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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 31, 2021

Cast From The Herd (Excerpt #11: The King's Death)

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #11:  The King’s Death

On that weekend picnic trip to the source of the Sri Menanti River we stopped at the royal mausoleum with its own ornate arch. Malays have an obsession with arches. A few months later on April 5, 1960, the first king of Malaysia, Tuanku Abdul Rahman would be buried there. There was much confusion in the foreign media with the announcement of his death as the Prime Minister at the time was also Tunku (spelled without the “a”) Abdul Rahman!

The king had been ailing, and a steady stream of medical specialists had been flown in from abroad. Then one afternoon the national radio interrupted its regular programming and began a continuous recitation of the Holy Qur’an. I knew then that he had died without my waiting for the announcement. His body was brought by train from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban, and from there by road to Sri Menanti. Long before the cortege had even arrived at Seremban, the road from there to Sri Menanti was already closed. It was eerie to see the normally busy artery empty except for police cars screaming back and forth, their lights flashing and sirens wailing. In all those years or since, that road has never been closed, not by landslide or washed-out bridges despite traversing the Main Range and with the country plagued with torrential downpours. A tribute to those colonial builders who had over-engineered the road! 

I remember the villagers lining up by the roadside with patience and stillness, like rows of statues, to pay their last respect. Even the day was dark and cloudy. Thank God for that, otherwise those villagers would have wilted under the otherwise blistering sun. As I wanted a better and more commanding view, I climbed a tree. A village elder saw me and yelled for me to come down. I must have been slow to respond for he came after me with a big stick. 

“Don’t you know Tuanku has daulat?” he shouted. “You can’t be above him.” 

Apparently even dead sultans have daulat, a mandate from Heaven. I dared not tell the man that once the king was buried, we all would be above him. Had he told me without yelling that being up in a tree was being disrespectful, I would have complied faster. He did not have to complicate matters by invoking divine mandates. 

Beyond the mausoleum, the road ended at a T-junction, with the right going to the palace and the left, unpaved, to Gunung Pasir. This unpaved path was narrow, with frequent sharp turns. Those villagers had earlier denied the colonial authority the right-of-way through their land to build a proper road, hence the tortuousness and unpaved route. 

I was grateful that my fellow villagers were more generous and enlightened. They valued the greater good to the community that a road would bring, and cooperated with the authorities. In the end our village benefitted more from having a proper paved road, and with all the many accrued advantages including increased property values. 

My father always reminded me of this to illustrate the central tenet of our faith: Allah would amply reward us in the end if we were generous, and that this “end” did not necessarily mean the Hereafter. 

The unpaved road passed through lush green rice fields and villages studded with the typical wooden kampung homes on stilts separated by clean yards, and with boys playing sepak raga, a volleyball-like game except that they used their feet and the balls were made of woven dried rattan stalks. One of the players was our classmate Abdullah Fakri. 

During the school week Abdullah stayed at the hostel on campus. I did not realize that such a simple idea as having a lodging facility attached to a school could have such a transformational impact on village kids. Abdullah could not possibly attend school in town otherwise, what with the daily trek. We invited him to join us in the picnic but he declined. That jungle in his backyard was not a novelty for him.


Soon we came upon a dam. Unlike the modern cement one upstream from my house where I used to swim, this one was simply cut logs thrown across. In terms of engineering ingenuity, it was only slightly more advanced than a beaver dam. 

The road beyond was reduced to a steep walking path up the hill deep in the jungle. We had to walk our bicycles. The thick green canopy hid the clear blue sky. Where there was an opening, the sun gallantly pierced through it, a bright golden column on the moss-covered ground. 

Then, an open plateau! The ground was soft and glistening, covered with moss. We could see the water sprouting, like from a broken underground sprinkler. The water was crystal clear and cool despite the hot sun. Those trickles soon formed rivulets between the grass blades, and from that, little streamlets that later merged into bigger ones. 

So this was the headwaters of the Sri Menanti River. It was anticlimactic. I was expecting a waterfall like the Zambezi, or a jet squirting from the ground like the artesian wells of the Australian outback described in our geography books. 

On the way back we swam at the dam. With the afternoon heat, the cool water was a respite, but only for a few minutes. Soon we had to find a spot of bright warm sunshine. By mid-afternoon, with the pool in the shadow of the canopy, it became uncomfortably cool and so we left. 

That picnic made me forget about the Badrul incident. The joy lingered for the following week what with my brother and uncles coming home for their vacations. When they left, I was once again haunted by the image of Badrul’s sobbing – a goblin hovering over me, ready to take its next prey. 

Next:  Excerpt # 12:  Moment of Epiphany

Monday, October 25, 2021

Cast From the Herd (Excerpt # 10)

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #10:  A Miserable December

After my shocked discovery of the forbidding Form Sixth Entrance examination that I would have to face a year hence, I felt my world was closing in fast. That notwithstanding, I was determined to make my stand. On the Friday of the last week of school, I was consumed with preparing for an earlier-planned school picnic the next day at Gunung Pasir, the source of the Sri Menanti River. I had never been there and the excitement helped keep my anxiety at bay. 

On that day we cycled through the royal town of Sri Menanti. I had attended afternoon religious classes there a few years earlier and also taken in the movies some Saturday evenings by the police station at the palace gate. Those movies were the legacy of the British when they had troops stationed there to combat the communist insurgency. 

The troops were there because my village was in a “black” area, with curfew imposed from dawn to dusk. The restriction was lifted for the few hours of the movies. Nonetheless there was no mistaking the seriousness of the curfew. At the village entrance was a sign in four languages (Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil) warning of the strict and severe restriction. In case you were illiterate, there was also a stylized figure of a man being shot, and beneath it, “6PM – 6AM.” 

My village was one of the earliest to be declared “white” or liberated, and thus freed of those tight restrictions. Even after that my parents still cautioned me about going out after dark. They made the exception for those free movies. 

One evening there was a double feature. When it was over I was sleepy but managed to get on my bicycle. The next thing I remembered was sitting on the crossbar of my friend’s bicycle while my brother was dragging my wobbly bicycle beside his. My front wheel had been crushed. 

I arrived home dazed and had to be helped up the steps. My parents were already asleep. In bed I tried to re-trace the events of that evening, but could not remember anything, not even the movie. The next day my brother related that the dynamo had jammed into my front wheel, flinging me flat onto the paved road, face down. Next I was pushing my friends away, telling them to leave me alone as I wanted to continue sleeping – on the road! Somehow they managed to get me on my friend’s bicycle and brought me home. 

Physicians advise parents of children who have suffered head injury with the associated loss of consciousness, however brief, to watch for signs of unusual drowsiness or altered behavior during the first 24 hours. If they fall asleep, they should be wakened up often. Here I was sleeping off my concussion! 

That Saturday morning on the way to the picnic we partook in many impromptu races along the way. At Sri Menanti we stopped to see the palace, the old as well as the new. They were not a novelty for me, but were for my classmates. The old one, built in 1905, was a huge overbuilt kampung house made of wood and on stilts. It was four stories high, supported by 99 pillars, as with the 99 names of Allah. Islamic or not, the top floor was believed to be haunted. The sign boasted that not a single nail was used in the construction. The adjacent new palace was a huge, dull, gray box, severely-challenged architecturally, made worse by the absence of imaginative landscaping. The place was deserted except on special occasions.

I remember being inside its banquet hall one afternoon after my religious class. There had been a royal function, and after all the guests had departed, including the Yam Tuan (sultan) who lived in yet another palace at Seremban, the guards let in the locals. 

That was my first and only time inside the new palace. To the villagers however, going into the palace after official functions was a ritual, and the reason obvious. For on the tables were heaps of leftovers. I brought home some for my brothers and sisters; they were thrilled. When my father came home, with bountiful eagerness I greeted him with my treats. He too enjoyed them, and then asked who had brought them. I was just waiting for that query. “I did, from the palace!” 

He spitted out right away what he had in his mouth. “Throw that palace sampah (garbage) out!” he yelled.

I never saw him so angry. So I threw out those tasty treats right away, to the delight of the chickens. 

“We’re not going to depend on royal leftovers even if I have to starve to feed you,” he barked. Then in a stern voice he warned us of the diseases we could get from eating those leftovers. Those royal guests may be very important persons, he admonished us, but they could also be carriers of deadly diseases. 

I felt sick; my father sure had a way of scaring the wits out of me. 

In the morning that religious school building was used as a private English school catering to those who had been expelled from the government stream, mostly for academic reasons. It was a tribute to their parents that those students continued their English education privately and at great expense. Most of them were girls and they were all good looking, prompting my father to warn my sisters that those girls failed because they were consumed with their looks and ignored their books. My father was not alone, then or now, in harboring this prejudice of the presumed incompatibility of brain and beauty.

That picnic trip was just the diversion I needed. I clung to its pleasant memories despite the frequent rude intrusions of the scene of Badrul crying his head off when he discovered that he had failed the Sixth Form entrance examination. That welcomed relief alas did not last long. Soon I was back in the dump. How was I to climb out of this deep dark pit?

Next:  Excerpt #11:  The King’s Death

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Pandora Papers: The Lesson from America

 The Pandora Papers:  The Lesson From America

M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpt of my memoir Cast from the Herd will resume next week]


The Pandora Papers reveal a long list of the rich and powerful having substantial assets held in secret offshore accounts. Remarkable for their absence is that there are no American billionaires on the list. Also significant is that while Jordan’s King Abdullah is on it, no Malay sultans are. Before cheering, please read on.


Both current Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz and his predecessor Daim Zainuddin are on it. That speaks volumes of their faith in the local system that they have to invest abroad, and in secrecy. Their job should have been to make Malaysia the choice destination for all investors, foreign and domestic; not fleeing from it.


Americans are not on that infamous list because they pay taxes on their global incomes, regardless whether domestic or foreign. Having an account in tax-haven Panama would not affect your taxes. If you were to hide your income, then that would be a crime. For lawyers, they could be disbarred while doctors could lose their license.


Americans with assets or financial accounts abroad above a certain threshold must file annual reports to the Internal Revenue Service regardless whether those assets earn any income. The report must include year-end value as well as the highest and lowest figures for the year, reflecting the associated transactions.


Malaysians are not taxed on their foreign incomes; likewise, income from certain entities owned by locals but incorporated or registered abroad. No surprise then that Malaysians have foreign accounts, quite apart from the secrecy. Americans have little need for either as some states offer even more generous tax advantages, and one’s financial and other data are private. Divulging or misusing those information could lead to prosecution or civil suits.


That also explains why Malay sultans are not on that Pandora list. They have little need for the Virgin Islands (unless they think those islands are full of virgins) as their assets are already secret in Malaysia, and nobody dare ask them to pay their taxes. A few years ago the Sultan of Kelantan drove off with his imported luxury car from the port lot, skipping the import and other taxes. The personnel did not dare stop him.


President Reagan was notorious for his hostility towards taxes, yet he introduced the “alternative minimum tax” and other provisions that affected only rich Americans like him.


Contrast Reagan to the local Daims and Zafruls. Instead of closing those tax loopholes, they took advantage of them. That is a tragic commentary not only on the pair but also on contemporary Malay norms, culture, and values. It also explains why Malaysia, led by the likes of them, remain Third World in status and mentality.


I do not know and could not care less how the Daims and Zafruls acquired their wealth. This much I am certain – theirs, like the overwhelming number for Malays, were not inherited. Until they hit the bonanza of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Malays including the sultans did not have much. NEP through its corruption, nepotism, and rent-seeking activities changed all that. The assets of these nouveau riche Malays, despite their gaudy displays, are but pocket change to the Bezos, Gates, and Musks. The near banana-note value of the ringgit does not help.


With those super-wealthy Americans, unlike their NEP-bred Malay counterparts, one has minimal difficulty ascertaining where they get their fortunes. With Bezos, Amazon.com; the behemoth that simplifies my shopping as well as my viewing the latest movies, not to mention the cheap “cloud storage” for my books and precious family albums. Gates’ software helps with my writing and publishing. Musks’ electric cars and solar generators reduce global warming.


Name a product or service associated with these mega-rich Malays. Daim was once given (yes, given) state land for salt mining. Alas he is no salt mogul today. Zafrul’s family could not have been wealthy as he attended Malay College where, like the other students there, he was but a ward of the state. Even his meals there were paid for by taxpayers. Really rich Malaysians send their children to Alice Smith School, not Malay College. I do not know whether Zafrul’s overseas university education was also publicly funded. There are many Malays on that list whose education, from their local high school through graduate studies abroad, was government-paid.


            Malaysia should emulate America and tax Malaysians on all their income, local and foreign. Then have them, including and especially sultans, file annual reports if their foreign assets or accounts exceed a certain threshold.


            Those secret foreign accounts are only part of the problem. Malaysia does not have wealth, gift, or inheritance taxes and there is no chorus to alter that. Then there is the diversion of political donations, another conduit for corruption. Najib claimed that the Euros, dollars and pound sterling hauled from his residence were gifts or for political campaigns.


Piketty in his Capital and Ideology (2019) suggests global wealth and inheritance taxes to reduce inequality as well as fund such cross-border challenges as global warming. Note, both are taxes on assets, not income, a concept that should be familiar to Muslims as that is also the basis for zakat.


Income tax discriminates against workers; asset tax, the wealthy. Asset tax would also bring Malaysia closer to an Islamic state, more so than introducing hudud. Make the rates the low Qur’anic 2.5 percent and you would also discourage cheating.


Zafrul threatens to sue local journalists for exposing the Pandora Papers. I suggest that he focuses instead on amending current laws to discourage Malaysians from investing abroad. Then make Malaysia the haven for all investors, foreign and local. That would endear him to citizens and investors, quite apart from his saving hefty legal fees and wasting precious court times now overburdened with prosecuting the Najibs, Zahids, and other filthy, pretentious NEP-bred nouveau riche Malays.

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