Thursday, August 20, 2015

Supernatural beliefs gain strength in natural disasters, says anthropologist

Supernatural beliefs gain strength when seemingly inexplicable natural disasters occur, says a Universiti Malaysia Sabah anthropologist.

Dr Paul Porodong said despite there being no proof the Sabah earthquake was due to Mount Kinabalu climbers who stripped for a photo recently, they are being blamed because the incident "fits well with local belief".

The Humanities, Arts and Heritage Faculty senior lecturer said photographs of the nearly nude mountaineers, which caused anger when shared online earlier this week, came just days before the deadly Friday earthquake.

Mount Kinabalu is one of the most revered "temples" to the Kadazandusun community, he said, and acts of disrespect were long linked to accidents.

"The blame on the nudists is a deduction on what is the previous or existing belief. Belief systems are about explaining unexplainable or unscientific phenomenon’s. Mount Kinabalu to the local community is sacred, not a tourism product. To them, the mountain belongs to the spirit of their ancestors," Porodong said.

The Sabah Government had given credence to belief by adopting local wishes, he added.

For the last three years, an annual ceremony called the "Kakakapan id Gayo Ngaran" has been held. It is a ritual to make offerings to the Kadazan-Dusun's ancestors, and on the day, Sabah Parks stops foreigners from climbing.

Porodong said the ritual bore similarity to Chinese religious ceremonies for the dead.

"You pay your respects no matter what. This is Dusunic belief. No matter where they are, in the city or having become Christians, they still have deep belief. It's not to say they still belief in paganism, it's more like they fall back to old explanations, whether it's right or wrong, when they want explanations."

The beliefs were reinforced by the native courts. Penalties meted out can include fines for angering spirit.

"It's endorsed by the Native Court. Angering spirits is taken very seriously as part of the justice system. The basis of local belief is moral."

Had it not been for the nude photo, Porodong added, other acts of disrespect might have been blamed for the earthquake.

A Universiti Malaysia Sarawak academic cautioned against superstition when, "clearly, earthquakes are seismic events".

Social Sciences Faculty Associate Professor Dr Andrew Aeria criticised Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Pairin Kitigan for telling the media yesterday that a flock of swallows circling his home on Thursday was a premonition.

"The earthquake has nothing to do with swallows and nothing to do with offensive tourists taking their clothes off. What on earth is he talking about? It was an earthquake," Aeria said.

"The fact that so many people believe what Pairin said shows us that our education system has failed. Instead of teaching science and rational thinking, society is reinforcing superstition and feudalism.

“And we talk about being developed? We are one of the most backward countries in south east Asia now," he added.

Ji, Yu. 2015. “Supernatural beliefs gain strength in natural disasters, says anthropologist”. The Star. Posted: June 8, 2015. Available online:

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