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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 08, 2021

Cast From The Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia (Excerpt #1)

 Cast From The Herd.  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Beginning this week, I will post excerpts from my first memoir published in 2016.


Excerpt #1:  A Father’s Dream


Di dalam tradisi Minangkabau, setiap anak lelaki satu hari akan pergi meninggalkan tanah kelahiran nya dan berjalan mencari pengalaman hidup, pengalaman yang akan membuat nya lelaki sejati. Kembali lah anak, kapan pun kau siap! 

In the tradition of the Minangkabau, a young man must leave his land of birth in search of life experiences that will make him a real man. [Tradition notwithstanding, that does not stop their mothers from continually pleading] Come home son, ready or not!

Prologue to “Merantau” (Wanderlust), starring Iko Uwais (PT Merantau Films, 2009).


“See this picture!” beckoned my father one lazy afternoon as he was resting on his rattan sofa reading the Utusan Melayu (The Malay Courier). That was his afternoon routine after a day of teaching at the local Malay village school:  have lunch, read the newspaper, and then drift into a siesta. He would wake up just as the oppressive heat of the day had subsided, and thus more conducive to working in his rice field. That was his hobby as well as other vocation.

The only thing unusual that afternoon was his showing us, his children, the Malay newspaper that was in the Arabic jawi script. He would rather that we read the English The Straits Times that he had subscribed for us at great expense. He often inquired from us about the pictures in that paper as he could not read English. That was less an expression of his curiosity, more a subtle but effective nudge to make us read the paper, at least the picture captions.

On that day the Utusan showed a scene at Sungai Besi airport of a father waving goodbye to his son who was leaving for London to further his studies. After staring at the page for some time he signed, “One day I’ll be the one waving goodbye to one of you!” His eyes then glazed into the far distance as he drifted into dreamland. 

Perhaps my father was literally dreaming when he said that for had he been awake, he would have realized that such an aspiration was pure fantasy. We were simple village folks and had just been through the horrors of the Japanese Occupation. The scars were still raw. 

Yes, Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then called) of the early 1950s was enjoying a boom, ironically also the consequence of war, this time on the faraway Korean peninsula. With that came a heightened demand for natural rubber, Malaysia’s main export. Good times dared people to have audacious dreams, and my father shared his with us – frequently and unabashedly. 

Even though my mother was also a teacher, nonetheless my parents’ income was modest, unlike those of English school teachers. So the thought of any of us going abroad was, well, a fantasy. My parents already had a tough time with our school expenses. They cringed whenever we brought home our list of needed textbooks. They would have been spared those expenses had we attended the local village Malay school. However as its teachers, they were only too aware of the limitations; hence their struggle to send us to the English school in town. Their working hard on the land after school was part of that struggle to finance our schooling. 

It was not a surprise that as teachers my parents were strict about education. The more compelling reason was that after expending substantial sums on our schooling they were not about to let us fritter away their precious investments. I remember only two occasions of missing school; once when I had chicken pox (that prevented me from attending school) and the other, to send off my grandparents for their Hajj pilgrimage. As for school work, woe be to anyone who brought home red marks. To my parents, there were no lousy teachers, only that we were not diligent enough. 

So when a few years later my older brother Sharif brought home the results of his Lower Certificate of Education (LCE, taken at the ninth school year), he was trembling, a man awaiting the gallows. He passed but not well enough to be promoted to the next grade. I suggested that he use the excuse of having been stricken with the complications of typhoid for most of the school year. He however dismissed the wisdom of a younger brother. So that afternoon as my father was settling into his after-lunch routine, Sharif handed him his report card. There is never a good time to deliver bad news; the sooner the better. Anticipating fireworks, I slipped away. 

Later upon hearing no stomping, banging, or yelling, I sneaked back in only to see my father consoling my brother, making frequent references to the Koran that when a door is slammed shut, Allah in His Generosity would open up another. It was up to us to search for and explore that other opening, he comforted Sharif. To say that he was relieved would be an understatement. So was I. It was not so much as the condemned being given a reprieve, rather a young man being inspired to venture further after his initial stumble. 

Two years later that sad scene would again be re-enacted, this time with my older sister Hamidah. She too passed her LCE but again not well enough to be promoted. Or more accurately stated, there were insufficient slots in the next grade for those with less stellar scores, just as with my brother earlier. 

A few years later it was my turn. By this time my father had long ceased sharing his dream. That made my burden even heavier. To my great relief and my parents’ joy, as well as mine, I had done well and continued on with my schooling. In 1963 my parents did get to wave goodbye to me as I left to pursue medical studies in Canada on a Colombo Plan scholarship, the first in my family to enter university. 

Next:  Excerpt #2:  Village Lore


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