Friday, November 18, 2022

The Lies of Diary of A Bomoh


Fiction tells truth through lies.

The writer knows the story is make-believe. The reader knows the story is make-believe. Yet when the story is told, both parties agree to treat it as real. The events in the story are real. The characters are real. The world is real. Everything within the pages of the story are real—but only in the confines of the story.

Then along comes DIARY OF A BOMOH.

The setting is real—real-world Singapore. The dates are real—the characters mention significant events that took place in the real world on those dates. The culture is real—or, at least, real enough for the purposes of the story.

And the story itself?

It could be real—but for the following lies.

Lie #1: Police Procedures

The framing story of DIARY OF A BOMOH is a police investigation. Inspector Ibrahim responds to the discovery of a dead body in a locked apartment. Tasked by the Coroner to identify the deceased, he only has one clue to work with: a set of diaries written in Malay, English and Arabic. He partners with Station Inspector Jafri to translate the diaries, and presents the translation to his superior.

Nothing in the book should be taken as representative of actual police procedures in Singapore.

Someone had to find the bomoh's diary. Antisocial as he is, it wouldn't have been a friend or relative. He doesn't have any friends or relatives he would trust with his secrets. That made the police the only logical party to receive the diary, specifically in the context of a police investigation.

Despite that, DIARY OF A BOMOH is not a police procedural. It is, as the title and cover suggest, the story of a traditional Malay shaman, and his descent into vice and damnation. The focus of the story is on the bomoh's fall, not on the post-death investigation.

Telling Ibrahim's and Jafri's side of the story through emails was a way to skip all the boring paperwork and assorted drudgery of an actual investigation into an unidentified body so that I could get back to the main plot as quickly as possible. And to hint at the evil the bomoh unleashed on the world.

Since the police investigation isn't the primary plot, I chose to elide over it. I don't know if the Criminal Investigation Department of the Singapore Police Force would dedicate resources to investigate the circumstances of an unnatural death. It would certainly not be a priority case, as there are no signs of foul play and there are other, more important cases to handle.

I don't know in full detail what the CID would do if it were assigned such a case. The last time I requested the SPF for information, I was turned down without explanation. I see no reason why the SPF would suddenly change its tune for a no-name writer like myself.

I worked around that by building up Inspector Ibrahim. He had to be the kind of dogged cop who would chase a case down to the end. Once assigned a case, he would pursue every lead, no matter where it took him. He is so dedicated to his job, he would bend or sidestep rules and procedures. To him, being an investigator is not a career, but a calling.

Ibrahim may be sharp and competent, but he also knows when he needs help. Unshackled by the imaginary fetters of bureaucracy, he would have no problems inviting someone outside CID to help him translate the diaries. Sure, he asked his superior for permission in the opening entry, but if his boss had said no, Ibrahim would simply have ignored him and carried on anyway.

Help comes in the form of Station Inspector Jafri. Jafri is technically junior to Ibrahim, and he isn't part of CID, but the men don't see it that way. It's clear they have a history together, and they trust each other enough that they will work on an unusual case like this. Even if it means ignoring regulations.

Where Ibrahim is the investigator, Jafri is the spiritualist. As a peruqyah, a Muslim faith healer, Jafri understands full well the nature of jinn and black magic. He is the bright counterpart of the bomoh, a man who uses his spiritual gifts to protect and serve his community, above and beyond his responsibilities as a policeman.

When the evil breaks free of the diary's pages, it falls to Jafri to save the day. And that has nothing to do with police work.

Though dedicated to the case, the fact remains that investigating an unidentified body simply isn't a police priority. Not when there are plenty of other crimes with active leads to go around. All that changed in April 2020, when the government imposed the so-called 'circuit breaker' lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid.

With most of Singapore confined indoors, including would-be bad guys, it stands to reason that Ibrahim and Jafri would suddenly have a lot less work to do. So of course they do the only thing they can do:

Follow the case all the way to the bitter end.

Lie #2: Language

English is the de jure lingua franca of Singapore. The de facto lingua franca is Singlish.

Singlish is a creole language. The base vocabulary is mainly English, but the grammar is mostly Chinese. Phrases and expressions from Hokkien, Tamil, Malay and other regional languages and dialects are sprinkled into the mix. Where English is a low-context language, where every word carries a distinct meaning, Singlish is a high-context language, meaning you have to take in the circumstances of the sentence to fully understand what is going on. For example, depending on the inflection, the word lah can be used to soften a sentence, to emphasise a phrase, to ask a question, or to express exasperation or agreement.

Street Singlish is nigh-impenetrable to anyone who hasn't lived in Singapore for an appreciable amount of time. DIARY OF A BOMOH was written for a global audience. If a reader can't parse the meaning of a sentence, then the writer has failed. Thus, I chose to write the story in English.

Except that English in Singapore is a rarity.

English is the language of instruction in Singapore's schools. It does not necessarily produce fluent English speakers. Far from it. When I was in Secondary 4, after 10 years of formal education in the school system, almost all of my classmates still had troubled spelling, punctuation and grammar. Many times I was the only student who achieved a perfect score in SPG tests.

Perfect English is the prestige language in Singapore. It is the mark of the upper class, those rich enough to afford world-class tuition and education. Those who speak with a foreign accent (especially British) are seen as even more posh. I have known rich kids who deliberately switched to Singlish so they could blend in with the masses, but speak perfect English around me and their peers.

Ibrahim isn't rich. If he were, he wouldn't be working as a CID investigator, relentlessly chasing down the strangest case of his career. He's a working-class cop and a dedicated civil servant. Despite his lack of complete adherence to certain annoying procedures, he is very much part of the system. He went through the public education system and attained solid if unremarkable results. He's not a scholar, but then, a scholar wouldn't be working at ground level as long as he had. On the bright side, his English is sufficient to help him translate some of the trickier terms the bomoh uses, even if he won't use those same words himself.

Unlike most of his peers, Jafri studied at a madrasah. In addition to English and Malay, he also learned Arabic. In fact, he's so skilled in Arabic, he can confidently translate the poetry of the Quran for an English ear. That proves to be very useful when translating the diary. Like Ibrahim, he isn't rich. More to the point, he feels compelled to use his gifts for good, which is why he chose to sign on as a police officer, and why he works as a peruqyah.

And the bomoh?

He is an autodidact. He loved reading English books as a child and never stopped. Ironically, among the three men, he has the most plausible explanation as to why his English is superb—not the least because it was how I learned my English. His written Malay is another story altogether.

Malay has two registers: formal and informal. Most of the time, Malay speakers use the informal register. The formal register is used only in official occasions: public speeches, schools, formal writing. Had the bomoh been anyone else, he would likely use the informal register, even in his own writing. After all, he is only writing for an audience of one.

Except that he thinks he is clever. So clever that he deliberately uses formal Malay even in his own diary.

DIARY OF A BOMOH could easily have been a very different book. It could have been written primarily in Singlish, or at least Singaporean English. The Malay segments could have been written in an informal voice. Ultimately, however, the novel is a horror story.

Horror hinges on an atmosphere of dread and tension, especially in a slow-burn story. The atmosphere must be clearly communicated to the reader. The reader has to know that something spooky is going on. He doesn't want to guess what the characters and the narrator are actually saying. A formal register imbues every word with power, ratcheting up the tension to the breaking point, stringing the reader along until the very end.

The story demanded a formal register, a rich vocabulary, and most of all, an unimpeachable clarity. The language used in DIARY OF A BOMOH is thus markedly different from what you'd hear in Singapore. And all this is due to the three extraordinary men at the heart of the story.

Lie #3: Sihir and Sorcery

Sihir, Malay for 'magic', is the heart of DIARY OF A BOMOH. A bomoh is a shaman, and a shaman performs magic for his clients.

Islam teaches that all forms of sihir (sihr in Arabic) is forbidden. Some bomohs work around this by claiming that what they do is aligned with Islamic teachings. They see no contradiction between being a Muslim and being a bomoh. The titular bomoh of DIARY OF A BOMOH chooses a different approach—and that choice is the first step down the road to hell.

Fortunately, his magic is made-up.


The bomoh's magic is tied to the phases of the moon. He times certain rituals with the full moon for additional effect. This aspect is completely fictitious.

The bomoh summons and binds jinn using candles, incantations and assorted offerings. Once again, the specifics are both blurred and mostly made up.

The jinn are also fictitious. I don't know if there are any spirits out there that exactly match the descriptions and powers of the beings described in the book, and I don't think anyone should be in any hurry to find out.

DIARY OF A BOMOH is a horror novel. It is not a manual for black magic. Those interested in the latter would go elsewhere; this book is for those who want the former. There is no need to go into specifics of real-world practices. I only need to state just enough detail to show that the bomoh is indeed a bomoh.

Ibrahim and Jafri agree too. They feel no need to commit the details of the bomoh's brand of sihir to paper. Their translators' notes make their positions clearly known.

After all, they feel no need to expose their boss to the evil within the diary.

Lie #4: Silat

The martial art of silat is real, of course. In Singapore, it is marketed primarily as a sport or an art form, for competition and self-development, and even occasionally for self-defence. Some Westerners I know (as well as Maul Mornie from Brunei) train silat mainly as a martial art. Combative silat is truly fearsome to behold, seamlessly flowing between sticks and blades and empty hands, with the singular purpose of destroying the enemy and moving on to the next.

Silat has a mystical side too.

It's not commonly explored in the West, but some branches of traditional silat contain esoteric practices. At one end of the spectrum, there are breathing exercises and body conditioning drills. At the other, there is energy work, mantras, talismans. Seek hard enough and you will find rumours of spirit possession and black magic.

DIARY OF A BOMOH is a horror novel. Esoteric silat is the only logical choice of martial art for the book. Yet at the same time, it is also a Cheah novel, and that means the silat has to be functional. The combative techniques and principles described in the story must be able to be applied in real life.

Which is why I made up the specific style of silat described in DIARY OF A BOMOH.

The combative aspects are drawn from the teachers I've had the privilege of watching, especially Terry Trahan, Burton Richardson and Bill McGrath. The esoteric elements are drawn from a hodgepodge of other schools—or, again, cut out of whole cloth. To my knowledge, there is no one school of silat that teaches the exact curriculum described in DIARY OF A BOMOH—never mind one based in Cilegon, Indonesia.

After all, this is a horror story. Do you really want such knowledge?

Lie #5: Location

I grew up reading thrillers. Verisimilitude is woven into the fabric of the thriller. It is entirely normal—even expected—for a thriller author to make a day trip to the locations he intends to use for his stories to capture the lay of the land. The events of a scene will take advantage of the unique geography of the setting, enhancing immersion.

Singapore is—of course—a real country. It is also a tiny country, with one of the finest public transportation networks in the world. You'd think that would make on the ground research easy. Sure it does. But the B-plot of DIARY OF A BOMOH is belongs to the mystery genre.

It would be easy to name so many of the places that show up in the story. The schools the bomoh attended, the places he haunts, most importantly, his address. But that would kill the mystery.

Ibrahim and Jafri need a reason to continue translating the diary to the end. If they have enough location data to figure out the identity of the bomoh, then why would they carry on? By keeping certain locations vague, the duo would have to put in the work—at least until they reach the point when they decide they have to see the case through to the end, for the sake of the bomoh's victims.

I also deliberately obfuscated the bomoh's address. I don't want curious people going down to check out the flat for themselves and make a nuisance of themselves. Yishun is already spooky enough.

Which is not to say every location in the story is obscure or made up. Zouk is real. The shopping malls in the book are real. East Coast Park is real, and the incident described there is based on a real-life story. Pasir Ris Park and Bedok Reservoir are also real. The events described there are not.

Well, not as far as I know anyway.

Other Lies?

Fiction tells the truth through lies, and there is plenty of truth in DIARY OF A BOMOH. The deep truths that matter: good and evil, choices and consequences, courage in the face of madness.

What about all the other things that show up in the story? The ghosts and ghouls? The Western magic and divination methods? The backstory of the haunted locations? The games, the manga, the anime, the kink? The magician at the end?

I can tell you this: the second-last is based on reality, if occasionally elided over for the sake of sanity and morality.

As for the rest...

Just remember: DIARY OF A BOMOH tells the truth through lies.

Check out DIARY OF A BOMOH here, if you dare.

The lie

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