Menace and reassurance in Malay Circumcision. พิมพ์ อีเมล
เขียนโดย Roger Kershaw.   









                                  MENACE AND REASSURANCE IN MALAY CIRCUMCISION:
                                      A NOTE ON SOME ATTITUDES OF KELANTAN THAIS



                                                                         Roger Kershaw*



       The  1970  census  of  Malaysia  enumerated  a  total  population  of  686, 266   in  Kelantan,
consisting of 637,012 Malays, 36,668 Chinese  and  6,937  Thais.This  relatively  minute  and
little-known    community   is   almost   entirely   rural;   urbanization  (at   any   rate,  urbanization
independently of the marriage  of  Thai  women  to  urban Chinese) has really only begun in the
last ten years. The  Thais  are  not  quite  lost  from  view  in  the  countryside, however. Their 14
principal settlements—three  to  the  southeast  of  Kota  Bharu  and  11 to the  north  and  west
(on  the  left  bank  of  the  River Kelantan)—are  distinguished   by  the  colourful  pavilions  and
pagodas  of  their  wats. Thai   villagers  may  look   Malay  except   to   the  experienced eye, but
even if one does not spot the wat among the trees one may be  startled  and  forewarned by the
sight of a little black pig scampering across one's path. Also it is worthwhile to emphasize—for
the point is often greeted with scepticism—that the Kelantan Thais speak Thai,the same basic
dialect as prevails in the southern part of Narathiwat, though with  some  interesting  variations
between villages. But  the  great  majority  of  Thai  men can speak  Malay. They would   be at  a
very  serious  disadvantage  economically  and vis-à-vis  the  administration  if   they could   not,
for  even  if  the  Thais  are  not  lost  literally  from   view   in   the  Malay  countryside, each  Thai
village is physically isolated from the rest, sometimes by distances of  many  miles.Out  of  this
situation has grown a quite strong  sense  of  exposure  and  vulnerability.2 The purpose of this
paper  is  to  explore  one   important   ethnic   boundary-marker  between  the  Thai  and  Malay
communities: the Malay rite  of  male  circumcision, whose  overtones  are  more  menacing, in
their way, than  the  open  (though  unfulfilled)  threats  of  Islamic  Party  politicians  in the 1959



*University of Kent at Canterbury. This   paper  is  shortened from a lecture given at the School  of  Oriental  and
African Studies, London, on 21 February 1977, in a series entitled "Concepts of order and disorder in Southeast
Asia". Some  of   the  footnotes comprise   my  responses  to  the extremely helpful and stimulating comments of
those who attended the lecture and participated  in  the  discussion. I  acknowledge also the financial support of
the   Carnegie   and  Nuffield  Foundations (through  the  London-Cornell  Project) for  my  1966-1967 field  work,
and the Nuffield Foundation for a second research trip in 1974. I  should  add  that   I came  to  the  study of   the
Kelantan Thais as a political scientist with an interest in the rural sphere. The present paper is based on  random
observation rather than systematic research into the rite of circumcision or attitudes surrounding it.


1.R. Chander,  Gulongan   Masharakat   (1970  Population  and   Housing  Census  of  Malaysia),  Kuala   Lumpur,
Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia, 1972, pp. 60-61.

2.For   an  introduction  to  one  of  the   factors  which  mitigate  subjective  vulnerability (and  for  some  further
basic  ethnography  of  the  Kelantan  Thai  community), see  my "The  Chinese  in  Kelantan, West   Malaysia, as
mediators   of   political  integration   to   the  Kelantan  Thais", Nanyang  Quarterly  3,  part 3-4,  December  1973:
1-10;  or  in  a  more  definitive   printing,  in   Denys   Lombard, ed.,  Chinois    d'Outre-Mer,  Paris,   L'Asiathèque,
1976; pp.83-96









                                                                            NOTE                                                                             117


elections to the Kelantan State Assembly, to close 'kafir' temples and  ban  the  keeping  of
pigs. But we suggest that so long as circumcision helps in a small  way to repel individual
Thais   from   cultural   crossing,  and  ethnic  integrity  is  upheld,  the  community  will  feel
secure in its cultural  identity  and  thus  amenable  to  integration, on  a political  level, with
the incipient Malaysian nation.

     Economic and social modernization has brought Thais and Malays into ever-increasing
contact and the days are past when Thais would be met with gestures of disgust, such  as
spitting on the ground, if they entered a Malay village. But Malay friendship has a disturbing
aspect. On my visit to Semerak in Pasir Puteh  District  (southeastern  Kelantan)  in  1974 I
noticed that the Thai youths and local Malay  youths (unlike in  1967)  were playing  football
against each other on an improvised pitch near the wat. Nearly all Thai boys of  the current
generation have been to Malay primary school, and  have  learned  Malay earlier in life thau
their fathers did.3 They may not have learned to read and write Thai at all, because instead
of becoming attached to the wat as temple boys (called โยม / yoom in Kelantan)  they  were
going to Malay school. Now they are unequipped to บวช  (buad)  before  entering  full  adult-
hood unless they spend several months making up for  lost  opportunities  of  Thai  literacy.
And in face of the many opportunities of employment outside  the  village, young  men  may
be  reluctant  to  devote  time  to  such  an  enterprise. If  they  avoided  the  monkhood, who
could  say  that  some  of  them  might  not  even  gravitate  towards  the  Malay  community,
be attracted to—o r lured  by—the  sister  of  one of  their  Malay  friends, and  give  up  their
Thai identity altogether? The shortage of Thai girls, which caused a very small  number  of
Thais to seek Malay wives in the past,4 persists to some extent  because  not  a  few   Thai
girls still prefer a Chinese husband (and urban life) if they can secure one. Meanwhile   the
chances of a Thai male finding a Malay wife have obviously increased, thanks to  the  more
regular and friendly contacts between Thai and Malay adolescent males. These are  the   sort
of reflections which lie behind the frequent expressions of parental concern about the  decline
in Thai literacy among their children.

       There is, of course, a very big difference between having a daughter marry a  Chinese
and having a son marry a Malay girl.  A  Thai  girl  with  a  Chinese  husband  continues  to
make merit at the wat, and her husband may well accompany her on  occasion. A Muslim
girl, however, cannot marry a non-Muslim, and this  has  the  significance, in  the  present
context, not that Thai males are not at risk, but that  they  must  convert  to  Islam  in  order
to take a Malay wife. If a Thai converts to Islam he cannot  make  merit  for  his  ancestors,
or for his parents after their death. This is a terrible act of ingratitude  and  as  such  gives
rise to a profound moral objection. But in philosophical terms it is still in the same category



  3. The early to mid-1960s at Semerak saw concerted effort by  the  local  Malay headmaster to attract Thai
pupils to his school. This was very much in the spirit of national policy but the government had also provided
an incentive (to headmasters) in the form  of  a  capitation allowance. The Thai population of  Semerak  was
353 in 1967.

  4. At Semerak there have been  six  cases  in  living memory. Although I distinguish in footnote 12 between
'conversion for marriage' and 'conversion for land', it is certainly the case that prospective Malay parents-in-law
are sometimes in a position to offer the use of land as well as bride. Some Thai males unable  to find  a  Thai
wife will in fact be landless or nearly landless villagers. Wage labour plus thrift provide  no  solution  of  land
hunger for a non-Malay for he cannot buy land from Malays under Malay Reservation Law.






118                                                                Roger Kershaw


as failure to buad, even if ten times worse. Just like failure to buad, it  constitutes  a  breach
of faith (in the contractual sense of the term): one  has failed to repay  one's  parents'  pains
in bringing one into the world, and their efforts in raising and educating one to a decent  life
and a sense of one's responsibilities (and blessings) as a Thai.

       Although a breach of  faith of this magnitude is a  very  serious  matter, it  is not  enough,
by  itself, to  account  for   the  peculiar  horror  and  physical disgust with  which  Thais  view
conversion.This disgust arises from circumcision,which is not only physically disagreeable
to them, but has sinister, irrational overtones which make conversion appear a  more  likely
prospect than it really is: because the consideration that this disgusting practice will  surely
deter young Thais from conversion is potentially balanced or outweighed,for older Thais, by
the thought that a community which circumcises, and takes this primitive  rite  so  seriously,
will be capable of many other breaches of the ethical mean in order to win converts.5

       It is virtually impossible for a Thai  ever  to witness circumcision  (except  by  undergoing
it himself and ceasing to be a Thai). And yet in  the  village  of  Semerak  there  is  an  elderly
man, Naa Nong, who was once on good terms with the Raja of Besut, for whom he  used to
perform the Manora drama (shortened by Kelantan Thais to โนห์รา / noraa).When the Raja's
son, many years ago—probably in the early  1930s—reached  the  age  of  puberty, a  noraa
was arranged  as  the main part  of  the  celebrations  marking  the  boy's circumcision. Naa
Nong, the naraa-master, was invited, by an exceptional gesture of respect and friendship,to
witness the ceremony.

       What dominates Naa Nong's recollection above all  is  the  extraordinary  and  unnatural
elongation of the foreskin as it was stretched by the special bamboo vice in  preparation  for
the operation. Naa Nong had never imagined that a foreskin could be made as long as that.
It grew longer and longer. Naa Nong suffered in empathy. At last the moment  of  severance
arrived,and with a swift stroke the mudin performed the irrevocable act.There was a dramatic
haemorrhage, and the floor was covered with blood by the time the bandages were applied.
But   worse  was  to  come. The  nauseous  climax  was  the  invitation  to  all the  witnesses
(including Naa Nong) to wash their faces in the water in which the severed skin was placed.
At this point Naa Nong stumbled sickened and embarrassed from the room.

As Naa Nong recounted his experience in 1974 his wife Kh' Chan screwed up her  face in
disgust and uttered hissing sounds expressive of  deep  contempt. Thai  women  feel  no  less
strongly  about  this  than  Thai  men. As  we  have  noted, the  rite  of  circumcision  is  not  only
thoroughly   distasteful   in   itself  to  local  Thais, but  by  its  profound  irrationality  in  Thai  per-
ceptions suggests an underlying arbitrariness of the Malay moral order. This might  lead  to all
kinds  of  threats  to  Thai  inte rests  apart  from  their  religious  identity. But  circumcision  has,
above all, a quality of irrevocability  which  implies  ruthlessness  in  the  pursuit  of  conversion
itself at every stage. Circumcision seems ruthless because  Thais  who  had  converted  in  an


   5. It might be added here that the 'irrationality' of Islam and its lack of a mean are also often  illustrated  by
Thais by referring to the high incidence of cattle theft during the fasting month of Ramadan. The Malays eat
sumptuously during fasting month—itself something of a moral anomaly—so the  price  of  meat  rises , and
this in turn drives up the number of stolen cattle. As the Thais see it, the Malays steal to make merit : surely
an upside-down moral universe if ever there was!






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incautious moment could then be mesmerized or shamed into permanent loyalty to Islam
by their bodily transformation. Might not the  attempts  to  secure  a  Thai's  initial  decision
be characterized by the same unethical and ruthless guile ?

       Since a bodily transformation is involved—no less fundamental for the  fact  that  it  is  not
normally visible-it is not surprising that circumcision has become as much an ethnic boundary-
marker for the Thais as it  is  for  the  Malays themselves, and  considerably  more  important
(though less frequently discussed) than the eating of pork. Fea r of  mutilation  is   inculcated
in    Thai   male   children    as   soon   as    they   can   talk.  Mothers and   fathers   warn   little
boys   that   a   Malay   will   come   and  cut  off  their  smallest  member  if   they  don't behave.
"แรงไม่ฟังแอะ   แขกเอาไปตัดกะดอแส่'' ("raeng mai  fang, ae, ! khaegawpai tad kador, sae"!)6 The
significance of circumcision as a boundary between the communities is also emphasized by
a story which Caw Daeng of Semerak believes  to  be  authentic  (it was  told  to  him once by
elderly Malays) that one of his great-grandfathers was a Malay who became a Thai (this would
be about 90 years ago)after  failing  to go through  with circumcision on successive occasions.
Each time, he developed a  severe fever.In the  end  he was  ostracized by his peers,sought
refuge at the Thai wat and in due course became a Thai.Today, Thais enquire of Europeans
whether  they  eat pork  and  (after  a  certain  level  of  familiarity  is  achieved)  whether  they
practise  circumcision. It  is  a  matter  of  great relief  to  be  told  that they do  not.7 It   places
the Europeans, as  it   were, on   the  right  side  of  the  great  divide  between  civil,  humane
culture  and   the  forces  of  unreason; and  this, apart   from   anything  else, reinforces    the
conviction that Thai  culture  is  civil  and  humane, because  the  Europeans have  had   high
prestige  in  any case  since the colonial period, which  is  remembered  for  its blessings of
progress and  just  administration. Conversely, failure  to  circumcise  gives  Europeans  the
status of honorary Thai. This all adds in a marginal  way  to   the  after-glow  of   the  imperial
sunset, that  diffuse  nostalgia  which  delays acceptance of the post-independence  political
arrangements  and  Malay  domination. At  the  same  time, however, in  so  far  as  the  ritual
in practice works to  inhibit  total  assimilation, it  may  be  argued  that  the  community  as  a
whole is subtly reassured and becomes  accessible  to  other, less  abrasive  influences  for
assimilation and political integration—for in a  small  minority  community, even  the  loss  of
one member to 'the other side' can be highly demoralizing.

       Let us consider the question of virility and sexual prowess. In the  light  of  the  threats  of
loss of male identity which little boys hear when they are naughty, one  might  anticipate  that
Thai males would carry into  adulthood  the  germ  of  an  idea  that  circumcision   involves  a
reduction of manhood.(The same words "tad kador",which children understand in the sense
of "cutting off a penis", are used for circumcision.) This might pose  a  more  insidious threat,
one may think, than anything  we  have  mentioned thus far. But here it  is  only  necessary  to
recall that adult Thais of both sexes know quite a lot (mainly from market gossip) about what


   6.  "A really bad case of [literally: 'strongly'] not obeying [literally: 'listening'] if you please!  A  Malay  (will)

 take (you) away (and) cut off (your) penis, d'you know!" (I render the two exclamatory enclitics as heard,

 without seeking, or locating, possible Thai dictionary equivalents. The word แรง is a loan translation  from

 Malay kuat, and is used here with the meaning 'very'; มาก is never used in Kelantan  Thai  in  this  sense.)

   7. Also a matter of satisfaction for the European and gentile social scientist to be able to say this without too

 much distortion of the present truth about present Western gentile practice.






120                                                             Roger Kershaw


goes on in nearby Malay villages. They know Malay males to be no less sexually energetic
than Thais. Some Malays are less active than others, it is true, and then their wives may goad
them into divorce and try to attract  another  man, but  this  is  a  matter  of  temperamental
variation between individuals,a phenomenon which Thais understand well from their own
experience. Judging by the frequency with which Malay males voluntarily change wives, or
even indulge in polygyny, they might even appear more virile than Thais. Certainly this is the
Malays' own evaluation of their sexual behaviour, and as for circumcision, its  association
with virility in Malay popular belief is unmistakable.8

       For their part, the  Kelantan  Thais  do not  take the symbols of  Malay  sexual  prowess
(such as polygyny and circumcision) at full face value.They regard them as signs of unhealthy
obsession and superstition,and a Malay tendency to vertigo and swagger.They also derive
amusement—as well as financial gain—from the reliance of certain Malay women of Thai
sexual charms. But they do assume (rightly) that the husbands of these women are sexually
normal. The Thais have no concept of obsessions  being  inhibitory or  self-defeating. The
Malays are thought odd,but not impotent.And the few Thais who have been brazen enough
both to cross to Islam and to show their faces occasionally in their old  community  do  not
complain of any disappointment in the  area  of  manly preoccupation  which  was all (or a
significant part) of the original motive for their conversion.One such Thai turned  up  at  the
ordination  celebrations  at   Balai, Bachok  District, in  1974.9 He  had  moved  to  a  Malay
community a few years earlier.His presence was clearly embarrassing but his former friends
made the best of it and asked him teasingly about his  new life. 'Is  it  still sore?'  they said.
The renegade touched himself with mock caution in the strategic  vicinity  and dismissed the
suggestion with a sly smile.10

If circumcision is not perceived as an assault on virility, it will  not  stand  in  the  way  of
conversions among younger Thais who desire to have a wife, as traditional forms  of  social
control   in   the   service   of   ethnic  solidarity  decline. Literate  and  secular-minded  young
Malays these days have sometimes undergone the operation in hospital, and will be able to
reassure their Thai friends that it is 'just one  of   those  things'  that  Malays  do, a  harmless


       8. Cf.  William  Wilder, "Socialization  and   social   structure   in   a    Malay village", in  Philip Mayer, ed.,

 Socialization: the Approach from Social Anthropology, London, Tavistock Publications (A.S.A. Monograph

 No. 8), 1970; p. 225. Syed Alwi bin Sheikh Alhadi, Adat Resam Melayu dan 'Adat  Isti' adat, Kuala  Lumpur,

 Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Siri Pengetahuan 'Umum DBP, No. 1), 1960; p. 9.

      9.  This wat is illustrated in Stewart Wavell,The Naga King's Daughter,London, George Allen and Unwin,

 1965; opposite p.96. A major weakness of this book, in my view, is its reluctance or refusal to face up  to

 the reality that the 'Kelantan Buddhists' are completely normal, bona fide Thais.

      10. On the other side of the coin, although Malay males think of themselves as exceptionally virile (partly
thanks to circumcision),I have never picked up any hint—from Malays or Thais—that Malays assume sexual
inadequacy on the part of uncircumcised Thais. Malays tend  to  overestimate  the  potential  of  Thais  in  all
spheres involving magic and the possession of special powers, and it is not inconceivable that 'special powers'
would be assumed to be available to  counteract  any  disadvantage  arising  from  non-circumcision. In  this
general connection, a referencetoWavell(ibid.,p. 136)may be to the point.He describes a Malay belief (which
he himself, romantically but ill-advisedly, accepts at face value) that Thai girls compete  for  the  privilege  of
sleeping with ordination candidates on the night before their  entry  into  monkhood. It  is  most  interesting to
notice such an ethnocentric interpretation of the Thais' adult rite of passage in sexual terms, for the Thais, as we
explain below, have their own ethnocentric interpretation of circumcision in terms of abstention and worldly






                                                                          NOTE                                                                        121


formality like any other social custom. The 'stratagem' of conversion which  Thai  parents
should beware of is rather the disarming relativism of intelligent, modern Malays, not the
devious snares of a twisted fanaticism.

       In fact, Thais of the middle-aged and older generations are themselves already partly
disarmed because of the positive reassurance inherent in the rite of circumcision  its elf.
This will seem paradoxical and contradictory after all that has been said, but there is scarcely
any negative aspect of Thai-Malay relations which does not have its positive side, and an
alternative, positive interpretation in the Thais' perceptions. The Thai custom  of  buad  is
a form of sacrifice which opens the door to responsible adulthood and marriage (besides being
an act of gratitude due to one's parents). Frequently, Thais remark that all ethnic and religious
groups practise some form of sacrifice and self-discipline which ensures responsibility and
morality. I interpret this to mean, in the Kelantan context, that if each  member  of  a  plural
society is a member, in good faith, of one of its cultural traditions and observes the disciplines
which it prescribes, he will develop a sense of mutual interest and respect vis-à-vis other
members of the plural society whose ostensible cultural allegiance is different but whose
commitment to peace,order and underlying socio-religious values is the same. When the
ecumenical mood takes a Thai he will say that "the Malays, too,buad": they all fast for  one
month in the year (as Thai monks do after midday all the year round) and young men  are
not considered ready for adulthood unless they have suffered circumcision. This is the rite
which is seen as most nearly equivalent to the ordination of young Thais  as  monks;  the
latter also, of course, involves a physical change by means of a razor: the  shaving  of  the
head, as well as the initial pain of fasting. (It is also observable that Kelantan Thais  often
attend the hospitality accompanying a local circumcision,or masok jawi,and invite Malays
to their sons' ordinations in return.)

       The interpretation of circumcision as a purgative or fortifying  ordeal  is, I  think,  partly
correct in terms of Malay belief. Where the Thais are less correct is in persuading themselves
that Islam can be as eclectic and tolerant to other religions, on the grounds of such parallels,
as Buddhism is.It is right to see popular  Islam as a moral order with many basic points in
common with the moral order of Buddhism(if it were not, Thais could not have lived harmo-
niously and to some extent interdependently in the midst of  Malay society for so long). But
it is wrong to suppose that a socialized and responsible Malay will,by these tokens,accept
in principle, even for their adherents, the validity of other systems of belief than his own, as
Thais  are  willing  to  do; for  Islam  is  in  principle at  war  with  atheistic  beliefs  such  as
Buddhism, and proselytization has enjoyed much more government support since the Islamic
Party   joined  the  National  Front (1973-1977) and  Dato'  Asri  became  Deputy  President
of the National Council  of  Islamic  Affairs. Even  the  tolerance  and seeming relativism of
a secular-minded young Malay does not exempt a Thai from conversion and a  change  of
identity if he wishes to 'become his brother',for in the Malay States shariah law has the full
force of the state behind it. But the secular-minded  Malay  may  add  his  subtle  influence
to the Thais' own ethnocentric complacency about the nature of Islam, to achieve  gradual







121                                                              Roger Kershaw


inroads into Thai-Buddhist solidarity, where the characteristically menacing  aspect  of  Malay
religion has so far provided effective deterrence—and yet, by this very token, a certain security
for the Thais as a whole.11




















11. If the State Government were to use land-grants as an enticement,as in Sabah,it is probable that there would
be some Thais willing to pay the religious price of a big increment in their material welfare. Whether  or  not  it
was the first step in a concerted effort,some Kelantan Chinese were deeply depressed when no less a personage
than the Officer for  Chinese Affairs  in  the  State Secretariat, Choong Peng Por, converted in 1974  with  his
family, receiving, it was rumoured, 20 acres  of  rubber  land  in appreciation  of  his  good  example. (For  the
official details see Majallah Kelantan 6, No. 6, June 1974—Rumi and Jawi versions—p.7.)Although conversion
to Islam does not bring recognition as a Malay under State laws or the Federal Constitution, land laws and  dis-
criminatory business licence quotas are easily waived for 'deserving cases'; and land in a Malay Reservation,
one gained by a non-Malay, is heritable, as likewise a business licence. Circumcision is in fact  'commendable
but not obligatory' in Islamic belief and a convert has only to declare his mental state for purposes of registration
and recognition in Malaysia. It seems likely that in any concerted drive for converts  in  Kelantan, every  effort
would be made—as for example  in  Sabah—to  moderate  the  impact of conversion on the life-style of first-genera-
tion converts and thus cause less cultural dislocation than occurs in thecase of conversion for the sake of marriage.
(In the latter case it would normally be the prospective father-in-law who would ensure that circumcision was
carried out.)









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