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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 20, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 28: My Childhood Heroes

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #28:  My Childhood Heroes

I had many heroes growing up, their halos embellished by my father’s frequent adulatory references to them. One was Zainal ‘Abidin bin Ahmad. Like most Malay names, his was a mouthful; hence his famous acronym, Za’aba. He attended a local missionary school in Seremban and later taught, albeit only too briefly, at Malay College. He was the first Malay to secure the Cambridge School Certificate (CSC) back in 1915. An autodidact, he later taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. 

When Za’aba passed his CSC, there were already a few, and only a few, Malay physicians and lawyers. How they furthered their studies without getting their CSC I do not know. They must have gone through other matriculating routes. Those other distinguished individuals never entered my father’s world. Za’aba was well known because of his frequent commentaries in the then widely-read Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu. I could always tell when my father was reading Za’aba’s columns for he would exclaim, “Well said, Za’aba!” 

That would prompt my mother’s curiosity, “What did he say?” 

“Malays shouldn’t waste money on lavish weddings and instead save for our children’s education.” 

The great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer observed in his Rumah Kaca (The Glasshouse), “Orang boleh pandai setinggi langit, tapi selama ia tak menulis, ia akan hilang di dalam masyarakat dan dari sejarah.” (Your intellect may tower to the sky but if you do not write, then you will be lost to society and from history.) Today I have to dig deep into the national archives to find the names of those early Malay doctors and lawyers while Za’aba lives on through his written words, testimony to Pramoedya’s wisdom. 

Za’aba was from Batu Kikir, a village a few miles downstream from mine along the Ulu Muar River. He was a frequent speaker at meetings of Malay teachers; he knew the importance of education. That was how my father met him. 

My father reminded me often to emulate Za’aba not only in his intellectual pursuits but also personal habits. Za’aba did not smoke; a factor in my not taking up that bad habit. Whenever I stomped my feet in the house and rattled the wooden floor, my father would remind me that Za’aba never thumped his heels. The stomping would send vibrations up your spine to the brain, interfering with its function. My father was correct on the spine part; I am uncertain about the brain component. From observing Za’aba, my father concluded that a soft gait equaled solid intellect.

At a time when it was fashionable to be anti-colonialist, when even violent ones were idolized, Za’aba chose a far different and more productive path. Again that reflected the contrarian instinct of my people. Under British tutelage he became a scholar of Malay language. He enriched the nation much more than the whole bunch of those strident anti-colonialists. He was the “Father of Malay Grammar,” and with that the scholarly title, Pendita. His textbook series Pelita Bahasa Melayu (The Light of Malay Language) remains the standard to this day. 

My other hero was “Loya” Ma’arof. Kuala Lumpur’s trendy Jalan Ma’arof was named after him. His talent was spotted early by the British; they sent him to Britain to read law (hence “Loya”) and economics. He was among the few Malay leaders then (and now) who recognized early that unless Malays became major economic players in our native land, we would forever remain marginalized regardless how much political power we wielded. His insight pales that of the other leaders, past and present. They were intoxicated with politics to the detriment of other pursuits, in particular economics and education. 

Ma’arof started Bank Kebangsaan Melayu (Malay National Bank) and spawned a string of enterprises. He inspired and mobilized Malays to be interested in business. My father was impressed enough to buy some shares in that bank. 

Ma’arof must have been considered a serious economic threat for he was soon found hung. The official verdict was suicide; not many believed that. When the bank collapsed following Ma’arof’s death, my father was sanguine about his investment loss. “At least Ma’arof tried.” His hope was that others would push further. 

Za’aba and Ma’arof personified the best of my people. They, like my Muar River, defied the natural tendency and blazed their own trails. They dared stray from their herd in search of new pastures, in the spirit of Chairul Anwar. The two best personified the spirit of merantau (wanderlust) of my culture. 

Legend, as well as history, has it that the Minangkabaus of Sumatra had merantau (ventured) across the Strait of Malacca, never to return. Again displaying their tradition-defying nature, they decided that their leader in their new abode should be elected and not entirely hereditary, and his title not be sultan. Legend, this time unsupported by history, has it that Minangkabaus are descendants of Alexander the Great (Iskandar Zulkernain). 

It is the supreme irony that a society with a penchant for defying tradition would have as its rallying cry, Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat! (Sacrifice our child if need be, but never our tradition!) As for the durability of our customs: “Tak lokang dek paneh. Tak lupuk dek ‘ujan” (Neither scorched by sun nor rotted by rain). 

Next:  Excerpt #29:  Minangkabau Lores


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