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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, 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


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