5 Superstitions We Came Across in Malaysia
Superstitions of the locals are sometimes a great way to learn about the country. And speaking of Malaysia, or at least its capital city Kuala Lumpur, superstitions may introduce you to it.
Here are five (a little more actually) interesting superstitions that we learned in Malaysia.
- Opening an Umbrella Indoors
- The Number 4 That Brings Bad Luck
- The Index Finger and the Head
- Sweeping the House
- What can one learn about Malaysia from these superstitions?
When we lived in Kuala Lumpur, we used Airbnb to stay in local people’s places and it was one of them who told us that people in KL are quite superstitious. The first example this person came up with was opening an umbrella indoors. Later we found out that this superstition can be tracked back to the Ancient Egypt and its mythology.
More possible is the British origin of this superstition. It was back in the 18th century when umbrellas began to take their modern shape (metal carcass and waterproof material), however they were not that stable and secure to use and might cause someone a light injury or break something inside the house.
Another possible version is the Chinese one. There is a belief that opening an umbrella inside a house will invite ghosts into it. Here is an interesting story on this one: Why Asians Are Superstitious.
This one is maybe the most famous Chinese superstition and there is no need to seek for its origin, as it is very simple. The words four and death are pronounced very similarly and for example in the Shanghai dialect or Japanese language even equally. For this reason the number four and all combinations, involving it are avoided. And sometimes this has a worldwide effect: Sony never brought a smartphone Xperia Z4: there was Z3, Z3+ and then Z5. Canon and Samsung avoid number 4, as well. There is a special term for this superstition and a good wikipedia article on it that gives even more examples: Tetraphobia.
This ones are about the etiquette and not a superstition, but still very interesting to consider due to the origins.
It is considered rude in many cultures to point with the index finger, even when it is called pointing finger in the respective language (as it is in German: Zeigefinger). However when we were going to Malaysia and read the first “dos and don’ts” one of the first things we learnt was not to point with the index finger at anyone or anything. And while this etiquette is not strictly held to in the Western world, it is important in Malaysia. Instead of the finger tip you could use the index finger knuckle or the whole open palm.
Another rudeness is to touch someone’s head, as there is a belief (that comes from Buddhism) that the head is the most sacred part of the body. Touching someone else’s head is therefore equal to insulting his or her dignity, so remember to control your behaviour if you see a cute child in Malaysia.
There are many demons, spirits and ghosts (Malay: hantu) in Malay folklore. Some of them live in the water, other in the woods, some are malicious, other will not cause any harm. One of the most famous ghosts is pontianak, a ghost of a woman who was killed by her beloved one or died while being pregnant (there are multiple versions). Such a ghost is typical for other South-East Asian cultures, as well. Basically people will avoid anything that could disturb the ghosts. Certain natural disasters or illnesses may be connected with supernatural activities. Disrespecting local customs, too.
Just a year ago a group of western backpackers visited the holy Mount Kinabalu. Disregarding their travel guide and the signs, explicitly warning “public nudity prohibited”, they undertook a naked photo session. This vandalism might remain unpunished for not to provoke an international conflict, however six days after that a heavy earthquake took place and caused 18 deaths. The locals connected the two events to the anger of the mountain ghosts and demanded a native court. The tourists were lucky to be judged by the state court and could escape any higher punishment with only a fee of 5000 RM (approx. 1300 USD) and a few days of imprisonment.
A very detailed collection on informations about Malaysian ghosts: Ghosts And Folk Beliefs in Malaysia.
While staying in Kuala Lumpur we many times could see that Malays are very tidy people, but when it comes to cleaning the house, there are a couple of rules for that. Some of them won’t clean (especially sweep) the house after the dark for not sweeping the good luck out of the house. This superstition is most probably connected to the low light during the night time and thus the chance of sweeping away something valuable. This is a superstition of Indian origin. Additionally, many Indians will not clean the house right after they had guests, as the house is traditionally cleaned right after a dead member leaves it. Meanwhile Chinese people consider it very important to not clean the house on the New Year’s Day (all the cleanings must be done in advance) for not to sweep away the fortune of the coming year.
As you could notice, some superstitions have their origin in Malaysian folklore and come from the times before Islam had reached this place, other ones are derived from Buddhism, British etiquette, Indian believes and finally most of them are Chinese superstitions. All together they demonstrate the diversity and richness of what results in a modern Malaysian culture.
And what do you think of these superstitions? Do you believe in any of them or any others?
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