Syncretism of cultural beliefs | Selangor Times
Issue 118


Syncretism of cultural beliefs
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 01 Mar 2013

WHEN different groups of people exist in the same environment, integration often takes place. 

The integration is not merely assimilation, but involves cross adaptation and adoption of certain aspects of these different cultures. Language, cultural practices and food are some of the common aspects that are often interchanged. 

In some areas, foreign culture is introduced to the local people by missionaries or settlers. 

Sometimes, they are introduced by force like during the Japanese Occupation. The local people may accept these “new” practices or beliefs without much alteration, but they could also modify it to make it truly their own, as we can see with Trobriand Cricket. 

Cricket was first introduced to the Trobriand Islands by Christian missionaries in early 1900s. At first, the game was intended to discourage warfare amongst the villages but soon it evolved into a version unique to the Trobriand. Instead of the usual 12 players on a team, the game played in Trobriand could involve the whole community! Instead of jerseys, the players would dress in their traditional warfare outfit when they play. Rituals, dances and chants are also incorporated into the game. 

Language is also susceptible to modification when exposed to foreign influences. Especially when trade activity is vibrant in a specific geographical area such as old Malaya, the local people intermingled with foreigners that do not speak the local language. 

Pidgin, a simplified language, is then developed to facilitate trade. Creole language is the product of mixing two languages and becoming a new language by itself. It has become the native language of children whose parents speak Pidgin. 

Examples of Malaysian Creole include Chetty, Baba and Kristang. 

Cultural syncretism could also be in the form of religious beliefs. Buddhists in Malaysia would be familiar with the Dato Gong deity and its shrine can be found at almost every construction or building sites. 

I first stumbled upon a Dato Gong shrine at Jaya One and got curious as to why the deity is holding a keris – a predominantly Malay symbol. 

Doing some digging, I came across a Youtube video called “Lagenda Dato”, a coursework documentary project by students from The One Academy. The video provided great insights into the origin of Dato Gong, a product of syncretism between traditional Malay and Chinese belief. 

 I could not ascertain when the belief in Dato Gong emerged, but it could well be before Islam arrived on our shores. 

The merger between Pre-Islamic Malay beliefs in Keramat (holy) and Chinese heaven-earth worship is believed to have given birth to Dato Gong. 

The name “Dato” was derived from the Malay word “datuk” for grandfather, while Gong is an honorific used to refer to a respected person. 

A friend of mine explained that Dato Gong is a guardian of the land, hence its shrine is often found at construction sites. It is not surprising that the ‘guardian’ tends to be a Malay person; in the past, land was usually owned by the Malays and it is believed that their spirits still guard their land. 

Worship usually begins when a medium is granted vision of the Dato’s spiritual form. 

To appease the spirit, a shrine is erected and offerings are made to the spirit. 

The offerings are very “Malay” in nature – betel nut leaves with lime paste, betel nuts and tobacco. 

Pork and alcohol are prohibited while meat offered must be slaughtered by a Muslim.

A few weeks ago, my friends and I visited a Dato Gong temple in Banting. What’s particularly interesting with this Dato is that the guardian spirit is believed to be of Sultan Abdul Samad, the fourth Sultan of Selangor. 

The temple is being cared for by Mr Tan, who had been involved with the temple since he was only 12 years old. 

The original temple was initially smaller and situated deeper in the hill with a small road leading to it. 

From public donations and support, the temple today, has undergone four renovations and an extension is planned for next year, which will include an orphanage and an old folks’ home.

When he was a child, Mr Tan was enticed to explore the hill behind where the temple is now located by rumours of “treasures” and found incense holders dated back to 1897. Along with his archaeological finds were a keris and a gold chain. He told us that he no longer has the gold chain, but he still has in his possession the keris, which he kept in a glass case. 

Mr Tan first mediated the Sultan in 1953. He had solicited the Sultan and offered to channel his messages. 

Mr Tan explained to us that when he’s in trance, some other deities may manifest; it depends on whether the Sultan wants to appear or not, or if he has a message to relay. 

In accordance with Malay custom, The Sultans are owners of the land. Sultan Abdul Samad’s Royal Mausoleum is located just a few hundred metres away from the temple.  

Peninsular Malaysia has her history as an important trade hub and settlements of various peoples took place. Hence the local people are constantly exposed to foreign influences. Our culture is constantly evolving and reshaping itself. We should not fear syncretism, instead embrace it; it is important that we understand this and take ownership of our rich history of integration.

It is unfortunate that we are retreating back into the shells of ethnic supremacism; that one ethnic group is superior to the other and the rest are merely “add-ons” to multiethnic Malaysia – to be appeased for votes. Our relationship with each other goes beyond that.  

I need not spell it out any more than it is obvious; we are, and always have been, the product of mixed cultures and there’s absolutely nothing wrong that. 

The problem arises when we try to hide this fact or deny it for pious or supremacist reasons and that is exactly where we will lose ourselves. 


 Selangor Times



Also by Sharyn Shufiyan:

It’s all in the lyrics

WHEN you listen to a song, what is it about that song that would hold your attention for four minutes? 

The end of the world?

Will love or faith prevail?

WILL love or faith prevail? That is the premise of “Nadirah”, a play written by Alfian Sa’at and directed by Jo Kukathas staged recently at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

Pluralism is not a bad thing!

Last month, my partner and I checked out our friends’ ongoing community arts project, Have a Holy-Day! in Brickfields. Like first class busybodies, we hung around for about an hour or so and snapped some pictures as proof that we were there.

Response to the Responses of Suara Cicit Tunku Abdul Rahman

Sharyn Shufiyan takes a detour from talking about current affairs to talking about her current affair. 

The imaginary boundary

Work takes me to Sabah and Sarawak quite often lately, home to two of the longest rivers in Malaysia. 

The universality of fasting

It’s that time of the year again when Muslims test their patience, refrain from worldly desires, and increase their piety.

Displaced by development

Naked or nude?

What is the difference between being naked and being nude? Do they both mean the same thing, to be without clothes, to let it “all hang loose”?

Branding Politics

Raving about Rave

Rave isn’t really my scene but I will enjoy a good night out anytime.

A Thai in our midst

"It was way back in 1956, at a time when the then Malaya was on the verge of gaining independence that the idea of building a sizable Buddhist temple close to the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur was first conceived. The temple was also to reflect the status of Buddhism as one of the major religions in the country, and also serve as a symbol of the long standing close relationship that existed between Thailand and Malaya.”

Reaching new heights

Walking into the concourse of Batu Caves, one is greeted by majestic structures of Hindu deities, temples and swarms of pigeons flapping just inches above your head. Macaques blend into the landscape amongst worshippers and tourists, making their way up the 272 steps to the Temple Cave.

Please flush after use

November 19th was World Toilet Day! What better way to celebrate World Toilet Day than to address our toilet habits?

Aren’t we all dirty minded?

Taking shelter from the rain, I walked into a Chinese coffee shop occupied by uncles playing mahjong. In small towns like Kuang, an outsider stands out like a sore thumb. At one point while I was on the phone, the uncles stopped playing and stared at me. “They thought you are a police,” said Uncle Chong, who came to sit next to me.

Picking on the right hemisphere

I’m the worst early riser, ever. But on that particular Saturday, I was actually looking forward to it. The plan was for us to gather in front of SK Sentul Utama. Walking up to the school, I could see the field marshals wearing cute tentacles on their heads, checking in other enthusiasts and assigning them into groups.

A play of lights

As we turned the corner, bright lights greeted us from a distance. With the dark of the night in the background, shades of red, blue, green and white burst into view. We were entering a neon forest.

Leaving and arriving: The non-place

A Caucasian couple with a toddler on tow walked out of the arrival hall. As the parents’ attention was focused on a row of men holding up name placards, the toddler, lying face down, dragged himself along the marble floor, as if licking it, then got up and mischievously scurried away.

Making use of the great outdoors

When I first heard of Broga, I thought it was in Spain or Latin America. It didn’t sound local to my ear. Located on the border of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, it is believed that Broga earned its name from Buragas, a mystical beast that lives in the forest.











From Windows to a Mac: A guide




In for a sweet treat




A Majestic presence





Copyright © 2018 Selangor Times. All rights reserved. Designed By Senedi