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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 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


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