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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 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


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