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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 15:50 GMT
Letter: The nature of human power

Dr Farish A Noor
Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist

The tsunami that struck the shores of South East Asia, wiping villages and towns off the face of the map, demonstrated how vulnerable humans are to the power of nature. Much as we might like to, we cannot control its might.

In the wake of the destruction, this week Malaysian academic Farish Noor, contemplates the nature of human power. How do people understand it, use it and demonstrate it? Who has real power: the local royalty or the village witch doctor?

Thai resorts in Phuket were virtually levelled by the tidal waves
The tsunami showed how vulnerable humans are to the power of nature
The day the great tsunami struck was the day I arrived in Malaysia.

It was a dramatic opening to my own visit. I had come to Malaysia for a short field trip, going to the countryside to interview village communities about their understanding of power, and what power meant to them.

Here was nature demonstrating that it possessed a power that could never be tamed or contained by us.

I carried these thoughts with me as I drove deep into the Malaysian countryside, along narrow and winding roads that penetrated far into the jungles of the state of Pahang - the biggest state in the Malaysian Federation.

On both sides of the road stood gigantic trees, like silent guardians of the forest looking down on me.

Power of rivers

The roads that cut into the forests in the interior are a constant battleground, between the forces of nature and the quiet army of maintenance workers who have to trim the grass and weeds that grow along the edges.

A month of neglect is all the jungle needs to reclaim its territory, and the roads would surely disappear beneath a green carpet of leaves, vines and creepers.

With the forces of nature erupting all around, I decided to begin by visiting a village on the banks of the Pahang river.

Rivers have always been a source of power in Southeast Asia.

Map of Malaysia
Rivers have always been a source of power in Southeast Asia
All over the Malay archipelago, practically every single Malay kingdom was based at the mouth of a river.

In the modern age however, the rivers have grown redundant.

The riverside towns and communities have become isolated ghost towns with only the elderly or the very young living in them.

When I got to the village I talked to the people and explained the reason for my being there.

Most of them thought it quite amusing that a Malaysian academic based in Germany should fly all the way back to Malaysia to ask them questions about power.

The kids were more interested in the state of German football - a subject I know absolutely nothing about.

Power in Pahang

But an elderly grandmother called Makchik Ngah offered me a taste of coconuts and we started talking on the veranda of her wooden house.

I asked Makchik Ngah who she thought had the most power in the state of Pahang.

"The Sultan has power," she said. "Whenever there is a flood he comes here in his helicopter and he visits us village folk.

I'm just a shaman - the power comes from the elements - the trees in the forest, the river, the sacred fire that I keep burning in my house all year round
Village shaman, Pak Awok
"In the old days, when there were sick children in the village, people would take their kids to see the old Sultan. If he touched them, they would get better.

"That was the Sultan's power, his daulat."

I asked her if there was anyone with power in her village.

"No, we're all old people here. Like my buffalo there - the poor thing was powerful when it was young, we used him on the paddy fields.

Now he's been replaced by the tractor, so we just let him roam around and laze about."

Well, no point interviewing Mr Buffalo then.

I decided to go further inland, to visit some of the aborigine settlements in the jungle interior where it is said that there are still plenty of shamans - bomohs - who possess powers that lesser mortals can barely comprehend.

I've even heard of a shaman who can use his power to find missing travellers cheques.

Village shaman

In a village of the Jakun people I found such a shaman, whose name was Pak Awok.

Pak Awok was a tribal shaman straight out of the anthropologist's manual: his house was right at the fringes of the village, underlining his remote, mysterious character.

The roof was made of mats of grass and the walls were actually made of old plastic rice sacks - altogether an out-of-this-world appearance.

Malaysian village
Malaysian villagers see the Sultan as the source of all power
I have to confess that my initial encounter with the man was not so easy, as he had half a face missing.

Due to illness in his youth, the lower half of his nose and the entire upper part of his mouth were no longer there.

He wore what appeared to be a leather flap over the gap, strung together by leather cords.

I asked Pak Awok what it was like to be the village shaman, and how it felt to have so much power.

"Oh, it's just like any other job" he said, nonchalantly. "People come to me when they are sick, or when they have problems.

"When the doctors can't help them or they can't settle their differences then it's me they turn to. The usual stuff.

"Once a rich fellow from Kuala Lumpur came all the way here because he had a domestic problem.

"He married a second wife, you know - and all hell broke loose in the household. So he came to me for help and he took me to the city with him.

"I used my power to settle the domestic dispute and then he paid me."

Road to power

So Pak Awok was a marriage counsellor as well. "But do you have any power yourself?" I asked.

"Me? Not me! I'm just a shaman - the power comes from the elements - the trees in the forest, the river, the sacred fire that I keep burning in my house all year round."

I peeked into Pak Awok's house and saw the burning embers of the sacred fire, trails of blue smoke slowly rising, tracing circles across the ceiling.

It certainly looked like powerful stuff, but apparently I was on the wrong path again.

There was only one way for me to get the answer I was looking for: I had to interview the Sultan of Pahang himself.

Nowadays we sultans are constitutional monarchs, and our powers are defined by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.
Sultan Ahmad Shah
Driving out of the jungle interior and back onto the modern roads that lead to the royal capital of Pekan, you certainly feel that you're on the road to power.

For a start, the roads themselves get better, wider and cleaner.

As you enter the quaint little town of Pekan, you begin to see the signs of power in solid stone and concrete: arches, palatial gates, monuments and the ever present poster bearing the image of the Sultan with the slogan 'Daulat Tuanku' (Power to My Lord). "Well, this must be it," I thought.

The Sultan's palace itself is a sight to behold. Set against the rest of the old town, it looks positively futuristic - something straight out of Thunderbirds or a James Bond movie.

With such a setting for the backdrop, I expected the Sultan to appear as the very embodiment of power itself. To my surprise, he was totally casual.

Sultan Ahmad Shah remains one of the most popular Sultans of Malaysia. There are nine Sultans in all.

Constitutional monarchs

"Of course in the past the people used to believe that kings had mysterious powers," said the Sultan.

"During the time of my late father, the previous Sultan, village people believed that the king could bless their crops, heal the sick, and so on."

"But do you believe that you have such powers?" I asked the Sultan, pushing my luck as far as it would go.

"Me? Oh no! Nowadays we sultans are constitutional monarchs, and our powers are defined by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

The Sultan's power was not found in his crown, medals or titles, but in his personal gestures when he visited the villages during floods or other times of distress.
"I don't believe in such things. In any case, as a good Muslim, one should not believe in such things.

"That's tantamount to witchcraft, you know!" the Sultan reminded me.

By then I was flabbergasted and at the end of my wits. If the Sultan didn't have any power, who does?

Then it was the Sultan who gave me the hint I was looking for.

"Perhaps what you mean to say is this: We Malays were and are a feudal people and our culture reflects this.

"Yes, it is true that the people - especially in the villages - look up to us, to their Sultan.

"They need us, because we symbolise them and we stand for them. But you know, we need them too. And that is something you must never forget."

As I walked around the grounds of the Sultan's modernist James Bond palace, his words made sense to me.

Relations between people

The power and influence he possessed over his people existed only because they had offered it to him, in the same way that the shaman of the Jakun village could only maintain order in his community as long as the entire community agreed to co-operate with him.

"Power", then, was not to be found in natural catastrophes like the tsunami - impressive though they may be in their destructive potential.

Nor is it measured in terms of concrete monuments or gigantic statues, but rather in the management of relations between people.

The Sultan's power was not found in his crown, medals or titles, but in his personal gestures when he visited the villages during floods or other times of distress.

It was his sympathy, his human character, that impressed the villages the most; and it was that that made him so powerful.

The answer seemed obvious, but then again most scholars are not trained to think of the obvious.

It reminded me of my meeting with the shaman Pak Awok in the Jakun village.

When I asked him if his power was contained in the sacred fire and if that was why he kept it burning all the time, his answer was quite plain and simple:

"The fire? Well of course I have to keep it burning all the time. It gets cold here at night you know!"

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World and has studied the phenomenon of Islamist political movements in south-east Asia.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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