Date
20 July 2017
It is said the “bagua”, or “eight trigrams” design of the one dollar coin was adopted to reverse the bad luck brought about by the construction of Singapore's underground rail system in the 1980s. Photo: Internet
It is said the “bagua”, or “eight trigrams” design of the one dollar coin was adopted to reverse the bad luck brought about by the construction of Singapore's underground rail system in the 1980s. Photo: Internet

How superstition influences Southeast Asian politics

Nearly a month after the deadly explosion at the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, the official investigation is still under way.

At the same time, reports have emerged about supernatural forces being behind the tragedy.

In fact, superstition and politics are often closely related in Southeast Asia.

Social and political movements in the region that have tapped into religious or superstitious beliefs have sometimes produced surprising results.

Take the Erawan Shrine as an example. It honors Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Buddhist deity Brahma.

Phra Phrom originated in India but it has been integrated into Thai culture.

Some believe it can influence the nation’s fortunes.

The shrine was vandalized in 2006 and some believe the attack was orchestrated by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was then prime minister, so he could secretly perform some sort of black magic in the shrine to preserve his regime.

It sounds far-fetched but superstition has been part of Thai politics.

In 2010, pro-Thaksin protesters collected blood from among themselves and splashed it on the main gate of the prime minister’s official residence to put an evil curse on the government of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Last year, some anti-government protesters performed sacrifice rituals in public meant to break a hex put on them by their opponents.

Although not all protesters believe in superstition, such practices are often seen as a symbol of broad-based support for their movement to a certain extent.

Another striking example is former Burmese military strongman Ne Win.

He believed so much in the supernatural force that he appointed a fortune teller as a personal consultant, reminiscent of former US First Lady Nancy Reagan after an assassination attempt on her husband.

Ne Win is said to have made many political decisions based on divination.

He reportedly ordered that Burmese banknote denominations be changed to multiples of nine on the advice of his consultant after being told it’s a lucky number.

Ironically, this seemingly insignificant move proved to be one of the underlying causes that sparked the monumental “8888″ democratic movement in 1988.

It would have far-reaching implications for political development in Burma and would bring democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to the international arena.

Even in countries as advanced as Singapore, superstition plays an important role in politics.

For example, some say the “bagua”, or “eight trigrams” design of the one dollar coin was adopted to reverse the bad luck brought about by the construction of Singapore’s underground rail system in the 1980s.

Government officials at that time reportedly sought advice from a priest who told them that the only way to do it was for every Singaporean to carry a “bagua” with them at all times.

Former leader Lee Kuan-yew exploded the myth in one of his books but by then, it had become one of the most popular urban legends in the city state.

The article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 8.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

RA

 

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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