This essay briefly explores the evolving identity of the Datuk Gong and observations on how the worship is influenced by Islamisation and Malay nationalism in Malaysia.
What’s in a name?
“Black(Panglima Hitam) is the eldest, Green(Hijau) is the fiercest and White(Putih/Puteh) is blind and/or mute. We don’t really know who they are.”
Look up Datuk Gong on Google and you will see many different sites attempting to answer the question of “Who is Datuk Gong” in a multitude of forms, out of which almost none of them are even half correct, committing the cardinal sin of research by oversimplifying the subject with unfounded assumptions, biased opinions and myopic perspectives. The Wikipedia page conveniently summarises the names of the Datuk according to a hierarchy as follows:
1. Datuk Panglima Ali (Ali)
2. Datuk Panglima Hitam (Black)
3. Datuk Panglima Harimau (Tiger)
4. Datuk Panglima Hijau (Green)
5. Datuk Panglima Kuning (Yellow)
6. Datuk Panglima Putih (White)
7. Datuk Panglima Bisu (Mute)
8. Datuk Panglima Merah (Red)
9. Datuk Panglima Bongsu (Youngest)
In a survey of shrines across the country, the only other time I’ve noted the same list was at a shrine dedicated to Datuk Hijau on Pangkor Island. How the list came about is anybody’s guess but it’s important to understand that the list is by no means definitive and does not represent the structure of worship in all locations. The hierarchy, from my limited observation across the peninsula, only applies to Georgetown, Penang where most of the shrines contain more than one idol and is commonly referred to as Lima Beradik (Five Brothers). Or sometimes Enam (Six) or Tujuh (Seven). Some of the locals could faintly recall the name of the brothers but nobody knew their origins.
Exiting Georgetown, the structure presented above no longer applied and the Datuks took on a different form.
In the royal town of Klang, it is common to see Datuks who are considered members of the royal family. The idols are dressed in yellow and gold costume exactly as a Sultan would, complete with a keris and the royal seal. Whether or not these spirit were once real people who walked the earth is up for speculation, except for one.
One evening, I met the caretaker of the temple, a frail 80 year old man who tried his best to recall the name of the spirits:
”In the middle is Datuk Sultan Abdul Samad, next to him are his brothers, Datuk Tunku/Tengku Raja Rahman/Rahmat and Datuk Raja Ali.“
For Malaysians who hated studying history in school, Sultan Abdul Samad was the 4th Sultan of Selangor who reigned from 1857 until his death in 1898. He was responsible for developing the tin mining industry in Selangor and for the subsequent influx of Chinese immigrants.
On the same evening, I asked him again what the names of the idols were and again, he struggled. Family members tried helping him by randomly jogging through different syllables before one of them simply said:
“Actually the Datuk does not like his name being mentioned.”
And with that, the real name of the Datuk has been wiped clean from any future narrative.
When I visited the temple again the next day, the caretaker had suffered a fall and was now resting with a broken arm. The real name of the spirits and history of the temple rests with him and will die with him without any written record.
As it is true with all oral history, the next generation will have a new story to tell, slightly different from the one before. The darkness of night signalled the start of rituals preceding a feast to celebrate the birthday of the Datuk. Four mediums walked about the temple grounds, cracking a whip and burning joss sticks at the altar as devotees waited patiently.
As the trance session began, the mediums donned yellow baju Melayu and a headgear fit for a king. Incantations came out as inaudible mumbling as they smothered their faces with clouds of camphor smoke and called upon spirits from another world.
I asked a man standing nearby who said:
“Oh, we just call them Tuk Sultan and Tuk Raja. We know each other very well.”
The man simply laughed and rested his hand on the shoulder of the medium who was now seated in his chair, cutting his tongue with the keris and spitting blood onto prayer paper. The paper was then rolled and handed out to devotees with specific instructions spoken in Malay.
No one knew the actual name of the Datuk or how he came to be but the devotees were proud, and happy to have a ‘royal’ Datuk present at the temple, which translates as the temple being perceived powerful and therefore, worthy of donations from generous followers.
Form and function
Without a static point of reference, the form in which the Datuk manifests himself and is worshipped by followers changes according to location and the passing of time but the identifying markers that denote the dignified presence of the spirit remains; many of them being incorporated from Malay culture, the keris, headgear (tengkolok, skullcap), traditional Malay attire (baju Melayu, royal costume), and the physical traits of an old Malay man. Generally, the more conscious the community is regarding the identity of themselves as immigrant Chinese and that of the Datuk as a Malay-Muslim spirit, the more ‘Malay’ the idol will appear to be.
Cheu Hock Tong, an anthropologist who researched the Datuk Gong in the 80’s and 90’s, in his paper “Malay Keramat Chinese Worshippers: The Sinicization of Malay Keramat in Malaysia”, commented on the increase in the number of Datuk Gong shrines after the May 13 1969 Sino-Malay racial riots. Shrines became more elaborate and included Islamic elements in it’s architecture. It is important to note that the elements incorporated were those perceived to be Islamic; jawi script, crescent moon and star, skullcap, mosque dome etc, and not necessarily derived from Islamic teachings.
On 10th May 1969, the Malaysian general elections was held, resulting in the victory of the Opposition over the Alliance. On 13th May, ethnic Malays targeted and murdered hundreds of ethnic Chinese during which, a state of national emergency was declared by the King (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) and Parliament was suspended.
Responding to the state of fear created by the incident, the Datuk Gong became a vehicle for the Chinese to placate the Malay-Muslims who were perceived to be angry and dissatisfied with losing political power. The Chinese were keen to make it clear that the presence of their community, with their own unique culture and practices were not a threat to those of the native Malays by expressing spirit of the land in the image of a Malay-Muslim man. The design of the temple was an acknowledgement, almost as a form of submission, to the status of Islam as the official religion and the Malays are rightful natives of the land.
According to his observations, 1969-1970s (1st decade of the NEP) saw Datuk Gong shrines with spirit tablets, candle-stands, Chinese scrolls, charm papers in brick/concrete sheds painted red. In the 1980s and 1990s (2nd decade of the NEP), Malay keramat portraits were installed and multi-coloured brick/tiled structure became more common. Instead of the traditional red, some shrines were painted white or yellow, housing Malay keramat idols made out of porcelain, wood, plastic, fibreglass or clay. The items placed at the altar now included the songkok, skullcaps, walking-sticks, tobacco and betel leaves.
The most famous example in visualising the harmony between both sides of the imagined divide would be the Lian He Temple in Klang, a ‘combination temple’ which houses Datuk Haji Keramat, one of the oldest idols in Selangor.
Over the years, the temple that clearly borrows architectural elements from the nearby mosque had to to fend off threats of demolition due to it’s unique design which was deemed ‘potentially confusing’ to the Malay-Muslim community. Till today, rumours are abound with stories of how the man operating the excavator could not start the machine, presumably due to the powers of the residing spirit.
Is it worth the risk?
Today, the scenario is markedly different.
Driving through Seksyen 17, Petaling Jaya, a row of apartment buildings stand like domino blocks, separated from each other by a small plot of grass covered land. Accompanying each of the building is a Datuk Gong shrine, all of them decorated differently.
The largest shrine among them rests under the cool shade of large trees and is attended to daily by the residents. Instead of an idol, the Datuk is represented by a spirit tablet, housed in a dark red shrine with the Chinese characters, Na Tuk Gong adorning the roof.
Here, the locals are cautious. The shrine and the idol that used to be there had already been vandalised twice and daily reports of non-Muslims being warned against using ‘Islamic’ words by the religious authorities in the media only added to the paranoia.
I asked for permission to shoot while they cleaned the altar and installed the new tablet.
One of them asked, with a threatening finger:
“If anything happens to this shrine, are you willing to take the risk? Are you?”
This was the first time I was treated with such hostility while researching the Datuk Gong. I didn’t insist on documenting but I stayed on to listen to their conversations. The tone of the conversation echoed many other conversations I had heard earlier in similar circumstances.
To many ethnic Chinese, there is a genuine concern that they were being discriminated against by the government via race based policies namely the New Economic Policy(NEP) and the newly announced Bumiputra Economic Empowerment, part of the affirmative action to level the economic wealth disparity between the Malays and non-Malays.
The government is helmed by the Prime Minister, who has also traditionally been the president of the Malay-based UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), a political party with Malay nationalism and the expansion of Islam as it’s primary agenda. With UMNO constantly in the headlines reminding the Malays to uphold the supremacy of their race and also the Chinese to be grateful of their place in the country, Malays in general are unfortunately treated with apprehension by the ethnic Chinese within an environment of fear and misunderstanding.
It was now a struggle for the Chinese to retain their culture and identity against the rising tide of Islamisation and Malay nationalism. With Islam now being deemed exclusive to the Malays, the Chinese see it fit to do whatever necessary to avoid a confrontation, even if it entails consciously remodelling the expression of their faith.
With state religious authorities clamping down on any practices with even the slightest hint of being remotely related to Islam or having Islamic elements being practised by non-Muslims, the Chinese are responding by discarding all the elements that were incorporated decades earlier.
Jawi/rumi script is being replaced with Chinese characters, idols replaced with tablets, old shrines are renovated to resemble a Chinese temple with Taoist features while new shrines are designed to be as inconspicuously Chinese as possible. This approach applies to both old shrines undergoing renovations and new shrines either constructed or purchased from shops.
It is important to note that such changes are only apparent with the Datuk Gong due to its flexible nature as an undefined and unorganised blend of Chinese folk tradition and local animistic practices. Changes are initiated by the believers themselves without the regulation of any supervisory body. Within this context, Buddhism,Taoism and its related rituals are almost entirely unaffected. (the influence of capitalism on both religions is a separate matter)
An analogy of the transformation would be as such: Datuk Haji Osman turned into the generic term Datuk Gong and finally, 拿督公 (Na Tuk Gong) written in Chinese characters.
The logic is simple. As one of the older men at the shrine boldly claimed:
“They can’t be offended if they don’t know what it is.”
Edit: Updated 22nd January with expansion on the Chinese identity, racial riots of 13 May and clarity on Chinese reaction towards Islamisation and Malay nationalism.
Notes presented in the essay are excerpts from a long-term research on the Datuk Gong by Mahen Bala which includes information from academic papers, oral history and geographical survey on the worship across Malaysia. The thoughts and observations presented are meant to be academic in nature for the purpose of research and discussion, without the intention of disparaging or criticising any segment of society.
The Datuk Gong essays are now part of a series on the B-Side by BFM 89.9 The Business Station.