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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 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


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