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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, 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


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