Visitors to the Jiu Tiao Qiao Xin Ba Na Du Tan in Tampines Link will notice a shrine to a somewhat unusual figure. It is a bearded Malay man – or is he Chinese? – sitting cross-legged, dressed in robes and a songkok.
Before and around him are baju kurung melayu, songkoks, a stone keris and stone turtles, a symbol of fertility and vitality in Chinese culture. Beside him are two flowing streams of water, as well as ornaments declaring ‘Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfriti’ (Happy Eid).
His name is Datuk Gong, or Nah Tuk Kong. He is a guardian spirit and an earth deity who has taken various forms across different periods and places across Southeast Asia, attracting devotees of different ethnicities and faiths. Mr Tok, 56, caretaker of the Tampines temple, says he has seen Chinese, Indians and Malays coming to pay their respects to the deity.
“All gods are the same. We will all ask for the same things: peace, and that things will go smoothly for us. It’s all the same,” says Tok matter-of-factly.
The origins of Datuk Gong
Malaysian documentary photographer Mahen Bala is the man behind the recent feature documentary Datuk Gong: Spirit of the Land. He explains, “The Datuk is revered as a living spirit, and therefore he is treated with great respect by the community in which he resides. A shrine is built in his name, various offerings are presented and spirit mediums are engaged to communicate with him.”
The shrine may take the form of an idol bearing the likeness of the Datuk – whose features vary across different places -, a tablet with his title inscribed on it or even a rock.
“The majority of old shrines in Georgetown, Penang are dedicated to multiple idols, collectively referred to as beradik or brothers, in multiples of three, five and sometimes seven. They are also represented by a series of coloured flags. However, in Klang, Selangor, most of the idols are dressed up as if they were members of the royal family, complete with headgear, keris and in some cases, accompanied by the entire royal court,” says Mahen.
Master Chong Weiyi, secretary general of the Taoist Federation (Singapore) Youth Group, says the Malay figure in a songkok is very similar to the Chinese earth deity Tua Pek Kong. “It started from the early Straits Chinese immigrants. They will usually ask him for protection and blessing, especially in business,” says Master Chong.
“It reflected the aspirations of the early Chinese immigrants: they wanted to work hard, earn money and go home to China. It gave them the strength to look forward to a better tomorrow. It is also a way for the Malay and Chinese communities to respect each other.”
While the exact number of devotees in Singapore is unknown, Chong says the cult of Datuk Gong was popular in the 1960s and 70s, and is still practiced by the older generation. Besides shrines in Tampines, Loyang Tua Pek Kong and Pulau Ubin, he is also venerated in many factories. “I think they want good business, so they want to be in harmony with the spiritual world,” says Chong.
In a reflection of the mixture of beliefs, devotees offering prayers to Datuk Gong must abstain from pork and alcohol for the day, while offerings to the deity will also exclude these two. Chong says, "Since Nah Tuk Kong is Malay, whatever the Malays don't like, they won't do."
But according to Bala, the cult of Datuk Gong goes backs even further than the early Chinese immigrants. He says, “Having arrived in a foreign land as immigrants, they merely adopted a pre-existing practise. Unlike most organized religions which relied on the teachings of a prophet, saint or holy scripture, the worship of the Datuk is a practise that adapts itself according to the times.”
The cult of Datuk Gong reflects a phenomenon called religious syncretism, or the blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system. Sometimes, it involves the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions.
According to Assistant Professor Indira Arumugam of the National University of Singapore’s sociology department, syncretisim is what defines culture, of which religion is a part. She says, “It is entirely natural that religions are influenced by, react to, borrow from and mimic each other - producing interesting hybrids in the process. This is how religions are formed, grow and change. They do not arrive fully formed from nothing but develop in constant exchanges with historical and existing examples.
It is the attempt to purify - to deny their multiple sources and cross-cultural influences that lies at the heart of religious intolerance. What is problematic is the refusal to accord other religions equal validity in order to assert the singular superiority of one’s own.”
The Datok Kong of Kusu Island
Early on a Sunday morning, pest controller Wong Kim Sing, 33, is on a ferry to Kusu Island. He bears joss sticks, as well as offerings of oranges and pineapples. The worship of Datuk Gong runs deep in Wong’s family – back home in Johor Bahru, his father built a shrine to the deity outside their home.
Wong is on his third trip to Kusu. But though he has been in Singapore for 14 years, he only found out this year that there is a shrine to Datuk Gong on Kusu. “My girlfriend told me that people will pray and can strike 4D. I really did strike a big prize, so I am going there to thank him,” says Mr Wong with a smile.
But the Datok Kong of Kusu Island is somewhat different from the one that Wong grew up with. Residing at the top of a 152-step high hillock are two shrines to a pious 19th century family: Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother Nenek Ghalib and his sister Puteri Fatimah.
They are dedicated to, respectively, Datok Kong and Datok Nenek. There are no statues or remains entombed there – merely symbolic tombstones wrapped in yellow cloth, the colour of holiness, and altars to them.
While Wong was surprised by this particular incarnation of Datuk Gong, he says, “It’s all the same to me. I pray for the same things.”
Just as with the earth deity, the shrines attract devotees praying for good health, good business and prosperity. It’s especially popular with childless couples seeking a baby, as well as those seeking 4D numbers. There is even a ritual blessing with many echoes of Chinese religious traditions.
According to caretaker Ishak Samsuddin, 54, they come from as far afield as Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. He even claims that the late President Wee Kim Wee and his wife were regulars at the shrines.
“This is not a god, this is a saint. The thing is alive. You can communicate with it,” says Ishak, whose family has been taking care of the shrine for six generations. He adds with a laugh, “I have seen many miracles here, a lot, too many! The sick get well, businesses do well, couples have kids. (People of ) any religion is [sic] welcome.”
Thangamuthu, 46, a manager in the marine industry, has come to the shrines with eight members of his extended family to pay his respects. A Hindu, he recalls that six years ago, a childless couple he knew conceived after praying at the Kusu shrines. “I believe in all the gods, we don’t criticize them. We will go into churches and Chinese temples, just to give respect,” he says.
For Sri Lankan domestic worker Malee Payarathna, 60, she finds many echoes of her Buddhist faith at the shrines, “We trust the god, so maybe they are helping us. All the things that they do here, we also do in Buddhist temples, just that there are no pictures of statues.”
Ultimately, religious syncretism is emblematic of cultural diversity in Singapore, says A/P Indira. The cult of Datuk Gong, being unique to this region, is an excellent example of “an ordinary, un-self conscious and entirely ordinary testament to our acceptance of cultural and religious pluralism”.
“It is one of the phenomena that makes Singapore, despite popular prejudices, a deep, interesting and complex society. Underneath all this sophisticated gloss is a messy, plural and society that is alive and therefore fascinating to study.”