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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, June 26, 2022

Cast From the Herd: The Not-So-Peaceful Aftermath of War

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 36:  The Not-So-Peaceful Aftermath of War

The end of war did not mean peace. That has been true throughout history. It only means the opportunity for one, and just that. Not seized upon it would lead to more wars of even greater viciousness. The war to end all wars was a myth, and a very cruel one at that. The end of World War II meant only that the Germans, Italians, and Japanese had stopped fighting as they were no longer capable of it. The world has seen many wars since. The Japanese surrender meant only that they had stopped fighting. Peace still eluded Malaya and needless tragedies still struck many a community and family. Mine was not spared. 

Growing up it struck me that I called my older brother Sharif, Bang Ngah (contraction for abang tengah – middle brother). By tradition he should be Bang Long, after sulong, meaning oldest or first one (or Kak Long – abbreviated for kakak, if a sister). I asked my mother on this apparent departure from tradition but she evaded answering me. So I turned to my grandmother. 

She told me that indeed I had a Kak Long Halimah. She was born before the war when times were good, and being first-born and a girl at that, my parents indulged her. Girls are treasured in our culture. She always had new clothes and shoes, her hair tied with colorful ribbons. During the war when schools were closed my parents taught her to read and write. Her handwriting was graceful, my grandmother recounted, even though she (my grandmother) could not read or write. 

Then one morning soon after the war ended, my sister disappeared. The entire village searched for her. At that time the communists were in an armed struggle against their erstwhile ally, the British, to gain control of the country. My sister was suspected to have been kidnapped and taken deep into the jungle by the communists to be their “comfort girl.” My parents were stricken by that thought. 

Suspicion quickly focused on the small Chinese community in my village, fed by the fact that only a few days earlier a Chinese family had abandoned their home amidst mystery. Before the distrust could degenerate into a full fury of inter-communal hatred, the villagers were led to an abandoned well by a foul odor. Beyond that the details were hazy. 

According to my uncle Nasir, the smell was so strong that no one volunteered to descend into the hole to determine the source. Everyone had their ready excuses. In the end it was left to my father, and his worst fear was borne out. 

Later in preparing for the funeral ablution, my father had difficulty getting the village bilal to perform it; he had other commitments that day. In the end a helpful neighbor did it, and also led in the jenazah prayers. My father was forever grateful to him, and from then on he was our family’s imam. That was how my father became close to Imam Mondot. He was not yet the village imam at that point. My uncle told me that everyone had to wrap their face at the funeral because of the deep odor, all except my parents. To them the smell of their dear daughter would always remain sweet. 

Once in a moment of deep contemplation as he related stories of the war, I asked my father about Kak Long. “Those were trying times,” he said, his voice flat and without any trace of anger or bitterness. Yes, he did have difficulty in getting someone to perform the funeral rites. “But those were difficult times,” he repeated, excusing his fellow villagers’ behaviors towards him. 

Trying times often do not bring out the best in us, he said over and over, more to reassure himself as well as to remind us. His faith helped him accept such a terrible personal tragedy with equanimity. Perhaps knowing that his sweet young daughter died of an accident despite the horrible circumstances was a relief, as he had earlier feared a fate far worse. As for my mother, she coped in the only way she could; she blotted out the whole terrible memory. 

The cruel irony did not escape me. A hole in the ground saved my life during the Japanese Occupation; another would later, when the war was over, claim the life of my sister. In the game of life during that dangerous time, it was a draw for my family. 

Next:  Excerpt #  37: A Greater Tragedy For The Community


Sunday, June 19, 2022

Cast Fom The Herd Excerpt #35: Grudging Admiration for the Japanese

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #35:  Grudging Admiration for the Japanese

Despite their brutalities, my father had a grudging admiration for the Japanese, in particular their diligence, ingenuity, and work ethics. One day he saw Japanese troops unloading their trucks. Instead of each soldier carrying a single load trudging back and forth like the British, the Japanese lined up and passed the load from one person onto the next, a human conveyor belt of sorts. Very efficient as there was little bodily movement, a savior in the hot, humid tropics. 

The Japanese also came well prepared for the stifling heat. They wore baseball cap-like hats with vertical flaps in the back to shield their neck against the blistering sun yet airy enough to allow the sweat to evaporate and cool the skin. 

The Japanese impacted Malays in many consequential ways, not through edicts and examples but fear and terror. There were no “lazy natives” during the Occupation; all were engaged in learning a trade or skill, and, as expected, studying Japanese. Like my late father, former Prime Minister Mahathir was also a young man during the Occupation. However, he missed my father’s astute observation of our people. Hence Mahathir’s subsequent frequent irritating and insulting “Malays are lazy” pat excuse for the many failures of his ineffective and unimaginative policies.

My father never failed to remind me how well and fast young Malays adjusted to the strict and tough discipline of the Japanese. My cousin Baharuddin learned carpentry well enough to build his own house after the war. Malays had no difficulty learning Japanese and the kanji script. Learning English by contrast would be a breeze. The Japanese teaching method was simple yet effective:  Learn, or else! That “or else” was the most powerful motivator. My father scoffed at our leaders’ frequent excuse that English is difficult to learn. Make that a requirement for government jobs and getting public contracts, then see how fast Malays become proficient in the language. This simple insight escapes even the brightest contemporary Malay leaders.

The Japanese also upended traditional Malay culture. The remarkable feature was the ease with which they did it, almost with no effort or resistance from the Malays. Ostensibly the Japanese did it so as not to ‘interfere’ with the sovereignty of Malay sultans and in ‘deference’ to our culture. One practical effect to that policy was that Malay sultans no longer received state stipends as they did under the British. Those sultans had to fend for themselves, their destitute subjects were in no mood or condition to bring material tributes to the palace. 

My mother remembered fishing in the river with the other women in the village, including the future first Queen of Malaysia. With everyone struggling to eke out a living, the peasants forgot or ignored their royalty’s earlier exalted status. There was nothing regal about the future queen semi-naked in her cheap sarong wading in the river chasing after a catfish with her net. 

During the Occupation all tillable land was cultivated, with the produce delivered to the Japanese. Owners of idle land paid dearly for their neglect. So we had the perverse situation where all the land was cultivated but the people starved. Only the Japanese were well fed. The only staple for the rest were the tuber roots of the tapioca plant. It is so hardy that it could grow anywhere. As fertile land had been diverted to growing rice and vegetables for the Japanese, only the poor soil was left, and it could support only tapioca. While a tolerable source of calories, tapioca lacks essential vitamins, in particular B complex. 

Years after the war, many of my classmates had swollen legs, bloated bellies and bulging eyes, telltale residuum of beriberi, the signature disease of the Occupation, from lack of Vitamin B complex in their diet. 

Had the Occupation lasted longer, it would have transformed Malay society forever. It would have ended for sure our feudal system. Malays would also have been more disciplined and diligent; the myth of the “lazy native” forever shattered. We would have benefited from imitating the industrious Japanese without there being any need of a “Looking East” policy or any such fancy slogans. After the war with many Malays complaining of the difficulty in learning English, my father scoffed, reminding everyone that we had no problem earlier with the much more difficult Japanese. 

During the war my father resolved that once it was over, as surely all wars would, he would continue to work just as hard as if the Japanese were still in charge. Only this time he would get to keep the fruits of his labor. So every afternoon after his siesta my father would grab his cangkul (hoe) to plow the rice field. We would join him later when it was shadier. He would make sure that we were properly attired, with wide terendak (straw hats), long sleeves and pants to protect against the sun. We also cultivated the lands of our neighbors’ sawah (padi fields) through a pajak system where we would share the harvest with the owners.

Soon our rice bin was overflowing, with the golden grains piling up all over our house, turning our verandah into a sand dune. A visiting relative inquired whether there was a wedding in the offing, what with the abundant stockpile. It took my parents four or five years to blunt the memory of the deprivation of the war years. Only then were we spared the chore of working the rice fields after school. 

I learned much from my parents and grandparents during those rice-planting years. Early before planting season we had to clear the stream that had been choked off by weeds and debris during the fallow season. We trekked up the hill to the source and began there where the soil was soft. With the water now flowing, the bed downstream would also become soft, thus easing our work. As the flow gained momentum it would take its natural path of least resistance, thus directing us where to dig and clear the channel. 

I resented the task in part because it was grueling and hot even under the shade. For another, none of the neighbors would join us even though that cleared stream would also benefit them. I must have complained once too often for my father to reprimand me. What was important was what we gained from our work, he reminded me. That others too would were but a bonus. 

He related a hadith to the effect that a man was rewarded with a slot in heaven because he had picked up a thorn on the road. Yes, he benefitted directly from that deed by sparing himself injury. However, the greater reward (pahala) was in sparing others from the danger. 

My father advised me to study hard so I could become an engineer and build roads and ditches to benefit society. Yes, I would be paid well but the greater reward would be the good I would do for the community. In Islam that is the more meritorious deed. 

The war taught my father many lessons. The most critical was to be aware of the greater world through access to accurate information via modern technology. The ‘modern technology’ of his time was the radio. It was the radio that brought news of the Japanese invasion. During the war, the few who had access to shortwave radio listened to the BBC. To be caught meant instant beheading by the Japanese. 

Those with access to shortwave radio knew that after the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, the war’s end was imminent. They rushed to buy land, animals and properties from simple villagers at hyper-inflated prices paid for in Japanese ‘banana’ currency. Many in my village bragged of getting ‘great’ deals. Alas, their euphoria was short-lived. When the Japanese surrendered a few weeks later, those banana notes were good only for wrapping fried bananas, and for papering walls. Being stiff and slippery, they were not even useful as toilet paper. 

Next:  Excerpt # 36: The Not-So-Peaceful Aftermath of War

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Malay Ummah's Phantom Enemeis

 Malay Ummah’s Phantom Enemies

M. Bakri Musa


Viewing the plethora of Malay religious sermons on social media, as well as from reading current mainstream headlines, I am reminded of the observation of a character in Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy. “At times a person may create an imaginary problem to escape an actual problem he finds difficult to resolve.”


            At least Mahfouz’s character is aware of her limitations. Malay leaders on the other hand are consumed with fighting one phantom enemy after another, and declaring repeated victories.


There is no shortage of critical challenges facing the ummah, from child brides and atrocious divorce rates to rampant drug abuse and entrenched corruption. Yet Malay leaders and ulama are fixated on manufactured enemies like the Japanese Bon Odori Festival. Earlier they hyperventilated on the presumed threat from Oktoberfest.


Yet they and their followers remain silent when that “pengkhianat negara” (national traitor) aka Najib Razak, convicted of massive corruption, was invited to an official palace dinner. Malay rulers with crude tastes are the norm; we have long lived with that. The current Agung’s immediate predecessor had to resign after his cavorting with a Russian beauty queen was exposed. The current Agung’s late father was no figure of moral rectitude. He left a trail of wives from East to West. His son, the present Agung, his Sandhurst  education notwithstanding, is no different.


It is not surprising that this degenerate trait would spread beyond the political and royal classes. Consider that Sidek Hassan, former Chief Secretary to the Government, admitted in court that he was paid RM30K per month, a figure that exceeded his official salary, to be on the board of the infamous 1MDB for “doing nothing.” There is more. He was honored with a Tan Sri and made Chairman of the Enforcement Agency for the Integrity Commission. Truly Orwellian!

The prosecutor or defense lawyer should have pummeled him in court. That would have wiped the silly grin off his face.


Sidek’s successor, Ali Hamsa, was no sparkle either. He died recently so I am restrained in my comments except to say that he, after ‘meticulous’ examination, declared that 1MDB’s affairs were “clear and above board.” Yes, Ali Hamsa was also a Tan Sri.


Royal rulers are by statute exclusively Malays, while the political and administrative classes are increasingly becoming so through practice. The other exclusively Malay leaders are the ulama and religious scholars. 


Throughout history, as Noah Feldman noted in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, ulama and scholars were the ummah’s formidable bulwark against tyrannous rulers. Read the biographies of these ancient luminaries; many suffered the wrath of their evil rulers. For most however, then and now, the ahadith “Heaven is full of rulers who befriended scholars while Hell, of scholars close to rulers” describes better the reality.


Malaysia has gone far beyond; the state now fully coopts the ulama. This blight began with Mahathir Mohammad. Early in his tenure as Prime Minister he tried to ingratiate himself to them so as to be seen as the “champion” of the faith. He succeeded only in emboldening them. They ridiculed him for his illiteracy in Arabic (the language of Islam) and lack of formal religious credentials. Imagine an English-illiterate expounding on Shakespeare’s subtleties, they sniffed! Mahathir tried to ride the Islamic tiger to fame and glory only to end up with the beast nearly devouring him. Crudely put, they crapped on him.


Malay ulama, far from being a bulwark against tyranny, are very much part of the problem. Listening to their sermons and observing their actions, I am struck by two disturbing thoughts. One, their total irrelevance to and ignorance of contemporary challenges facing the ummah. Two, their obsession with death and destructive theology of belittling Allah’s greatest gift – our precious life. This more than anything else prevents Malays from making our rightful contributions; hence our current sorry state. This preoccupation with chasing Paradise causes the ummah to suffer hell in this world. We should instead heed the wisdom of the 13thCentury Sufi scholar Ata Allah Al Iskandariah:  If you want to know your standing with Him in the Hereafter, look at the state He has put you in now (His Hikmah’s Aphorism No: 73).


Malay ulama have failed to give full meaning to the Qur’anic injunction:  Command good and prohibit evil. True piety, the Qur’an goes on, does not consist of turning your face towards east or west . . . rather your spending on the needy and freeing humans from bondage. The greatest bondage trapping individual Malays today is our poverty of skills and intellect, thus our lack of competitiveness. Endless zikir (pleadings to The Almighty) would not solve that; improving our schools and universities would. 


Our collective cultural bondage is our acceptance of the loot of corruption as borkat (bounty from Allah). We were easily bought when 1MDB crumbs were used to finance Hajj and suraus. As for Sidek Hassan’s monthly RM30K borkat, that was but spilled gravy compared to what kafirs Tim Leissner, Jho Low, Roger Ng and others had. 


A cautionary note. It is worth reminding that “assassin” is an Arabic word and “amok” a uniquely Malay cultural trait. The recent interest in Mat Kilau, the lone warrior who rebelled against the British, and one Private Adam who went amok against a sultan, are early warning signs. Even the most compliant society has its limits.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Casr From The Herd: Excerpt #34: Unintended Positive Consequences of War

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #34:  Unintended Positive Consequences of War

As dark and brutal as the Japanese Occupation was, it had some positive consequences, at least for Malays. The sight of those colonials scurrying a hasty retreat, abandoning everything including their families, was shocking. They fled not in the face of soldiers with their superior tanks but by the short Japanese riding their bicycles hammered out from discarded sardine tin cans. That jarred the natives; the myth of the supremacy of the White Man forever shattered. It was this that emboldened Malays to take on the colonials and pursue political independence right after the war. 

As for the abandoned colonial families, the movie “A Town Like Alice,” based on Nevil Shute’s novel of the same title, graphically depicts the tragic fate of one such group. A few days earlier those mems were lording it over their native servants. Now those colonials were desperate, begging for the benevolence of those same villagers. How quickly fate could change! It was a tribute to those villagers that they sheltered their former masters and shared whatever little they had with them. 

Then there was the spectacular case of Maria Hertogh, or Nadra Binte Ma’arof (her Malay name), depending upon your bias and sympathy. It was spectacular because her case triggered a deadly riot. Her colonial mother gave her up for adoption to a Malay family so she could flee the war unencumbered. When the war was long over, she tried to reclaim her daughter who by now had fully bonded with her adopted family and became Malay in all respects except for her looks. The ensuing ugly court battle pitted the natives against the colonials. In the end the colonial trial judge followed his tribal instinct and awarded custody to the biological mother. 

Han Suyin’s gripping novella Cast But One Shadow, though under a different setting, was based on that tragedy. 

Much has been written on the hasty British retreat and the ease with which the Japanese prevailed. As Ruslan Khalid wrote in his memoir, “... the invading Japanese literally walked into Malaysia from Thailand without a shot being fired.” 

My father was not so ready to dismiss the British for their cowardice and incompetence, or buy into the courage and brilliance of the Japanese. That no doubt reflected his residual fondness for the British, combined with his usual cynicism for pat answers and popular viewpoints. 

The British believed the Japanese would never attack from the sea, at least not from the northeast and especially during the hellish monsoon season when “the sea was a demented beast, lashing a mighty roar. . . . [T]he water lashed, chopped and growled, eating up our beaches,” in Awang Goneng’s elegant prose in Growing Up In Trengganu. No sane commander would risk his troops in the roiling South China Sea at that time of the year. So the British concentrated their defense on the more likely target – the strategic island of Singapore to the south. To the natives however, the waterfront is always associated with evil, as per Conrad’s many Malay novels. The Japanese landing on the northeast coast was thus not a surprise to us. The British however, would never deem to heed the wisdom of the natives. 

More pivotal and relevant to explain the ease of the Japanese invasion was this. Before the war there were many Japanese immigrants in Malaysia. Unlike the Chinese and Indians, those Japanese resided in the villages and small towns. Even more remarkable, they were engaged disproportionately in the photography business, availing themselves as official photographers at important state functions. They were also often seen in the countryside snapping pictures of the beautiful lay of the land, as befitted their profession. Their other popular trade was barbering and hair dressing. Those were excellent occasions to listen in their patrons’ gossips. Hair saloons then (still now) were also fronts for prostitution. Those Japanese hookers were collecting more than just money from their colonial clients. A few months before the outbreak of war, those photo studios and hair saloons were sold at cheap prices or simply abandoned.


My father saw in the invading army many of the town’s former photographers and barbers, now wearing the uniforms of the Imperial Army. They had been part of an earlier extensive and elaborate Japanese fifth column. 

To my father that represented Japanese perfidy of the lowest order. It was British generosity, as well as that of the natives, that enabled those Japanese, like the Chinese and Indians, easy entry into Malaysia to escape the wretched poverty and stifling congestion of their homeland. They then abused that hospitality. 

This perfidious Japanese behavior had a deep impact on the Malay psyche and poisoned Malay attitude towards all immigrants that persists even to this day. In negotiating for independence, the major stumbling block was the status of the immigrants. Having experienced earlier Japanese treachery, Malays were loath to grant citizenship to the other immigrants, viewing them not as potential loyal citizens but would-be traitors and fifth columnists, a la the Japanese. 

Next:  Excerpt #35:  Grudging Admiration for the Japanese