Amok in the US and restarting the balloon case

11 October 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 9 October 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
Why did that man kill so many people in Las Vegas recently? Was it amok?
Vegan in Vegas

All too often I find myself despairing of Malaysia, but at least we don’t have a lot of guns like they do in America. The Malay language gave the world the word “amok”, which is a deadly but mercifully rare phenomenon. Thank goodness we don’t have a lot of guns.

There are several Malay words in the English language and all have entered because of some historical episode of violence, even though the resulting words may seem quite benign. “Launch”, a speedy boat, entered via the Portuguese “lanchar”, but that comes originally from the Malay “lancar” (swift, smooth). Meanwhile, the verb “to launch” entered English from French after the Norman invasion of 1066. So now it is possible for a ship’s captain to say, “Launch the launch”, without knowing that he is evoking the conquests of both Melaka by Alfonso de Albuquerque and England by William the Conqueror.

“Compound” (that is, a police compound) is derived from “kampung” and it became commonly used in the English language via South Africa. We know “kampung” as a village, but it originally described a gathering of houses or a compound around a raja’s house. The Dutch had possessed South Africa for nearly two centuries before the British took over at the beginning of the 19th century. The Dutch had exiled many rebellious Sumatrans to South Africa after their truly brutal subjugation of that island and for some reason, when South African mining camps started to grow, they were called compounds.

My favourite is “cooties”, which is much more commonly used in America than in Britain. It comes from the Malay word “kutu” (louse, vermin) and it means the same thing in American. This is my version of how Bart Simpson came to use the word “cooties”.

British soldiers in the 19th century came across the word (and its results) in the humidity of Malaya and the word soon spread throughout the army. Lice became a real problem in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I (1914-1918) and soldiers spent much time inspecting the seams of their uniforms and burning the off ending kutu over a candle flame.

America only joined the war in 1917 but its soldiers quickly took up the British practice and the word “cooties”. That’s the story I like to tell but it is more likely that it entered American from the Tagalog “kuto”, which also means louse. The Philippines was an American possession from 1898 to 1946, during which time the US army fought a vicious war against “insurgents”. The Philippine connection would explain why Americans say “cooties” and the British do not. But I find that version to be boring because it does not involve Malaya.

But the most famous Malay word in the English language describes a specific form of violence: amok. “Amok” entered via the Portuguese, who probably witnessed it in action in Melaka.

We should all know what “amok” is, but how do you describe it? Here is a dictionary definition: An episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects usually by a single individual following a period of brooding.

That’s true enough but that describes any random violence. “Amok” is probably a universal condition, but the Malays took the trouble to give it a name. “Amok” requires a lifetime of emotional repression and then a moment of possession, often as a result of a perceived insult or injustice. It is usually a bottom-up phenomenon, the last resort of the weak.

I don’t think powerful men amok. And because the assailant was possessed at the time, he can be basically forgiven, and not forgiving him would draw attention to the original injustice. It was amok, let’s leave it at that. No more rational investigation need be done. It all got to be too much for him, it could happen to anyone, it was amok, end of story.

Who knows why the shooter in Las Vegas decided to kill so many people, but a reason will be searched for. Was it political, psychological? There must be a reason. He probably just went amok. It happens. Amok does not require a good reason — it could well be complete insanity. The terrifying curse for America is that it is so easy to legally get military-style guns and ammunition. There are apparently over 300 million guns in America — 90 per 100 residents (Malaysia is 1.5, well below the world average of 10.2).

Who knows why amok happens but it does happen and America will continue experiencing mass killings while they have so many guns. Thank goodness we don’t have so many guns. I simply can’t understand why anybody would want to own a gun.

Is it my imagination or is somebody going to be prosecuted for dangerous use of balloons?
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Malaysia’s High Court has decided in its infinite wisdom to restart the case against a young woman who released or accidentally dropped some balloons near the prime minister in 2015. This decision in no way makes us a laughing stock because as we all know, balloons are a deadly menace.

Reprinted with the kind permission of