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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, 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


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