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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Cast From the Herd (Excerpt # 10)

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #10:  A Miserable December

After my shocked discovery of the forbidding Form Sixth Entrance examination that I would have to face a year hence, I felt my world was closing in fast. That notwithstanding, I was determined to make my stand. On the Friday of the last week of school, I was consumed with preparing for an earlier-planned school picnic the next day at Gunung Pasir, the source of the Sri Menanti River. I had never been there and the excitement helped keep my anxiety at bay. 

On that day we cycled through the royal town of Sri Menanti. I had attended afternoon religious classes there a few years earlier and also taken in the movies some Saturday evenings by the police station at the palace gate. Those movies were the legacy of the British when they had troops stationed there to combat the communist insurgency. 

The troops were there because my village was in a “black” area, with curfew imposed from dawn to dusk. The restriction was lifted for the few hours of the movies. Nonetheless there was no mistaking the seriousness of the curfew. At the village entrance was a sign in four languages (Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil) warning of the strict and severe restriction. In case you were illiterate, there was also a stylized figure of a man being shot, and beneath it, “6PM – 6AM.” 

My village was one of the earliest to be declared “white” or liberated, and thus freed of those tight restrictions. Even after that my parents still cautioned me about going out after dark. They made the exception for those free movies. 

One evening there was a double feature. When it was over I was sleepy but managed to get on my bicycle. The next thing I remembered was sitting on the crossbar of my friend’s bicycle while my brother was dragging my wobbly bicycle beside his. My front wheel had been crushed. 

I arrived home dazed and had to be helped up the steps. My parents were already asleep. In bed I tried to re-trace the events of that evening, but could not remember anything, not even the movie. The next day my brother related that the dynamo had jammed into my front wheel, flinging me flat onto the paved road, face down. Next I was pushing my friends away, telling them to leave me alone as I wanted to continue sleeping – on the road! Somehow they managed to get me on my friend’s bicycle and brought me home. 

Physicians advise parents of children who have suffered head injury with the associated loss of consciousness, however brief, to watch for signs of unusual drowsiness or altered behavior during the first 24 hours. If they fall asleep, they should be wakened up often. Here I was sleeping off my concussion! 

That Saturday morning on the way to the picnic we partook in many impromptu races along the way. At Sri Menanti we stopped to see the palace, the old as well as the new. They were not a novelty for me, but were for my classmates. The old one, built in 1905, was a huge overbuilt kampung house made of wood and on stilts. It was four stories high, supported by 99 pillars, as with the 99 names of Allah. Islamic or not, the top floor was believed to be haunted. The sign boasted that not a single nail was used in the construction. The adjacent new palace was a huge, dull, gray box, severely-challenged architecturally, made worse by the absence of imaginative landscaping. The place was deserted except on special occasions.

I remember being inside its banquet hall one afternoon after my religious class. There had been a royal function, and after all the guests had departed, including the Yam Tuan (sultan) who lived in yet another palace at Seremban, the guards let in the locals. 

That was my first and only time inside the new palace. To the villagers however, going into the palace after official functions was a ritual, and the reason obvious. For on the tables were heaps of leftovers. I brought home some for my brothers and sisters; they were thrilled. When my father came home, with bountiful eagerness I greeted him with my treats. He too enjoyed them, and then asked who had brought them. I was just waiting for that query. “I did, from the palace!” 

He spitted out right away what he had in his mouth. “Throw that palace sampah (garbage) out!” he yelled.

I never saw him so angry. So I threw out those tasty treats right away, to the delight of the chickens. 

“We’re not going to depend on royal leftovers even if I have to starve to feed you,” he barked. Then in a stern voice he warned us of the diseases we could get from eating those leftovers. Those royal guests may be very important persons, he admonished us, but they could also be carriers of deadly diseases. 

I felt sick; my father sure had a way of scaring the wits out of me. 

In the morning that religious school building was used as a private English school catering to those who had been expelled from the government stream, mostly for academic reasons. It was a tribute to their parents that those students continued their English education privately and at great expense. Most of them were girls and they were all good looking, prompting my father to warn my sisters that those girls failed because they were consumed with their looks and ignored their books. My father was not alone, then or now, in harboring this prejudice of the presumed incompatibility of brain and beauty.

That picnic trip was just the diversion I needed. I clung to its pleasant memories despite the frequent rude intrusions of the scene of Badrul crying his head off when he discovered that he had failed the Sixth Form entrance examination. That welcomed relief alas did not last long. Soon I was back in the dump. How was I to climb out of this deep dark pit?

Next:  Excerpt #11:  The King’s Death

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Pandora Papers: The Lesson from America

 The Pandora Papers:  The Lesson From America

M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpt of my memoir Cast from the Herd will resume next week]


The Pandora Papers reveal a long list of the rich and powerful having substantial assets held in secret offshore accounts. Remarkable for their absence is that there are no American billionaires on the list. Also significant is that while Jordan’s King Abdullah is on it, no Malay sultans are. Before cheering, please read on.


Both current Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz and his predecessor Daim Zainuddin are on it. That speaks volumes of their faith in the local system that they have to invest abroad, and in secrecy. Their job should have been to make Malaysia the choice destination for all investors, foreign and domestic; not fleeing from it.


Americans are not on that infamous list because they pay taxes on their global incomes, regardless whether domestic or foreign. Having an account in tax-haven Panama would not affect your taxes. If you were to hide your income, then that would be a crime. For lawyers, they could be disbarred while doctors could lose their license.


Americans with assets or financial accounts abroad above a certain threshold must file annual reports to the Internal Revenue Service regardless whether those assets earn any income. The report must include year-end value as well as the highest and lowest figures for the year, reflecting the associated transactions.


Malaysians are not taxed on their foreign incomes; likewise, income from certain entities owned by locals but incorporated or registered abroad. No surprise then that Malaysians have foreign accounts, quite apart from the secrecy. Americans have little need for either as some states offer even more generous tax advantages, and one’s financial and other data are private. Divulging or misusing those information could lead to prosecution or civil suits.


That also explains why Malay sultans are not on that Pandora list. They have little need for the Virgin Islands (unless they think those islands are full of virgins) as their assets are already secret in Malaysia, and nobody dare ask them to pay their taxes. A few years ago the Sultan of Kelantan drove off with his imported luxury car from the port lot, skipping the import and other taxes. The personnel did not dare stop him.


President Reagan was notorious for his hostility towards taxes, yet he introduced the “alternative minimum tax” and other provisions that affected only rich Americans like him.


Contrast Reagan to the local Daims and Zafruls. Instead of closing those tax loopholes, they took advantage of them. That is a tragic commentary not only on the pair but also on contemporary Malay norms, culture, and values. It also explains why Malaysia, led by the likes of them, remain Third World in status and mentality.


I do not know and could not care less how the Daims and Zafruls acquired their wealth. This much I am certain – theirs, like the overwhelming number for Malays, were not inherited. Until they hit the bonanza of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Malays including the sultans did not have much. NEP through its corruption, nepotism, and rent-seeking activities changed all that. The assets of these nouveau riche Malays, despite their gaudy displays, are but pocket change to the Bezos, Gates, and Musks. The near banana-note value of the ringgit does not help.


With those super-wealthy Americans, unlike their NEP-bred Malay counterparts, one has minimal difficulty ascertaining where they get their fortunes. With Bezos, Amazon.com; the behemoth that simplifies my shopping as well as my viewing the latest movies, not to mention the cheap “cloud storage” for my books and precious family albums. Gates’ software helps with my writing and publishing. Musks’ electric cars and solar generators reduce global warming.


Name a product or service associated with these mega-rich Malays. Daim was once given (yes, given) state land for salt mining. Alas he is no salt mogul today. Zafrul’s family could not have been wealthy as he attended Malay College where, like the other students there, he was but a ward of the state. Even his meals there were paid for by taxpayers. Really rich Malaysians send their children to Alice Smith School, not Malay College. I do not know whether Zafrul’s overseas university education was also publicly funded. There are many Malays on that list whose education, from their local high school through graduate studies abroad, was government-paid.


            Malaysia should emulate America and tax Malaysians on all their income, local and foreign. Then have them, including and especially sultans, file annual reports if their foreign assets or accounts exceed a certain threshold.


            Those secret foreign accounts are only part of the problem. Malaysia does not have wealth, gift, or inheritance taxes and there is no chorus to alter that. Then there is the diversion of political donations, another conduit for corruption. Najib claimed that the Euros, dollars and pound sterling hauled from his residence were gifts or for political campaigns.


Piketty in his Capital and Ideology (2019) suggests global wealth and inheritance taxes to reduce inequality as well as fund such cross-border challenges as global warming. Note, both are taxes on assets, not income, a concept that should be familiar to Muslims as that is also the basis for zakat.


Income tax discriminates against workers; asset tax, the wealthy. Asset tax would also bring Malaysia closer to an Islamic state, more so than introducing hudud. Make the rates the low Qur’anic 2.5 percent and you would also discourage cheating.


Zafrul threatens to sue local journalists for exposing the Pandora Papers. I suggest that he focuses instead on amending current laws to discourage Malaysians from investing abroad. Then make Malaysia the haven for all investors, foreign and local. That would endear him to citizens and investors, quite apart from his saving hefty legal fees and wasting precious court times now overburdened with prosecuting the Najibs, Zahids, and other filthy, pretentious NEP-bred nouveau riche Malays.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Cast From the Herd. Exxcrpt # 9: A Rude Awakening

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #9:  A Rude Awakening

That Thursday, the eve of the last school day for the year, I was wandering outside the school office when I came upon Badrul from the graduating class. As he was not in his school uniform I did not recognize him right away. When I did, I saw that his eyes were red and swollen; he had been crying. I greeted him but he ignored me. 

I thought he had just emerged from the principal’s office and been told some terrible news, like a death in the family. How awful, the news as well as the timing. Imagine getting bad news in the midst of an important examination. As I stood there wondering, Ramli came up to me. He shook his head and muttered, “I guess he didn’t make it!” 

Did not make what? I wondered what it was that would trigger such an emotion. Ramli pointed to the bulletin board. There was the list of the successful candidates in the Sixth Form entrance examination held earlier that September. It was a short list, and Badrul’s name was not on it. 

I had never even heard of that Sixth Form test or class. Neither did my other classmates except for the brainy ones like Ramli, and for good reason. That list was posted only on the last day of school when everyone was in a rush to leave for the long December holidays. Come January and the new school year, that list would be long gone. We were all however, familiar with the year-end terminal national Cambridge School Certificate Examination, with the results together with the obligatory adoring profiles of the top scorers published in the national papers the following March. 

Sixth Form was a two-year pre-university program (Years 12 and 13). As our school did not offer that class, few knew about it. The Sixth Form entrance examination was thus akin to SAT or AP Test at a country school in Wyoming. With everyone headed for the local community college or state university, nobody cared about those two tests.

I perused the list. For such a pivotal examination, the announcement was stark and unheralded, a simple typed page posted amidst all the other mundane notices. There were four from the science stream and four from arts, from a class of about 40 and 80 respectively. That examination was only the beginning, Ramli warned me. Your place in that class would be conditional, for if you were to bomb the terminal Cambridge School Certificate examination held later in the year in December, you would be expelled. That was why the headmaster waited until the last minute and day to post the entrance test results so as not to disturb those still sitting for that terminal examination. That year however, the clerk goofed and inadvertently released the results a day early. 

We both stared in silence at the list. Ramli did not have to say anything; being the top student his name would surely be there come next December. 

That list jolted me. Earlier that week I had received my latest report card. I was eleventh in my class, not even the top quarter, and thus zero chance of getting into Sixth Form. A sudden fear gripped me. My end was near, just twelve months away. I was frantic. I remembered only too well the earlier reactions of my brother and sister when they found out that they could no longer continue with their schooling. With only a fifth-form education I would be stuck in my village. The best that I could swing would be as a lowly government clerk. That thought terrified me. It would not be long before I too would be harassing those simple villagers. 

I consoled myself that I could do better, perhaps being a junior science teacher. There was a shortage of such teachers and there was a highly-regarded science teacher-training college in Penang. That prospect did not excite me. My parents were already teachers, as were my older brother and sister, as well as two uncles and a cousin. I remember my parents extolling the virtues of being a teacher:  work for only half a day, two-day weekends, and plenty of holidays. Then there would be the rare occasions when you could share in the reflected glory in the successes of your former students. 

Oh well, I rationalized that even if I could not get into Sixth Form at least I would be the first in my family to complete Fifth Form. I was desperate for any excuse to cushion my possible future failure. That notwithstanding, Chairil Anwar’s stirring words kept churning inside me. I had to escape my kampung; I needed to find my own pasture. I was determined to take leave of my flock, to quote the 12th Century philosopher Imam Al Ghazali, and pursue my own merantau (wanderlust), as per our tradition. 

That stark list gripped me; I felt corralled by this formidable barrier that was the Sixth Form entrance examination. To escape my fate, I first must bolt through it, but that barrier appeared mighty sturdy. That realization terrified me. Only a few minutes earlier I was obsessed with my long pants. My sky was bright and cloudless; my horizon, wide and endless. Then, a bolt of lightning – the sight of Badrul crying – and my sky turned cloudy and threatening, my horizon finite and closing in. Even my simple joys had been snatched away. 

Next:  Excerpt #10:  A Miserable December

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Cast From The Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia Excerpt #8


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 8:  King of the Hill, Briefly

The tradition at my school would have the senior class be dismissed on that last Monday assembly, at which time they would no longer be bound by the school rules, as with wearing uniforms. As those seniors would be consumed with their crucial terminal examination during that week, the gesture was meaningless. 

Also at that assembly the headmaster would announce the new prefects for the coming year, to take over from those graduating now preoccupied with their examinations. For some unexplained reason I half expected to be selected as one. I did not know what made me harbor such an aspiration; I was not the top student and had not excelled or even taken part in any sports. My delusion was fed because I knew Ramli well. He was a shoo-in to be the new head prefect. Going by the same principle of guilt by association, I thought his achievements would rub off on me. 

So when our headmaster announced the list with my name not on it, I was disappointed, but not for long. Having been freed from the phobia that I would look like my history teacher in my long pants, the disappointment of not being made prefect was trivial in comparison. My joys may be simple but my horizon had by now extended far beyond. Indeed at that assembly, I wore my long pants on a dare. The usual practice would be to wait till the following day. 

Long pants were now second nature to me. I could not go back into shorts; it felt so juvenile. To be sure, I did not acquire the other Elvis accoutrements like a comb in my back pocket or sporting slick long hair. The teachers would not allow that. 

Prefect or not, I was now “King of the Hill.” Much as I had anticipated my senior status, the outgoing honeymoon-year was the best. It had been relaxing, a much-needed respite. In an attempt to engage us, and freed from curricular constraints, the more resourceful teachers turned philosophical. Perverse as it may seem, I paid more attention out of interest. 

None however could match Cikgu Noh, the substitute teacher who introduced me to Chairul Anwar’s poetry. Noh must have felt that he had to put in an honest day’s work, otherwise his salary would be haram. He was not one, as we say in the village, to makan gaji buta (lit. blindly devouring his pay). Bless him for his integrity! 

My physics teacher, Mr. Pritam Singh, expounded on economics. He was pursuing his external degree in that subject through London University. I found concepts like supply/demand curve as well as elastic and inelastic demands fascinating. Our biology teacher, Mr. Sham Singh, regaled us with his master’s thesis on fungus. One of his colleagues did his doctorate on worms. Imagine spending your lifetime studying worms! There must be a vast universe out there beyond my school textbooks. 

Meanwhile our chemistry teacher, Mr. Menon, also a recruit from India, was consumed with writing a textbook. In the last few months he did not bother with any teaching. He engaged my friend Johari Ja’alam to do the illustrations. Johari was a talented artist and he enjoyed the assignment. He was so involved that he did not have time for our Saturday social outings. I teased him that with all the favors he was doing Menon, Johari would surely get an A in chemistry. He was not fazed by my jibes. 

When the book was released, there was not even an acknowledgment of Johari’s considerable contributions. He would have remained unperturbed had I not pointed out the glaring omission. I was sorry that I did, for Johari fumed on discovering that. He tore up his complimentary copy and muttered at how ungrateful those foreigners were, plus a few other choice words to stereotype the Indians. 

Johari had discretely incorporated his initials in all the drawings and figures, but in the book all those had been “white out,” a painstaking chore indicating a conscious effort at obliterating any trace of his contribution. Johari’s anger was mollified by the book not selling well. We should have been proud that our teacher had authored a textbook, and glow in the reflected glory. The fault however, was not ours alone. 

I thought that incident would forever poison Johari’s opinion of Indians. Years later I visited him; he was now an engineer with his own consulting firm. He showed me his fully computerized CAM/CAD machine. “The first in the country,” he bragged, and then introduced me to his senior staff. 

They were all Indians. They could not enter Malaysia as engineers because the authorities did not recognize their qualifications. So he hired them as technicians, and at a much lower pay. To those Indian engineers however, that was a lot more than what they could have earned back home. Johari confessed that he was in no hurry to lobby the local Board of Engineers to change its “high” standards! Johari was not only a competent professional but also a shrewd businessman. 

I was not yet into my senior year and was already consumed with my new role as “King of the Hill.” Finally, my turn! I also felt so mature in my new attire. Clothes do make the man, and I was compelled to act like one. 

One day I saw some junior kids misbehaving on the bus. I stared at them, and they quieted down. They paid attention to me! Even the bus conductor noticed that. During that last school week there were many misbehaving kids, and plenty of opportunities to practice my piercing stare and exert my newly-acquired senior status. Imagine if I had been made a prefect – I would have been intolerable. 

Next:   Excerpt #9: A Rude Awakening

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #7: At Last , In Long Pants


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 7:  At Last, In Long Pants!

Just as the wake of a freighter would continue lashing against the shoreline long after it had passed, likewise the wash of Mr. Noh’s words kept rocking the edges of my consciousness long after that day. I too now yearned to be free, to sail the distant seas and explore strange lands. Chairil Anwar’s poem “Aku” had snapped my mooring line. 

Wait! My Minangkabau tradition calls for exactly that. Just as the shoot of the rice plant has to be uprooted from the soft nurturing soil of its nursery to be transplanted in the open field so it could grow and mature, so too a young man must leave his native soil and later return with the full harvest of his experience. That is the essence of the Minangkabau merantau (wanderlust) spirit. It is not just a yearning as per Steinbeck’s “virus of restlessness” afflicting the young, rather the very core of my culture.

Chairil Anwar’s stirring words reverberated in me well beyond that week, a rather tenacious hold on a teenager’s attention span. By the end of the following week however, I was back to my old familiar pattern of coasting through. Before long my school was into its third and final term of the year; the atmosphere now serious with non-academic activities canceled. The focus was on the all-consuming national examinations, except for us in the honeymoon-year class. For us there would be only an internal one. It would not matter to our future. No one would fail; it said so in the school policy. If I were to do poorly, I could handle the expected de-meriting remarks from my teachers and parents. I was already anticipating my senior year when it would be my turn to be king of the hill and lord it over the rest of the school. 

A privilege to being a senior was that one could wear long pants. The girls however, would be stuck with their same boring blue, knee-length pinafore over a white blouse. Parents loved that as they would not incur extra expenses. To me, long pants were like crowns to kings. 

During Form Four only a few – the prefects – could wear them, and they wore them daily. However, only my friend Ramli Ujang looked smart in them:  trim, tall and oh, so mature! His pants hugged him at the hips, embracing his thighs and legs like the casing of a sausage, lending a cool, casual comfortable look. If only I would look half as good in mine! Oh Allah, spare me the look of the other prefects, or worse. 

My recurring nightmare was that I would look like Mr. Tham, our previous history and now frequent substitute teacher. He was the antithesis of Chairil. I could never imagine Tham to cast himself from his herd. His long black, straight hair was clipped at the bottom all around as if somebody had put a half coconut shell over his head and then snipped off the extruded locks. I suppose that was an improvement over the pigtail-style of his ancestors. 

Please God, do not let me look like him in my long pants. No! His baggy pants, secured only by side buckles, rode high almost to his armpits, and starched stiff with the twin front creases resembling the hulls of a tall catamaran. He did not walk but waddled. Tham was a constant and irritating reminder of the potential sartorial disaster awaiting me in my long pants. 

My weekend routine was for our small school social group to meet on Saturdays at the library prior to going for the noon matinee movie in town. Those were occasions for us not to be in uniform. What a pleasant sight to see those girls looking so different, refreshing, and yes, beautiful. I would still be in my uniform because that was the only few clothes I had. Further, if I were not wearing my uniform, then my bus pass would be invalid, thus cutting into my allowance. 

One Saturday we saw “Jailhouse Rock.” While the girls went wobbly with Elvis’s gyrating pelvis, I was taken in by his army pants, desert khaki with pleat-less front and cuff-less legs – the Yankee drainpipe look. That would be my style. I fancied myself another Elvis, minus the singing talent or good looks.

I had a postal savings bank account that my father started for me upon my entering school. I remember putting my thumbprint on the application and the clerk remarking that I was his youngest customer. My father had been adding to that account every time I did well on my school tests. That last December I did well in my LCE, as did my bank account.

So that Saturday Ramli and I were at the tailor; I brought him for moral support. The specific fabric was there, and plenty of it. It was the hot-selling item, benefiting from the movie. Knowing my father (he was a regular customer), the tailor proceeded to measure me without bothering to ask what style I wanted. So when he put the tape around my tummy way above my belly button, I pushed the tape way down to my hips.

“Your father wouldn’t approve of this,” he muttered, forgetting that was his customer. I remained adamant, and he relented. Then another argument, the ankle cuffs. I wanted cuff-less, high and narrow. I feared looking baggy, a la Mr. Tham. 

A few days later I was back for the fitting. The pants hugged my hips perfectly. I paraded myself in front of the mirrors like a tom turkey surrounded by hens, except that the hens were only my reflections. The tailor slid his palm around my waist and suggested some loosening, but I assured him that it was perfect as I sucked in my tummy. 

The following Saturday my mother saw me in my new pants and complimented me. I was not used to being praised for my attire, least of all from her. Much to my surprise the bus conductor let me use my pass despite my not being in school uniform. He did give me a second look, as did later the usually taciturn school librarian. The girls said that I looked “nice” but I pretended not to be affected. Later that morning, as the movie was not worth seeing, we all went for a stroll at Lake Gardens. For me, more opportunities to parade myself. 

We went to the far end of the park. Our biology teacher, Mr. Sham Singh, lived there in a spacious bungalow set in lush surroundings. With no fences, the whole park was his backyard. He had such a luxurious lodging because he was recruited from abroad, in his case India. Local teachers did not enjoy such privileges. My elders had an apt expression for such misplaced generosity: Breast-feeding the baby monkey you found in the jungle but neglecting your own. 

Mr. Sham noticed the girls right away and was extra effusive in greeting them. He ignored us boys but we nonetheless tagged along. The twin-level house had a high ceiling and was cool, enhanced by the fan swirling above and the wide French doors. The colonialists knew how to make life comfortable in the tropics. 

Those government bungalows were clustered on a hill and separated by expansive lawns, with a panoramic view of the town. Tall casuarina pines and leafy flame-of-the-forest (Delonix regia) trees provided shade and color, but conspicuous by their absence, there were no fruit trees as in the villages. Those colonials had yet or refused to acquire a taste for local fruits, especially durian. It may be the king of fruits and fruit for kings to the natives, but to foreigners, it’s like eating ice cream in an outhouse, heavenly only if you don gas-masks. It is the Malaysian revenge for Munster cheese. 

On the far side of the hill stood a much larger house, that of our headmaster, Mr. McCumiskey. At the crest was the District Officer’s, an appropriate symbolic location as he was the top local official. 

No wonder Sham liked Malaysia. Back in his native India he probably had only a mud hut. 

In the excitement of the day I forgot all about my new pants. That was also a measure of how comfortable I felt in them. I wore them a few more Saturdays after that, but like sex, none matched the excitement of that first time. Assured that I would not look like my history teacher, I had three more pairs made in the navy-blue school color for my upcoming senior year, this time with pleated front and cuffed ankles. My tailor knew the school rules better than I did. 

Next:  Excerpt # 8:  King of the Hill, Briefly

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Continued Unbridled Corruption of Malay Ulama

 The Continued Unbridled Corruption of Malay Ulama


M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpt from my memoir Cast From the Herd:  Memories From Matriarchal Malaysia will resume next week.]


Malaysia’s premier public intellectual and academic architect, Tajuddin Rasdi, lamented in a recent column that in his 40 years of listening to local sermons, not once did he hear the khatib address much less condemn the egregious corruption among Malay leaders.


That is what happens when the state has co-opted the ulama. Religion then becomes yet another sinister state apparatus and the ulama, handmaidens of the powerful.


            This ulama-ruler complex has not always been the case, in Malaysia or the greater Islamic world. In the preface to the recent re-release of Elijah Gordon’s The Real Cry of Syed Shayk al-Hadi, Ahmad Farouk Musa, another public intellectual and academic cardiac surgeon, writes, “To Al-Hadi, the lifestyle of the ruling elite was morally corrupt, decadent, and unjust. They, aided by the teachings of conservative ulama, have led the ummah to our current abysmal state.”


            I would delete the restrictive “morally” as Malay leaders are corrupt and decadent in every way.


            Shayk al-Hadi was of the reformist Kaum Muda of the early 20th Century. “Do not be deceived by the titles and accolades of your dignitaries for they are the source of all the miseries that have befallen upon you. They . . . oppressed and . . . continue oppressing you,” Ahmad Farouk quotes Al-Hadi.


Harvard’s Noah Feldman in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State noted that throughout history, the ulama class remained the only effective bulwark against the excesses of rulers. When rulers stray from God’s laws, as with being corrupt, then the ummah would no longer be bound by their rulers’ edicts, those ancient ulama asserted. Nay, the ummah must go beyond; they were duty-bound to get rid of those errant rulers.


The delusional detachment from reality noted by Tajuddin Rasdi is today the hallmark of local sermons and religious discourses. Listen to the ceramahs of “celebrity” ulama on Youtube. The pompous Dr. Maza (he does not need his full name; his acronym is enough, like Za’aba) would at the slightest provocation overwhelm his listeners with his long Arabic quotes. No one had ever “fact checked” his claims as his listeners could not understand Arabic. His is not to enlighten but to dazzle. Once in a panel discussion in front of an urbane audience, Dr. Maza left in a huff, demonstrating yet another ugly trait of Malay ulama – their inability to handle criticisms or challenges.


Another is Azhar Idrus. This character has not quite figured out his real calling, whether to be an Imam or a stand-up comedian. His folksy delivery in his distinct Kelantanese slang, plus some trite jokes, enthrall his listeners. He forgets that the dialect alone elicits prolonged laughter in sophisticated company.


That these ulama have large loyal followings reveals much of themselves as well as the Malay ummah.


Contrast these ulama with my Imam Ilyas here in California. In a recent Friday sermon before Labor Day holiday, he reminded us to honor and respect workers. He quoted the Prophet that we should pay them before their “sweat dries up.” They, whether cleaning the parks or taking care of the elderly are providing much-needed community services. They are doing God’s work as much as if not more so than those cloistered in houses of worship endlessly reciting their holy texts.


Those who abuse and cheat their workers deserve the wrath of Almighty, Imam Ilyas added. Today, thousands of Malaysian workers have had their paychecks delayed or withheld. Few treat their workers with respect. When I was in Malaysia in 1976, I was stunned to see a prominent Islamic scholar treating his maid as a slave. As for my pay, I did not get my first check till three months later, and then not in full. And my employer was a self-proclaimed Islamic government!


When Pope John Paul II died, Imam Ilyas paid tribute to this great religious leader, recalling his early condemnation of apartheid and the Gulf War, as well as his historic visit to the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, a former Byzantine-era church, where he respectfully removed his shoes and kissed the Qur’an.


In that sermon Imam Ilyas reminded us that Allah has the final prerogative on who would enter Heaven, an indirect dig at those who proclaim that their faith is exclusively privileged, an arrogant claim made not just by Muslims.


Malaysian ulama schooled at prestigious foreign institutions are no different. Afifi Al-Akiti, the current darling of Malays being that he is the first Malay to be appointed Fellow at one of Oxford’s colleges, is an example. When asked during a seminar in Kelantan (attended by no less than the sultan) on the current state of corruption and breaches of faith by Malay leaders, he demurred, using the excuse that he had been away from the country. A cop out!


One could excuse local ulama as they are on government payroll. Al-Akiti is paid by British taxpayers. He is free from the constraints of his Malaysian counterparts. The man is capable of eloquent protest as when he condemned Islamic terrorists in his Defending The Transgressed By Censuring the Reckless Against The Killing of Civilians. That received widespread praise. I wish he had have been as brave and unequivocal in condemning corruption among Malay leaders.


Mousy Al-Akiti is no Tariq Ramadan, his fellow Oxford don. During a visit to Malaysia, Ramadan condemned corruption among Muslim leaders. In the finest prophetic tradition, while Ramadan could not stop corruption in Malaysia with his hands, he used the next best thing, his tongue, by lashing out. Al-Akiti dared not even do that. Only Allah knows whether he condemned Malay corruption in his heart.


Therein lies the problem, and tragedy. Until Malay ulama assume the mantle of their ancient brothers by being the bulwark against errant leaders, the ummah will not change.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 4

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #4:  Rebel With A Cause

As a student in a small, rural English school in early post-colonial Malaysia, my joys were simple. Having a substitute teacher was one. In 1959, my ‘honeymoon’ school year, I was getting a bumper crop of them. The year was so dubbed because we faced no fate-deciding year-end national examination. As such there was little to challenge us or our teachers. They had given up any pretense of teaching and we the students, the charade of listening. Our having frequent substitute teachers reflected that ambience. 

That honeymoon year was a much needed reprieve considering that the previous year we had sat for the grueling Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) examination. Many of my former classmates had been culled, a fate that befell my older brother and sister a few years earlier. Come next year we would be facing the even more daunting and ultimate fate-deciding Cambridge School Certificate (CSC) examination. 

So the morning’s good news of yet another substitute teacher rippled fast through the class, like giggles in a co-ed dorm, and with as much merriment. There was more; it would be for our Malay language class. To us that subject was akin to woodworking in an American prep school. It was introduced into our curriculum only two years earlier following our nation’s independence.

We already had too much fun with our regular teacher. Meaning, we did not have to exert ourselves. Nevertheless substituting one joy for another was still welcomed. To top it off, the substitute would be our former history teacher, Mr. Tham. The last time he substituted in our class, the teacher in the next classroom had to rescue him. 

Thus I was anticipating a leisurely cruise downstream with a skipper who would not dare interrupt my frolicking. My classmates too, felt likewise. 

Then, the unexpected; a new teacher! He had joined the staff only the year before and taught geography to the lower grades. Despite being new, he was already a hit, especially with the girls. Part of his novelty was that he was a Malay, a rarity at my school then except for those teaching the language. 

Mohammad Noh also had a colorful past. A former professional boxer, he had the requisite physique to prove it, his ample biceps amplified by his tight rolled-up shirt sleeves. If that background was not exotic enough, he had also been in the merchant marines. When he referred to those distant ports mentioned in our geography books, Noh had actually visited them. He enthralled his students with accounts of desert storms and sights of Bedouin caravans along the Suez Canal, having sailed through it many times. 

That morning as Mr. Noh marched–yes, marched–into our class, we all stood up, dutifully and respectfully as expected. He was a commanding figure, his pectoral muscles stretching taut against his shirt. He was a magnetic pole with all nearly forty of us iron filings orientated towards him. There was a momentary collective silence and noticeable hesitation. Should we say “Good morning, Sir!” as was the practice, or “Selamat pagi, Cikgu?” It would not be appropriate to address him in English for a Malay class. On the other hand he was not a Malay language teacher.

We did not have to hesitate long. From the front emanated a booming command, “Selamat Pagi! Duduk!” (Good morning! Sit!)

Selamat Pagi Cikgu!” we responded in unison and sat down with uncharacteristic minimal shuffle and no juvenile careless banging of chairs against the desks.

He plunked down his books on his table and proceeded to write on the board. We watched in silence, hearing only the gentle squeak of the chalk as he wrote the following: 


Chairul Anwar 

Kalau sampai waktuku / ‘Ku mau tak seorang kan merayu. Tidak juga kau / Tak perlu sedu sedan itu. 

Aku ini binatang jalang / Dari kumpulannya terbuang. (1-5)

. . . .

Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi! (13) 


Chairul Anwar 

If I should ever leave / Let there be no grief! / Not even from you, please!

Spare me the sobs and sneezes. / I’m but a wild beast, feared / Cast from its herd. [1-6]

. . . .

I want to live for a thousand years, no less!   [13 - My translation]

“How many of you have heard of Chairil Anwar?” Muhammad Noh bellowed as he turned around from the board, a sergeant-major interrogating a bunch of raw bumbling village recruits. He scanned the class who were now stunned into silence. I swore that he was staring straight at me. I did not dare shift my gaze; it had been transfixed by his eyes. I had no clue what he was talking about but had just enough sense to shut up and hope that he would choose someone else as his prey. The silence lasted forever. Not even the ticking of my wristwatch could distract me from his stare and the uncomfortable silence. 

Of course none of us had ever heard of the poet Chairul Anwar or his immortal poem Aku. We were in an English school, for heaven’s sake, and in the science stream to boot. We were more into particle physics, not Petrarchan poetry. He shook his head as if to confirm his prior anticipation of an uphill battle.

Chairil Anwar was a young Indonesian poet, he rattled on. This was his most famous piece, penned in 1943 when he was not yet 21. Should I take notes, I wondered. 

Excerpt #5:  Chairul Anwar – My Hero!