The word amok, as in the expression ‘running amok’ (or running amuck), is a Malay term. It is where a man (hardly ever a woman) harbours a hidden, brooding ill-feeling which suddenly erupts in a violent frenzy.

Psychologists have described the condition as a mental disorder and a rage reaction experienced by desperate people. It is not of course confined to the Malays, but is best known in this part of the world. 

Henri Fauconnier in his book The Soul of Malaya describes the phenomenon well:

  • Some quiet individual, who has been eating a bowl of rice, or even dozing on the mat, suddenly leaps up and stabs another man. Then the cry ‘Amok!’ and frantic flight. For they all know that as soon as the amok has seen blood flow, he will spare no one, neither friends, nor children, nor kinsmen. They all know too that the force within him is supernatural. It passes for a devil: but perhaps it is only despair, and the desire of death, brooding at the bottom of his heart. But stronger than even that desire, is the ecstasy of mortal combat, a defiance flung at all humanity. One against all, and he the attacker. And before he dies, he must kill once more, all his ultimate strength must be exhausted in this savage, thrilling, delicious sport.

The weapon of choice for running amok is the traditional wavy-bladed Malaya dagger, the kris. Krises are often family heirlooms handed down from father to son. Some blades are believed to have supernatural powers.  A well made kris can be stood on its tip without falling over due to its superb balance and craftsmanship. 

In the hands of a disturbed individual bent on suicidal self-destruction and feeling wronged by society, the kris provides the perfect weapon to seek revenge on mankind. However amok attacks can use other weapons besides krises. Perhaps the suicide bomber is a form of amok although this requires pre-meditation whereas true amok is more spontaneous. Could road rage be a modern and milder form of the condition? If so it is a more widespread mental disorder than we thought!

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