Echoes of Yesteryears: A Hauntological Examination of Modern Malay Culture

Can the specters of tradition be reconciled with a progressive future?

Fayyadh Jaafar
5 min readMay 12, 2023
Photo by Kishor on Unsplash

In the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur, where the monolithic Petronas Towers stretch their gleaming steel limbs skyward, there lies an inescapable spectral presence. It is a spectral presence, not in the traditional sense of the supernatural, but rather, a hauntingly palpable metaphysical specter that permeates the very essence of the Malay identity — a specter of the past. This ghostly echo of yesteryears is what British cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in his seminal work, “Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures,” refers to as hauntology. And it is within this hauntological framework that we will navigate our exploration of the evolving landscape of modern Malay culture.

Malay culture, with its rich tapestry of traditions and heritage, is a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues, a symphony of multicultural influences, echoing centuries of trade, migration, and colonization. Yet, beneath this surface-level exuberance, the modern Malay identity seems trapped in a paradoxical struggle: a tug of war between progress and nostalgia, the present and the past. The transition towards modernity seems to unfold under the heavy burden of a past that refuses to fade away, a past that haunts the present in a cacophonous symphony of specters, thus setting the stage for the hauntological drama.

In the Malay vernacular, the term for ghost, hantu, is deeply embedded in the collective psyche, often invoked to engender fear, respect, or reverence. Yet, in Fisher’s hauntology, the hantu assumes an ontological and philosophical form: it is no longer the ethereal specter of folk tales, but the cultural and ideological specters of the past. It is the phantom limb of tradition, a constant reminder of a severed past that continues to pain the present.

Drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s ‘Specters of Marx’, Fisher postulates that the hauntological premise is rooted in the notion that the past lingers on, disrupting the linear progression of time. It is not so much about the past’s presence but its absence, a gaping void that echoes in the present. This haunting absence, Fisher argues, is more profound, more unsettling than the presence of the past itself. The modern Malay identity, then, is haunted by the spectral absence of its cultural roots, a ghostly echo that pervades every aspect of contemporary life.

Consider the grandeur of Malay weddings, where the performative elements of traditional customs persist, yet are increasingly hollowed out, their symbolic meanings lost in the blinding glitter of modernity. The solemn akad nikah ceremony, once a sacred rite, now often eclipses by the spectacle of bersanding, the royal seating ceremony, which has transformed into a theatrical display of opulence. The cultural specter of the akad nikah, with its profound symbolism, haunts the ostentatious façade of the bersanding, serving as a spectral reminder of a disappearing cultural essence.

Moreover, the gradual erosion of the Malay language, with English increasingly seeping into everyday vernacular, further exemplifies this hauntological crisis. The spectral presence of the old Malay language — its rich expressions, its nuanced elegance — lingers in the awkward code-switching of modern Malay conversation. It is in the struggle to find the right words in Malay, only to reluctantly resort to English, that the haunting absence of linguistic authenticity is felt most profoundly.

Turning to the realm of pop culture, the rise of the Korean wave or Hallyu among the Malay youth reflects another facet of this hauntological paradox. As young Malaysians voraciously consume Korean dramas, music, and fashion, they unwittingly embody a haunting duality: the spectral presence of a distant, foreign culture, and the spectral absence of their own. This hauntological dilemma manifests in the inevitable comparisons drawn between the gleaming, neon-lit utopia of Seoul and the dusty, labyrinthine alleys of Georgetown. The spectral absence of their own cultural roots hangs heavy, a haunting reminder of a seemingly lost future.

It is within the Malay film industry, however, that the hauntological conundrum is most poignantly illustrated. The golden era of Malay cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, led by the legendary P. Ramlee, remains a spectral force that casts a shadow over contemporary Malay filmmakers. In their pursuit of modernity and global appeal, these filmmakers seem to lose sight of the very essence of what made the classics so timeless. As they grasp for the future, they are haunted by the past, a past that echoes in every frame, every narrative, every theme.

The hauntingly beautiful wayang kulit, the traditional Malay shadow puppet theatre, provides a fitting metaphor for this hauntological predicament. As the puppets dance and cavort on the screen, their shadows cast upon the fabric of modern Malay culture, a spectral reminder of a disappearing world. The shadowy figures of the wayang kulit embody the cultural specters that haunt the Malay psyche, rendering it a living, breathing artifact of the past, a stage on which the ghosts of yesteryears perform their eternal dance.

The question that begs to be asked, then, is whether the modern Malay identity can ever escape the clutches of its hauntological past. Can it shake off the spectral chains that bind it to the sepia-toned memories of a bygone era, and embrace a future unencumbered by the weight of tradition? Fisher himself offers no clear answers, instead suggesting that the hauntological condition is an intrinsic aspect of modernity, a postmodern malaise that permeates the very fabric of our zeitgeist.

In this light, perhaps the key to resolving the Malay hauntological dilemma lies not in exorcising the specters of the past, but in acknowledging their presence, in understanding their significance, and in weaving them into the tapestry of the present. The absence of the past can, and should, be transformed into a spectral presence, a haunting reminder of a rich cultural heritage that has shaped, and will continue to shape, the Malay identity. It is in this delicate dance with the ghosts of yesteryears that the modern Malay culture can hope to find solace, a way to reconcile the past with the present, and to embrace a future that is at once progressive and deeply rooted in tradition.

And so, as the dusk descends upon the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur, the spectral presence of the past lingers on, casting its ghostly shadows on the gleaming Petronas Towers. The hauntological drama unfolds, a timeless, ethereal performance that echoes in the very soul of the Malay identity. But perhaps, amidst the haunting echoes of yesteryears, there is hope — hope that the specters of the past can be embraced, celebrated, and woven into the fabric of a future that is as vibrant and dynamic as the modern Malay culture itself.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.