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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, February 27, 2022

Ukraine Is Much Closer To Malaysia Than We Think

 Ukraine Is Much Closer to Malaysia Than We Think

M. Bakri Musa


Regardless of the outcome of the current lethal conflict in Ukraine, this much is indisputable. Ukrainians, nationalists, pro-Russians, as well as the vast majority who just want to pursue a peaceful life, are already paying a severe and unrecoverable price. They will continue doing so for a considerable time beyond even if a peace treaty were to be signed today. As for the soldiers killed or maimed on both sides, well, not to be callous, theirs is an occupational hazard.


            The consequent global gyrations as with Wall Street jitters and increases in gas and food prices on Main Street are trivial. Even to mention them seems insensitive if not obscene.


            Ukraine may be thousands of miles away from Malaysia, but to Malaysians she is much closer emotionally. A routine Malaysian Airline Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down there on July 17, 2017, killing all 298 on board. That scar is still raw.


            Beyond raw emotion, Ukraine holds many eerie similarities with Malaysia. Malaysians ignore those at their peril. The world may refer to Ukrainians by that term but to them, the old, ugly and perennial ancient tribal dynamics of “them” versus “us” are very much operative; the “us” being ethnic Ukrainians; “them,” those of Russian ancestry and speaking that language.


            Malaysians may have difficulty differentiating those Eastern European sub-varieties of orang puteh(white man) and view both the Russian Cyrillic and its subvariant Ukrainian script as chicken scratch. Those differences are surface ripples, but they hide dangerous treacherous reefs just underneath.


            What the world labels as Ukrainians apply to seventy percent of the population. They are proud of their culture, heritage, and language. They also have their own heroes. A substantial minority however are Russians; they too are proud of their ethnicity, culture, and language as well as having their own separate heroes. Worse, their heroes are but villains to the majority of their countrymen.


            Yet another disconcerting demographic reality that Malaysians should take note. Ethnic Russians are concentrated in the eastern part of the country, bordering Russia. In Malaysia, while Malays are the majority in the West or Peninsular, the picture in East Malaysia is far different. The mother tongue of the majority there is not Malay, the national language, but their own, be it Iban or Hokkien. Yet another volatile element, while Ukrainians and Russians share the same Orthodox Christianity, Malaysians do not share the same faith. Even Muslim Malays are divided in our interpretations of Islam.


            As for Malaysian “Russians,” the Chinese, the paranoia of Ketuanan Melayu notwithstanding, they have seen the fate of their kin in Hong Kong and share the anxieties their brethren in Taiwan have for their “motherland.”


Demographic demon aside, there are two other eerie similarities between Ukraine and Malaysia. One is geographic destiny. Former Foreign Minister Anifah Aman asserted that Malaysia has the same potential dynamics vis a vis China with respect to the brewing South China Sea conflict, as Ukraine to Russia today.


A simplistic assessment. First, land borders are intrinsically more problematic than maritime ones. Besides, South China Sea is a wide stretch of water even without factoring in the unpredictable Monsoon. Second, Malaysia is not the only party to that dispute. There are other and far greater powers with direct interests. Japan for one; likewise Europe and America. Over thirty percent of global maritime trade flows through that stretch of water.


Anifah’s observation applies more to Laos and Myanmar. Vietnam also shares a long land border with China and is also a party to the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam had bloodied Chinese nose more than once. If a crisis were to erupt in the South China Sea today, Malaysia would be but a minor player in all respects. We would of course be forced to take sides, but that would be a separate issue.


Malaysia’s relationship with Indonesia, a country with a long land border with Malaysia, a la Ukraine to Russia, is more relevant. Recall konfrontasi of the early 1960s. That crisis was more the consequence of the conflicting personalities of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sukarno. Notice how quickly that conflict was resolved once both protagonists were pushed aside. Likewise with Putin and Zelinsky; even if they were not national leaders, it would not be difficult to visualize the two being drawn into a bar brawl with minimal provocation.


The last eerie commonality between the Zelinsky Administration and the one in Putrajaya is that both are corrupt and incompetent, a lethal combination. Ukraine was an economic basket case before the crisis; it will be worse afterwards. As for endemic corruption among Malay leaders, just follow the current trial related to the 1MDB now being played out in a New York courtroom. As for incompetence, well, ask the man in the street.


Far more consequential but less commented aspect to the current leadership in both countries is this. Kiev has its share albeit small but still influential enough cadre of ultra-rightwing, nationalist, white supremacists, enough for Putin to exploit it. The pro-Russian secessionist movement in East Ukraine did not develop de novo. Those “white supremacists” in Kiev have their local variant in Putrajaya, the Ketuanan Melayu types. Only their sheer incompetence made them less destructive than they already are.


Unlike the earlier demographic demon and geographic destiny, this third blight is man-made and thus at least theoretically much more remediable. Perversely, the reality is far different.


I am struck by this observation of one Kiev resident. On Tuesday evening he was having a nice leisurely dinner with friends in a restaurant. On Wednesday evening they were scrambling for their lives, hiding in an underground subway station.


That is the central lesson for Malaysians and citizens everywhere. If we do not pay attention to our leaders’ greed, incompetence, and shenanigans, that is what we can expect. This was true in Kiev on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 as in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.


As for being Russia’s neighbor, I am certain that the restaurants in Sweden (like Ukraine, a non-NATO member) are full this evening with patrons enjoying themselves. That is my way of saying to Malaysians to worry less on what is going on in Beijing or Washington, DC, and focus on the monkeys now at Putrajaya. It is one thing for them to plunder the nation for their greed, it is another for them to put Malaysians at loggerheads with one another.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #25: The Bloody Devil Personified

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #25:  The Bloody Devil Personified

My teacher for the following year was a colonial man, a diminutive character with an unruly bush of wavy red hair. We were all afraid of him, not because he was stern rather that in our folklore, white was the color of the devil, and red, blood – the bloody devil personified! 

The Simmonses lived in a bungalow on the hillside, visible from the road. His wife was also short but matronly, a vivid contrast to his trim profile. Once we saw her kissing him goodbye on the porch. We boys let out loud whistles and wolf calls, more for the girls in our bus. We natives were not used to such public displays of affection. That was our morning excitement, not so much seeing the couple kissing as with the girls blushing. 

I still could not fathom what made him take his young family thousands of miles away into the hot, humid jungle to teach us native tropical kids. What new pasture was he seeking? 

Mr. Simmons taught all subjects except that I do not remember him teaching us much of mathematics. We spent most of the time singing nursery rhymes, reciting poetry, and reading aloud in class. He would call on someone at random, and woe would be if the poor fellow could not find the exact spot where the last reader had stopped – a sure sign of having dozed off. Mr. Simmons would spend more than just a few minutes scolding the hapless soul. 

I loved it when he picked one of the Chinese kids. Then I could count on the class being sidetracked as he would badger his victim on the importance of rolling your tongue in pronouncing “r.” 

“Rrrow, rrrow, rrrow your boat!” he roared. “Gently down the strrream,” he screamed. And the poor kid would repeat in earnest, “Llow, llow, llow your boat, gentilly down the setllim!” The more Simmons tried to correct the pathetic pupil, the worse the pronunciation, to the howling laughter of the class. 

Mr. Simmons once asked me to read aloud, and I went through with no difficulty. Clear and smooth, or so I thought! When I stopped, he took over and continued on and on, sounding like a duck while flapping his palm by his side. 

“Quack! Quack! Quack! That’s what you sound like, Bakri.” Then opening his jaw and pulling his cheeks wide apart, he shouted, “Open your mouth wide. Move your tongue around. Let it touch the roof of your mouth. Don’t let it lie flat and lifeless. Enunciate your words loud and clear.” 

I wished I could disappear beneath my desk. Embarrassed as I was, I did learn the meaning of “enunciate.” And I was only in Year Four!

Simmons’s enthusiasm was infectious. Unlike Mrs. Paul, he never sat behind his desk but would pace the room like an earnest televangelist soliciting donations from his congregation, his voice alternating between soft and spirited, all in an effort to keep our attention, or at least keep us awake in the heat of the day. Perhaps that was why he was so trim, and Paul plump. 

His favorite was poetry reading. He would write the entire stanza on the board and have us read it aloud together a few times. Then he would erase a few words here and there, and we would continue reading. Then he would erase a few more until only some scattered words were left. By that time we would have memorized the entire piece. 

Once he caught me looking outside while we were learning a new poem. He asked me to recite the piece as he covered the blackboard with his outstretched arms. I did, with no errors. That was the end of it; no reprimand. But then, no praise either. 

Mr. Simmons’ favorite was Wordsworth’s poems, in particular “The Daffodils.” I could not fathom why he was so enchanted by it. It was just another poem; I memorized it because I had to, nothing beyond. 

Today I cannot help but ponder the irony. Mohamad Noh instilled in me the love of poetry in one 45-minute class as a substitute teacher while Simmons could not in a whole year as my class teacher. 

Decades later, soon after I moved into my California ranch I happened one Sunday morning to sit on the patio enjoying the warmth of the spring sunshine and the gurgling sound of the nearby creek. I glanced towards the hillside, 

When all at once I saw a crowd / A host, of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze (3-6). 

The previous owner had planted some bulbs along the creek, and every spring she would enjoy the burst of fresh yellow daffodils, just as I was that morning. How enchanting and evocative were Wordsworth’s words! That was the joy and beauty Simmons had tried to impart with minimal success upon us tropical kids. 

Next:  Excerpt # 26:  A Hefty Price Tag

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Casr From The Herd Excerpt #24 One Up On My Teacher

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 24:  One Up On My Teacher

Thanks to the year of preschool in my mother’s class and the exercises with rubber seeds, I was far ahead in writing and arithmetic by the time I was enrolled in the English school. Anytime a kampung kid could show those town kids a thing or two especially in arithmetic, that was a great confidence booster. The next year I had “double promotion” and Mr. Ishak was my teacher. He was the one who demonstrated the sembah ritual to me related earlier. Mr. Ishak was Malay only in so far as his black curly hair and broad nose. He was fair-skinned, and with his penchant for shorts and long stockings neatly double-folded back just below the knee, he looked very much like a well-tanned Englishman. 

The following year I had Mrs. Paul, a dark plump Southern Indian. Her loose garish saree could not camouflage her plumpness or darkness. When she stood up, which was infrequent as she was glued to her chair, her bellowing upper tummy bulged out from underneath her tight blouse, like a flour sack through a wooden pellet. A chain smoker, as soon as the recess bell rang she lighted her Capstan cigarette and inhaled deep as if she had been suffocated while in class. 

Her son Peter was also in my class. One day she tried to explain the concept of squares, and why there were 12 inches to a foot but 144 square inches to a square foot. She had a package of one-square-inch pieces of paper and another a foot-square sheet. It was near the end of the day and she had Peter arrange those little inch-square pieces in neat rows on the foot-square sheet. After he had placed down a few, his hand accidentally slipped and all those small pieces were thrown off. The poor boy had to start all over again. 

After much laborious effort, Peter had just about completed filling in the foot-square sheet when a gust blew across the room. By the time Peter and the rest of the class finished retrieving the scattered pieces, the school day was over. 

At home that day I replicated what Mrs. Paul was trying to demonstrate, adding a twist of my own. I had a foot-square paper and then using my mother’s sewing machine but without the thread in the needle, I serrated the paper to create a sheet of 144 inch squares, postage stamp-like, but still attached to each other. I repeated that with different colored sheets. Then I would tear off a one inch-square piece, then two- inch square piece, three and right up to eleven, all of different colors.


My mother saw what I was doing and inquired as to my purpose. So I explained. The squaring of numbers is the equivalent of physical squares. My mother was impressed and asked me to make a second set so she could use it for her class. I was more than happy to oblige! 

The next day Mrs. Paul again asked Peter to repeat the previous day’s failed endeavor. It was morning and calm, no threatening gusts to undo his brilliant demonstration. With both consumed with their activity up front, I brought out my prepared sheets and proceeded to do my own demonstration on my desk. Soon those behind me were transfixed on what I was doing. Then those in the front rows turned away from Mrs. Paul. And that was how she found out what I was doing. 

She yelled at me to put away my papers. I must have been slow to respond for she grabbed my sheets and threw them into the wastepaper basket. For some weird reason I was not at all embarrassed, in fact I was thrilled by the attention. 

Mrs. Paul completed her demonstration and asked us whether we had understood her. We all replied yes. With that the exercise was over – finally and mercifully! When the recess bell rang she left, inhaling her Capstan cigarette with great satisfaction. Meanwhile the other kids rushed to the basket to retrieve my crumpled sheets and asked me to repeat my demonstration. 

Next:  Excerpt # 25:  The Bloody Devil Personified

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #23: The Privileged Few In An Englsih school

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 23:  The Privileged Few In An English School

Even as a youngster I was very much aware that I was among the privileged few to be attending an English school. Tuanku Muhammad School, or TMS to its students, is in the small town of Kuala Pilah, only seven miles from my village but nearly an hour away by bus, longer on some days. Dr. Lewis in his memoir Out East in the Malay Peninsula fondly called Kuala Pilah a “rural paradise,” and an assignment there “much coveted.” I did not see what he saw. 

The main two-story brick building was built in 1930 at the height of colonial rule and in the depth of the Depression. Bless the British for fulfilling their social obligation even during those tight economic times! 

TMS may be located in a small remote town, nonetheless my school has produced more than its share of national luminaries. Through the non-language-dependent IQ tests that he had developed for his doctoral research, Dr. Lewis was able to select many of those bright village kids to enter the school, and then provided them with great teachers. Consider that my teachers Mr. Simmons and Mr. McCumiskey were both Oxford graduates; while Lewis and Rawcliffe, London University PhDs. Not many schools anywhere could match that caliber of teachers.

My school’s curriculum, textbooks, and many of its teachers were transplanted wholesale from ye olde England. Even my workbooks had to be imported. Prior to being named after the ruler in 1934, my school had the rather bland name of Government English School. TMS celebrated its centenary in 2014. 

My school bus originated at Sri Menanti, the state’s royal town. By the time it arrived at my village two miles away there was standing room only. Often I ended up standing on the steps with the conductor bracing me. It did not matter as those buses were so old and at best could manage only “30 MPH” with the motor fully gunned. In fact that was how I knew the bus was coming, by the thundering protest of its ageing engine. 

On that first day at school I entered a room of quiet kids, like stuffed toys plumped on chairs. The quietness restrained me and I chose an empty desk in the middle row. I needed that protective barrier of the first few front seats. 

I did not see any face like mine, meaning, a fellow Malay. Next to me was a scrawny Indian boy. I tried to strike up a conversation in the only language I knew – Malay – but received a blank look. Then a Chinese kid who was sitting a few desks away came up to me and started speaking Malay. Not only that, it was in my village dialect. I bonded with him right away. My new friend was Lim Boon Wah. It was amazing what a new friend could do to a frightened boy. Now my small area was transformed from being severe and intimidating to a warm and cheerful playground for the two of us. The other kids were still zombies.

Soon an Indian lady in a flowing colorful saree breezed in. With a shrill voice and her hands gesturing, she made us all stand. “Repeat after me, class!” she yelled. “Good morning, Miss Devi.” 

After a few trials we got it. Before I knew it we were all seated on the cold cement floor by her feet, listening to her reading from a book. She wore sandals and her toenails were painted flaming red. I would see that only on Malay brides. Her toenails played peek-a-boo from beneath the edge of her saree whenever she jiggled her ankle. Soon her nails and saree were fiercely competing for visual supremacy. The saree won when I saw a patch of frayed edges. 

With the excitement of a new experience, the morning went fast. At recess I followed the crowd to the tuck shop located near the main school. Unlike the hawker stall at my mother’s school, this one was a real canteen, in a separate building, with tables and benches. It was also very clean. 

At the end of the day Miss Devi made us all stand and said, “Repeat after me. ‘Good afternoon, Miss Devi’” We did, and then left the room one by one, by row. 

Thus ended my first day at school; it was unbelievably fun. I was away from home and made a new friend. I could not wait to relate my experience to my old village friends. Theirs was no different than what it was yesterday, or would be tomorrow. They were curious, wondering whether I was lost since I could not speak a word of English, or scared to be in a school in town. Most of all they wanted to know about my teacher and how it felt to be in a sekolah orang Putih (white man school). 

Next:  Excerpt # 24:  One Up On My Teacher