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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 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


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