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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


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