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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 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!


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