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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 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


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