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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 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


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