Malaysian folk religion

Malaysian folk religion refers to the animistic and polytheistic beliefs and practices that are still held by many in the Islamic-majority country of Malaysia. Malaysian folk faith is practiced either openly or covertly depending on the type of rituals performed.

Some forms of belief are not recognised by the government as a religion for statistical purposes although such practices are not outlawed. There is a deep interaction between the Chinese folk religion of the large Malaysian Chinese population, and the indigenous Malaysian folk religion.

Datuk shrine Pulau Pangkor 2007 006
Shrine of Panglima Hijau, a Datuk or (in Malaysian Chinese) Na Tuk Kong, a god of the place on Pangkor Island.


Poh San Teng Temple is the oldest temple dedicated to the Hakkan ancestral figure of Tua Pek Kong, reputedly one of the first settlers of Penang; it was built in 1795.[1]

There are different types of Malaysian folk religion practised throughout the country. Shamanic performances are held by people known as bomohs, otherwise also known as pawang or dukun. Most Orang Asli (indigenous people) are animists and believe in spirits residing in certain objects. However, some have recently converted to mainstream religions due to state-sponsored Muslim dawah or evangelism by Christian missionaries.

In East Malaysia, animism is also practiced by an ever decreasing number of various Borneo tribal groups. The Chinese generally practice their folk religion which is also animistic in nature. The word "bomoh" has been used throughout the country to describe any person with knowledge or power to perform certain spiritual rituals including traditional healing —and as a substitute for the word "shaman". Generally speaking, Malaysians have deep superstitious belief, especially more so in the rural areas.


Historically, before the arrival and spread of Islam in the 15th century, and the spread of Christianity from the 19th century, the inhabitants in the land were either Hindu or practiced indigenous faiths. In the peninsula, widespread Islamisation is said to have begun in 1409 after Parameswara became Sultan of Malacca and converted to Islam after marrying a princess from the Samudera Pasai Sultanate. Since then, other Sultanates in the Malay peninsula have adopted Islam. Also since then, and continuing after the independence of Malaysia, Islam played a central role in Malaysian society.

Similarly in East Malaysia, folk religion was widespread prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe. The practice of headhunting was quite common in these societies.[2]

In Sabah are still the followers of the indigenous religion Momolianism: the Kadazan-Dusuns worshipped Kinoingan, a rice deity, and celebrate Kaamatan, the harvest festival, every year. During Kaamatan, there are certain rituals which has to be carried out by the high priestesses known as bobohizans (or bobolian in the Bundu-Liwan dialect of Dusun). Today, most Kadazan-Dusuns have adopted Christianity, but some still celebrate Kaamatan. However, the number of bobohizans has tremendously dropped and this role is on the brink of extinction.[3]

In Sarawak, it has been said that the animism practised by the Ibans and other related groups is the most developed, elaborated, and intellectualised in the world.[4] Folk religious practice in East Malaysia is related to the religion of Kaharingan in Kalimantan, Indonesia, which has been recognised as an official religion by the Indonesian government. However, the rituals involved are not entirely similar with variations depending on the ethnic subgroups which practices it.

Shamanism and traditional healing

The shamans bomohs or witch doctors still practice their craft in Malaysia. The bomoh practice by Malays have been integrated into Islam and is not forbidden.[5] They are also known as traditional healers and sometimes serve as an alternative to conventional modern medicine. However, the practice has sometimes been viewed negatively by Malaysian society as in some instances bomohs have the power to cast spells (jampi) and have used them on other people with ill effects. The number practitioners of bomohs has also dropped.[5]

The bobohizans of Sabah are also shamans and are traditional healers. They also act as a medium to communicate with spirits and play an important role in the rituals involved during Kaamatan, a harvest festival celebration of the Kadazan-Dusun.

Recently there has been suggestions for the need and importance to preserve the practice of bomohs and other shamans as traditional healers and to complement or substitute conventional modern medicine.[3][6]

Malaysian Chinese Gods

Tua Pek Kong (Chinese: 大伯公; pinyin: Dàbó Gōng, Hakka: Thai phak koong, Hokkien: Tuā-peh-kong, Malay: Topekong. lit. "grand uncle") is one of the pantheon of Malaysian Chinese deities. He is believed to have arrived in Penang 40 years before Francis Light in 1746.

Tua Pek Kong is said to have been a Hakka named Zhang Li (Chinese: 张理). His Sumatra-bound boat was struck by wind and accidentally landed on Penang off Malaysia, which at that time had only 50 inhabitants. After his death, the local people began worshipping him and built the Tua Pek Kong temple there. Today Tua Pek Kong is worshipped by Malaysian Chinese throughout the country.

One of the Natuk Kong in Malaysia, "Datuk Ali" (Chinese: 拿督阿里).

Chinese folk religion

Today most of the Chinese population in Malaysia are Mahayana Buddhist, while the rest are Confucianist, Taoist, Christians, and a small number of Muslims and Hindus. Most Chinese Malaysians still adhere to Chinese folk religion or veneration of the dead in tandem with mainstream religious practices.

Some have stopped practising this religion after adopting a mainstream religion which prohibits animism or idolatry. As is the case in China, the practice of this religion is not documented by the government for statistics purpose. Thus the number of followers in Malaysia can only be estimated.

See also



  1. ^ "Sam Po Keng Temple".
  2. ^ Russell, Susan, "Head-hunting in Southeast Asia", Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. Accessed 15 August 2007.
  3. ^ a b "Set up knowledge academy on traditional healing: Pairin " Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Daily Express, 6 October 2004.
  4. ^ Cavendish, Richard, "Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural (vol. 3)", New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp. (1970); pg. 312. Accessed 13 August 2007.
  5. ^ a b "Malaysian Bomoh Practitioners: a Dying Breed", Islam Online. Accessed 12 August 2007.
  6. ^ "Bomoh And Malays Are Inseparable, Says Don", Bernama, 8 March 2006.

A bomoh is a Malay shaman and traditional medicine practitioner. The term is used mainly in Malaysia and parts of Sumatra, whereas most Indonesians use the word dukun. It is often mistranslated into English as medicine man or witch doctor. In colloquial usage, the term bomoh is often interchangeable with another type of shaman, the pawang, but they generally serve different functions. The bomoh is primarily a healer, herbalist, geomancer, and sorcerer. The pawang on the other hand usually specialises in rituals involving weather, nature, animals, and a good harvest. Their roles do overlap however, and both act as an intermediary for the spirits and gods.

Burmese folk religion

Burmese folk religion refers to the animistic and polytheistic religious worship of nats (deities of local and Hindu origin) and ancestors in Burma (Myanmar). Although the beliefs of nats differ across different regions and villages in Burma, there are a handful of beliefs that are universal in Burmese folk religion.

A nat is a spirit or god who resembles a human in shape that often maintains or guards objects. When people die, they can become nats (See Kami for a similar belief).

Those who become nats often have a gruesome violent death which explains their vengeful nature. Nats also are believed to have the ability to possess animals, such as tigers or alligators. These spirits can also be found in nature in things such as trees and rocks. The majority of these nats are viewed as troublesome and irritable. They require calming, food and offerings.

There is a specific nat called an ouktazaung that is said to guard treasure. Rumor has it that this ouktazaung lures men to them, similar to a siren, in Greek mythology. If the victim is caught by the ouktazaung it takes her place and the ouktazaung can roam free, but only for twenty years, after which she must return to her treasure. A village will traditionally also have a spirit which is the patron of their village; this is called a Bo Bo Gyi.

Chinese folk religion in Southeast Asia

Chinese folk religion plays a dynamic role in the lives of the overseas Chinese who have settled in the countries of this geographic region, particularly Burmese Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Thai Chinese and Hoa. The Indonesian Chinese, by contrast, were forced to adopt en masse either Buddhism or Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s, abandoning traditional worship, due to Indonesia's religious policies which forbade Chinese traditional religion. Chinese folk religion, the ethnic religion of Han Chinese, "Shenism" was especially coined referring to its Southeast Asian expression; another Southeast Asian name for the religion is the Sanskrit expression Satya Dharma (literally "Truth Law").

The Chinese folk religion of Southeast Asia is markedly typified by the interaction with Malay indigenous religions (Malaysian and Indonesian folk religion) and the adoption of gods of Hindu derivation, such as Brahma, Ganesha and Hanuman. The philosophical forms of Confucianism and Taoism are followed, and organised forms of the Chinese folk faith, such as the Church of Virtue, Yiguandao and Zhenkongism, have taken significant foothold among Southeast Asian Chinese.

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists. In Malaysia, around 10% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population. However, numbers may be significantly larger since many folk religious Chinese register as "Buddhists" for census purposes. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.

Datuk Keramat

The religious belief of the Datuk Keramat worship can be found in Malaysia, Singapore and along the Strait of Malacca. It is a fusion of Malaysian folk religion, Sufism, and Chinese folk religion.

In Malay, datuk means a village chief, a grandfather, or person in a high position and keramat is an Arabic loanword associated with Sufism that means "sacred, holy, blessed, mystical, supernatural, highly respected".

List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.

Malayan Union

The Malayan Union was a union of the Malay states and the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca. It was the successor to British Malaya and was conceived to unify the Malay Peninsula under a single government to simplify administration. Following opposition by the ethnic Malays, the union was reorganized as the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Religion in Indonesia

Indonesia is officially a republic with a compromise made between the ideas of an Islamic state and a secular state. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and the first principle of Indonesia's philosophical foundation Pancasila requires its citizens to "believe in the one and only God". Consequently, atheists in Indonesia experience official discrimination in the context of registration of births and marriages and the issuance of identity cards. In addition, the Aceh province officially enforces the Sharia law and is notorious for its discriminatory practices towards religious and sexual minorities. There are also pro-Sharia movements in other parts of the country with overwhelming Muslim majorities.A number of different religions are practised in the country, and their collective influence on the country's political, economic and cultural life is significant. The Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, the government recognises only six official religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. According to the Decision of the Constitutional Court of Indonesia (Mahkamah Konstitusi) of 7 November 2017, the branches of beliefs (Indonesian: aliran kepercayaan), or ethnic religions, must be recognized and included in an Indonesian identity card. Based on data collected by the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), there are about 245 unofficial religions in Indonesia.Indonesian law requires that every citizen hold an identity card that identifies that person with one of these six religions, but citizens are able to leave that section blank. Indonesia does not recognise agnosticism or atheism, and blasphemy is illegal. In the 2010 Indonesian census, 87.18% of Indonesians identified themselves as Muslim (with Sunnis about 99%, Shias about 1% and Ahmadis 0.2%), 7% Protestant Christian, 2.91% Catholic Christian, 1.69% Hindu, 0.72% Buddhist, 0.05% Confucianist, 0.13% other, and 0.38% unstated or not asked.Indonesia's political leadership has played an important role in the relations between groups, both positively and negatively, promoting mutual respect by affirming Pancasila but also promoting a Transmigration Program, which has caused a number of conflicts in the eastern region of the country.

Tua Pek Kong

Tua Pek Kong (Chinese: 大伯公; pinyin: Dàbó Gōng, Hakka: Thai phak koong, Hokkien: Tuā-peh-kong, Cantonese: daai6-baak3-gung1, Malay: Topekong, Indonesian: Toa Pekong). lit. "grand uncle") is one of the pantheon of Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean folk religions. Throughout Southeast Asia, Tua Pek Kong is referred as the "God of Prosperity", where he is thought to be an incarnation of the god "Fu" from the trio of "Fu Lu Shou" representing "Prosperity, Fortune and Longevity" or a sailor from Fujian who sacrificed himself for a fellow human.

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