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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.

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!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

 ast From The Herd.  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #3:  Immunizing Against War

Back to storytelling, while my father lived through World War II through his service in the British Volunteer Force, the tales of war he recounted were not of chivalrous citizens, selfless soldiers, or gallant generals but of mutilated bodies, grieving families, and desperate souls. He saw pious men reduced to evil in order to feed their starving families. My parents’ prayers were not that we would prevail in any future battle, rather that his children and grandchildren be spared the horrors of war. When my mother died on May 12, 1997, just a month shy of her 80th birthday, and my father on June 15, 2000, just weeks after his 86th , their wishes still held true. I offer the same prayer, and often, for my children and grandchildren.

There was a time when my two sons were of draft age where my confidence was shaken. The two, no doubt taking after their grandfather, had streaks of independence. They had toyed with the idea of joining the military as a way to finance their college education, as so many young men and women do today, and often not by choice. Bless them, they wanted to spare us the extortionate expense that is today’s American college education. Had they done so, my older son Zachary would have been in the First Gulf War, and Azlan, the Second, with all the tragic tolls. There is not a day that I do not thank God that my sons were spared from having to make such a difficult choice. 

Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace laureate and Canada’s Prime Minister in the 1960s, once said that if he could keep Canadians out of war for just one generation, that would effectively immunize them against war. I hope that is also true for families.

Life is precious. That is not a surprising statement from me, a physician, but it is also the tenet of my faith. Even an unexamined life is worth living, contrary to the Socratic admonition. While chronicling my story involves just recalling for the most part, it also entails some reflecting. 

As I write (2012), America’s first African-American president, Barrack Obama, is entering the last year of his second term. Seven years earlier I witnessed an even more momentous event, his election to the highest office in the land. 

For those less familiar with American history, it was only in 1870 with the 15th Amendment were African-Americans allowed to vote, and then only the men. As for women, had the Framers of our Constitution included some of them, then the need for the 19th Amendment (allowing women to vote) would not have arisen. 

Born and raised in the world’s largest matriarchal society, the Minangkabau, where women are the decision makers as well as inheritors of properties, and where heritage follows maternal lines, I find that 19th Amendment, well, just quaint! 

It is not coincidental that we refer to the myths and legends of ancient times as cerita nenek moyang, tales of our great grandmothers. However, our tradition would have the sons to merantau (venture out). Going by that, our great grandfathers would have more interesting tales! 

Growing up in the decade following the war, I lived through my country’s transition from British colonial rule to independent sovereign nation. I saw a society struggling to adapt its feudal agrarian foundation to a modern urban one. It was also a time when the country fought a home-grown but foreign-funded communist insurgency. Malaysia remains unique in having prevailed over the communists sans any overt foreign help. 

I witnessed not only the nation’s independence but also its subsequent merger with the remaining British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo to form greater Malaysia. My story is a ground-level view of those transformational events. 

It is also an account of my parents’ adroit balancing of the matriarchal tradition of our Minangkabau culture with the patriarchal norms of contemporary Islam, and their delicate pursuit of a secular English education for their children in an environment of intense nationalism and heightened religious fervor that was hostile to such endeavors. This book is my tribute to them. 

Last June 6, 2011, Alham dulillah (Praise be to Allah!) my wife and I celebrated our 41st  wedding anniversary. We have been blessed with three wonderful children. Like me, they all have undertaken their own merantau, my daughter included. As such, I now spend an inordinate amount of time at airports waving good-byes! 

An advantage to recalling my stories late in life is that I am spared what I would refer to as the Mary McCarthy dilemma, expressed in her Memories of a Catholic Childhood. I am at liberty to name names as those individuals are now long gone, or if still alive, their memories being such that they would be constrained to challenge my account. The risk to this strategy is that, wait too long and you might not get to tell your story!

Time filters memories. With the detritus and flotsam drifting away, only the golden nuggets settle in the deep recesses of our memory banks. Those are the ones worth mining anyway. Time also affords the luxury of perspective. If the present is ground level, then distant memories are views from a mile high. On the ground the tropical jungle is muddy boots, menacing tigers, and sucking leeches, from the comfort of a jumbo jet, it is but a cool, velvety green carpet. 

By the same measure, scars visible only as minor blemishes from high above must be horrific at ground level. If I could recall the terror of my Sixth-Form entrance examination over half a century later, it must have been pure hell for me at the time. Likewise, if I remember with fondness the sweet encouraging counsel and warm supportive words of my parents, teachers, and imam, those must have meant a world to me then. 

This book ends with my first day at university, a few months shy of my 20th birthday. John Updike noted that the memories, impressions, and emotions from our first twenty years are the main material; little that comes afterwards is quite so rich and resonant. 

If novels are but letters aimed at one person, as per Stephen King, then the same could be said of memoirs. This one is for my grandchildren: Zain Conrad, Devin Khir, Suraya Mei, and Insha’ Allah (God willing), others to come. 

Next:  Excerpt #4:  Rebel With A Cause

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Anwar Ibrahim: The Right Leader At The Right Time

 Anwar Ibrahim:  The Right Leader At The Right Time

M. Bakri Musa



The conventional wisdom, as well as the constitutional mandate, would have the Agung select from among current Members of Parliament (MPs) the next Prime Minister to replace the hopelessly inept outgoing Muhyiddin Yassin. The Agung has to pick someone he believes could command the confidence of the House.


In the current political circus where MPs’ “Statutory Declarations” could be changed on a whim (after suitable “inducement”), that would be a tall order if not impossible. One does not have to be an astute observer to realize that no MP today could command a majority of Parliamentary support. That is why Malaysia is now in the current mess.


The Agung has no special divine powers to ascertain which candidate would command the confidence of Parliament. He goofed once with Muhyyiddin. We have no reason to expect that the Agung would be any wiser this second time around. So abandon that wishful thinking.


            Instead the Agung should heed the counsel of former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim. Zaid suggested that His Majesty resolve this political impasse by selecting someone “good” to be the next Prime Minister. This “good” leader would then through his display of leadership and management skills command the respect and confidence of Parliament.


            Zaid is no ordinary statesman. He remains the only cabinet minister to have resigned on principle, and then saw his reputation enhanced!


To have the Agung first pick a leader who he thinks would command the confidence of the House is putting things backward, akin to putting the cart before the horse. Picking that “good” leader from among the current MPs, as per Zaid’s wise suggestion, is not as difficult a task as it may seem.


First eliminate the bad ones. That is easy. All those MPs who had served in the outgoing Muhyyiddin Administration would by definition fall into this category. That would include ministers, assistant ministers, and other political appointees such as Special Ambassadors together with heads of government-linked companies or statutory bodies. They were all part of the problem and thus cannot now be part of the solution.


That one criterion alone would eliminate about 70 to 80 MPs. Then exclude those convicted or facing (or had faced) criminal charges. Do not bother with the likes of Zahid, Tengku Adnan, and Najib Razak. That would get rid of a dozen more.


That leaves about a hundred MPs or so for consideration. From those pick only the leaders of their parties, reducing the field to about a dozen candidates.


Once the Agung has picked his choice, then use all his and the citizens’ persuasive powers to dissuade MPs from having a parliamentary vote of confidence right away. After all, the Agung’s earlier choice (Muhyyiddin) did not face any despite being in office for nearly 18 months. The new Prime Minister should also be given that same courtesy. If after 18 months he has not proven his ability as with his losing the confidence of Parliament, then the Agung could dissolve parliament and call for a general election. We hope the Covid-19 pandemic would have dampened down by then. To call for an election during this pandemic with many Malaysians not fully vaccinated would be madness.


Parliament must not be allowed to degenerate like the Lebanese one.


Applying those criteria, there are only three candidates to lead Malaysia – Anwar Ibrahim, Shafie Apdal, and Tengku Razali. Tengku’s negatives include his not being in any senior leadership position for his party, UMNO. That however could be a plus, what with characters like Tengku Adnan, Najib Razak, and Ahmad Zahid as your peers. Beyond that, his age does not favor him. 


Only megalomaniacs like Mahathir think that they can still perform in their 90s. Look at the mess he had created. If only he had stuck to his promise of giving way to Anwar in February 2019, Malaysia would have been spared this terrible political crisis. It could not have come at the worst possible time. Yet this old Mahathir pariah still thinks he can now be part of the solution. Some chutzpah!


Tengku has many positives. He is among the few who dared take on Mahathir when the latter was at the peak of his power and popularity. Tengku nearly toppled Mahathir in the 1980s but for some last minute shenanigans by Najib Razak. Tengku’s integrity and competence are unchallenged. As head of Petronas he took on the mighty global oil companies. He remains the only statesman who sued the venerable Financial Times and prevailed when the paper implicated him in the Bank Bumiputra debacle.


Sabah’s Shafie Apdal had once been Chief Minister. Meaning, he has some executive experience. However his tenure at the federal level in Najib and Badawi’s cabinet had been lackluster.


That leaves Anwar Ibrahim. Many Malaysians still remember him from his ABIM days and during his years as Mahathir’s Deputy. However, the Anwar of today is a far different person. No leader has been tested in adversity, physically and in many other ways, more than Anwar. Yet he has emerged stronger, like well-tempered steel. Like Tengku Razali, Anwar dared take on Mahathir in 1997. Unlike Razali however, Anwar suffered all the terrible consequences not only to himself but more significantly, to his young family.


After spending years in prison on some trumped-up charges, Anwar, like Nelson Mandela, emerged stronger and his reputation enhanced. Also like Mandela, the fate of the individual who imprisoned Anwar is today tattered. Mahathir’s glorified legend of himself remains only in his own small egotistic mind. He does not even acknowledge that this crisis emanated from his earlier decision to resign.


Anwar Ibrahim is the leader Malaysia desperately needs today. He is committed to Islam and democracy, but his Islam is far different from the variety espoused by the Talibans and their local counterparts in PAS. He is the only Malaysian leader who commands international respect and confidence.


Anwar is the right leader at the right time for Malaysia. The Agung would be doing the nation a great service by naming this great patriot to lead the nation. The Agung cannot afford to goof this second time around. Malaysians pray and hope that he would be wiser this second time around.