Glyphs of Warding, Icons of Doom

I got in a car accident a while ago.  Everybody’s fine, no injuries at all; quite a blessing considering I had the entire family in the van.  A trio of young roosters were taking their daddy’s Mercedes out on the town of a Saturday night and were blatantly at fault.

Around here, unless the accident is really bad, negotiations will often be handled informally without police or insurance company involvement, more so than I remember from the States, with the party at fault paying out of pocket at a neighborhood mechanic of his choosing.  Maybe accidents are handled that way more often here because the low cost of labor makes it cheaper than insurance penalties for most repairs.  The generally high level of honesty helps too.  But in this case, the guilty party – that would be them – needed to take it through insurance since those Merces ain’t cheap.

In order to process an insurance claim, I had to go to not just any bump shop, but one of only a few large garages that handle seriously ruined vehicles.  Approaching the garage was unnerving.

A long gravel road barely wide enough for two cars to crawl past one-another was lined on both sides by one ghastly wreck after another.  The impact marks of heads on windshields and the angles and breaks of the wreckage compelled you to imagine the tragedies that created each one.


It was like entering a hospital by passing through an allée of corpses.

Chinese Calligraphy
Chinese calligraphy over the doorway

Like the majority of businesses around town, this one was Chinese-owned.

In Chinese-owned businesses in Kuching, it is common to find a talisman of some sort above the door.  Typically, these artworks look individually made to me, with calligraphy and woodblock stamps arranged, often with graphical embellishments and red ink to go with the black.  They can be quite striking.  The picture I’ve shown you here is unfortunately a plain and unexceptional example of the type, just what I could snap at my favorite local nursery.  I don’t know what any of them say, but I think it is safe to assume that they are posted above the door to bring luck or profit and ward away misfortune and calamity.  These sorts of sacred or blessed texts are of course not unfamiliar to muslims as well, as most muslim homes and businesses will have the Bismillah, Ayat al-Kursi, Khatam an-Nubuwwah or simply the words “Allah” and “Muhammad” hung strategically around the premises.  (And in fact there is a tradition of Chinese Islamic calligraphy which is stunning.)

But in this case, I noticed as I approached the office building that something hung above the door that did not look like Chinese calligraphy at all.  It looked like a Hindu icon, but that would make no sense.  There are few Hindus in Sarawak to begin with, and besides this shop was clearly Chinese owned and run.  What was going on?  Puzzled, I drew closer until I could finally make it out.


IMAG0214Looking around at the twisted remains of vehicles spilling their innards all over the shop floor, I realized I needed no further explanation.

Somatotypology, Craniometry and other detritus

KakNgah came home the other day asking about ectomorphic body types. Do you know about this? I’d never heard of such a thing. Apparently her teacher took some time out of class to tell the students about the Three Body Types of Man, ectomorphic (tall and thin), endomorphic (short and chubby), and mesomorphic (the ideal and perfect one, of course). “I’m ectomorphic, aren’t I?” she said with a frown. It sounded like nonsense to me, and since I had literally just finished “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter, I thought right away of craniometry. I explained to KakNgah how scientists used to go around measuring skulls by the thousand and grouping them according to size and shape (dolichocephalic or brachyocephalic) which presumably revealed the existence of Three Head Types of Man. She thought that was pretty funny and I left it at that with her.

A little compulsive googling later that night showed I was righter than I knew. The theory of body types, or somatotypology, was developed by one William Herbert Sheldon, psychologist, numismatist, eugenicist, an Ivy League professor who earned his PhD back in the ’20s when craniometery was still going strong, most especially among the dolichopodulent waspomorphs who were everywhere running the show. But rather than tie skull metrics into intelligence, personality, natural fitness to rule and similar racial divination, William Sheldon moved on into body type. That slouch your mother warned you about? Proves you’re an idiot. Or something like that.

Bill and Hill via

And that’s when I realized I’d heard of this guy before. Somewhere over the long 20-odd years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career, it came out in the papers that there were, or were rumored to be, nude photographs of her, taken when she was an Ivy League college co-ed. But wait, these nude photographs were for research. The late Dr. Sheldon’s patented research technique was photographing thousands upon thousands of college students in the nude with pins in their backs, and then gazing at and presumably making lots of scientifical compumatations from the pictures to develop his grand theory. This was all back in the ’50s and ’60s and has since been thoroughly discredited and dustbinned.

Which brings me to the big question: what is a bizarre pop-psychology holdover from sixty years ago doing being presented as fact by a Malaysian schoolteacher to a room full of 6th graders? Sadly, a PhD and a Harvard appointment cast a long shadow, and cursory googling reveals an embarrassing number of Sheldon citations in Bahasa Malaysia among Educational Psychologists, Physical Education instructors, Sports Science researchers and more.

Wahai cikgu-cikgu Malaysia! Please leave behind this appalling pseudoscience. WH Sheldon adalah seorang yang sudah lama di tolak. Teorinya tentang ektomorf, mezomorf dan endomorf sudah basi dan tidak dapat pakai lagi di bidang ilmu psikologi mahupun di bidang perubatan. Lihatlah rujukan yang berikut:

“It was the pop-psych flavor of the month for a while … Half the textbooks in [ his ] area fail to take [ him ] seriously,” remarked one academician in a 1992 paper on Sheldon’s legacy. Others, like Hans Eysenck, the British psychologist, have suggested that Sheldon wasn’t really doing science at all, that he was just winging it, that there was “little theoretical foundation for the observed findings.”

Lemang Raya

Lemang Fire Pit
Creamy, chewey cylinders of lemang lift easily out of the split bamboo.

Lemang is quintessential Malay holiday food, impossible to find throughout the year, impossible to avoid come Hari Raya.  Lemang is glutinous, or sticky, rice cooked in coconut milk inside a length of bamboo and roasted over an open fire.  The work involved in making it is considerable.  First, locate and chop down a giant piece of bamboo.  Giant bamboo of this sort is covered in fine hairs that are very itchy, like fiberglass insulation, so the bamboo sections need to be handled carefully and scrubbed to get the hairs off.  Then the bamboo is chopped at the joints to open up the hollow chamber.  If the rice and santan were just poured in directly, the sticky
mess would be impossible to get out neatly, so a peice of banana leaf is rolled up and slid into the chamber first.  Once the chamber is loaded, the bamboo is set upright on a bed of coconut-shell charcoal and roasted.  No surprise that most city folk don’t bother to make their own!

Luckily, living at the edge of the city in the direction of the forested uplands around Mt. Serapi, I’m a short drive from where the big lemang operators set up.  Our favorite vendor has a dozen people working the fires – that doesn’t include whoever is in the back prepping the bamboo.  He claims he sells 15,000 batang a year, with virtually all of that in the month of Shawwal.
Lemang in the bambooSpringing the lemang out of the casing isn’t so tough; after roasting over the fire, the bamboo is pretty weak and cracks open.  The mixture inside has fused into a long tube of creamy, chewy ricey-ness, and the banana-leaf lining peels away as you slice discs off.  Lemang is great with rendang or peanut sauce, or if you are a seven-year-old of my household, pretty good for munching as is, too.
Enjoy your lemang everybody! Selamat Hari Raya // Eid Mubarak.

The Raid

I can’t recommend The Raid: Redemption.  It’s an Indonesian action movie that has won some acclaim internationally.  I watched it because I’d seen Merantau, by the same director (Gareth Evans) and starring the same actor (Iko Uwais).  Merantau wasn’t bad if you are a martial arts fan: the production quality was high and the pencak silat was great.  Silat is the Nusantara’s indigenous martial art and it draws on Islam for its spiritual discipline in the same way that the more famous martial arts of Northeast Asia do with Buddhism.  Merantau has several memorable fight scenes including an extended duel in an elevator that shows off silat’s close, compact fighting style well. The crowded alleys of Jakarta and the hillside kampongs made good backdrops too.  The plot was predictable and the acting strictly average but you could forgive it that if you came for the silat.

So when I heard The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan Maut) was even better I gave it a chance, hoping they’d stepped up the plot and the acting. They … went in a different direction. The plot was a 30-second contrivance to set up an hour and a half of grisly non-stop murder and mayhem inside a broken-down Jakarta tenement.   It was truly gruesome, with a lot of the open hand stuff replaced with gun, knife and machete slaughter.  Even my 14-year-old boy was disgusted, though I confess we both sat it through to the end.

What struck me though were the subtitles.  The sergeant says “Diam!” and the subtitles read “Shut the %&$* up!”  Diam just means quiet, nothing more. The hero calls the villain “Anjing!” and the subtitles read “%&$* you, you #*%!”  Anjing just means dog, the same word for dog you’d see in a see-the-dog-run children’s book.  And it was just relentless: the subtitles were inserting all this vile English profanity that just wasn’t there in the Indonesian.  Here was the goriest, most brainless bloodbath of a movie, and no one uttered a four-letter word.

Maybe I missed a few, since the movie was in rapid-fire Indonesian.  But the more I thought about it, I realized, in the nearly ten years I’ve been here, I’ve never heard a single word of profanity uttered in Bahasa Malaysia.  I’ve seen people get angry, get frustrated, suffer an injury, but I’ve never heard them curse.  I know the words exist, I know what they are, but I’ve never heard them used.  I know, I know: I’m a boring middle-aged homebody with religious proclivities.  I’m sure if I hung out with glue-sniffing teenagers under the bridge it would be different.  But I think it is fair to say that vulgarity and profanity are simply not as pervasive and accepted as they are back in the States. 

But so yeah, I can’t recommend The Raid.  If martial arts aren’t your thing but you want to try some Indonesian cinema, 9 Naga (Nine Dragons) was good.  Watch that instead.  Of course, I'm not really very knowledgable about local films.  Next up for me is Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa.  Any good? If you have recommendations for Malaysian or Indonesian cinema, I’d like to hear them.

Commercialization of Sacred Space

There is no call as important as the summons of the Lord

The masjid is a sacred place, a house of God, and among the ways that sacredness is respected is by refraining from idle talk while inside. Handphones have been a terrible scourge in this regard, with phones ringing, even being answered, in the middle of congregational prayer. No doubt this is why signs have proliferated all over the country bearing the message Tiada Panggilan Sepenting Seruan Ilahi: There Is No Call as Important as the Summons of the Lord. A lovely thought well expressed. But the moment I saw this sign, I became troubled, because there at the bottom, in large font, are the logos of the phone company and cellular provider who have paid for and distributed the signs. Now ostensibly to curb noise disruptions, we have corporate advertising inside the prayer halls of our masjids for the first time. In my neighborhood masjid, the sign is posted at eye level just to the side of the minbar!

I felt sure this was bad precedent, and indeed it was not long after that I spotted first one, then another masjid with a corporate-sponsored signboard. The company in this case is Bank Rakyat, a cooperative bank (akin to a credit union back in the states) that has been innovative and successful in the Islamic finance market. I bank with them myself. But having a mosque signboard emblazoned with a prominent logo is extremely problematic in several ways, not least is the danger to the company of compromising their own charity.

A sincere contribution

The etiquette of charitable giving in Islam, sadaqah, is for it to be as anonymous as possible, to protect the dignity of the recipient and to safeguard the giver from compromising his gift with worldy motives of pride, or worse, material benefit. And how can we not avoid seeing this as precisely the latter when the sign says Sumbangan Ikhlas, a sincere contribution, followed by a huge logo and then bank pilihan, a bank of choice? An signboard in exchange for advertising is not sincere charity, it is quid pro quo no different and no better than the Nescafe or Celcom-branded awnings adorning the sides of every other kedai runcit and kopitiam in Malaysia.

Posting a corporate logo at the front of a masjid amounts to an endorsement by the masjid. Presumably the acceptability of this branding (and the value of the advertising to the contributor, let’s not forget!) rests in the fact that this is a mosque and the bank provides Islamic finance. It is not hard to interpret it as a sign of preference over this or that other bank which may have Islamic banking products as well – CIMB Islamic, Maybank Islamic, etc. Let’s not forget, Bank Rakyat’s products and services may all be shariah-compliant, but that does not mean that this profit-making enterprise is somehow more holy than a Gardenia or Taka Bakery which produces halal breads and pastries. If we can accept a bank’s logo on our masjid, why not a bakery’s logo, or even a Nescafe awning like the kopitiams? Nescafe is a halal-certified product after all.

Hap Joo Grocers, brought to you by Stayfree Maxis

But if for nothing else, our state Islamic departments and the hardworking brothers and sisters on the neighborhood masjid and surau committees should view the matter seriously for the sake of the humble worshipper for whom the masjid is a place of refuge from the affairs of the world, a place to turn to Allah and glorify His name, to leave aside all else. The masjid is virtually the only public space free from the intrusions of the marketplace, and that is worth defending.

Convocation Day

Two Friends at the ConvocationNovember means the end of the school year, and once again I have a child successfully completing her academic career and ready to move on to the next stage of her life: Elementary School. Yes, getting through three years of preschool is a momentous achievement, and so a grand ceremony to commemorate the event took place this last Saturday. The preschool, Taski ABIM, has grown and grown in Kuching over the years and this time there were over 390 kindergartners
3_friendswalking the stage, preceded by speeches, skits, songs and shows. As this was my fourth time attending, I passed on the main hall and hung out backstage instead. There was a large covered area with all the kids clustered according to groups, each with their own costume. Some were getting prepped to go on stage, complete with make-up and last-minute muslim-garb-check.

american_costumeOne group of kids was dressed in gym clothes, with a red baseball cap turned sideways on their head. Can you guess what they are dressed as? Americans! They were the only group of children to do their skit in English! You could write a book about what American youth culture means to Malaysians through that cocked-sideways baseball cap, but I’ll just note the fact of it here for you and move on. American Garb! The event dragged on, as official functions tend to do, into its third hour, and the children milling around in the
Backstage at the kindergarten graduation
holding area grew more frenetic, and the loud murmur rose to a dull roar until finally a pair of teachers whipped out their kompang and dumbek and began to play. The kids immediately started singing along to the hymns and things grew if not quieter, at least less chaotic until the time came to start walking the stage. My daughter, Kak Uda had a great time. I may not have caught all the skits this time around, but that’s OK. I’ll be back next year with Kak Andak.

Other posts about Taski ABIM:
Berjayalah Taskiku!
My eldest child’s graduation

Masihkah Kau Ingat

Sekuntum bunga itu
Sekuntum bunga itu

Masihkah Kau Ingat by Kopratasa,
a Malaysian popular music trio active in the late 1980s. This was perhaps their biggest hit, and still receives a lot of play on Malaysian radio.

Give it a listen:
Kopratasa – Masihkah Kau Ingat

[two_first]English translation by
Bin Gregory Productions.

Do you remember still
That single moment where
A blossom full in bloom
I placed within your hair

Do you remember still
Transformed into a dream
Longing to be with you
Do you remember still

Do you remember still
As we ran and ran
To the foot of the sky
The rainbows we chased
As the rain did come to fall
Together we were drenched

Do you remember still
Do you remember still

Do you remember still
The blossom on that day
In the palm of my hand
It did wilt away
As I closed my grasp
It did turn to dust
Do you remember still

Do you remember still (repeat to fade)

Original lyrics in Bahasa Malaysia:

Masihkah kau ingat
Pada waktu itu sekuntum bunga mekar
Kuselit ke rambutmu

Masihkah kau ingat
Ia menjadi mimpi
dan menjadi rindu
Masihkah kau ingat

Masihkah kau ingat
kita berlari-lari
di kaki langit
mencari pelangi
lalu hujan turun
kita basah bersama

Masihkah kau ingat
Masihkah kau ingat

Masihkah kau ingat
sekuntum bunga itu
Ditapak tangan ini
Ia menjadi layu
Lalu kugengam
ia menjadi debu
Masihkah kau ingat
Masihkah kau ingat

Masihkah kau ingat(8x)



Disclaimer: Lyrics and song link posted in the spirit of fair use and providing publicity to a non-BM-speaking audience. Copyright holder may contact BGP for removal requests at