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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, January 30, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #22


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #22:  Privileged To Attend An English School

Later in the year my father took me to visit the English school in the nearby town of Kuala Pilah for the school’s “open house” for its upcoming January class. A few years earlier my father had been unsuccessful in registering my brother Sharif for the Primary One class. He was fortunate to enter later through the portal of Special Malay Class after spending four years at a Malay primary school. After two years of English immersion, his class was merged into the regular stream at secondary level, just like with my classmate Ramli a few years later. As for my older sister Hamidah, she squeaked through because they had just-opened a new English-medium girls’ school nearby.

When my father and I were at the “open house,” very few Malay parents were in the crowd. They stood out with their black songkok or white kopiah (skull caps). My father wore his usual well-pressed white dress shirt and sharply-creased long pants, together with his fedora and well-polished Oxford Barrett shoes. That fedora was less fashion statement, more his obsession on staying out of the sun. At home he used the terendak, a round conical hat of weaved dried palm leaves. Whenever we were out during the heat of the day, he would insist on us wearing the terendak or carrying an umbrella. 

We were seated on long wooden benches in the hall. Onstage was the headmaster, an Englishman, Mr. M. (for Martin) Ogle. He had just taken over from Dr. G.E.D. Lewis. Fashion-wise my father fitted in the crowd, but he kept to himself. It was as if he did not belong there. No one was thoughtful enough to have the headmaster’s speech translated for the benefit of villagers like him. 

After the speech the crowd was led to a table where we stood in line. My father was ready with his documents; the clerk could not find any reason to harass him. On that day the school had also launched a fund-drive for a new classroom building. How convenient! So after the registration the clerk directed my father to another desk where my father handed to the lady behind the desk a thick wad of red Malaysian bills. Malaysian paper money comes in various colors for the different denominations. A gift of red notes (ten dollars) was then considered very generous, and my father had handed over a wad of them. 

The lady beamed. After a few scribbles she handed to my father what I assumed was the receipt. A few weeks later my parents were jubilant to receive a letter from the school stating that I had been accepted. 

The following year there was an opening ceremony for the new classroom block graced by the Yam Tuan (the state royal ruler). I was proud to see my father seated in the front row among the important guests. He was quiet and again kept to himself. 

Later I found out why he was seated there. He was also important, at least on that occasion. He had been a major contributor, hence the special recognition. As for his keeping to himself, well, all those seated by him spoke in English, and when they tried to strike up a conversation with him, the only way he could respond was by nodding “Yes! Yes!” and then remaining silent. 

As we toured the new building I saw the just-unveiled plaque. My father’s name, “Encik Musa Bin Abdullah” was emblazoned in large font right across the top, together with the generous amount he had contributed. I glowed with pride on seeing that. 

So that was how my father secured a slot for me in Primary One at Tuanku Muhammad School. That was the consequential difference between my fate and that of my brother a few years earlier, as well as, I was certain, the other poor Malay village children. As for the amount, it was $500. At that time my father was earning about $350 a month. 

In his memoir Out East in the Malay Peninsula, G. E. D. Lewis, Ogle’s immediate predecessor and the man who conducted the earlier IQ studies on village kids, wrote of parents who slipped in red dollar notes with their children’s school applications to secure admissions. He reprimanded those parents, lecturing them on the evils as well as the futility of bribery, at least with him and presumably all Englishmen. 

Only a few years later however, his successor Ogle devised the novel and more lucrative fund-raising scheme. Similar process, similar intent, and similar results! Poor village children were still being disadvantaged. To the British, transparency sanitizes everything. 

I too had been generous to my children’s schools and colleges, following my father’s lead even though my children’s access to good education was not dependent on my donations. Nevertheless not even in my most charitable moment had I even considered donating an amount equal to my monthly income, let alone exceed it. Yet that was what my father did in late 1949 to secure my enrollment in a small-town English school. 

Decades later I read of wealthy Wall Street parents making huge donations so their toddlers could enter their choice preschools. I could appreciate the sentiment. 

It would be thoughtless of me had I not expressed my gratitude to my parents for their sacrifices in making that generous contribution, as well as many more to follow. I did, many times. It would also be the height of ingratitude had I not made full use of the opportunities that came as a consequence of their sacrifices. I hope I have. 

Next Excerpt # 23:  The Privileged Few In An English School

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #21: The Joy Of School

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 20:  This Is It!

By November, with the terminal Cambridge School Certificate (CSC) examination soon upon us, the school was back to its serious academic mode, with trips and extra-curricular activities suspended. My regular Saturday-at-the-movie socials too were scrapped as we were busy with Saturday review classes. Again, I found them boring. 

My last test paper was Chemistry. The rest of the school had been dismissed earlier in the day and the campus was now eerily deserted. I finished my test paper early and wanted to hand it in so I could rush out to the bulletin board to see the results of the Sixth Form Entrance Examination results held earlier in September. Then something unusual happened. The invigilator told us to stay put until the final bell had rung. I presumed he did not want the expected commotion in front of the bulletin board to disturb those still in the hall doing their test. 

So when the final bell rang everyone rushed out towards the bulletin board. Everyone except me. I suddenly felt wobbly and did not have the strength to join them. What if I were wrong? How would I handle the horrible news? Yes, I was confident when I sat for the test and there were those encouraging signals from my form teacher. Still! That promising tug I felt on my fishing line last September may not be the strike of a trophy catch but a snag on an old submerged shoe. 

As I sat back at my desk torn on what to do, the hall was already empty. I exited instead through the opposite door and headed for the lavatory. The anxiety had affected my bladder. I stayed as long as possible, savoring the coolness of the running tap water. That could be my only joy that day. I splashed my face a few times with the cool water so if I were to cry later I could hide that fact. 

After gathering my strength I dragged myself out towards the school office with great reluctance. I saw my classmate Rokiah. She rushed to hug me and said that I had done well. I did not ask her how she did as I was engulfed in my own turbulent world. As I neared the office I saw Nafsiah and some girls crying, comforting each other. They must have not made it. I felt sorry for them. Unable to bear the scene, I took another detour and waited again. 

By the time I reached the office no one was around. I was alone, numbed, staring at the bulletin board. There was the sheet of paper with “Sixth Form Entrance Examination Results, December 1960” at the top, just like it was a year earlier, and below that, “In Order of Merit.” I headed the science list. Only boys’ names.

I should be jumping with joy savoring the victory. Instead I felt like a traumatized young bull that had been culled into the escape chute, prodded by the shock-pole that was the entrance examination. I was saved from the slaughterhouse. However, I could not shake the earlier sight of those girls crying. It took me back to the scene of a year earlier with Badrul. I wondered how I would have felt and acted had I not been successful. 

I did not remember the walk back to the bus station. There could have been a bomb blast by the roadside and I would not have noticed. I was knotted in my own little world trying to decipher it all. Yes, I was relieved; I could now continue my education. Yet it did not feel like a victory even though I had worked very hard to secure it. 

As I reached home my mother, sensing my mood, did not pose her usual query, “Have you heard the results yet?” 

Later that afternoon as I was sitting on the verandah staring emptily out, she came up and wrapped her arms around me, a mother hen with her wings over her chick that had been traumatized by the strike of an overhead eagle. I remained quiet. Assured that she had me secure in her arms she whispered, “Have you heard the results?” 

“Yes,” I replied, my tone flat. There was a long silence. 

“What . . . what was it?” she asked with some hesitance as she tightened her arms around me, ready to console me. 

“I passed!” I replied in a monotone.

She let go of me and put both her palms skyward and uttered, “Alhamdulillah!” Praise be to Allah, and proceeded to say a prayer. “We prayed for you and you have worked so hard,” she patted me with her soft palm. Then she inquired about Nafsiah. “She must have passed too!” 

My mother knew Nafsiah through her sister Maria. They taught at the same school. Maria always told my mother how hard Nafsiah studied and what a smart sister she was. 

“She did not,” I responded in the same flat tone. 

My mother gasped and put her hands to her mouth. “Oh! She must be very disappointed!” 

I remained quiet. I could not bring myself even to imagine the scene at Nafsiah’s home at that very moment. 

Over the years since that test I have sat for many other far more consequential and difficult examinations. There was the entrance to medical school, my medical school tests, and the most rarified of all, my surgical boards. None however, could match the intensity of effort or sheer emotional strain of that Sixth Form Entrance Examination of my teenage years. With my surgical boards for example, my passing would not mean that someone else would have to fail. All I had to do was meet the expected standards and demonstrate that I had the necessary skills, knowledge, and judgment. I did not have to worry how the other candidates would fare as I was not competing against them. 

Entrance to medical school could be the possible exception because of the limited slots. My getting in would mean that someone else would not. Even that was more imagined than real. As my pre-med counselor assured me, as long as I could maintain an above B average and not present myself as a human monster at the interview, I would be assured of a spot. 

That Sixth Form Entrance Examination remains the toughest for me. It was so in all aspects. The stakes were so much higher. Had I not pried open that formidable initial barrier, I would not have had the chance to stand before all the other subsequent gates. 

Still, on looking back there had to be a better way. What I had been put through was not a bona fide academic exercise. Instead I had been made to run through a series of cruel gauntlets for the sole purpose of weeding out the others. I felt like the surviving antelope from the herd that had been forced to wade through a crocodile-infested river. Standing on the other side I did not feel like celebrating, not when I saw so many carcasses floating by. 

The memory of that terrible ordeal would be rekindled in me years later when it was my children’s turn for college. Wanting to spare them what I went through, I offered to enroll them in private SAT and other classes. None took me up. That would not be fair to those who could not afford such expensive coaching, they told me. With so many excellent colleges available, they did not feel the same pressure as I did back then. 

That however, did not last long. When it was time for them to sit for their LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT (admission tests for law, medical and business schools respectively), they each spent an entire summer preparing by enrolling in expensive prep courses and curtailing their social circuit. I relived my high school ordeal through them during those times. 

Back to my classmates, fast forward to half a century later, if I were to name the four most successful, meaning the four who have made the greatest contributions to the nation and for whom I am very proud to be their classmate, I would nominate (in no particular order) Johari Ja’alam, Nafsiah Omar, Ramli Ujang, and Tengku Azmi Ibrahim. 

Johari became a professional engineer through the circuitous route of Technical College. Nafsiah went to Australia for her matriculation and undergraduate degree, and later, Cornell for graduate studies. She was at one time a federal cabinet minister. Ramli, like me, became a doctor. Tengku Azmi was a veterinary surgeon and later obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is now a professor. All four received their datukship (knightship). Nafsiah in addition had a Tan Sri, a federal award. Except for Ramli, they did not make it through the Sixth Form Entrance Examination. That more than anything else reflected the predictive value of that test. 

I wonder if that final test at the Pearly Gates of Paradise, the culling would be more like my Sixth Form Entrance Examination where I had to elbow out my fellow believers for the limited slots, or my surgical boards where I had to convince my interrogators that I had been a good mortal. I like to believe that it would be the latter.

Next:  Excerpt #21:  The  Joy Of School!

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Cast From The Herd Exceprt #19

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #19:  Positive Vibes From My Teacher

During the last few weeks of school I noticed a subtle change with Mr. Sham, our form teacher, in his attitude towards me. He showed a sudden belated interest, asking me about my future plans. I replied with the modest aspiration of wanting to be a teacher. He bought into that without any hesitation. 

This asking what you want to be was standard fare with our teachers. That was also a sure sign that they had not had their lesson plans ready! We village kids were a modest lot; we would never reveal our true intentions for fear of being ridiculed. A year before we had an exercise where we stood in front of the class to share our aspirations. One classmate, Hamdan, took the exercise to heart. He strutted to the front and without any hesitation declared, “I want to be a doctor!” 

The class roared into spontaneous uncontrollable laughter. Even Ramli, the top student, would never be so reckless as to assert that he wanted to be one. We were in a small town school, for heaven’s sake! Such high aspirations were only for children of “big shots” at the major urban schools. Stick to being a teacher, clerk, or similar modest choices. 

As Hamdan found out rather late, we were a cruel bunch. Not however as cruel as it would seem, judging from the decibel level of the laughter. In part, Hamdan was the acknowledged class comedian, and a very good one. One day our English teacher, Mr. Gurdial, introduced the class to puns, or at least he tried. He related this story: 

A stranger encountered a cobbler and asked him what he did for a living.

“I am a mender of soles, sir!” came the reply.

Mr. Gurdial laughed but we did not, unable to discern the pun. Disappointed, he chastised us. “Don’t you Muslims believe in souls?” He spelled the word on the board. 

Oh! We got it and let out a collective perfunctory laugh, more out of sympathy. When you have to explain a joke, well, . . . ! Mr. Gurdial was not mollified; he refused to accept the plain fact that as a comedian he was severely challenged. 

Then Hamdan raised his hand. “I know the class did not catch your joke, sir,” he blurted, “but I thought it was very punny!” 

The class again roared into hooting laughter such that Gurdial could not hear the last part. He knew it must be a joke so he too laughed though not as heartily. What if the joke were at his expense? With some trepidation he asked, “What was that again?” 

Hamdan repeated it, and Gurdial responded with a wry smile. Hamdan was one up on him, at least in comedic delivery. So when Hamdan declared earlier that he wanted to be a doctor, the class took that as a joke. Except that it wasn’t, and that was the bigger joke. 

During the last few weeks of school I tried hard to steer out of trouble. Meanwhile my classmates were consumed with preparing for the end-of-year school terminal examination. I was more than ready, and bored. One day Mr. Sham asked to see me in his office. For some reason I felt confident that I was not in any trouble this time. 

As I entered his office he stood up and extended his hand. The formality caught me off guard. Then he reminisced about his college days, about how he could not proceed to doctoral work, and how fortunate that I was born in a rich and wonderful country like Malaysia. I surmised that his contract was ending and soon he would be back to his poverty-stricken homeland. Good-bye palatial hillside bungalow! 

Then he abruptly dismissed me. The terminal examination was only days away and he did not convey his best wishes. 

Sham’s extra interest in me, though not unwelcomed, intrigued me. For the past two years he had not even said “boo” to me, not even at that time when we visited him at his home that one Saturday when we decided not to go to the movies. I was just a minnow to him then. Now he was interested in my future. I surmised that he must have seen the results of the entrance examination and that I had passed. I was now ready to jump out of his pond. 

If that were so then I would expect him to be also interested in Ramli, the top student. He too must have been successful. The reverse however, was happening. He was now cool to Ramli, and he in turn had some nasty things to say about Mr. Sham, in particular his extra exuberant greetings of our female classmates.

In truth I did not need any signal from Mr. Sham or anyone else. I knew I had done well in that Sixth Form Entrance Examination the moment I opened the test papers.


Excerpt #20:  This Is It!

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Casr From The Herd. Excerpt #18: My Other Set of Troubles

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 18:  My Other Set of Troubles

My other set of friends was very different; likewise the mess I found myself in. All four of us were Malays:  Norlan Harun, Johari Ja’alam, and Din Ali. Din was studious and diligent, a shoo-in winner in a least-likely-to-get-into-trouble contest. His words were measured; no flipping remarks. I never heard him crack a joke, much less a naughty one.

I warmed up to Norlan only during the last two years. He was aloof and a loner. He was from a village far away from school but opted for a boarding home nearby instead of the school hostel. He hated regimented life, was his excuse. Norlan was fair-skinned with peroxide-blond hair. Once when I teased him that he looked like an English boy, he snarled, “No! I hate the English. They colonized us. I admire Hitler and the Germans! Nobody fools with them!” 

Teasing Norlan about his bleached hair did not faze him. His trademark however was, like Mr. Kamaruddin, his gait. He wore leather shoes, atypical for a kampung kid as they were expensive. He also had them fitted with metal cleats to make the soles last longer. The practical and relevant result was that when he paced the school’s cement corridor, he produced a slow, deliberate click-click sound, an uncanny imitation of Mr. McCumiskey’s (our headmaster) stride. Mr. McCumiskey often walked the corridors to check on his teachers. 

Whenever Norlan came back from the lavatory, he would pace the corridor in the deliberate manner of our headmaster, prompting all the classes along the way to be silent and purposeful. Then when they discovered that it was only Norlan, the relief was palpable and the curses audible, more so from the teachers. 

Norlan had a gift of oratory as well as great stage presence. He was always the Master of Ceremony for our class plays. The moment he stepped onstage, he had the audience in his hands. He did not have to say anything except stare straight on, and all the faces in the hall would turn towards him as if he had magically fitted them with side-blinders, like wagon horses. You could then hear even a pin drop. 

He also excelled in speech contests and was a perennial winner. His choice of topics too was out of the ordinary, like “Chauvinism:  A Bigger Threat than Communism.” This at the time when the communist insurgency was still very active! You would need a dictionary to know what Norlan was talking about. His passion however was our nation’s new constitution. Once he gave a speech, “Jus soli:  Not a Universal Principle.” We listened just to know what the term meant. 

Norlan was contemptuous of our leaders, a la Chairul Anwar. Norlan felt they were too generous in granting citizenship to immigrants and accepting the principle of jus soli, citizenship based on the country of one’s birth. Norlan was adamant with his contrarian view and forceful in expressing it, and often, much to the discomfit of our teachers and classmates, most of whom were immigrants. 

Norlan pointed out that both China and India, where most of the immigrants came from, did not (still do not) subscribe to that principle. Theirs is jus sanguinis, citizenship based on blood or heritage. As Norlan put it, an immigrant to China or India (not that anyone would ever contemplate being one) may live there for generations, yet their descendants could never become citizens if they did have the right heritage.

Well, perhaps those Chinese and Indians were uncivilized in not recognizing jus soli. “Then what about the Germans and Japanese?” Norlan countered. They too do not recognize jus soli. As I said, Norlan was very persuasive. When some Chinese students got riled up and wanted to punch him, he just walked away. “Challenge my arguments,” he taunted them. That made them even angrier. 

Under Norlan’s informal leadership we fast became champions for Malay causes, enough to raise the eyebrows of our teachers and classmates. I was not at all perturbed. I had many Chinese friends and was at ease in sleeping over at their homes; it would be tough to tag me a bigot. 

Malaysia with its large non-indigenous population was a combustible society; hence the stirring up of racial sentiments was a serious crime; you could be summarily jailed sans due process. That remains true to this day. As one wag put it, it is not that there is no freedom of speech in the country, rather that you have no freedom after your speech. 

Had there been an enlightened education system, Norlan would have become a brilliant trial lawyer and have those rich immigrants as his clients! Instead, as he excelled in his LCE examination, he was shunted into the science stream for which he had minimal interest. Ever the consummate nonconformist, Norlan was not into fancy long pants. “Why waste money on them?” he responded to my asking him why he did not have any. 

The end of the school year was fast upon us, and that meant class pictures. We decided to show our displeasure over something; I could not remember what. So at the formal pose we stared elsewhere with grim expressions. When the final picture came out, the four of us, strategically located, were obvious. Our classmates and Mr. Sham were furious; that picture was for our school magazine, and posterity. 

The year could not end fast enough for me. Another month of being bored, no telling what other mischief I would get into. 

Next Excerpt #19:  Positive Vibes From My Teacher