Mysticism and Modern Tech: The life and times of a Carousell bomoh

 

Story by Ilyas Sholihyn; Photos by Raphael Koh


The first time I met Mbah H* was at the grand Ubin Thai Buddhist Temple, a temple just off Jalan Kayu, straight down from Tang Tea House. The enormous compound consists of three temples in one elaborate complex, each decorated in ornate Thai and Chinese fashion.

Standing in the middle of a field in Sengkang, you can’t help but be awed by its sheer ostentatiousness. If the bomoh (the popular term used for Malay shamans and traditional healers) was hoping to make a dazzling first impression — job well done.

Her appearance, however, couldn’t have stood in starker contrast to the grandiose surroundings.

She was wearing a simple Aztec-print sweater that clashed with a leopard-print cap. The hair that flowed underneath the garish hat was dyed a slight reddish brown that’s pretty much standard these days for young Malay women. It was less a look you’d associated with a professional spiritual healer and more of one that kids these days might call “basic.”

We shook hands, and she instructed me to take off my shoes before entering an air-conditioned room, where a Buddhist monk sat cross-legged on a raised platform. He was surrounded by dozens of golden statues of the Buddha, and an array of plaques bearing his image. Giant murals of Asian landscapes covered one wall; the carpeting was a worn-out ruby red.

We had been invited here to witness the weekly blessing of her Kuman Thong, a doll injected with the spirit of an aborted fetus, one that brings good fortune and protection to the owner.

After exchanging pleasantries with the Thai monk, she took out an adorable-looking doll in the likeness of a sleeping baby, cozy in a fuzzy, blue blanket and wee snowcap. She placed the doll in a golden vase, and the monk loosely wound a string around it. H held the other end of the string between hands clasped together for prayer. Under the watchful eyes of countless Buddhas, she repeated the Thai chants as instructed by the monk. With her head bowed and eyes closed, the monk then began chanting in a deep warble of his own while dipping what appeared to be bundled-up bamboo sticks in water and gently patting her head with them.

The entire process process took about half an hour, and the Kuman Thong (now fully recharged with blessings and prayers, something that must be done every week or so for it to remain effective) was returned to its owner. An important fact to note: This wasn’t the first time I had seen the little blue doll. It’s prominently featured on H’s Carousell page, where she markets her services as a bomoh.

Curses two for one

Photo: Carousell screengrab

 

H, like so many of her mystical peers, has traded in tiny storefronts on quiet alleys for the digital world, where many advertise their services and products on the popular mobile marketplace app Carousell.

Typing in the words “black magic” on Carousell instantly opens a world of mystic possibilities at competitive prices. Listings vary from the simply goofy to the intensely creepy.

For $128, you can get a pendant shaped like an excruciatingly veiny penis to improve your sex life. For $188, all your business predicaments can be resolved with an amulet made with herbs, cemetery soil and holy powder derived from 99 human corpses.

If you want to to cast a curse on your enemies, you’ll need to PM the seller directly.

Photo: Carousell screengrab

I tried approaching Carousell themselves to hear what they have to say about their app being the preferred choice of Singapore’s witch doctor community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn’t have anyone willing to talk about it.

H later informed me that this conjunction of bygone traditions and modern tech is now the norm. Her Carousell page — filled with testimonials by customers, product images, occasional announcements and biographical anecdotes — wouldn’t look out of place selling housewares.

In fact, while her wares are spiritual in nature, the better comparison might be the offerings of a high-end spa.

Photo: Carousell screengrab

Listings on her Carousell page include “minyak pengasih” (charm oils one applies to help attract the opposite sex), “susuk emas face cream” (blessed face cream with gold flakes in it that make you look younger) and her famous “mandi bunga” (flower bath rituals to cleanse negative aura from the body). Call it spiritual skin care. SK II for the soul.

One of H’s charm oils that purportedly makes one more attractive when applied.

Out of all arcane Carousellers I approached, H was the only one who replied and agreed to meet up. But not before correcting me about calling her artefacts “products”, and calling her a “seller”.

Kuman Thong

H, who is just 28 years of age, thanked the monk for his services and walked to where I sat cross-legged near sliding glass doors, all the while keeping her body respectfully bowed so she wouldn’t rise higher than the monk’s perch. She drew my attention to an altar filled with dolls and figures sitting alongside children’s drinks, snacks and toys.

These are all Kuman Thongs, she said matter of factly, as if it’s not at all odd or disturbing to be sitting next to a shrine filled with the spirits of unborn children.

The table of ancient-looking dolls are just like the Kuman Thong that received the monk’s blessing moments before. Traditionally, they’ve been made using an actual fetus — the stillborn infant is removed from its mother’s womb and used in a ceremony that involves a necromancer dry-roasting it over a fire while chanting mantras and incantations. When the corpse is dried, it is covered in gold foil, thus the name “Kuman Thong”, meaning “golden boy”.

These days, the “spirit” of the child is simply bound to symbolic statues and dolls. No corpse necessary.

You have to treat a Kuman Thong as you would a child, explained H. They need to be supplied with candies and other sweets, and kept happy if they are to grant favors for their masters. Otherwise, they’ll bring bad luck — one reason why some folks leave unwanted Kuman Thong at temples, where monks can perform a ritual to unbind the spirit from their masters.

H’s own Kuman Thong, which she brings around with her at all times.

But the ties that bind H and her own Kuman Thong are stronger than most — it contains the spirit of the unborn son she aborted three years ago.

The fetus was five months old when her mother found out she was with child, leading H to terminate the pregnancy. This was a mistake, H explained, as her luck instantly took a turn for the worse. The abortion caused enough metaphysical trouble that she was forced to resign from her job as a flight attendant; it also set her on a path to what she now insists is her true calling.

A broken faith

While the abortion and the regrets it fostered were a triggering factor, H’s transition to bomoh was in some ways, perhaps, always meant to be.

Her great grandfather was a spiritual healer in one of Singapore’s kampongs (villages), a job he inherited from his own mother, who was a spiritual healer in Purwokerto, a small city in Indonesia’s Central Java province.

Before modern medicine and science came to the region, bomohs were frequently consulted by the sick. In lieu of antibiotics were verses from the Quran, accompanied by root extracts, herbs and tonics. Bomohs also are believed to maintain a connection to the netherworld, using spirits both good and evil for their own purposes.

In H’s case, it was only in 2015 that she began walking the road ghosts travel. How much of what follows is apocryphal is impossible to say, but the tale begins with a curse.

Three days before she was supposed to be engaged, she fell violently il. Pus-filled pimples spread across her face, and soon she was vomiting blood and being plagued by nightmares, not to mention disturbing brushes with malicious visions and beings.

Help (the spiritual kind) was sought from various Ustaz — Muslim scholars trained in Islamic knowledge. When she couldn’t afford the $100 they charged for each session, help was not forthcoming.

“Why would you charge a person that much, especially when you’re helping to heal someone?” she asked out loud, clearly still angered by the memory.

Her answers, she said, ultimately came not from the Ustaz, but in Thailand, where she fled after her fiancée left her, the last in a series of disastrous events she credited to the curse. Visiting a Thai temple, a monk gave voice to what she had long suspected. “Something bad is following you,” he said.

After ordering her to change clothes and sit outside the temple, the monk returned and cleansed her with holy water. She eventually fully recovered after subsequent flower baths, she said, and within days of recovery, had decided to become his pupil.

The road to becoming a healer is more complicated than you might think, H said. For instance, practitioners first must learn everything about black magic before learning the more benign side of the spirit world.

“If you are familiar with black magic, you’ll understand its weak points and know how to counter it,” she said.

One of the many alleged “minyak dagu” on sale on Carousell.

Black magic, we quickly learn, is not for the faint of heart — take the process of making minyak dagu, or, “chin oil” for example. Literally, it is oil sapped from the chin of the burnt corpse of a woman who died while pregnant. The oil is stored and can be used to attain supernatural enhancement in love, sex, wealth, and protection.

“The thing is,” she said, “everyone who learns black magic will have a tendency to misuse it — especially when you know how to cast a curse on someone”. On the other hand, every time you use black magic to harm, your life gets shortened, she explains.

Asked which path she’s chosen, she quickly replies: “I’m one of the good ones.”

And if you’re going to be one of the good ones, you might as well get paid for it, right?

No business like the bomoh business

Despite its mystical origins, and H’s curse-borne entry into the field, the bomoh business is just that: a business. And at the moment, it appears to be booming.

Though it’s an industry that dates back to a time when animism was mainstream, shamanistic work has adapted well to the modern era, with occult practitioners utilizing each new path opened by technology to sell their wares. Like booksellers and video rental stores before them, bomohs have moved beyond brick-and-mortar and into the digital sphere, and especially so in metropolitan Singapore.

H notes how even one of the pioneers of the mystical scene in Singapore — Phra Pirab Occult Specialist — now has a major online presence. Sure, they still have a physical store in Whampoa, but they’ve also got a Facebook page, a blog, and a YouTube channel. And of course, a Carousell account, one that hawks lottery-winning amulets.

The move into digital has been just as transformative for H, who insists her life as a bomoh is a calling, rather than a business. A way of “giving back.”

Calling or not, the business seems to be quite profitable. A year and a half into her Carousell store’s existence, it’s peppered with numerous testimonials from purported clients from as far afield as Israel and Russia.

Using Carousell as her platform of choice to market her services proved to be a boon, she said, as it helped her reach customers who never would have found her otherwise.

In a world where spiritual healers and self-proclaimed wise men simply aren’t being sought out to the degree they once were, learning how to market yourself and taking advantage of new sales avenues is a necessity, H admitted.

Of course, the ease of doing business online has also lowered the bar to entry for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in the arts. Some simply sell magical objects without even understanding the rituals behind them, she said dismissively.

With so many “fakes” entering the market, legitimate practitioners such as herself and the folks behind Phra Pirab are forced to up their marketing game to stand out from the pretenders.

Clandestine conjuring

Throughout the 45 minutes we spent talking at the temple, amid the din of a practicing lion dance troupe, H displayed an air of nonchalance, as if demons and chin juice had been her reality for a long time. Or perhaps it was simply the stance she takes when dealing with outsiders, skeptics who aren’t convinced of the spiritual realm’s existence or her power within it.

Before departing, we arranged for another meeting, with H offering me a chance to actually see her conduct one of her famous flower bath rituals for one of her Indonesian clients flying into town for the weekend.

Photo: Juwin Salim

H pulled out a cigarette and tried to light it with one of those newfangled USB lighters you can recharge; she failed. I offered her my old-school Bic lighter, which she gratefully accepted.

Some things are meant to be analog, apparently, just not shamanism.


Postscript

Sadly, our entry into the world of flower baths was not to be — though not because of scheduling conflicts.

Our interview had apparently angered her godfather, who warned that doom would fall upon her family if her face or identity was published.

A series of text exchanges followed in which we assured her of our good intentions, but the warnings of “chaos” ultimately prevailed. There would be no second meeting.

Maybe we should have known better than to think she would be willing to take us deeper into her world, but you can’t blame us for trying. After all, no matter your faith or lack thereof, who doesn’t want wealth, luck, health, love and happiness?


*H agreed to speak with Coconuts Singapore on condition of anonymity due to said “doom” if her identity was made public.