided in the maintenance of Deep Spirituality and Piousness in the Malay society. Because ghosts, especially female ones, were believed to be particularly in fear of Quranic verses that were read in their presence and that these ghosts tend to avoid pious men and women, stories about ghosts provided the much needed motivation for Malays to keep their religion close to heart. Ghosts, in that sense, made Malays more diligent in fulfilling their religious obligations. Fear therefore functioned as a Tool to Heighten the religiousity of the Malays.

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In sum, ghosts and ghost stories fulfilled many useful functions in the Malay world and among the Malays. These stories were multiplied through the years as more challenges came and as societies saw the need to invent stories to ensure that order and harmony was upheld.

Hence, the next time you hear another story about Pontianaks and Polongs and Toyols or what may come in the middle of night, have no fear. For even if those ghosts do exist, they cannot really harm you. What beliefs about these beings would however do is to safeguard your welfare, especially if you are woman, in days when you are knocking off late from work.

All said and done, perhaps there is also a need to tell our children to not be afraid of ghosts?

Share this with your friends and see below for historical works on ghosts in malay society:

Mohd. Taib Osman, Malay Folk Beliefs: An Integration of Disparate Elements (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1989).

Walter William Skeat, Malay Magic (London Frank Cass, 1965), Chapter 4.

James Noel, McHugh, Hantu Hantu: An Account of Ghost Belief in Modern Malaya (Singapore: D. Moore, 1955).

[In my next post, I will share with you the effects of spreading tales about ghosts have on kids and adults and what we should really be doing with the belief in ghosts.]

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