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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 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? 


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