Who exactly is the Datuk Gong?
Understanding the identity of the Datuk requires us to be inclusive, to be open to different interpretations and understandings from various religious and cultural elements.
During our formative years, religion and culture determines who we spend the most time with and the acquired wisdom during these important years form the foundation of your views of the world. A Chinese boy growing up as a Christian would inevitably build his bubble of ‘world-view’ based on what his parents say at home and the verses of the Bible on Sundays at the church. The same top-down pyramid model applies for all the other organized religions and forms of beliefs. The source, as interpreted by a medium, determines the form and function of the worship.
I was brought up with the ritual of praying at the altar to multiple gods but I never accepted it. Sitting next to Lakshmi and Ganesha was the portrait of my late grandmother. I remember standing at the altar with my palms together, staring into her eyes. Was my ancestors also to be worshipped alongside the Hindu pantheon of Gods?
My father said it was a way of us remembering them. I asked my mother why the portrait of her mother wasn’t on the altar and she said “We remember them in our hearts.”
This changed me more than I realized at the time.
I was drawn to the serene calmness of a mosque, the mystery of fierce Chinese gods, the simplicity of the teachings of Buddha and the energy of charismatic Christian churches. I listened to my father talk about the teaching of the last Prophet (p.b.u.h), studied the 4 Noble truths before sleeping and also joined friends at many different churches.
Here’s the curious case of my father. He worked as a government servant his entire life with a daily routine that ran like clockwork. He returned from work at 4.30pm, drank the tea my mother served him at 5pm and by 7pm he would have had his bath and performed his daily prayers at the altar. After watching the news, and combing through the newspaper, he would pick up a copy of the Holy Qur’an and study it. He always treated the book with great respect, as one would with the word of God. From my first memory of him till the very last, the teaching of the Qu’ran were never far. He educated all of us in the family with quotes and explanations from the holy book.
My mother would sometimes joke: “Your father is already a Muslim.”
After studying the Qu’ran, he would pray again at the altar to Hindu gods before having dinner. Was he really a Muslim?
In school, I was reminded that Islam was out of reach unless you were already a Muslim so attending Pendidikan Agama classes were out of the question. What an exclusive club I thought. The constitution clearly states that the identity of a Malay is defined as professing the faith of Islam and therefore, it would be impossible, at least officially, to be a Malay and to have faith in any other religion. A dear Muslim friend of mine considers it “a marriage of two mistakes”. It is a tragedy for Malaysia that there is no freedom for the Malays to be associated with a religion of their choice and for them to be subjected to enforcement by the religious authorities.
My father both loved and feared Islam. He lived by the word of God and the prophet but he knew well what the consequences of converting would be on the family . Conversion was not a required expression of his faith.
In primary school, I remember being pulled to a corner during recess by a group of Malay boys. They grouped around me and tried convincing me that if I don’t accept Islam then I will surely go to hell. Not being able to enjoy sweet sour pork would’ve been hell enough for me so I had to pass.
The Buddhists around me were more interested in burning incense at temples and keeping little figurines of the Enlightened one instead of actually studying what his teachings. It is ironic that the Buddha tried so hard to see through the all the illusions and distractions in life, to understand life and suffering in it’s purest form and yet Buddhism today is shrouded in more mystery and layers than ever. Jewels and riches meant nothing to him but the faithful are in a constant race to build the largest, shiniest statue of him in various positions.
It’s okay I guess since Buddha doesn’t have a grave to be rolling in.
The Christians were aggressive in signing you up into their club. They organized concerts to attract the younger crowd and created cells in universities and colleges. Many of us would definitely have had over-zealous friends in school or after who would try to educate you about Christ and his Father.
Attending church was fun at first. Hanging out with friends and being part of a large, caring community was always nice. That is, until you started asking questions. I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t good enough to understand the word of God even if it was printed in the Bible.
I also heard many stories of how people who donated to the church received, in return, many times over. Seven times I think. That was supposedly the ROI that God set in place. There were stories of how terminally ill people (it must always be noted that the doctors were stumped) were cured instantly. Praise the Lord. Stories of how businesses expanded and the followers of Christ prospered in times of difficulties. Praise the Lord.
Many questions raced through my mind at the time but evil stares would fall onto me should I dare voice any of them out. Is this a God who relied on bribery? If God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, then does he choose to only cure those who are Christians and all others are doomed? Is this is a God who loved me as a father would but I needed a priest to interpret the Bible for me and I needed to pray through his son, Jesus Christ for my prayers to be answered? There are no concrete answers and each church had a different one. Is there free will if God already has a plan for me?
I sat there listening to these people and felt almost as if I was in a prison. It was expected of me to submit and to obey to the popular agenda. The ‘father’ was the prison chief and my friends were the guards who would readily rat on me ‘for my own good’. I wonder if that’s the reason they called it cells.
Yet again, I was surrounded by a group of friends who reminded me that if I don’t accept Christ, I’ll burn in hell for all my sins. Sounded familiar.
Is the space in my heart so small that I could only accept one belief and remained closed to the other for the rest of my life? Did God ever meant for us to choose?
If I had been brought up within the exclusive world view of any of the religions, I do not think I would be where I am today; surveying the country for hidden idols of a pagan spirit.
The worship of Datuk Gong is a cult. The ancient spirit of a Malay-Muslim (also Chinese, Indian and ‘Others’) is venerated, mainly by the Chinese, in the form of an idol or ancestral tablet found within small red shrines in public areas. Such a summary is a gross understatement to the diversity of the form in which the spirit is worshipped across Malaysia.
Conservative Muslims denounce such practices as syirik or haram. Some even refuse to talk about it.
“Such spirits are evil jinns with the intention of deviating you away from your faith.”
Christians are quick to dismiss it as well.
“Why would I know about the Datuk Gong? I’m Christian.”
It’s almost as if being aware or understanding a different faith is akin to believing in it.
The Chinese who practise the worship are no better themselves.
“I grew up watching my father pray to the Datuk, so I should do the same as well.”
The answer to the question at the very top is much more complex than I previously imagined. The cult is a result of centuries of cultural and religious adaptation by both the natives of the land and the subsequent arrival of immigrants in Malaya. What I assumed was a small part of Chinese religion has brought me to look into Taoism, Hinduism, Sufi mysticism and even animism, connecting little dots along the way.
Looking back at the top-bottom pyramid mentioned above, the worship of the Datuk Gong is quite the opposite. It demands examination from the bottom-up; creating a structure for an unorganised cult based on elements from various cultures at different points in time.
A study into the cult of Datuk Gong offers us an alternate perspective on the history of Malaya through the ages. It is a study into ethnic-relations, human behaviour, and ultimately our very own identity as Malaysians.