Popular superstitions and taboos in Malaysia

Khaw Chia Hui
A man walks pass paper clothing put up as offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival in George Town September 8, 2017. — Picture by KE Ooi

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 8 — For most Malaysians, growing up with certain superstitions or taboos are a norm, whether they are founded in logic or just customary beliefs.

Some of us would dismiss them as urban legends but for others, it is a part of daily life.

Seeing that we are in the seventh lunar month and many in the Chinese community observe the Hungry Ghost Festival, Malay Mail takes a look at some superstitions that are still being bandied about.

Stay in at night

Children and women are often advised to stay home when night falls as the roaming spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival are believed to be out in full force.

Spirits are more likely to be “attached” to the innocence of children and pregnant women.

For those who are still out at night, avoid standing under shady trees or empty bus stops.

The dark conditions are haunting grounds.

Do not carry red or black umbrellas as these colours are favoured by the supernatural, hence seeking “shelter” in those items and you risk bringing the spirits home.

When you are back at a later hour, washing your hands and feet will help get rid of any “trail” or “scent” that attracts the attention of malevolent spirits.

Elders would also tell you to avoid cutting nails at night, as it is akin to shortening one’s lifespan. Possibly this is to ensure you don’t cut yourself under poor lighting.

Getting home before dark is also a common practice among Muslims.

Children are told be home during Maghrib lest they be “taken” by spirits.

We guess this is one way for parents to ensure the children are back in time for dinner, bath and prayers.

Pregnant women are often told not to renovate their homes before giving birth. — AFP pic

Don’ts for pregnant women

Pregnant women are often faced with a lot of taboos, in addition to the many old wives’ tales and traditional practices.

Indians would want pregnant women to stay indoors during an eclipse as the Sun is being “swallowed” by a demon, otherwise the babies might be born with deformities.

Also, pregnant women are not allowed to touch needles, scissors or knives during that time.

Meanwhile, Malays advise pregnant women to not kill any animals for fear of the children having animalistic features.

Also, polong and pelesit (evil spirits) are said to hunger for the menstrual blood of a woman’s first pregnancy.

While preparing the nursery is considered a good way for expectant mothers to nurture their “nesting” instincts, the Chinese forbids the mothers to be in the presence of renovation work, especially hammering of nails.

It is believed the hammering will affect the baby’s looks.

Of course, funerals are to be avoided.

Taoist funeral rites can go on for 49 days, hence expectant mothers should not meet the grieving family or be anywhere near their house.

If it cannot be avoided, they are to wear a red scarf around the belly and carry some form of auspicious charm.

There are many superstitions to adhere to when one is in the jungle. — AFP pic

Jungle rule

Remember when a bunch of tourists bared their bottoms on Mount Kinabalu?

There is a good reason why the locals were upset.

The Kadazandusun believed when one dies the soul will walk towards the mountain and pass into the different realms of afterlife — hence Mount Kinabalu is a sacred site.

The community also conducts a sogit (healing ritual) every year at the mountain with seven chickens, seven kampung cigars and seven betel nuts to appease the spirits.

In many local cultures, the jungle is considered a place that demands respect.

One needs to watch their behaviour, lest be punished in some ways by the spirits that reside there.

For example, the Kadazandusun believes sopok (dwarves or gnomes) and pampuvan (leprechauns or fairies) can trick campers into following them deep into the jungle never to be seen again.

Many a times, campers are told to “ask permission” before urinating in the jungle or do not bring back items from there.

This is to avoid being cursed by the supernatural or inadvertently bringing them home.

Asking permission also extends to paying respects to Datuk Kong, a guardian spirit of the jungle.

Do not just sit on any rock formations as it could be the resting place of malevolent spirits.

Best to check with your guide before doing anything in the jungle.

Whenever you are in the forest, you are usually given a nickname as you should not call out to each other using real names.

Spirits are likely to trap you in their deadly realm.

No ghost stories when spending a night in the jungle.

You would not want to offend the supernatural beings by making up silly stories or laughing at them.

Keep calm and say nothing

There are several things to keep in mind when you are driving late at night down a lonely highway or sitting around a campfire.

It is best to ignore if you smell anything strange, especially sweet scents like the jasmine, or hear soft whisperings.

It is said you could be in the presence of a pontianak (female vampire) who is looking to lure you “home” with her.

When driving alone, you should not react to any sudden coldness, strange lights or someone calling your name from a car’s backseat.

Don’t satiate your curiosity but continue with what you are doing.

Whistling, singing and talking to yourself while driving at night are not encouraged.

Wandering spirits are attracted to these sounds and will want to “hitch” a ride.

One’s gift, another’s taboo

For Indians, crows symbolise karma and regarded as ancestors. So offering food to the birds is to pacify the ancestors.

However, other forms of gift-giving are taken seriously in Malaysia.

One wrong gift can cause you to “lose face”.

Any gift should adhere to the recipient’s religious beliefs.

You want to avoid anything that contains alcohol, pigskin or dog imagery when wanting to impress someone of the Muslim faith while avoid meat byproducts if that person is a vegetarian Hindu. 

Giving a clock as a gift to a Chinese is considered bad luck.

The phrase “to give a clock” is a homophone of a phrase for “attending a funeral” in Cantonese.

It also denotes counting down one’s days.

While black or white wrapping paper looks nice, it is associated with death — not something you wish on somebody else.

Flowers are great but avoid frangipanis and jasmine.

Again, the scent of these flowers remind people of cemeteries and funerals.

Knock on hotel rooms before entering for the first time. ― AFP pic

Appeasing ‘roommates’

A hotel room might be a welcomed break.

But again, there are some rules to keep to for a good night’s sleep.

Knock on the door a few times and softly ask for permission to enter.

Be respectful in your “announcement” as you do not want to walk into a ghoulish get-together.

Make sure you mess up both beds, if any, to not leave it empty for fear of inviting supernatural company.

Also, pick the bed that is not facing the mirror, which is sometimes hard to do as some hotel rooms have large mirrors.

Mirrors are said to drain your positive energy.

Try to leave your shoes pointing opposite of your bed. This is to not lead the spirits to you when you are sleeping.

And most logically of all, open up all curtains and windows (if possible) to let in the sun and fresh air.

It is great to get rid of the musty smell hotel rooms tend to have.

Whether you practise these superstitious beliefs, it is fascinating to delve into it to further understand and respect the different cultures in the country.

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