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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?


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