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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, November 28, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #15: My First Book Award

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #15:  My First Book Award

Except for my first year at secondary school, I had always enjoyed taking class tests, in part because I had done well in them. I once won a book prize in primary school. I did not attend the rehearsal for the prize-giving ceremony as I had chickenpox. On the day of the actual event, my class teacher assured me that all I had to do was observe those who went before me on stage and then do the same. Simple enough! 

So when my name was called, with unbridled pride I strutted across the stage. The man giving away the prizes was the Regent of the state, one Tuanku Munawir. He was in full splendor of his royal attire – formal yellow baju and matching songket samping (cummerbund), with his tanjak perched regally on his head. I stood at attention in front of him, smiled, and with great confidence extended my right hand for the expected handshake, just as the others had done before me. 

There was however no response. He was stiff and cold, like a poorly-sculpted mannequin. Thinking that the handshake was optional, I reached for the book, but he would not let go of it. I tugged once, still no give. For added measure I gave another much stronger pull. Again the book remained stuck in his hands. 

Thinking that perhaps I had come up too soon, I retreated backstage. As I exited, my former teacher and a fellow Malay, Mr. Ishak Meon, rushed towards me. He whispered that only non-Malays could shake hands with the royalty, Malays were to sembah. My puzzled look made him demonstrate the ritual. I was to first bow in front of the man but avoid any eye contact, and then bring my palms together up to my forehead like a Buddhist monk in prayer. Only after that could I receive the prize. Then after receiving it I should put the book on the small stool set nearby for such a purpose and repeat the ritual before walking off. Simple enough if only somebody had instructed me earlier. As all those before me were non-Malays, there was no example for me to follow. 

The Regent was still standing with the book in his hands as I walked across for my repeat performance after the brief backstage practice. I did the sembah, and the book was mine, at last. I walked off amidst eerie silence except for the squeaking of my new shoes that my father had bought specially for the occasion. 

After the ceremony the guests were invited to join the Regent for tea at the hostel. Meanwhile my father was scheming to get me out of the hall as fast as possible and in the most unobtrusive way. As we were making our way out, Tunku Syed Jong, another Malay teacher at the school, invited my father to the reception. He spoke in Malay, not the official version but the local village dialect. That put my father at ease. 

Tunku Syed Jong was not just any Malay; he was a member of the royal family as indicated by his name, Tunku. Syed Jong’s affability, accentuated by his village accent, made my father consider the invitation. Hearing snippets of the conversation I was sure that we were headed for the reception. Then at the last minute my father made some excuses but Syed Jong was not persuaded. He just about dragged my father, but he stood his ground. Finally my father said that we had to leave soon so as not to miss the last bus home. Tunku Syed understood that and relented. 

Just before we took leave, Syed Jong looked at me and then turned to my father, “Jangan gaduhkan anak Musa ini! (Don’t worry about little Musa here),” as he patted my shoulder, “dia tak buat salah!” (He did no wrong!) 

My father cringed at being reminded of the earlier incident and then beamed as Syed Jong continued, “Kita sembah Tuhan saja!” (We genuflect only to God!) 

On the bus on our way home my father told me how impressed he was with Syed Jong and asked whether he was one of my teachers. He was not; that disappointed my father. I could learn much from this modest man, my father assured me. 

Syed Jong was a Raffles College graduate, a rarity at that time, more so for a Malay. It was the equivalent of a university. I would have thought that being a member of the royal family to boot, his career would have zoomed. Instead, his highest achievement was being the headmaster of the primary division of my school. I am still perplexed to explain why. His disdain for sembah may have been a factor. 

As for the prize book, somewhere in the attic of my old kampung house if I were to search hard enough I could probably find it, if the cockroaches have not gotten to it already. One thing was certain; the book was never on display in our house. As for that Tuanku Munawir, our paths would again cross a few more times.

I had a roadside fruit stand; my prized item was cikus (Manilkara zapota). They were the biggest, juiciest, and sweetest; they were also the legend of the village and as such commanded a premium price – ten cents each, or a dollar a dozen. I had no trouble selling them. One morning a shiny yellow sports car screeched to a halt by my stand. The driver in his oversized sunglasses wanted the whole basketful. As I was tallying up for the discounted price with bulk buying, he interrupted me, “Cepatlah!” (Hurry up!) 

I took a few out to make it an even dozen before handing them over. As he was rolling up his window I put my hand out for my money. He looked surprised and continued rolling his window up. So I banged on his door, demanding my money. Taken aback, he angrily rolled down his window, threw the fruits back at me, and gunned his engine with the tires squealing. My mother heard the ruckus and rushed out in time to see the rear of the speeding car. She was horrified. 

“What happened?” she screamed, her eyes bulging as if she had just awakened from a nightmare. I related the incident; she hugged me, quivering. “Do you know who that was?” 

It was the same Tuanku Munawir, with “Raja Muda” (crown prince) emblazoned across his car’s plate. Ordinary mortals had numbers on their license plates. I should have known better; yellow was also the royal color. His oversized sunglasses made me not recognize him. Later when my father came to know of the incident, he complimented me. “Too many of these princes,” he sniffed, “think that they have a right over everything we own.”

My last encounter with that prince was in a foreign land. By this time he had ascended to the throne. I was doing an externship at a leading American medical center when one of the attending staff told me that my ‘king’ was his patient. He was certain that his majesty would be glad to meet one of his subjects. I was about to visit him, but on discovering his malady, decided otherwise. He would not appreciate a visit from me.

Excerpt # 16:  Test, Where is Thy Sting?

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #14: Nine Months of Hell

Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #14:  Nine Months of Hell

My discovery of the unique and formidable nature of the Sixth Form Entrance Examination emboldened me even more to tackle it. I committed myself to having no break during the following year, at least until the entrance examination in September. Holidays would mean nothing as I had imposed upon myself a double load of studying.

As per my sly secret scheme, at the first meeting of the science society that January, the secretary had not yet finished saying “I now call for nominations for the post of president” when I shot my hand up, and even before being acknowledged declared, “I nominate Nafsiah.” 

I said it with such brashness and passion that nobody bothered to nominate anyone else. Or perhaps they all agreed that she was the best candidate. Afterwards Nafsiah thanked me profusely. If only she knew! However, I was in no mood to be sentimental; I had a strategy in mind and thus far it was working. 

Satisfied as I was, something tugged at me. I had done something not quite honorable if not outright malicious. I remembered the wisdom of our Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless his soul) that our deeds are also judged by our intention (niat). Not only must our deed be good, so too our niat. If the niat is evil, then everything that follows would be too. If your niat is to kill someone but your bullet missed him and instead hit the tiger lurking behind him thus saving his life, you still would have perpetrated an evil deed. Nominating Nafsiah was “good” but my niat I had to admit, was otherwise. 

If I had just shut up someone else would have surely nominated her, thus sparing me the guilt. That thought bothered me but I soothed my conscience by rationalizing that I was not a king bestowing upon her a white elephant gift. Besides, my classmates would have to vote her in, and she did not have to accept my nomination. 

In his memoir The One That Got Away, the former editor of The New York Times Howell Raines wrote, “As adults we forget the extent to which childhood is a time for private strategies.” For me, I remember mine well, and it still bothers me. 

My new double-duty study routine was punishing. Every afternoon after class I would complete my assignments and review the day’s lessons. In the cool of the evening when I could concentrate better, I would read the new chapters that would usually be covered only in the second half of the year. 

It was tough. Math and science are cumulative; you first have to understand the earlier simpler concepts. Where I could not comprehend something, I would just memorize it in the hope that frequent repetition would make me grasp the concept, or at least answer the questions. The two were not necessarily the same. 

The slow grueling pace ironically made it easier for me to remember. At the end of every chapter I would review the questions, using the answers at the back of the book to check on my work. I had to go over a problem many times before I could get it right. I found that to be the most effective way of understanding the topic. 

Soon, the strain took its toll. I became crankier but my parents were indulgent of my errant behavior. I neglected my household chores and withdrew from my Saturday group and village friends. I was just too tired. As for my long pants, I no longer had any interest in them. 

After a few weeks of this demanding routine and my erratic behavior, an inner voice cautioned me to slow down or there would be terrible consequences. So I took a total break between Saturday lunchtime to Sunday dusk. I would roam on my bicycle the little corners of my village that I did not know even existed. Come Sunday evening I was invigorated. That break also provided a much-needed psychological prop. When times were tough during midweek, I would be comforted by the thought that it was only a few days before my break. 

Once I was so engrossed in my books that I did not notice an aunt who had come for a visit. I failed to return her Assallamuallaikum (Peace be upon you!) greeting, an unacceptable breach of etiquette. My mother admonished me. On leaving, this aunt patted me and said that I was just like my mother, but then sniffed that I had a long way to go before I would be really like her. I did not know what she meant. 

Later I learned that during her last year in school my mother too was so engrossed in her studies that my grandparents were worried about her health. When her examination results came out, she became a legend in the village. She had the top score in the state and was selected to enter the Malay Women Teachers’ College in Durian Daun, Malacca, for its inaugural class of 1935. 

By June I had finished the year’s syllabus and still had over two months until the examination. So I reviewed the materials again. The second time was much faster and the questions too not surprisingly were also easier. That boosted my confidence. I still now had a month to go and that included the two-week August holidays. I worried that I had peaked too soon. To challenge myself, I read books meant for Sixth Form and first year university. 

I reviewed the previous years’ questions to spot likely ones. The bonus question was the toughest to predict as it pertained to issues “hot” in the public domain. I read my favorite Readers’ Digest but could not deduce much from such articles as “I am Joe’s Prostate.” 

I had better luck with Scientific American and The New Scientist. The major topic then was space science, in particular the military implications. I also found many articles on the burgeoning field of ecology, the relationships of the various life forms have on each other and on the environment. At first blush that was a biology topic. On further reading I discovered that it encompassed the entire field of science, including the social sciences, with plenty of mathematics and statistics thrown in, such as the rate of resource depletion, soil erosion, and evaporative water loss. In short, the perfect bonus question. To be sure, ecology and concerns for the environment in general had not yet then registered on the public consciousness. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would not be published until two years later. 

I read about the British introducing cobras to control rodents that were infesting the oil palm estates. The initiative was so effective that it also threatened to control the population of the Indian immigrant workers! 

So I posed the imaginary question, “Discuss the impact of introducing non-native species into an existing habitat.” In attempting to answer that I had to read even more articles, and that led to even more possible questions. 

I felt confident to the point of being cocky. An alarm rang in me. What if the bonus question was not related to ecology? Tried as hard as I could, that line of enquiry drew a blank. Panic set in! The best that I could do was to pose a related topic, “The impact of man-made structures on the natural environment.” Darn it, I would think of a difficult question just days before the examination and there would be no time to do the extra reading. 

Then I remembered the dam in my village. I saw its many benefits, as with irrigating rice fields and for fishing in the new man-made lake. It was also a place for my friends and me to swim. Once I had a skin rash after a swim, an allergic reaction to the weeds. I was sent home from school because the teacher thought I had a contagious disease. He did not however, tell me to go to the hospital. In Africa such reservoirs carry worms that could cause blindness. 

I discovered that I could spin quite a story just from first principles. That resurrected my confidence, and just in time for the test. I felt so well prepared that on the weekend before the examination I asked my old Saturday group that I had ignored all year to go to the movies. None took me up; they were all busy studying. So I went alone and thoroughly enjoyed the matinee. It helped that it featured Jane Russell in The Outlaw

In truth I did not need that titillating distraction to enjoy myself; the fact that my self-imposed ordeal was ending was enough. The Thursday evening before the test, my parents had a kenduri (feast) where the imam and our neighbors prayed for my success. I felt the power of their prayers; I was now ready to do battle. 

Next:  Excerpt #15:  Test, Where is Thy Stand? 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt 13: Gem ofa Discvoery

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #13:  Gem of a Discovery

After the sober realization of my not being among the top four in my class, and with that securing an admission to Sixth Form, I knew I had to find a way to breach this formidable fortress that would be the entrance examination.

The library had an archive of previous test questions. On reviewing them I discovered two oddities. One, unlike our terminal Cambridge School Certificate examination which covered all seven subjects and spread over ten days, the Sixth Form Entrance Examination was one exhaustive, comprehensive four-hour test covering only the sciences and mathematics, for those in the science stream. The other was the bonus question. That was a novelty. You were to answer it only if you had completed all the earlier mandatory questions. Otherwise you would be penalized. Beyond that, the bonus question contributed a major portion to the total score. It was an innovative but frightening scoring system. 

The mandatory questions covered the standard materials in the syllabus. The bonus question however, was on a general topic. An earlier one was on the role of chemistry in life; the year before, science in war and peace. The role of science during both war and peace was of consuming public interest then, being at the height of the Cold War and with the Russians having just launched its Sputnik in 1957. As for life and chemistry, James Watson and Francis Crick had just unraveled the chemical structure of genes. 

Something else clicked in me on reviewing those previous bonus questions. I deduced that what the examiners were looking for was not only an understanding of the basic principles of science but also how to apply them to the pressing issues facing society. The exercise was far from the usual regurgitation I had been used to in all my previous school tests. As for the mandatory questions, even though the test was held in early September, there were more than a few questions on materials typically taught towards the end of the syllabus, and thus at the end of the year. That was unfair I thought. Nonetheless I decided not to dwell on it but just accept the reality. 

Those realizations alone would not alter my chances. The fact that the test covered only science and mathematics boosted my confidence as those were my favorite and best subjects. With English not specifically tested, that buoyed me up even more as that was my weak subject. 

I reviewed the class results. If I were to consider only the mathematics and science (physics, chemistry and biology) scores, to my jubilant surprise my class standing catapulted from eleventh to fifth place. I was within striking distance! All I had to do was to displace one person ahead of me. Like the campers being chased by the bear, I did not have to be the fastest runner, only be slightly faster than the slowest fellow. 

The top student was Ramli Ujang. I could not possibly beat him as he was always first ever since I had known him. I attributed the standing of the next two top students to sheer grunt work, not intelligence. I could out-grunt them, at least for the nine months before the test. Fourth was Nafsiah Omar; she was smart. She had been the head girl at the nearby all-girls Tunku Kurshiah School before joining us that year. A measure of her overall intelligence was that she was a finalist in an earlier American Field Scholarship essay contest. My submission in contrast did not even merit a mention. Then there was me, fifth based only on my imagined aggregate math and science scores ranking. 

Yet somehow I felt confident of besting Nafsiah. The big question was how. If I could channel her efforts to other than academic, at least up to the entrance examination, that might distract her from her studies. Nafsiah however, was wise in allocating her time and energy. 

She was also a born leader, with great initiative and many good ideas. In the last week of school she had been elected president of the debating society for the coming year, one of the two prestigious clubs, the other being the science society. She was proud of that achievement considering that the position was usually the preserve of someone from the Arts stream. The presidency of the science society would not be elected until its first meeting in January. Right then and there I decided that I would nominate her for that position. If successful she would be the first girl to lead it, quite an honor. She would do an excellent job, and that would divert some of her time away from her studies, thus giving me a chance to beat her. 

I felt smug at the slyness of my scheme. It gave me a glimmer of hope, a light through the small slit in the formidable barricade that I would soon encounter. I could not squeeze through as yet but at least I had a glimpse of the lush green pasture on the other side, enough to motivate me to continue chiseling. I had no choice. Getting into Sixth Form, and from there on to university, was my only ticket out of the kampung. 

With my cunning scheme laid out, all I had to do was execute it. I felt relieved, and for the rest of that December holiday I was no longer in despair. Realizing that some of the test questions would be on materials towards the end of the syllabus and thus not yet covered in regular class, I resolved that come January I would do double-duty studying. In addition to my regular class I would also study the second half of the syllabus, all on my own. Come examination time I would be ready to be tested on the whole year’s work. 

My confidence thus boosted, I was determined to enjoy the last few days of my holidays knowing full well that come January, I would have to endure my self-imposed, strict, and demanding studying regime. 

Next Excerpt #14:  Nine Months of Hell

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #12 - Moment of Epiphany

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #12:  A Moment of Epiphany

I had volunteered for the school library during that December holiday. That was more an excuse to go to town and take in the movies with my friends. As it turned out, the camaraderie was just what I needed to uplift my spirits. 

That year our library had received a substantial gift of books from the United States Embassy, and we were to catalog them. The books were attractive, with thick glossy pages and colored pictures. Even the mathematics textbooks had pictures, in contrast to the stark line diagrams of our British texts. That was the first time I appreciated the physicality of books; their attractiveness inviting me to explore them. 

It felt funny to be at school during the holidays. To me school was always a formal place; I had to behave, wear a uniform, and obey all those silly rules. The place was also always busy, full of people. Now it was eerily silent, the classrooms closed and hallways empty. Even the headmaster, the always formal, short, and pudgy Oxonian Mr. McCuminskey, his rimless glasses accentuating his austere forbidding look, was in casual mode. 

After my library chore I would go downstairs to chat with the clerks. Every time I went down, that stark list of successful candidates in the recent Sixth Form Entrance Examination would exert its hypnotic hold on me. I kept returning to the bulletin board despite my conscious effort at avoidance. The more I perused it, the more I wondered why there were only four names from each stream. What was magical about that number? I asked the clerk for the previous years’ lists; there were also only four from each stream in all those years. 

That was odd. After all, the form teacher of the class a year ahead of us that had just graduated, Mr. Pritam Singh (also our physics teacher), had told us, and often, that his class was the smartest. Indeed he had asked for a special dispensation to remain its form teacher for two consecutive years. The practice was to change form teacher every year, and he would have been ours during our fourth form. I remembered feeling dejected; Mr. Pritam Singh was in effect telling us that our class was not as smart as the one ahead and thus did not deserve him as our form teacher.

If that class was so smart, how come it could produce only four successful candidates, just like all the earlier batches? I concluded then that come next December when it would be my class turn, there would also be only four successful candidates. I felt trapped; the escape chute would let through only the top smart four. 

Also on that same board were the detailed academic performances of every class, listed in order of merit, together with the individual student’s subject scores. The passing marks were in blue, failing ones red. The top of the chart for each class would be all blue, symbolizing the bright promise of the clear blue sky; the bottom, a sea of red, the floor of a merciless slaughterhouse. 

I was eleventh in my class of about 40. I tried to concoct every conceivable scenario of how I could be among the top four come next year but could not, short of the seven ahead of me were to die, get married (and thus be expelled), or transfer to another school. 

As for death, two years earlier a classmate, Abu Samah, died of lymphoma. We were shocked. Actually it was more guilt as we thought the poor fellow had been goofing off when in fact he was mortally ill. As for marriage, the three girls ahead of me academically all came from middle-class families; their parents would not marry them off before completing their schooling. Marriage was not too far-fetched though. One of my classmates was already engaged to a boy in the class ahead. She however, was not ahead of me in class standing. As for transferring out, one did, Wahid Sulaiman. 

With all those possibilities eliminated, far from being discouraged I felt oddly emboldened. In truth I had no choice. With the entrance examination the formidable obstacle to my seeking a new pasture and escaping my herd, I was determined to find ways to breach this barrier that I would encounter nine months hence. I had too, otherwise I would be forever doomed to life in the kampung.

Next:  Excerpt #13 – A Gem of a Discovery