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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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



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