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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 19, 2021

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #17: Coasting Dangerously

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 17:  Coasting Dangerously


When class resumed the next day following the dreaded Sixth Form Entrance Examination, the obsession was, as expected, with the test. Our Form Teacher Mr. Sham led the review. Things went well until we came to the questions on topics yet to be covered in class. He suggested that we should have been able to answer them based on what we had studied earlier in the year. He did not convince us; he was defensive when the class became very vocal in our protest. 

When we came to the bonus question, he ran out of excuses. He made the preposterous suggestion that it was not so much a test of our knowledge rather our ability to write a coherent essay. That brought a collective cry of derision that surprised him. In anger he dismissed the class and retreated to the safety of his office – a lion tamer chased out by his now-agitated felines. 

By the end of the week the class was back to its routine. Soon we would be in “test mode” preparing for the national terminal examination, the Cambridge School Certificate. Not for me however. My school experience was never again the same. Classes now bored me. When a teenager gets bored, then be ready for some nasty things to happen, to him and others around him. 

I had two sets of friends, one of Hokkien Chinese. Our particular penchant was imitating the idiosyncrasies of our teachers. Nothing unique there! One such character was Mr. Kamaruddin; he taught English Literature to the lower classes. He had the irritating habit of breaking into spontaneous soliloquies of Shakespeare. Even in casual conversations he was often heard to quote Shakespeare at the slightest provocation. 

Such a teacher would be difficult to parody; we would have to memorize some Shakespeare – no easy feat. Lucky for us he had a funny gait; his strides long and purposeful, but he did not swing his arms much, or worse, they appeared to move in the same direction as his legs, like a wind-up wooden toy soldier. We exaggerated that, and it was hilarious. Better yet, when we did it everyone recognized right away that we were mimicking him. 

At recess one day we saw him headed for the latrine with his trademark stride. We immediately imitated him. We must have been very effective for the girls burst into hysterical laughter. That only encouraged us! 

When class resumed after recess we were still high over our earlier successful parody, with the girls still laughing. Then something happened. Instead of our regular English teacher, this character whom we had earlier caricatured walked in. Right away he went into his impromptu Shakespeare soliloquy. He waxed lyrical about enjoying a morning stroll under the beautiful blue sky when suddenly an ugly dark cloud intruded. After a few more verses in his affected Elizabethan English accent he commanded, “Will all ye guilty parties, reveal thyself!” 

We pretended not to have any clue as to what he was talking about. He recited a few more Shakespearean lines; again we ignored him. Then with his eyes wide, jaws clenched, and teeth glistening through his flared lips and wide nostrils, he jabbed his right index finger towards me and my three compatriots who were in the earlier gig and hissed, “You four guilty idiots! Stand up!” 

When we did not respond fast enough, he jabbed his finger again and yelled, “You, you, you and you! Stand up!” We did. 

After another soliloquy on the punishment fitting our earlier dastardly deed, he wrote on the blackboard, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” We were to write the entire play ten times, due two Mondays hence, about ten days and two weekends later. After making sure that we had understood his sentencing, he marched out – in his trademark stride!

I was stunned. My three fellow partners in crime however, were not at all perturbed. This infantile punishment, the repetitive writing of lines a la Bart Simpson’s “I must do my homework” was the favorite with our teachers. That did more to degenerate my penmanship than all my later years in medical school. 

We decided to ignore him. He was not a teacher for any of our classes and thus had no authority over us. We were encouraged by the fact that our form teacher Mr. Sham made no reference to the incident. By that first Saturday however, I was nervous. I asked one of my partners in crime whether he had started his. His reply was a defiant “No!” Adding with arrogance, “Not going to; not now, not ever!” 

That did not alleviate my anxiety. My partners were not interested in furthering their studies; I was. I had worked too hard to risk being expelled now. 

By the Friday before the deadline, I was frantic. The others remained defiant. At my insistence we decided to talk it over with our form teacher, Mr. Sham. We did, in his lab office. Before we could even say “Good morning, Sir!” he blurted in his thick Indian accent, “Vell, are you all gentlemon enough to apologize?” 

So he knew all along what had happened. “You mean,” I stuttered, “if, if we were to apologize we would be spared the chore?” 

“Ve a gentlemon! Say you are sorry!” he chided us. “Go, now! He’s in the common room,” and waved us out. That was it. No discussion. He was our form teacher and we dared not disobey him.


As we walked to the teachers’ common room we were still arguing whether it would be worthwhile apologizing if it would result in only a reduction of the punishment. To capitulate at this late stage would mean losing face with our classmates, especially the girls; our earlier bravado nothing more than bluster. 

Momentum has its own way of solving problems. Amidst our indecision we were already at the door to the teachers’ lounge. I knocked, and not hearing a response knocked again, this time much louder. An angry voice responded, “Just come in!” 

We entered. Mr. Kamaruddin was sitting on a sofa in the far corner chatting with his colleagues. He appeared relaxed in his wide “man spread” pose on the chair, not at all like the monster that he was the week before in front of our class. We went up to him in single file, like condemned prisoners. His colleagues quickly excused themselves. We stood at attention and attempted to greet him a good morning but only jumbled murmurs emerged. 

“Good morning!” he replied, looking elsewhere while clasping his hands in front of his crotch, his right foot tapping the floor. As agreed to, I was the spokesman. 

“We wish to apologize,” I blurted. No response. I continued, “We’re sorry for what we did.”

“You want what?” he barked.

“We ... we wish to ...” I attempted again. 

“I don’t want to hear a collectivist apology,” he stomped his foot. “The last time I checked the communists have not won!” 

I did not know what to make of his response. Thinking that I had committed a gross grammatical error, I rephrased myself. “I wish to apologize . . . .” 

“That’s better,” he interrupted. Then his eyes darted to Boon Wah. 

“I wish to apologize ...” Boon Wah was about to continue but Kamaruddin shifted his glare to Sing Toh, and then Tong Poh. 

Tong Poh had not yet finished his when Kamaruddin hollered, “Now get out of here! I don’t want to see you punks ever again!” 

We beat a hasty retreat amidst the stares of the other teachers whose attention had now been drawn by the yelling in the corner. 

Kamaruddin may be a bastard of a teacher, but he did teach me something that morning, and not just in grammar, as with the nuanced difference between the first person plural pronoun “we” versus the singular “I.” The more enduring lesson was that when you make a mistake, own up to it. Do not dilute or hide behind your collectivist “we” unless of course you are the Queen of England. Worse, do not offer a passive, non-attributable “Mistakes were made!” 

By the following week the whole nasty incident was forgotten, and I was still bored.

Next:  Excerpt #18:  My Other Set of Troubles


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