Theatrical and transcendental are commonly used to describe the interactions with the spirit medium Briano Sim. The Singaporean Chinese, who now spends his time volunteering at a temple every Saturday, explains that being a spirit medium is “heart work”.
As a vessel of the gods, Briano was chosen by the gods to house certain deities in his body and dole out advice to patrons of Shui Gou Guan Temple along Teck Whye. Whenever he goes into a trance, it is said that his soul wanders away from his body in order to house the deity. “I don’t remember what the interactions were,” Briano reveals. “I could also speak fluent Hokkien and write calligraphy, which I cannot do as Briano Sim.”
The work Briano does is not to be confused with fortune-telling. According to his helpers, whom Briano relies heavily upon before and after his sessions, patrons often inquire about solutions to their health, career and life problems. Many of them reached out to the deities, or Briano, as a last resort.
Having forayed into the scene at only 17 years old, Briano, now 33 and runs his own floral design company, was and is arguably one of Singapore’s youngest spirit mediums. He works with “Lei Zheng Zi Yuan Shuai” (one of the five great thunder deities in Taoism) and “Li Ya Pek” (one of the two fortune deities of the netherworld). “I went to temples to do ‘pua puey’— a form of divination—to confirm if it’s really the deities who are possessing my body,” he recollects.
Spirit mediums, like Briano, have existed for the longest time. The religious practice of interacting with the spirit world, or shamanism, is widespread in other ancient cultures too; think Haitian Voodoo, Wiccan traditions, Puerto Rican Brujeria, and even Japanese Ommyodo. In the United States, the late 1800s was considered the height of the spiritualism movement, which saw a flurry of seances organised at parties to communicate with the dead and other supernatural fanfare.
The draw to communicate with spirits, deities and other supernatural entities may have gained even more prominence today due to pop culture and well, the Internet. What makes the practice irresistible is its peculiar ability to uplift oneself and those around. Enter Nara Singaram (@mygrandmamasecret) and Grace Teo (@nehesa_ascension), two Singaporean new-age spiritual healers who also interact with spirits, deities and otherworldly beings to empower others.
Unlike Briano, Nara’s and Grace’s practice does not involve possession of any sort. Instead, through mindful meditation and shadow or light work, the two communicate with spirits, gods, goddesses, and even demons to serve a higher purpose: that is to help their clients, mostly females in their 20s, seek clarity or find grounding in life.
Much like what we see in movies and shows involving witches, such as “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, “Charmed” and “The Craft”, both Nara and Grace use a pastiche of crystals, dried herbs, candles and tarot card decks for their crafts. Some may even call them “witches” too.
In fact, both Nara and Grace hail from a line of spiritual practitioners; Nara’s late grandmother was a ‘witch doctor’ who was known to dispel curses and negative entities that arise as a result of withcraft, while some of Grace’s ancestors were ‘bomohs’, otherwise known as a Malay shaman and traditional medicine practitioner.
Nara, who calls herself an Earth witch, can sense and feel spiritual energies. “They are an extension of Mother Earth. I cannot see them in the flesh or three dimensionally, but I do get spiritual visions,” she says. Faeries, she posits, are Earth energies that resolve to protect and nurture mother nature. “They can be really playful. But how real they are is dependent on how much you believe in them.”
Grace, on the other hand, sees herself as a holistic healer who seeks the guidance of seven goddesses, or as she calls them, her “matriarchs”: Lilith, Hecate, Morrigan, Persephone, Hela, Baba Yaga and Pele. “When I was younger, I was drawn to the name Lilith, and the dark goddess eventually became my first guide,” she says. For Grace, it was affinity that got her to be acquainted with her goddess guides. “My other guides came into my life later on, whether by the introduction from one guide or another. They came in when I really needed their guidance, and I am thankful for that.”
Like Briano, Nara’s and Grace’s clients would reach out to them to sort out life’s mishappenings or seek enlightenment. Many of Grace’s clients tell her that she has been spot-on with her intuitive readings, referring their interactions with her to talking to a “non-judgemental and trusty friend”. One of her clients who asked for a career reading even managed to get a significant raise at work, much to his surprise. The two rely on social media and word-of-mouth recommendations to gather clients. Their services include tarot reading, spell casting, and other interesting esoteric practices like mirror scrying or ‘ostemancy’—which is the divination by means of the bones.
Interestingly, the trio thinks it is subjective to measure the authenticity or ascertain the veracity of their craft. “We all have our own connections with our goddesses. For greenhorns, it’s important to trust your instincts and trust yourself,” Grace explains. Along the same vein, Nara believes that humans are in constant connection to all that is around us. Nara, also an aviculturist, explains: “How (the spirits) communicate with us can be subjective; it is really dependent on how we are able to perceive and decode the messages that come our way.”
In Briano’s case, he can only house the deity after getting into a trance-like state. To achieve that state of insensibility, he has to meditate, cleanse himself and the consultation venue by burning incense paper and a talisman (he subsequently drinks the charred talisman remains), before inviting the deity to the vessel (his body).
The trio is used to skeptics and having what they do seen as a gimmick. Scammers, Nara says, have put a bad rep on new-age spiritual healers. There are scammers who steal their targets’ photos and pretend to be them on social media to deceive their clientele, and there are those who are imprudent and charge exorbitantly or offer fraudulent services. “It is really sad how people who are troubled are getting cheated, when all they want is relief,” Nara adds.
“It’s important for us, practitioners, to have a set of morals and know where to draw the line whenever we practise our craft,” Grace, who left her job as a visual merchandiser to be a full-time holistic healer, explains. “Young practitioners should understand that they are in the service of healing while clients also need to do their due diligence and research on the practitioners they want to work with.”
However, Briano thinks that society still has some way to go to clear the misconceptions people have of spirit mediums, like himself, in Singapore. “Some people said we are here to scam people’s money, while others associate us with secret society members or school dropouts,” he says. This misjudgement is perhaps formed due to Singapore’s notorious and seedy past with clan associations and temples; some mutual aid societies in the 1800s were run by secret societies whose network ran the gamut from clan associations, plantations and temples. But he thinks the stigma is changing for the better because the younger generations are becoming more open.
“I don’t take any form of payment from the temple or from the visitors,” he adds. “I am here to volunteer my time and help others.”