The start of ghostbusting groups
Armed with an electromagnetic frequency (EMF) detector, Shawn Li stands in the middle of an empty, dilapidated room. He thrusts the device into the air and calls out: “If there is anyone here, we want to communicate with you. Please show us a sign!”
With a dash of bravado and a dabble of showmanship, Li combs through abandoned buildings and infamous haunted sites in Singapore, attempting to make contact with ghosts on camera. IT businessman by day, ghost hunter by night, he founded The Supernatural Team (TST) with his colleague and friend, Steve Wong, in 2012.
In the past, get-togethers between the two usually consisted of musings about life after death and ghost stories, so they finally decided to start investigating hauntings to gain insights into the afterlife. Today, TST’s YouTube web series has garnered a faithful following and the team is one of Singapore’s small but dedicated community of paranormal researchers.
Another prominent group in the scene is the Singapore Paranormal Investigators (SPI). Founded in 2001 by former Nanyang Technological University professor Dr Kenny Fong, it began as a research unit focusing on paranormal and fringe science. Early members included Fong’s friends and family, but SPI now attracts like-minded people through active public outreach.
Dr Yasser Mattar was one of those drawn to their work. Then a professor at the National University of Singapore, the 41-year-old felt there were some things mainstream science just couldn’t explain, and became increasingly curious about the supernatural. Since joining the SPI in 2010, he has participated in dozens of investigations, lectured publicly about the paranormal, led spooky walks for NUS and NTU, and took on the role of SPI’s executive manager in 2015.
How they go about hunting ghosts
Today, there are about half a dozen paranormal groups in Singapore — each with their own unique approach. Those with a penchant for science seek to ascertain if a place really is haunted. They collect information or “evidence” with gadgets like EMF devices, motion detectors, digital voice recorders and even old school dowsing sticks.
Others call themselves “ghost hunters” and simply wish to experience seeing or feeling a supernatural being by visiting “haunted” locations and attempting to interact with spirits. While some groups shy away from sensationalism, others produce shows aimed at consumers seeking fright and entertainment. Then there are those who genuinely believe in the existence of mythical creatures, such as the orang minyak (oily man) or the pontianak (female vampire ghost), based on oral history and folk tales.
But whether they be scientific myth-busters, curious thrill-seekers or true believers in ghosts, these people all have something in common: an open-mind, a sense of adventure and a hunger for self-taught knowledge (’cause, ‘yknow, degrees in Paranormal Studies are hard to come by).
The ghoulish spots
Luckily for them, there is no shortage of local spots to test their theories and methods. But where is the dark blue on the ghostly monopoly? Most people with paranormal street cred will agree that Bukit Brown is definitely one of the most haunted hangouts in Singapore. Established in the early 20th century, this was the largest public Chinese cemetery outside of China before it closed in 1973, when burials were no longer permitted in central Singapore.
Runner-up on the otherworldly scale is Pasir Ris swamp, the site of the infamous “suicide tower” where a boy fell to his death (the occasional burst of high-pitched laughter is said to ring out on moonless nights). Of course, you can’t forget the Old Changi Hospital, which was built in 1935 and used as a British military hospital before it was occupied by the Japanese and turned into a prison camp to house torture chambers. And everyone’s heard at least one haunted story from Pulau Ubin, be it the ghost of the German girl or the coconut tree possessed by the spirit of a boy who died climbing it.
Lesser known, but perhaps far creepier, is the fetus cemetery in Lim Chu Kang, where late aborted and stillborn babies were buried until the ‘70s, and faceless ghosts are said to roam the night.
Despite the abundance of ghostly haunts across the island, it is believed that the spirits have had it bad, what with the rapid development of Singapore through the years. Spectral habitats have been severely reduced and they’ve been pushed out of prime swaths of real estate due to urbanisation and overpopulation (of the living). Whatever ghosts once resided in the CBD, they have surely retreated: the strong energy given off by living, walking, talking, sweating humans is a repellent for low-key incorporeal beings.
Unfortunately for them, Mattar explains, ghosts have limited mobility and travel options. Despite the obvious benefits (free travel! No deep vein thrombosis!) they rarely zip overseas on business class. So they are pushed to the outskirts and margins of Singapore and remain fairly local in this deterritorialised world of ours.
A breakdown of ghost types
If you do happen to step into one of the known haunted places after dark, you may or may not bump into all kinds of unearthly entities. But fear not — knowledge is power, so it’s best to educate yourself about the local inhabitants. Mattar, whose background as a behavioural scientist comes in handy while investigating spectral psychology, says there are many categories of ghosts.
“Cheeky ghosts” are those who stroke men on the shoulder and touch women on the butt (in a sexist but harmless way); “joker ghosts” play pranks on paranormal investigators’ equipment; anti-social spirits just want to be left alone; “hungry ghosts” often have abandonment issues; and “angry” or “violent” ghosts originate from people who’ve committed suicide while wearing red.
According to Mattar, these supernatural beings don’t all speak the same language. Like their living counterparts, Singapore’s ghosts can speak anything from English to Hokkien, Malay to Tamil, or even Japanese. So you’d best research a place’s history before trying to get in touch with anything across from the living realm.
The approach to a supernatural being
Judging from the numerous web series and televised ghost hunts out there, a certain decorum when addressing ghosts is required. Investigators reassure dubious spooks as best they can: “We are not here to harm you,” “If you want me to leave, I promise I will leave,” or “It’s okay if you don’t want to touch the detector.”
There are also a few tricks to prevent an overeager ghost acquaintance from following you home — wash the soles of your shoes before leaving the haunted site, stomp your feet three times while pointing towards the sky, or brush white sage over your body while praying. Make sure you don’t schmooze with ghosts if you are on your period or have low qi, because apparently that makes you “spiritually weaker”, and a power-hungry ghost may take advantage and (metaphysically) bully you.
But even for the most prepared among us, the spirit underworld reserves its surprises, both amusing and scary. A netizen once contacted TST to investigate his haunted toilet that allegedly whispered to him tenderly and made flushing sounds every fortnight.
And terrifying was the time when the SPI crew led SMRT staff on a nocturnal excursion through Bukit Brown. What was supposed to be a fun, corporate team-building activity soon turned into a hair-raising affair. Demonstrating how a typical investigation goes, SPI executive director Desmond Wong placed his EMF reader on a tomb and asked if there was “anybody who wishes to communicate with us.” All of a sudden, the EMF detector wouldn’t stop beeping. A furious spirit was present, and it was evidently berating them in electromagnetic waves. When it finally quietened down, the SPI team and the (possibly traumatised) SMRT employees quickly left.
So for all those who prefer the company of living humans, however intolerable and exasperating they may be, here’s a final word of advice from our friendly paranormal investigators. If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, keep calm, stay clear and make sure you call ‘em.
How to get in touch with local ghost hunting groups:
Asia Paranormal Investigators (API) — Attend a public lecture by API, join a “spooky tour” (especially the ones around Bukit Brown cemetery), find out about the Saving Bukit Brown Project.
Contact: Charles Goh.
Ghost Files Singapore — Get their ghost hunting book or inform them of any haunted spaces.
Contact: Noel Boyd.
Ruqyah Syar’iyyah Community of Singapore (KRSS – Komuniti Ruqyah Syar’iyyah Singapura) — Join a night walk, or inform them if you think someone is afflicted by spiritual disturbance, sorcery, demonic posession or black magic.
Contact: Sheikh Zahurin Al-Jawiah (He’s a Muslim spiritual healer).
Singapore Ghost Hunting Club (SGHC) — Get in touch if you know of any haunted places.
Singapore Paranormal Insight Research (SPIRIT) — Let them know if you think a place is haunted.
Singapore Paranormal Investigators (SPI) — Join investigations, go on “spooky walks”, attend an SPI public lecture.
Contact: Dr Yasser Mattar or Desmond Wong.
The Supernatural Team (TST) — Get involved with investigations, attend TST’s public events, join night walks.
Contact: Shawn Li (8693-7136; email@example.com).