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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, May 29, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #33: During War, Those Armed Set The Law

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Episode # 33   During War, Those Armed Set The Law

The Japanese Occupation forced people to do things they would not even think of doing under normal circumstances. They had to, to survive. Whenever my father related some terrible deeds done by his fellow villagers, he would always end by adding, “But this was war!” as if to excuse the perpetrators though not their evil deeds. 

“During war, those armed set the law,” he continued. That reflects the reality far better than Cicero’s famed inter arma silent leges (during war, the law is silent).

The misdeeds ranged from simple thievery to outright selling of souls and bodies. Once my father was awakened in the middle of the night from a ruckus in his chicken shed. There was an intruder. My father let him slide by. He rationalized that if he were to confront the thief, my father would pay dearly, and not just in an ugly physical confrontation. The intruder was a known snitch for the Japanese. Had my father confronted him, he could turn my father in on some trumped-up charges, complete with his old pictures in the British Army. 

“Besides, you never know what drove the man to steal,” he reminded us, “perhaps he could not stand the wailing of his starving children.” 

It would be unfair to judge a man when he is desperate, my father cautioned us. We could not be certain of how we would behave under similar circumstances. 

Rumor had it that the man was once accused by the Japanese of a terrible crime. To escape from being beheaded, he implicated two other young men. The pair was rounded up and sent to work on the notorious Burma Railway, never to return. 

After the war, this village snitch’s son had a terrible accident. My father shrugged that off as God’s retribution, a father’s sin visited upon his son. To my father you do not have to wait for the Day of Judgment for God to render His verdict. I saw the father’s reaction; I was certain he too felt the full weight of divine retribution. 

What kept my father honest during those trying times was the fear that his sins would later be visited upon his then young children. That belief too keeps me on the straight path now that I have my own family. 

I once related the tragedies of the Kennedy clan to my father, in particular the sons’ violent deaths. He asked me to read more about the senior Kennedy, in particular what he did during the war. By this time I had forgotten the war stories my father had told me.

The senior Kennedy was too old to serve in World War II but was alleged to be engaged in many unsavory activities during the time, including bootlegging, war profiteering, and some underworld connections. My father immediately latched on that to remind me of his earlier stories of a father’s sins visited upon his children. 

My father was very much aware that he too had often fallen short during those trying times. One day long after the war a young man came to our house and introduced himself as “your long-lost cousin.” I had never seen him and brought this stranger to my father. He scrutinized him only to be greeted by a cheerful and affectionate, “Assalam mualaikum Pak Andak! Do you remember me?” 

Only cousins on my father’s side addressed him by that familiar and endearing honorific, Pak Andak, which meant uncle. My father strained forward to get a better look, and then rushed to embrace the young man, sobbing uncontrollably. “Allahhu AkbarAllahhu Akbar!” he cried over and over as he patted Rusli’s head. I had never seen my father so emotional, not even when my two younger brothers Adnan and Azmi died. 

Rusli was indeed our long-lost cousin. Orphaned during the war, he had come to my parents seeking help, but they could not accommodate him. “Times were tough!” my father repeated over and over. He already had many mouths to feed, and with very little at hand. 

Later I found out that Rusli was not orphaned. His father, my father’s older brother, had simply disappeared during the war never to be seen again. Perhaps he was sent to Burma to work on that infamous deadly railway. 

My parents were long haunted by their action, or rather inaction. Rusli however, was special; he survived. When he presented himself that day he had just graduated from Technical College. He would later obtain his doctorate in engineering from Britain.

It took my father a long time and many attempts before he could relate his nephew’s story in its entirety without breaking down. His emotional reaction reminded me of an earlier visit, also unexpected, from members of his extended family. In the village such visits were the norm. You stopped everything, pretended you were overjoyed, and then scrambled to accommodate your guests. That was, and still is, kampung etiquette. 

These relatives had with them two boys a few years younger than me. I knew the two would be staying as they each had a big suitcase. Later at dinner we found out the purpose of their visit. 

One was my cousin, once or twice removed; the other, his classmate. They had been accepted into Malay secondary school. Although the government was building many new ones, there was as yet none near where they lived. They were told there was one in Kuala Pilah. Then they remembered my father and presto, the boys’ accommodation crisis was solved! 

Now my parents had two additional mouths to feed, pay their books, school fees, and provide for bus fares. No wonder my father was frantic. A week later he found a boarding room for them near the school. The two left, with my father accompanying them. When he returned, even I could detect the relief on his face. 

A week later my father visited them, only to discover that they had abandoned their schooling. When he returned I was not sure whether he was burdened with guilt or disappointment; perhaps both. As he later explained to rationalize his earlier action, he could have handled one – my cousin, he owed him that obligation – but two, sudden and unexpected, was just too much. Attending school then remained a severe challenge for many in the village. 

Next:  Excerpt #34:  Unintended Positive Consequences of War

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Caste From The Herd Excerpt #32: Stunted Medical Career

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #32:  Stunted Musical Career

With war imminent, the British instituted a volunteer army made up of teachers and civil servants. My father’s unit was The Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, Third Battalion. A “volunteer army” may be oxymoronic more so in times of war, but my father did not unwillingly join it. One reason was that many of his colleagues did; for another, he was in the band unit. He saw it as an opportunity for continuing his musical career as the bandleader was also his former music lecturer back at his teachers’ college. 

My father spoke often and with great fondness of his British music teachers. Here he was, unable to speak a word of English, yet they were able to impart in him the love for music. Up till then his only exposure was the simple nursery rhymes and the popular songs during his youth, while musical notes were but scribbled dots and lines. Under their tutelage he was able to read music, play the violin, and be exposed to the great composers. The language of music was indeed universal; his lecturers had ignited a hidden passion in him. 

My father’s abiding admiration for the British was not tarnished by their subsequent hasty and ignominious surrender to the Japanese, or the many lapses in their personal behaviors. Once I accompanied my parents to the state Malay schools’ sports jamboree in Seremban. On the way our bus was to pick up the colonial local school superintendent and his wife at the Sungai Ujong Club, the exclusive colonial watering hole in the Seremban Lake Garden area. 

When we arrived we were stunned to see the pair emerging from the clubhouse, flushed and wild-eyed, staggering and groping each other all the while giggling and making obscene gestures. Their boisterous primal behavior continued on the bus, much to everyone’s (including my parents) embarrassment. Everyone on the bus except for the pair was silent, fearful that they might just go berserk. What repelled me most was not their crude loud acts rather their smell. I did not know what it was then. Now of course I do; the stink of alcohol. Later at home my father explained that the British couple was possessed by hantu botol, (lit. evil of the bottle). They were drunk.

Following that strange episode of the English couple, my father suddenly quit his smoking, just like that, cold turkey. One afternoon he gathered all his un-smoked cigarettes and buried them, together with the butts lying around in the crevices of the house. Then he removed his bedspread and all the curtains in the house to wash them. The house never smelled cleaner. He never touched a cigarette after that. Up till that time he was a chain smoker, forever inhaling his Rough Rider. His fingers, lips, and teeth were permanently stained. His clothes and indeed the whole house reeked of cigarette smoke odor. Perhaps my father saw his own boorish behavior in smoking reflected in that drunken British episode.

            I once saw a picture of my father with his military band. There he was seated right in the front row in the center beside the colonial bandleader. My father looked spiffy in his crisp military uniform. I asked him why he had not kept any of his military memorabilia. He did not wish to be reminded of his army days, was his sharp dismissive reply. Besides, his unit did not see any military action as it was disbanded in the haste of the British retreat. Then what about those wonderful expensive musical instruments? 

When the British retreated in haste, my father was left in charge. He, not surprisingly, did not wish to have any reminders of his association with the British for the Japanese to discover. So he had those instruments buried in the jungle outside his base. 

After the war he tried to retrieve them, but he could not remember where he had buried them. In only four years the lush jungle had taken over and totally altered the landscape, obliterating familiar landmarks. To this day, somewhere in the Kuala Pilah jungle, a whole orchestra of valuable musical instruments lay buried. 

My father did not impart his musical skills and passion to his pupils as the school environment did not provide for such creative curricula. He did however to a generation of kampung youths, outside of school hours. There was a popular band in my village. One day after its performance, a young man in the audience came up to the bandmaster to inquire about learning music. 

“If you are really serious,” the bandmaster said, “then you should go to this boy’s father,” as he pointed to me. 

Prior to that I did not know that my father could even play an instrument, let alone teach others as he did not share his passion with us, his children. Later as a teenager when I tried to play my Uncle Nasir’s saxophone, my father discouraged me. Like any kid, the more he did, the more I believed I had talent. 

One day I belted out a few barely-recognizable tunes. The sound must have grated on my father’s ears for he rushed and grabbed the instrument away from me and proceeded to let go a melodious stream. I pleaded to him to teach me. He did.

He first made me practice some scales, then full, half and quarter notes. When I tried to impress him by naming those notes, he cut me short. It did not matter what those scribbles were called as long as you knew what they meant with respect to finger formation and for how long to hold the note. After about thirty minutes of this intense drill which I thoroughly enjoyed, he put up a new score and asked me to play it. After a few bars I recognized the song; I was playing “God Save the Queen.” With that, my father impressed upon me not to play by ear but to read the score.

My father’s demonstration intrigued my uncle Nasir. He begged him to improve his playing. After hesitating, my father agreed, provided that my uncle complied with some basic routine and discipline. Eager to learn, my uncle agreed. He made my uncle leave his saxophone and we all went out of the house. He threw a small rock at a steel telephone pole and asked my uncle what note was the clanking noise. He replied, “Middle C.” 

“Good,” my father complimented him, and threw another rock higher up and at the thinner part of the pole. Another pinging sound! 

“E flat?” my uncle replied, more as a question and with minimal confidence. 

“You have a good ear,” my father complimented him. Thus began his tutoring. The whole week we would be serenaded by my uncle; he sure sounded much better. 

Meanwhile my father ignored me. Sensing my disappointment, he later admitted that he did so on purpose. He did not want me to be distracted from my studies as he was in college. He related how he would sneak out of his dorm in the middle of the night to practice his violin. He was so consumed with his music that he nearly flunked his regular studies and was threatened with expulsion but for the intervention of his music lecturers. He advised me instead to concentrate on my ‘regular’ studies and that once I had a successful career then I could afford the best music teachers. 

Later in life I had tried many times to take up music. Despite my best efforts I just could not get it. I cannot claim to lack digital dexterity for in my profession that is a given. My father’s talent must have skipped a generation for my daughter is quite musical. 

Next:  Episode # 33   During War, Those Armed Set The Law

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Cast Fro The Herd: Excert #31: The Japanese Occupation

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #31:  The Japanese Occupation

My father reminded me often that I was born on the second anniversary of the Japanese invasion, and at about the same time of the night. Because of that I would always correct those who said that the Pearl Harbor bombing was on December 7th

Only much later after appreciating the International Date Line and time zone differences could I reconcile between what my father told me and what I had read in the history books. He had indeed heard on the clandestine Malaysian radio that the Japanese had landed on the northeast coast near Kota Baru on December 8th, just minutes past midnight. A few hours later came the news of the devastating Pearl Harbor bombing. In Hawaii it was of course still the 7th.

I have no recollection of that terrible period. What I knew came from the many stories of horror and sufferings my parents often told me. To them those repeated reminders were not redundant but important. 

It would be a great understatement to say that it was not the best time to come into the world, at least the Malaysian one. There was not enough food, and a newborn baby also meant that there must be a young father nearby, a potential conscript for the Japanese Army. You did not want to advertise that fact with those soldiers around. 

As a result my birth, like those of many others, was not registered until after the Japanese had surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. Thanks to my father’s memory of the second anniversary of the invasion, the date (December 8, 1943) shown on my birth certificate is correct. 

That was not the case for many. Often their parents had only a vague memory of the day of their child’s birth, sometime in reference to events like the first Ramadan, second harvest, or the last monsoon of the Japanese Occupation. Even when they could be more specific, as for example, during the full moon of the first Ramadan, the clerks at the registration office were too lazy to convert that into the Gregorian calendar. It was easier to ask the parents to just guess their child’s birth date. No surprise then that many of my classmates in primary school sported generous moustaches and other signs of ‘premature’ puberty. 

Alas only the date on my birth certificate was correct. There must have been a backlog for babies to be registered right after the war, and with an understaffed registry office, my name on the birth certificate was mangled. It bore not even the remotest resemblance to what my parents had given me. The error was noticed only much later, as when I applied for my passport to come to Canada. Or perhaps my parents were superstitious about correcting my name earlier as that could have altered my fate. 

You could not be issued a new certificate as the date and serial number would then be out of sequence; one could only make amendments, and then only on the back. If they were to be on a separate sheet, it could become unclipped. So the front page of my birth certificate has my old erroneous name written by the harried clerk, while the correction appears on the reverse side. 

My father could register me for school with a name different from that on my birth certificate because this carelessness with names is very much part of Malay culture. The eminent architect Ruslan Khalid recalled in his memoir A Quest for Architectural Excellence that his name too was bungled. He was born in 1933, long before the war during colonial rule. Even today we have Annuar spelled variously as Anuar or Anwar. Beyond that, Malays are not proud of their birth names opting instead to be called by their titles like Hajj and Atuk, or honorifics like Datuk and Tan Sri.

As a youngster I once asked my mother about the hole behind our chicken coop in our kampung house backyard. I thought it was an incomplete outhouse pit. It was dug during the Japanese Occupation, she revealed with great reluctance, to hide me when I cried or when the Japanese were making their rounds. My mother would huddle with me in the hole and pull the rotting plywood over it. Thirty years later the Viet Cong would use the same trick, or minor variations thereof, to hide from the Americans. 

The location was also strategic. The chickens would start cackling should a stranger approach, signaling to my mother to smother me even tighter. If I were to cry, that too would startle the chickens and their cackling would muffle my sound. I owe a lot to those birds. What did I do in return? Ate them! 

That hole in the ground was my savior. Later as a young boy I tried to ‘renovate’ it into my underground bunker as a tribute to it saving my life. That upset my mother very much. Thinking that I had stirred up some ugly memories, I filled it up. Who knows, someone might tripped in the dark and be hurt.


The Japanese Occupation was a tough period, my parents always reminded me. My saving grace was that I tolerated solids early. That was not a reflection of my precocious alimentary development rather of physiologic adjustments. When a mother is deprived of calories, her milk production would be curtailed. The one food I loved (still do) was bananas, and we had plenty of them even during the Occupation. She must have learned umpteen ways to prepare the fruit – fresh, fried, baked or mashed – they mattered not –  I liked them all. 

My mother was worried that I would hate the darn fruit as an adult. She should not have worried; I still love it; so too my grandchildren Zain and Devin. They must have inherited my love for bananas through the epigenes I had acquired during that terrible period. 

The scars of war were everywhere. For years we had in the backyard of my village home the rusted remains of a Japanese armored truck, together with some steel helmets. I asked my father how the truck ended up there. When the Japanese surrendered, they abandoned everything to rush back to camp. That truck must have had some mechanical problem, so they left it on the road in front of our house. To avoid it (and us) being the target of British bombers, the villagers pushed it to the back of the house underneath a tree. 

So I could say with great pride and unvarnished truth that, the deprivations of the period notwithstanding, I had as a child a real army truck and soldier’s steel helmets to play with, instead of the make-believe “Made-in-Japan” (or now, China) plastic ones! 

Next Excerpt #32:  The Boorish British

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #30: Tales of My Village

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #30:  Tales of My Village

The road to Kuala Pilah crosses the Sri Menanti River at Tanjong Ipoh, a few miles downstream from my village. One January morning our school bus, together with a convoy of other vehicles, was stranded by the flooded bridge. Then a truck decided to brave the churning water. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on the shallowness of the truck’s wake, our driver decided to be a hero, egged on by the girls. 

He was a young man, perhaps a recent hire upon his discharge from the army. Courage and recklessness go with being a soldier; caution and wisdom, less so, more so in the presence of girls. 

All went well for a while. After our bus crossed the bridge, the truck ahead began sliding sideways ever so slowly, like in a dream or silent movie. Then it flipped over, pushed by the torrent. A sudden gasp, followed by loud shrieks as the girls in our bus went hysterical. 

Our driver jammed into lower gear, gunned his motor, and swerved hard to avoid the side-turned truck, sending the girls (and me too) into shrieks. Steam hissed from the engine and the water swirled around the windows. Heavy sweat trickled down our driver’s brow, incongruous in the cool of the morning. 

His swift turn blunted the broadsided ferocity of the current. Our bus crawled through the flood with an additional soaked passenger, the driver of the flipped truck, hanging by the side. That driver would have to wait for days before he could retrieve his vehicle, if it had not been cemented into the muddy earth dried by the subsequent sun. 

With the girls now cooing, our driver was back to his usual swagger. He had been through worse in the army, I was sure. There is however, a world of difference between driving a bus full of schoolchildren versus a truckload of soldiers. 

Between the two extremes of ravaging floods and dry-season meandering stream, the river looked benign enough for me to laze the hot afternoon on its banks under the shade of the expansive tamarind tree. I would throw a leaf and watch it drift downstream, like a graceful sloop out on a Sunday sail in the bay. I fantasized the idyllic scenes as the leaf floated to the river mouth and then out to open sea. 

At Muar, if the leaf were to arrive at ebb time it would flow northwest towards the Andaman Sea and then the Indian Ocean. At flood time, the current would take it southeast past Singapore and then into the South China Sea and on to the vast Pacific. 

I had never ventured downstream from my village. I had trekked upstream to the headwaters of both the Sri Menanti and Terachi (another tributary of the Muar), the former at Gunung Pasir during that December holiday after I discovered the daunting obstacle that was the sixth-form entrance examination, the latter a few years earlier with our Geographic Society. 

For the Terachi trip, we went by bus to the foothills at Bukit Putus, the ridge separating Kuala Pilah from the capital, Seremban, to the west. The terrain was steeper and the current much swifter than at Gunung Pasir. The trees were also much taller and more majestic. The whole area was a forest reserve; there were no villages or signs of human activity. It was old virgin jungle with the ground free of underbrush, unlike at Gunung Pasir. 

Our teachers had split the time such that the first two thirds would be for going upstream and the last for the return trip. That was sensible as going upstream would be slower. However, the reality of the downward journey did not cooperate with the logic of our teachers’ planning. The steep slope over slippery rocks was hazardous, slowing our trek. By the time we reached our starting point, it was already dark. Twilight in the tropical jungle is precipitous, like somebody had pulled the blinds down. We arrived back in town late and were met by very anxious but not angry parents. It was not the thing to be angry with your children’s teachers. Our parents were just relieved.

That following Monday morning at school assembly, our headmaster announced that field trips would henceforth be canceled for the rest of the school year. I was certain that none of the parents had complained. I was also sure that the teachers were cautious and fully aware of our safety. Dr. Rawcliffe, our headmaster, may be a colonialist but he took his job seriously, and that included the safety of those under his charge. 

As portrayed in Conrad’s many Malay novels, rivers and the waterfronts play a central role in Malay culture. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, rivers were also the main pathways for travel; riverfront properties were thus premium. 

In my matriarchal culture the oldest daughter has the privilege of first choice in inheritance. So my oldest auntie’s house faced and was closest to the river. By the time my grandparents built the house for my mother, the British had built a road. Her house, while furthest from the river, now faced the road. With it now the preferred path for travel, my mother ended up with the choicest lot! 

Again as per Conrad’s novels, as in our lore, the edges of waters are associated with evil, intrigue, and death. Those are sinister places as the hantu darat (land spirits) and hantu laut (sea spirits) battle it out for supremacy. At twilight there would be the additional struggle between hantu malam (night spirits) and hantu senja (twilight spirits). We were well advised to keep out of their way.

It was not by chance that the greatest disaster that befell Malaysia, the Japanese Occupation, came in from the water’s edge, and at night. 

Next:  Excerpt #31: The Japanese Occupation