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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 27, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #29:  Minangkabau Lores

The word Minangkabau comes from menang (victory) and kerbau (water buffalo). According to legend, our ancestors in Sumatra were in constant warfare with their Javanese neighbors. Exhausted by the endless, senseless deaths and carnages, our wise ancestors suggested to their adversaries that they substitute a pair of buffaloes to settle their dispute once and for all. The two parties agreed to that sensible solution. 

On the day of the epic surrogate battle, the other side produced the largest, meanest, and most aggressive bull to be their star fighter. Just the sight of its huge, curved, pointed horns scared all. The Minangkabaus on the other hand had only a baby calf with its short horns sharpened into lethal spikes. For added measure, they had starved the little critter. 

The Javanese ridiculed the scrawny calf. Once released that hungry baby, on seeing the bull across the field, ran towards it in search of an udder, failing to discern bull from cow. The bull, sensing no threat, ignored the diminutive calf while looking for a worthy opponent. Meanwhile the calf was hungrily thrusting its razor-sharp horns underneath the bull’s belly, desperate for milk. Thus was the bull disemboweled, and the Minangkabaus lived unmolested ever after. 

Fanciful or truthful, the story is steeped in multiple symbolisms. The obvious is that smarts and strategy would always prevail over might and arrogance. More subtle is the triumph of the feminine elements (child’s ties to the mother, the nurturing mother’s milk) over the masculine (aggression and testosterone); or in modern neuroscience parlance, right brain over left. 

It is no surprise that such a society would have deep respect for femininity and be matriarchal, with inheritance and heritage along maternal lineage. This theme is reinforced in the many myths and legends handed down the generations, with mothers and motherhood venerated. 

One particular tale, Malin Kundang, tells of a sailor who went merantau in search of fame and fortune. He found both, and a beautiful princess as wife to boot. On his return he was ashamed of his plebian origin, refusing to pay homage to his mother. She cursed him, and when he sailed away his perahu crashed onto a rock. Such is the power of a mother’s wrath! 

At Air Manis beach in Padang, Sumatra, there stands today a rock formation in the shape of a man prostrating, as in seeking forgiveness, said to be the remains of that young man, a constant reminder to those on shore pondering their own merantau!

I too had a deep and personal reminder of this weight of a mother’s wrath. One evening I must have angered my mother enough for her to chase me out of the house. There I was standing alone underneath the coconut tree, sobbing and hoping that its heaviest nut would fall on me. That would surely make her regret her action! My only consolation was that the clear cloudless sky was studded with stars. 

I had yet to know or read of Big or Little Dippers; instead I saw billions of twinkles as if someone had lighted a sparkler, except that the glitters remained. I imagined a parallel planet out there among the sparkles, an exact replica of ours. Then I wondered whether there would be someone up there just like me and how would I react if I were to meet him. Would I recognize him, and if I did, would I be embarrassed or proud? A juvenile and rudimentary self-psychoanalysis! 

I was deep in wonderment when across the night sky there bolted a long, luminous serpentine trail, like a glowing advertising banner behind a bi-plane. Seconds later it landed on the roof of my neighbor’s house. 

My God! That must be the dreaded polong (evil spirit) my grandparents had been warning me about in the many stories they had narrated. Those polongs were the secret weapons of a select few in the village. My neighbor purportedly had one. Having landed, that polong would now descend and slither in the bush to grab me. Terrified, I ran in and pled for my mother’s forgiveness. 

Now with my knowledge of astronomy, I have seen many more polongs, otherwise known as comets, meteors, and shooting stars. They no longer hold a frightening grip on me, but the essential lesson remains. As for that particular polong, it was probably the Arend-Roland comet of November 8, 1956. 

True to our contrarian instinct, the young Minangkabau writer E.S. Ito (pen name of Eddri Sumitra) has a revisionist twist to that old legend of Malim Deman. Ito had the protagonist Malin be the hero who led his family (including his mother) across the Strait of Malacca to Negri Sembilan. I prefer his version. Ito’s genre is historical novels where he fills in “history’s many missing lines.” 

My clan may be named after the docile water buffalo, but we have more in common with its free-roaming wild cousin, the seladang (gaur). While we may not be feared, nonetheless the wanderlust spirit of merantau, roaming from pasture to pasture, is very much alive in our sons. Like the seladang, our herd is led not by a bull but a cow; women rule supreme in Minangkabau culture. 

Back to my kampung, during the dry months of July and August the word “river” would be too generous to describe that segment of the Sri Menanti. You could walk the river bed from my village right up to Sri Menanti without getting your feet wet, at least until they dammed the river halfway upstream. At the height of the monsoon however, the river reveals its ferocious self, overflowing its banks and sweeping away everything that stands in its way. I once saw the frothing river erode its banks and drag a hitherto majestic tamarind tree like a mere leafy twig into the fast-flowing water. 

That tree was not the only victim over the years; so too was my epileptic cousin. His bloated body was not recovered until days later and miles downstream; it would have been further away, perhaps into the Strait of Malacca had it not been snagged by some branches. He was stripped naked. Such was the power of the raging river in December. 

Once, a migrant worker from Malacca tried to impress the villagers. “I have swam the ocean at the Strait of Malacca,” he bragged. “This puddle does not scare me,” as he dived into the raging water. Those were his last words; his body was never recovered. Perhaps that was his way of going home. 

Next:  Excerpt # 30:  Legendary Tales of My Village 


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