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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 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!


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