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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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


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