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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, December 05, 2021

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #16: Test , Where is Thy Sting?

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 16:  Test, Where is Thy Sting?

Back to my primary school tests, they were fun; more a game. I would be presented with a number of patterns or words and then told to pick the right answer from the choices given. Easy enough! The best part was that I did not have to study. Soon a mindset developed in me that I need not study for my class tests. 

Then there was the extraordinary interest of my headmaster, Dr. Rawcliffe. This was after all only primary school. Only much later did I discover that those were a series of IQ tests; he was doing research on the cross-cultural and racial aspects. Today I would love to get a copy of his paper. Rawcliffe was doing a follow-up on the pioneering studies of his predecessor, Dr. G.E.D. Lewis, also a London University PhD and briefly my first headmaster. 

I would carry this attitude of not studying for class tests right up to secondary school. That was fine with science and mathematics but disastrous for history and geography. I remembered how discouraged I was; after every test (except for math and science) I would get a big red F. No matter how hard I tried I could not better my scores. 

Then one day my teacher asked me to hand out the graded exercises. There was one student with an A+; I scanned the first few pages while on my way to deliver it to the owner who happened to sit in the far corner of the classroom. Much to my surprise all he did was regurgitate what was in the textbook. I thought I had to come up with something original. So when asked why the Roman Empire collapsed, I put forth my own theory based on what I had read. That was not what my teacher wanted; he wanted to read the textbook all over again, only this time in my script. 

So from then on I summarized my textbooks. On the next test I regurgitated the stuff. It worked! I also discovered that by writing down things I could remember them well, an insight that would serve me well later in medical school. At the national examination two years later, I aced my history and geography, the two papers I had earlier done poorly in class tests. I may have done well but I hated both subjects. It was a relief when I was selected into the science stream and spared from having to take those two subjects. The irony was that had I not done well in the two, my aggregate score would have been lower. I would then not have been selected for the science stream and still had to take both subjects in the Arts stream.

So that December when I reviewed the previous bonus questions of the earlier Sixth Form Entrance Examinations, they were more like the IQ tests of my primary school years than the mindless regurgitation exercises of my secondary school tests. 

On that Monday morning of the entrance examination we were all ushered into the large school hall. Only a small portion of it was occupied as most of the students opted not to sit for the test. With the desks placed far apart, it made the hall even more forbidding. To my surprise, Mr. Sham Singh was the invigilator. Typically with external tests we would have an outsider, as if they did not trust the local staff, or perhaps just to add to the tension. Perversely for me, with Mr. Sham there, it heightened my anxiety precisely because of the unusualness of the practice. 

After we had settled down, he read the instructions in a slow deliberate tone, word for word and never looked up. That too was unusual. He acted as if he did not know us. Then he came to the bold letters of the instruction page. He looked up and in a firm voice told us not to even attempt the bonus question until all the earlier ones had been answered, or we would be penalized. 

That was it; no hint of familiarity, no wishing us good luck. He was somber, like a judge reading out a death sentence. I remained calm. I viewed the wide spacing of the desks and Sham’s unusual formality as attempts at intimidating us. I figured they would pull such a stunt but I was ready. Ignoring the just-given instructions, I flipped to the last page for the bonus question. There it was, and above that, the warning in bold big fonts not to attempt it until all earlier questions had been answered. 

Discuss the impact the different life forms have on each other and on the environment. Where possible use local examples to illustrate your points.”

Right on target! I nearly banged my fist on the desk. It was as if the examiners had asked me to write their question. I beamed, not so much elated at knowing how to answer the question, more from a sense of victory at having outguessed the examiners. The mandatory questions were routine; many reworded from the textbooks. As I expected, there were questions on topics yet to be covered in class. I disposed them all with ease. 

For the bonus question I discussed the British introducing cobras on their oil palm plantations to control the rodents and the associated dangers to the workers. I wrote of the devastations when one neighbor raised goats which denuded the hillsides resulting in severe erosion and silting of the streams. I made reference to my old nursery rhyme O Bangau, about the starving egret, how it suffered from events far remote from it, being at the end of a long food chain. My essay was all from first principles and using local examples. 

I finished early. Looking around, my classmates were still hard at it. I did not submit my paper early as I did not want to appear cocky. I continued tweaking my answers, paying attention to grammar, improving my sentence structure, correcting spelling errors, and enhancing my penmanship. When the bell rang, many were still scribbling hard. 

I felt good, like the fisherman who had worked hard to create the perfect fly, had cast it well, and felt an immediate strike. I was confident of a prized catch but would not know for sure what fish or how big until a few months hence. My sense of achievement was heightened when I saw that some of my fellow anglers were still sorting out their rods, wondering what bait to put on, or where to cast their lines. 

It was well after midday when we left the hall. We were hungry and exhausted; despite that, many lingered around to curse the ordeal we had just endured. The anger and frustrations were palpable, especially over questions on topics yet to be covered. Few attempted the bonus question, and then only half-heartedly. My classmates were very good at following instructions. 

The next day I tried to resume the routine I had for the past nine months but could not do it. I was just not interested in studying as the materials were no longer new, exciting, or challenging. 

Next:  Excerpt # 17:  Coasting Dangerously 


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