PBR: The Great Singapore Penis Panic is certainly an attention-grabbing title, but the event itself isn’t one that I had ever heard of prior to reading the book. When and how were you made aware of this event, and at what point did you decide you’d like to write a book about it?
Dr. Mendelson: I had first heard of Koro, the delusion of fatal shrinking of the penis, when I was in medical school. Koro is one of those strange illnesses that gets briefly noted and giggled about in lectures, but soon forgotten because of its rarity. A few years ago, I happened upon a paper that mentioned the Koro epidemic in Singapore, and I became interested again. I had heard of outbreaks of Koro on small, primitive islands in Malaysia. However, the large epidemic on Singapore, a modern economic powerhouse, surprised me. No one had a good explanation for why it happened when it did. I decided I would find out and write about it.
PBR: What is, to you, the most fascinating aspect of this phenomenon?
Dr. Mendelson: The belief that your penis can shrink back into your abdomen and kill you if it disappears completely sounds so ridiculous that no sane, adult person could possibly accept it. Thus, the most fascinating aspect of the Great Singapore Penis Panic is the surprising fact that none of the hundreds, or possibly thousands, of men (and a few women) who fell victim to the panic were “crazy”. They were perfectly normal people. It is both fascinating and humbling to realize that, under the right set of circumstances, powerful cultural, social, and psychological forces can drive any one of us to believe and do outrageous things.
PBR: You discuss the different environmental, economic, political, and psychological factors that may have contributed to the epidemic. Do you think that one played a more significant role than others?
Dr. Mendelson: Certainly, the most important factor in the Great Singapore Penis Panic was the Chinese culture that held the belief that the penis could shrink under certain conditions of ill health, particularly the loss of male, Yang energy, or the over-exposure to female, Yin energy. All that is required for mass hysteria to break out is such a shared belief, troubled times, and a disturbing event that serves as a trigger. The epidemic of swine fever that swept through Malaysia and Singapore in 1967 was the triggering event. If any one factor was predominate in propagating the epidemic, perhaps it was the political climate that existed at the time. The race riots between Chinese and Muslims that plagued Singapore in the years after independence from Britain had set the stage for animosity and suspicion. After Muslim Malaysia ejected Singapore from their federation, many Singaporeans feared that their country could not survive on its own. A bomb set off in Singapore by Indonesian Muslims in 1965 did nothing to quell suspicions about Islamic terrorism. Thus, when swine fever began to spread across the region, it was suspected that the Muslims, who did not eat pork, had found the perfect venue to inflict damage on the Chinese state of Singapore. In October of 1967, when the rumor began that a Singapore pig had died of Koro, fear, suspicion, and the Great Singapore Penis Panic were off and running.
PBR: Western society is not free of delusion. Do you think there are any events in the west in recent histories, which are parallel to Singapore’s penis panic?
Dr. Mendelson: There are many examples of mass delusion and hysteria in the United States. The Salem Witch Trials, The War of the Worlds radio show panic, The Seattle Windshield Pitting Hysteria, the Jonestown suicides, and the Heaven’s Gate suicides, are only a few. I am curious to see what crazy things people will do in 2012, when the world is supposed to end. I am looking forward to some wonderful garage sales that year!
PBR: If you could sum up your book and your perspective on the epidemic in three sentences, how would you?
Dr. Mendelson: Although Koro sounds like a completely crazy thing to believe in, none of the people in the Great Singapore Penis Panic of 1967 were crazy. All it takes to have an epidemic of mass hysteria among perfectly normal people is a shared belief, troubling times, and an emotionally disturbing triggering event. Mass hysteria can happen in any society, even right here in River City!