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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.

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


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