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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, March 13, 2022

Casr From The Herd Excerpt #27 My Ye Old Village

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #27: My Ye Old Middle Village

To konang ko kampung / Induk ayah adik somo nyo 

Raso menghibo hibo den pulang, / Den tokonang ko kampung. 

(Oh! My faraway hamlet, the fleeting memories of Mom, Pop and extended families
All beckoning me home again /And back to the old familiar terrain!) 

[Minangkabau folk song (My translation)]

Kampong Tengah, the village where I was born, abuts the Sri Menanti River, a major tributary of the Muar. Kampung Tengah means middle village, a pretentious echoing of the Middle Kingdom. Either that or my village was so named because it is located between the tail ends of two minor ridges of the Main Range, the spine of the Malay Peninsula. 

My village is in Kuala Pilah district, whose administrative center is in the town of the same name. Its original name was Ulu Muar. “Ulu” means headwaters. The Muar River originates here, on the eastern slope of the Main Range. “Ulu” also means “upland” or “interior,” and connotes primitiveness. No surprise that the name fell out of favor fast. The Pilah River joins the Muar here; hence Kuala Pilah. Kuala means the confluence of rivers. 

For the first third of its journey, Muar River flows eastward following the slope of the Main Range. For the second, the river turns south and then skirts the southern tip of the spine to meander westward for the last third of its journey into the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca at Muar. All other rivers originating on the eastern slope of the Main Range continue eastward into the vast Pacific through the South China Sea. Muar River is unique in pursuing a reverse “C” course. 

My people too must have taken after our river; just as it defies its geographic destiny, so too my people our cultural constraints. Our hereditary ruler is not a sultan, as with the other states, rather Yam Tuan, or in full, Yang Di Pertuan Besar. That translates into, “One whom we make Big Master.” A mouthful, taxing even the most loyal subjects; hence the abbreviated Yam Tuan

The cultural quirk does not end there. Unlike the other sultans, our Yam Tuan is elected, albeit only by the four subordinate hereditary tribal chiefs, the Undangs, from among the many royal contenders. Within my lifetime I had seen the royal succession lines shifted more than once. The crown prince in my state has no assurance of automatic ascension! 

Perak also has a similar model. Perhaps that explains why those two royal households, unlike those in the other states, have the least number of dysfunctional princes and princesses. When you have an element of competition, however minimal or rudimentary, you get amazing results. 

This ancient royal structure may be quaint but the Reid Commission tasked with crafting the nation’s federal constitution chose it as the model for the new institution of the King of Malaysia. The country remains unique in the world and perhaps history where the king is “elected” and has a limited reign (of five years). The common citizens do not get to vote for their king; that privilege is restricted to his fellow sultans, of which Malaysia has nine. 

A bit more about this unique federal royal election; the sultans take turns, based on seniority, of offering themselves to be king. If his fellow sultans agree, then he would be king. Otherwise there would be a bland statement from the palace that the sultan had declined to offer himself, and the next in line would be considered. A sweet, subtle and civilized way to handle rejection! 

Based on seniority, the first King of Malaysia would have been Johore’s Sultan Ibrahim, but he ‘declined’ the honor. His English consort and unabashed Anglophile tendencies may have been a factor. If a sultan were to live long enough, he could be re-elected king more than once as his turn could come up again, as with the current (as of 2013) Sultan Halim. 

The cultural idiosyncrasies of the people of my state go beyond. While the rest of Malaysia follows the patriarchal and overtly misogynist Adat Temenggong, my tribe the Minangkabau is proudly women-centered, subscribing instead to Adat Perpatih where heritage, inheritance, and tribal power reside with daughters and mothers. While a minority in Malaysia, we Minangkabaus are the world’s largest matriarchal society, if we include our kin in neighboring Sumatra, Indonesia. 

Sri Menanti, the royal town named after the river, or the other way round, is a couple of miles upstream from my village. That name has a romantic ring to it, “princess in waiting.” What or who she is waiting for I know not. Legend has it that she waits for her prince to return from his merantau (wanderlust, and perhaps other lusts) to claim her. She has been waiting for a very long time. The town, an overgenerous term for the place, has that forlorn look – a row of dilapidated shops on each side of the road, with an arch at one end to serve as a physical as well as symbolic barrier between where the peasants dwell and the royal compound begins. 

Negri Sembilan is considered a west-coast state as it borders (for only a few miles) the Straits of Malacca at Port Dickson. A substantial part of the state, including Kuala Pilah district, is to the east of the Main Range. Thus climate-wise most of the state resembles the east coast. Being further south and inland, it bears only the tail end of the seasonal wrath that is the northeast monsoon which devastates the east coast of Malaysia every December and January. 

Once as an adult while vacationing in the east coast, I saw a huge freighter beached, testimony to the power of the monsoon. To the villagers, that was not a novel sight. The sea would turn into a swirling, frothing frenzy during the monsoon. Today the Monsoon Cup is an annual event there, the most formidable arc of the Alpari Sailing Circuit. 

Next:  Excerpt #28:  My Childhood Heroes


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