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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 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!


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