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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 15, 2021

Cast From The Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia (Excerpt #2)

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #2:  Epiphany During A Kampung Visit

My fond memories of growing up in a kampung were the stories told by my parents and grandparents during meal times and the leisure afternoon hours under the shaded verandah. Interspersed in the cerita nenek moyang (myths and legends of ancient times) were tales of their struggles during the desperate era of the depression and the weary years of the war. In their retelling they often interjected such phrases as, “This was only a few years ago!” or, “When the nuts on that coconut tree were still within arm’s reach!”

Alas, when my children were growing up, I did not indulge them in those joys that I had taken for granted. I was busy pursuing my career, the lament of many of today’s parents. My solace was that my wife could take time off from her career, a luxury denied to far too many mothers today. 

Interspersed in those bedtime readings would be stories of her playing in the backyard of her parents’ suburban homes in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Edmonton. For extra adventure she would relate driving on the Trans-Canada Highway, playing in the dome cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway, or vacationing in the Rocky Mountains at Banff, Alberta.

Psychologists recognize the value of such retelling of “life stories” and legends in instilling self-confidence and imparting the broader meaning of life to the young, quite apart from fostering family bonds. This is more so with today’s dispersed nuclear families.

This book is my belated attempt at remedying this deficit. It is too late for my children as they are all grown up; this is more for my young grandchildren Zain Conrad, Devin Khir, and Suraya Mei, and Insha’ Allah (God willing), others to come. Today the three are far away across the Pacific. God knows where opportunities will take them in the future. My reading them their bedtime stories or relating my youthful adventures would remain a dream, made real only during their annual alas-too-brief summer visits.

Once on a visit to my old village, my daughter Melindah on surveying the now-empty wooden house on stilts deep in rural Malaysia asked, “How on earth did you end up in California from here?” 

I do not remember what my response was, perhaps the pat “By studying hard!” or variations thereof. Whatever answer I gave could not have satisfied her curiosity, and the hot humid afternoon in a long-abandoned kampung house was not a comfortable setting for cozy storytelling; hence this book.

I thank Almighty Allah that I do not have tales of harrowing escape from civil strife or of midnight treks ahead of pursuing murderous agents of tyrant rulers. Nor was I forced out because of wars or natural disasters. Here there are no accounts of journeys on leaky sampans crossing treacherous waters. I left in the luxury of a stretched DC-8 and with a brand new passport in hand.

I am also blessed that my story is not one of childhood abuse or deprivation. Malaysia of my infancy may have been devastated by the Japanese Occupation, but thanks to the bountiful soil and gentle climate, it was far from Frank McCourt’s Ireland in his Angela’s Ashes. I am also fortunate that because of my parents’ deep religious faith, my family was spared the blight of drugs or alcohol.

There are also no accounts of youthful recklessness and self- indulgences followed by sorrowful confessions and born-again contrition, or emotionally-wrecking identity crises successfully overcome. Nor do I have titillating tales of exotic rites of passage, my pubertal circumcision the possible exception. 

While Malaysia of my youth was a British colony, nonetheless I was spared the crude and humiliating racism of the Deep South variety as chronicled in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Most of all I was blessed with an intact family. No complicated step-siblings, half-sisters, or step-parents to muddle our emotional family ties and relationships. In the final analysis, my unfractured and understanding family was my greatest asset. 

As heavy as the material sacrifices of my parents were in securing that I had an English education, their more formidable obstacle was in swimming against the prevailing social current. This was Malaysia of the early 1950s, with nationalistic fervor at its zenith, anticipating independence, which came on August 31, 1957.

This antipathy if not downright hostility towards things colonial, in particular its system of education, was palpable and understandable given the intense nationalism and nascent Islamism of the time. The perversity was that while the sultans, aristocrats, and other leaders endlessly exhorted the citizens to shun English schools, those leaders enrolled their young in English schools. Many went beyond, sending their children to Britain. My parents’ singular courageous act was that they dared aspire for their children the same educational opportunities sought by the native elite despite the social obstacles and financial burden. 

I could not fool my then young children with my earlier simplistic “study hard” response. Yes, that helped if not a prerequisite. However, many of my village friends were even more diligent and hard-working, yet they remained stuck there. On reflection, the signal difference between their fates and mine was that I was fortunate in having parents who dared defy the prevailing norms and social currents. I hope and pray that my children and grandchildren would be similarly blessed.

Next:  Excerpt #3:  Immunizing Against War


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