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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, March 06, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 26: A Hefty Price

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 26: A Hefty Price Tag For Attending An English School

My privilege of attending an English school carried with it a hefty price tag even though it was a government school. The extortionate donation to the building fund to grease my admission aside, there was tuition at $2.50 per month during primary school, double that at the secondary level. Then there were sports, library, and “activity” fees which far exceeded the tuition, plus costs for books and uniforms. The biggest expense for me however, was bus fare at $7.50 a month. Urban kids were of course spared that significant burden. In total my father forked out about $50 per month for me alone. Multiply that by three for my an older brother and sister; that consumed nearly a third of my father’s monthly income. Luckily my mother was also a teacher but being a female, her salary was about a third lower.

My parents also subscribed to The Straits Times, the daily national newspaper, to encourage us to read in English. In the beginning I would read just the headlines or flip through the pages. That did not bother my parents as they continued with the expensive subscription. Occasionally they would ask me about some pictures, and I began reading the captions. Whether that reflected their curiosity on the news item or a non-too-subtle nudge at me to encourage my reading the newspaper, I know not. Soon I discovered that I would get the jokes more if I were to also read the scripts accompanying the cartoons. From there I progressed to the headlines and the first few paragraphs. Before long I was into the full Op-Ed pages as well as the titillating personal ads. 

My favorite editorial columnist was one Vernon Bartlett. Here he was, a Britisher, that is, a colonialist, yet he was unafraid to criticize often in very strong language the colonial authorities running Malaysia at that time. In short, he was criticizing his own kind. Some of his commentaries were translated into Malay and carried by Utusan Melayu. Thus my father could also read some of Bartlett’s views and was impressed. To my father, it reflected the superiority and sophistication of the English culture that Bartlett was not constrained from criticizing his own kind when he felt that they had done something wrong, as with colonizing others. My father always reminded me to remember that central value. When it is wrong, it is wrong. That your own kind would perpetrate it against “others” does not make it right.

Again it reflects the noble British values that Bartlett was awarded a CBE, the highest ranking Order of the British Empire, in 1956 while he was in Malaysia. I could not imagine the Agung or any Malay sultan doing something similar. Malay sultans honor the pengkhianat, thieves, and robbers, not the likes of Bartlett amongst us.

My parents also indulged us with English-language magazines. My first was Reader’s Digest; it remained my favorite right up to university. Then in my freshman English Literature class as we discussed Romeo and Juliet, my professor sneered that if Reader’s Digest were to abridge it, the title would be, “A Most Unusual Love Story!” I never read that magazine again; I was way pasr my literary pablum phase.

The huge financial burden aside, plus the erratic bus service to contend with, the biggest obstacle to my attending English school was not either but social. The early 1950s was a period of intense nationalism, anticipating independence. Malay school teachers were at the vanguard of this transformational movement. Consequently my parents were under intense social and peer pressure to enroll us in Malay schools. If Malay teachers did not support the system, who would? 

Many succumbed to the pressure. My father however, resisted. “We should not listen to what our leaders say,” he argued with his fellow villagers who fell for the nationalistic sway, “rather follow what they do.” 

While those leaders were exhorting everyone to send their children to Malay schools, they sent theirs to English ones. The Minister of Education at the time, Tun Razak, went further; he sent all his children to England for their schooling. 

Goaded by this overzealous nationalism, many Malay parents took their children out of English schools, thus freeing up many new slots. The Member of Parliament of my district, one Samad Idris, later to become a Minister, took that opportunity to transfer his two daughters into English school, all the while imploring the villagers to support Malay schools. My father did not miss the hypocrisy. He was however, among the very few. As is evident, the current blatant hypocrisy among Malay leaders has a long history. It is also still very much alive and well today.

Years later I met one of my former classmates whose father, caught in the nationalistic frenzy of the time, had switched him back to Malay school. He was still stuck in the village; his Malay education did not take him far. On seeing me, now a surgeon, his only comment was, “Your father was wiser than mine!” 

That was the sweetest tribute to my father.

The extraneous but necessary costs to my attending an English school in town was at least quantifiable and thus could be overcome albeit with much sacrifice from my parents tightening their already stretched budget. The far greater obstacle was one imposed by the hypocrisy of Malay leaders. That still is the tragic reality today for Malays, in urban areas as well as in the kampungs.

There was also another price for me, also unquantifiable, for my attending English school in town. Straddling two worlds, I was left suspended in between. Living far from school I could not partake in afterschool activities and thus could not develop new friendships beyond my classmates. Meanwhile at home I had less and less in common with my fellow kampung friends.

Next:  Excerpt # 27:  My Ye Old Middle Village


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