All over Singapore and Malaysia–I spy, with my little eye–little shrines in the most ubiquitous of places. From hawker centres to bus interchanges and even by MRT stations: the places where masses of people frequent, gather and go about their daily business. Incense, candles, offerings of cake, coffee and so on tend to adorn these shrines.
When I returned to Singapore after 12 years abroad, I remember looking at one of these ubiquitous shrines and wondering, “What deity is it?” The deity is usually a bearded man holding a weapon of some sort, symbolising protection; as well as a gold ingot that symbolises a blessing.
As these are folkloric deities to do with a particular place and locale, the stories surrounding them are as colourful, diverse and as mysterious as the inhabitants that reside there.
Folk worship has always differed considerably from the rules and regulations of religious institutional practises. While there is a framework of sorts, the way in which these local deities are worshipped is entirely contingent upon the diversity of beliefs shared by those who reside there.
This Grandfather deity is known by many names: from Na Tuk Kong to Tua Pek Kong as well as Datuk Gong. It figuratively represents an ‘Uncle Figure’ that takes care of the people in the area, neighbourhood and community.
Datuk Gong is a deity that encapsulates the spirit and the soul of the land itself.
According to legend, all Datuks are ancestors. They are former humans that held a strong standing in society either for their achievements or attributes. In his human lifetime, the Datuk was usually an important king, a renowned healer, a warrior, a priest or a shaman.
In the early history of the region, locals would make offerings to these deities in line with the concept of a keramat. The Datuk was a guardian spirit believed to reside in seemingly ‘unusual’ natural formations; a unique shaped rock, an anthill, a snake’s nest or a large tree. In the English vernacular, Datuks could be described as earth or nature spirits.
With the arrival of immigrants who carried with them a diverse array of beliefs from a myriad of places, a multitude of practises converged and formed a new modality of worship.
The function and position of the Datuk varies across communities but his universal position as the spirit of the land remains the foundation stone of the belief.