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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, July 31, 2022

Malaysia Needs Less, Not More Religion To Combat Corruption


Malaysia Needs Less, Not More Religion To Combat Corruption

M. Bakri Musa


Book Review:  M. Kamal Hassan’s  Corruption and Hypocrisy In Malay Muslim Politics. The Urgency of Moral Ethical Transformation. EMIR Research, Kuala Lumpur, January 2021.   

Paperback, 277 pp; RM69.90


[Excerpts from my memoir Cast From The Herd will resume next week]


The book’s title, and with that the content, is spot on and timely. The author’s central point is that Malaysia’s current problem is one of Malay Muslim politics and leadership, not of Malaysians generally. His second, the disunity and polarization of Malays. He has much less to say on this, or whether it is related to the first or a separate issue.


Kamal Hassan is no ordinary Malay. A scholar with an Ivy League doctorate (Columbia), he was the first Holder of the Malaysian Chair for Islam in Southeast Asia at Georgetown University. At home he had a long sterling academic career at the International Islamic University, ending as its third Rector in 2017. He had been honored with a Tan Sri and Datukship, as well as the national title of Professor Ulong (Distinguished Professor) and Tokoh Anugerah Akademik Malaysia (National Academic Figure).


On Kamal’s first point, I remind Malaysians that the state of non-Malay politics or the standing of non-Malay politicians is also far from being pristine. Recall the 1985 criminal conviction in Singapore of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) leader, one Tan Koon Swan. That took down the hitherto massive MCA’s Deposit Taking Cooperatives. Not to be left out, the Malaysian Indian Congress had its own unsavory and equally expensive MAIKA Holdings mess. 


All that is little consolation for Malays. While Malaysian Chinese could look to exemplary leadership of their kin south of the causeway and on Mainland China, Malays are bereft of such inspiring examples. As for Malaysian Indians, the current mess in India and Sri Lanka would make Malaysia shine by comparison. Nonetheless both Malaysian Chinese and Indians could look with pride and satisfaction on their achievements in education, commerce, and other endeavors. There is no comparable compensatory glory for Malays.


Malays used to bask (unjustifiably in my view) on the successes of such government-linked companies (GLCs) like Petronas, but Bank Bumiputra and now 1MDB squashed that. Besides, GLCs are public, not Malay enterprises.


            Kamal Hassan is compelled to write because he is “disillusioned, dismayed, and ashamed” of the deteriorating state of Malay leadership, made worse since the General Elections of 2018. “To make matters worse,” he continues, “the involvement of the factor of political narcissism appearing to the public as a well-meaning ‘savior’ [Kamal’s quote] in spite of advanced age, turned the political turmoil of the last few years into a complex phenomenon of political maneuverings, machinations and hypocrisy which are unprecedented.”   


            No marks for guessing who that political narcissist of advanced age might be! Nonetheless Kamal should be more explicit as future readers could have difficulty identifying this geriatric culprit. For another, the man might just heed Kamal’s counsel and reconsider not contesting the next election, as he (the culprit) now threatens to do. Of greater significance, Malays may remember Kamal’s wise words come the next election. 


The ageing political narcissist Kamal referred to, and the man responsible for Malaysia’s current curse of corruption, is of course Mahathir. It began with his “direct negotiations” of public contracts, massive expansion of GLCs, and the infamous money-printing “Approved Permits” back in the 1980s when he was Prime Minister. 


While the costs of those shenanigans as well as the latest 1MDB debacle were humongous, they were at least quantifiable. Not so the damages Mahathir inflicted upon Malaysia and Malays by entrenching the current culture of corruption and his endowing first, the inept Abdullah Badawi, then the egregiously corrupt Najib, followed by the scheming incompetent Muhydddin, and now the unbelievably clueless Ismail Sabri as leaders. These duds were all mentored by Mahathir. To be fair, how such untalented characters could rise so high reflects as much on our culture.  


Kamal Hassan’s remedy? A “Theocentric Leadership Paradigm.” In short more religion, Islam to be specific. 


However, all these Malay leaders have undertaken multiple Hajjs and Umrahs. Many have private suraus at their palatial residences and host regular zikir (remembrance of Allah) sessions during Ramadan. No, more Islam would not help. Jailing these corrupt leaders would. China, a communist and atheistic country, goes further. There they shoot them in public. 


Islam in Malaysia today is less a guide to the “straight path,” more a set of mindless rituals. It is this perversion of the faith that makes Malays view the loot of corruption as borkat and rezki, Allah’s bounty. As for “theocratic leadership,” Malaysia already suffers from what Georgetown University legal scholar and Malaysian-born Yvonne Tew refers to as “stealth theocracy,” where ambitious politicians and others eager to ride the Islamic tiger have corrupted the courts and other institutions. These penunggang agama (religious opportunists) pose the greatest threat to Malays and Malaysia, not the pendatang (immigrants). More pertinent, I cannot find any Muslim country, with or without theocratic leadership, that ranks high on the clean governance index. 


Look at Iran. Imam Khomeini drove more Muslims out of the faith than Stalin could ever hope to achieve. Kelantan, the poorest state in Malaysia and with the highest rate of domestic abuse, child marriages, and yes, Internet pornography viewership, has long been ruled by an avowedly Islamic party.


A more practical, effective, and readily achievable solution to Malaysia’s entrenched corruption is to fire the current Attorney-General, Chief of Police, and Head of the Anti-Corruption Agency. Then conduct a global search, seeking help from the FBI, Scotland Yard, and others. While there is no shortage of honest, competent Malays, but because of the community’s current polarization (Kamal’s second observation), finding one viewed as non-partisan would be tough. As for local non-Malay candidates, those too are plentiful. The challenge there is to find one not politically tone deaf, as with not being able to speak the national language and then be proud of that fact. Malaysians tolerate that in a foreigner but not one locally born and bred.


Now to mundane matters. Books are expensive in Malaysia. Local writers and publishers must do their part to reduce that. A paperback as this one is a solution. Another would be reducing the number of pages. Adopting standard publishing format would achieve this by dispensing with the unnecessarily wide side margins and the line spacing between paragraphs, references, glossary as well as with the index. Copyright infringements aside, there is little need for extensive quotes. Putting them in smaller fonts would also help with page economizing. Chapter II of this book is but a reprint of the Sultan of Perak’s long speech and extensive quotes from others. Likewise with hadith and Qur’anic verses, their page-consuming Arabic scripts are unnecessary; brief approximate translations should suffice. Adopting accepted referencing practices, as with 2:126 for Surah Al Baqarah, Ayat 126, would also save ink and paper.


This book is the lament of a respected scholar. It deserves wide readership for the observations and more importantly, robust discussions of the offered solutions. The publisher is confident of the first; it put “First Edition” to the copy I have! There is a Malay version, “Korupsi Dan Kemunafikan Dalam Politik Melayu:  Perlunya Disegerakan Transformasi Moral-Etika,” at RM49.90 compared to the English at RM69.90. Whether that reflects lower cost of production or assessment of market value, Allah hu alam (Only Allah knows).

Sunday, July 24, 2022

CastFrom The Herd Excerpt #40: Psy-Ops

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #40:  The Emergency’s Psychological Operations (Psy-Ops)

Back to the propaganda movies, I do not remember any screenings during Ramadan in deference to local religious sensitivity. Had there been one, the department probably would have won hands down over the mosque in terms of attendance. 

The psychological operations (psy-ops) went beyond those propaganda movies. There were those low-flying aircrafts dropping leaflets over the jungle with the message urging those terrorists to surrender. Sometimes voice recordings of the terrorists’ family members or former colleagues were also broadcasted from the aircraft, urging those still “misled” to surrender and enjoy the good life outside. The pamphlets carried pictures of well-fed surrendered former comrades with their wide grins or pictures of forlorn terrorists’ wives and mothers. No mistaking the message:  the authorities knew the relatives of those communists! 

A favorite game for us village kids was who could catch that first leaflet or the most. I would later appreciate the joy Canadian children had in catching that first or most perfect snowflake. The prize was of course only bragging rights, except for my Chinese friends. They assured me that those pamphlets were much superior to newsprints as toilet paper. 

In the end, the insurgency was not so much defeated as simply faded away. With independence, the communists lost their cause. At its height they enjoyed the occasional spectacular successes, as with Gurney’s assassination in October 1951 mentioned earlier. The year before, a train carrying my Yam Tuan (Sultan) was ambushed. He was in the last coach and thus escaped injury. Today few remember those tragic events. 

Yam Tuan’s ambush merited only a brief news item in the Straits Times; Gurney’s had a profound impact on the country. Apart from the obligatory holiday on the day of his funeral, the colonial government forced every landowner with properties abutting the roadways to clear back for at least 300 feet. Gurney’s convoy had been ambushed on a narrow jungle hillside road on their way up to Fraser’s Hill, a cool resort destination. 

Gurney’s successor, General Templer broke the back of the insurgency, and by the time he left in 1954 he was dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya,” a moniker once attributed to the ruthless Japanese wartime commander, Yamashita. Templer’s send-off befitted one given to great monarchs. The whole of Kuala Lumpur was shut down, with the streets from his official residence to the Sungei Besi Airport lined with citizens and school children. At the airport the sultans too lined up to bid goodbye, genuflecting to Templer like peasants to their, well, sultan. No mistaking the symbolism – those sultans knew or were told to know their place. I did not however, notice anyone wiping away tears. Nonetheless a grateful nation honored Templer by naming a national park as well as a major hospital after him. 

The Emergency was not officially declared over till July 12, 1960. Despite its horrors, nobody paid any attention to its ending; no victory parades or mass celebrations. It was anticlimactic. That was the best tribute to the nation. 

The Emergency may be over but the communists were still wreaking havoc, albeit sporadically and unsystematically. It took the genius of a local commander to finish them off in the 1970s. Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman was Templer’s protégé; he personally selected Mahmud for entry into Britain’s Sandhurst. At a time when Robert McNamara and his fellow Harvard “bright boys” at the Pentagon were obsessed with “body counts” as a measure of “progress” in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, Mahmud adopted a counterintuitive and radically different strategy. He gave those terrorists every opportunity to escape from being killed. He saw immense propaganda value in seeing former communists being alive, repentant, and leading productive lives. 

General Mahmud’s operating principle was simple:  In fighting communist terrorists (or any terrorist for that matter), first create no new ones. Kill one innocent victim and you would turn his entire extended family, as well as friends, clan and village, against you. This simple and obvious wisdom escapes the best minds, then and now, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Mahmud’s innovative thinking and counterintuitive strategy enabled Malaysia to prevail over the communist guerrillas, sans any foreign help – an achievement that remains unique to this day. The victory was made even sweeter as it happened at the height of the Cold War and where in nearby South Vietnam similar pajama-clad communists had humbled the world’s greatest military might.

The formal end to The Emergency was not signed until December 2, 1989, in Haadyai, Thailand. There was but a brief mention of it deep in the day’s papers, reflecting the irrelevance The Emergency had on contemporary Malaysians. Stripped of its legalese, the agreement was but a surrender document, a “save face” gesture to the geriatric Chin Peng and his Geritol comrades. 

As for that brilliant and innovative Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, except for a minor datukship there were no national honors heaped upon him or monuments erected in his name. Except for close associates and subordinates, few remember him. As a military leader General Mahmud agonized over the selection his commanders, very much aware that the lives of his troops would depend on the skills and wisdom of those whom he had selected. If only Mahathir had Mahmud’s sense of leadership responsibility, Malaysia today would have been spared the likes of Najib and Ismail. 

Time Asia magazine graced Mahmud’s portrait on one of its covers, describing him as a general equally at home reading poetry as planning military strategies. General Mahmud resigned his commission when then Prime Minister Hussein Onn in his wisdom bypassed him for promotion to be Armed Services Chief. As can be seen, Malaysia not valuing her talented citizens is not a recent phenomenon. 

General Mahmud died unheralded on August 25, 2020 at age 92.

Next:  Excerpt #41  The Labu Years

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt # 39 The Emergency

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #39:  The Emergency

The beginning of wisdom, goes a Chinese proverb, is to call things by their right names. That may be wise but not profitable. Had that State of Emergency been declared as war against the communists, which it was, then Lloyds of London would cease covering the many lucrative colonial enterprises. The economic impact would have been severe, one the colonial government could ill afford. On the other side had the communists prevailed, the Emergency would have been triumphantly trumpeted as the War of Independence, with parades, banners and holidays to mark its anniversary, and the dead glorified. 

At the height of the Emergency there were army camps all over the country. There was one in Kuala Pilah where first the British, and later the Fijian and Gurkha Regiments were stationed. My favorite was the British troops; they always had candies to give out, and I enjoyed my banter with them. The Fijians struck terror because of their sheer physical size and fierce demeanor, brute cavemen in army fatigues. They were also great rugby players; their team the perennial champion. Their other reputation was such that women terrorists would rather kill themselves than be captured. At least that was the myth perpetrated. 

The Gurkhas were but British mercenaries, and struck fear for a different reason. Once, a platoon in full jungle camouflage arrived at our village for a demonstration. After a brief instruction from their commander, they marched into the roadside bush. A few minutes later they disappeared, like sugar granules in your coffee. We villagers could not pick them out. 

Then after we were all suitably impressed, their commander blew a whistle. Soon thin wisps of smoke began emanating from between the branches. Tracing the smoke led to red ambers among the dark green leaves. Only then could we make out those soldiers nonchalantly smoking their cigarettes. I could imagine them lurking in the jungle unnoticed, like crocodiles mimicking floating logs, ready to decapitate their unsuspecting prey with their kukris – in silence and without mercy.

The jungle favors neither the hunted nor the hunter, wrote Spencer Chapman in The Jungle Is Neutral, only those who understand it. Those Gurkhas had a deep understanding of and an abiding respect for the jungle. 

The Emergency was not all troops and military operations. More consequential were the massive “psychological operations” (psy-ops) to induce the terrorists to surrender, and weaken popular support for them. Surrendered terrorists were rewarded with jobs in the Information Department, which was (and still is) a propaganda arm of the government. 

The department often showed films in my village, using portable generators. In between reel changes, the surrendered terrorists would give a brief spiel of their earlier terrible existence in the jungle and how well they were now being treated by the authorities. Pictures were then shown of their emaciated former comrades in tattered clothes still out there deep in the jungle. 

I thought those dog-and-pony shows were meant for those still in the jungle; a futile exercise as they would not be in the audience. On reflection, the target was not them rather their relatives and supporters in the crowd. They would carry the message back into the jungle. 

Once there was a successful raid on a jungle camp. In their haste to escape, the terrorists abandoned a baby girl. She had either been born there or brought in from the outside to be shown off to her proud father. The baby’s picture was splashed all over the newspapers seeking her relatives to claim her. Of course no one did, and for obvious reasons! In the end Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman adopted little Mariam. 

The propaganda was not all smooth or subtle. One former terrorist was too enthusiastic in praising his new exalted status, prompting the villagers to remark in hushed tones that they were considering joining the communists so they could then surrender and then be given plush government jobs! Those villagers had to be very careful expressing their sentiments; there were always Special Branch agents and snitches for the British in the audience. 

Those government films were the only source of news and entertainment for us villagers, young and old. There was no particular schedule to the screening. The department’s van would cruise the village in the afternoon and the word soon spread. By dusk the entire village would have gathered on the school playground, attracted like moths to light. Those movies were the social event. The evening would begin with a short “Tom and Jerry” clip, much to the delight of the children, and then the newsreel. Only after the audience had been suitably warmed up would the real propaganda begin. 

Interspersed during reel changes were also important public announcements, as with an ongoing polio immunization program. I remember visiting the public health van for my Salk vaccine the next day and the nurse sticking an adhesive tape across my chest afterwards. The next day at PE class I paraded myself bare-chested revealing the tape, to the wonderment of my classmates. I was among the first to be vaccinated; even my teacher was surprised. The villagers had priority over the town people.

A familiar figure in those films was General Templer, the top colonial officer. A military man rather than a civil servant, he was brought to Malaya in 1952 after his immediate predecessor, Sir Henry Gurney, was killed in a communist ambush. Templer was never shown outside of his stiff, stern demeanor, and always in his formal military attire. Wherever he went, everyone genuflected, including the sultans. 

Templer’s landmark program was the “New Villages.” Recognizing that the communists had many supporters among the immigrant Chinese, he rounded them up from their squatter huts and re-settled them in “New Villages,” with strict curfews so their movements could be controlled. There was one near Kuala Pilah; one of my classmates lived there and I had occasions for sleepovers at his house. I remember those occasions as my mother was concerned about my safety and on eating non-halal food. As for the latter, her worries were groundless. His parents took us out for satay at a Malay hawker stall. 

Today, revisionist historians likened those new villages to concentration camps. If that were so, then I wouldn’t mind living in one. There was electricity and piped water, way superior to my kampung. There was security too, with no triads harassing the residents. That silly comparison trivializes the real horror that was Hitler’s version. America’s later but much less successful “pacification” program in Vietnam was modeled after those Malayan new villages. 

Next Excerpt # 40:  Psychological Operations – (Psy-Ops)

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #38: A Season For Vengence

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #38:  A Season For Vengeance

The Japanese Occupation was hard on everyone. For some obscure reason the Japanese unleashed their viciousness more on the Chinese, thinking that the Malaysian variety was but a variant of the ones in China. The Japanese were even more vicious there. After the war, local Chinese in turn heaped their fury on Malays. 

The period between Japanese surrender and British arrival was to Malays the three longest and hellish weeks. It was worse than the preceding three years of Japanese Occupation. That three-week period of Bintang Tiga (Three Star) would forever be seared into the collective Malay consciousness that the Chinese were no different from the Japanese in their capacity to inflict unimaginable horror – a brutal and necessary reminder for Malays should ever the Chinese communists gain power in Malaysia. 

A decade later with Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the people of China would bore the burden of that terrible truth. 

Back to Malaysia, the Chinese were not the only ones bent on revenge after the war. So too were the British; they were as expected not as brutal but no less consequential. They were still smarting from their earlier humiliation from the Japanese. The pathetic sight of the British hightailing it was still fresh, and not just in the minds of the natives. 

After suppressing the Bintang Tiga insurrection, the British were quick to re-impose their previous imperious posture. At the highest level they went after the sultans, with threats of charges of treason for their conduct during the war. The Sultan of Selangor was banished to the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean; that of Trengganu, summarily dethroned. Exploiting intra-family rivalries, the British secured in the various states the ascension of weak and compliant members of the royalty, the grandparents of the present rulers. When I see the erratic behaviors of current sultans, I am not surprised. They had been “preselected” by the British.

In this regard the British displayed remarkable subtlety and nuanced understanding of Malay culture and psyche. Had they simply hung the sultans for treason for their conduct during the war, that would have only fanned anti-colonial sentiments among the rakyat

On a much less lofty level, there was my friend’s father, Cikgu Ali. He looked very much an intellectual with his thick glasses, but despite the title Cikgu (teacher) he had no classes to teach. Before the war he was a fervent anti-colonialist. When it was over, the British conveniently could not locate his prewar teaching credentials and thus denied him his old job. Only after the 1955 elections when education came under local control was he able to regain his old job. His campaigning hard for the successful political candidate was no doubt a factor. 

The war and its aftermath changed or ended the lives of many. It also altered the physical landscape. The luxuriant growth of the jungle has for the most part covered the physical scars of the landscape. As for Japanese atrocities, Malaysians have long come to terms with that. Japanese factories today dot the landscape and Malaysians flock to work in them. Honda cars and Hitachi rice cookers are top-selling brands, while Yoahan Supermarkets are the favorites with local housewives. 

In telling contrast, the terror of the much briefer three-week reign of Bintang Tiga still poisons Sino-Malay relationships right to this day. There are just too many Pak Khamises and their families, painful reminders of that brief but terrible period. 

When the British re-established authority, the communists retreated into the deep jungle to pursue guerrilla warfare. Their acts of terror culminated in a “State of Emergency” declared on June 16, 1948. Notwithstanding the label, to its many victims the Emergency was no different from the vicious war that they had just endured, and for which they thought was over. 

For a wider perspective, in neighboring Indonesia the natives decided not to have anything more to do with their returning erstwhile colonizers, the Dutch, and declared independence, dispensing with their sultans and bupatis (local lords). Further north, the Vietnamese continued their fight both against their monarch and the colonialist. Both countries endured their own versions of the “Emergency.” Theirs lasted much longer and much more brutal.


Next: Excerpt #39  The Emergency

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Casr From The Herd: Excerpt # 37: A Greater Tragedy For The Community

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa


Excerpt #  37: A Greater Tragedy For The Community

Tragedy on a much larger and more vicious scale struck the greater community following the Japanese surrender. The villagers’ suspicion of the Chinese for my sister’s disappearance did not arise out of thin air, and considering the circumstances, not unfounded. 

That thread is best pursued through the story of Pak Khamis, the second husband of my mother’s oldest sister, Mak Embong. To me he was the lazy native personified, always squatting underneath the shade of a tree. Whenever his wife asked him to do something, he would do it in his usual slothful way and then revert to his familiar pose. 

He harvested wild Palmyra palm sap. That was not an endeavor for the acrophobic. He had to climb up 50-60 feet on a slender bamboo stem whose branches had been trimmed off at the nodes, the stumps thus acting as footings for his jury-rigged, single-pole ladder. Once up there he would amputate the distal part of the flowering frond, and the sugary sap would ooze out from the stump, about a liter overnight. 

In cultures where alcohol is accepted, this sap would be fermented into toddy, a favorite drink with Tamil laborers. There was a toddy shop near the bus station in Kuala Pilah. This particular brew was from the sap of coconut instead of Palmyra palm. Long before the shop opened, a crowd would have already gathered, large tin cups in hand. Then a bullock cart would arrive, announced not by the sound of its steel wheels upon the pavement but by the characteristic sweet aroma of the brew. In the heat of the afternoon, that would trigger a collective Pavlovian salivation among the awaiting patrons, and they would begin spitting out their saliva, stained red from the sireh herb they were chewing, making the pavement look like someone had spilled rotten overripe tomatoes. 

The patrons’ subsequent collective behavior would also be so predictable. First there would be the inevitable rush to be the number one served as there was a special taste to that initial scoop. Of course only one person would get to savor that, hence the frantic shoving and pushing. 

Then a welcomed silence as they devoured their treasured brew, the calm before the storm. Two or three rounds later, the excitement would begin, with someone making a bold statement, only to be challenged by another. Before long there would be an outpouring of views and opinions, all expressed with passion as judged by their shrill voices and distension of their neck veins. Names of familiar politicians were now being uttered with abandon. You just knew then that those laborers were into tackling the pressing problems of the nation if not the world. Then their passion would become physical, and there would be a full-blown brawl. Only with the arrival of the police or the premature running out of toddy would sanity return. 

Culturally dissuaded from fermenting the sugary sap, my village folks instead boiled it as Vermont farmers their maple sap. When cooled, you would get solid brown sugar, gula melaka, excellent for sweetening treats. 

One morning I saw Pak Khamis climbing his bamboo ladder to harvest his sap. Halfway up, he stopped. “I’m tired,” he said. A few more steps and he would again pause, like an old sloth taking frequent rests. Then he dropped his empty pale and slipped down the pole, hitting the ground in an uncontrollable coughing spasm. “I can’t breathe,” he gasped, “call your auntie, quick!” as he pounded on his chest. 

Scared, I screamed for her. She rushed out of the house. Seeing him sprawled on the ground ashen-grey, gasping, nostrils flared, and mouth wide open, she lifted his back from behind and pounded her knee against it. Out popped a gummy, marble-sized ball of thick white sputum, like a cat heaving out a fur ball. 

            My Mak Embong’s instinctive response saved her husband’s life. Decades later Dr. Heimlich published his life-saving maneuver for choking by pushing one’s fists into the pit of the victim’s stomach. The effects of both maneuvers are the same, an explosive expulsive force on the upper airways. A variation known to all mothers is the tapping the back of an infant to induce burping.

“Hah!” Pak Embong sighed as he exhaled and recovered enough to be able to speak, “that was the worst!” Later at the house after he had calmed down over a cup of aromatic mint tea, he blurted, “I escaped the Japs,” as he caught his breath and patted his chest, “only to be worked on by the Chings!”


When the Japanese surrendered, there was an immediate power vacuum. The only organized and armed group was the Chinese communists. They emerged from the jungle not only to exact revenge and retribution upon Malays whom they regarded as sympathizers to or informers for the Japanese but also to take over the country. As Pak Khamis looked healthy, there could only be one explanation. He had been treated well by the Japanese and ipso facto a collaborator. 

“Those China kuis (devils) forced water down my throat with a hose,” he gestured with his thumb in his mouth. “Then they jumped on my bloated belly.” He stopped to catch his breath as he panted, reliving the gruesome experience. “I couldn’t breathe!” he struggled to finish his sentence. “I was drowning,” he gestured, pinching his nose. 

It was a primitive but no less cruel form of water-boarding. He was left for dead. Had he shown any sign of life, they would have beheaded him. The hot blistering Malaysian sun may kill you quickly through dehydration, but if you are drowning in your vomit, it would dry you up fast. By the time the neighbors found Khamis, he was already breathing on his own, his throat dry. That brutal torture crippled him with chronic severe shortness of breath and paroxysmal coughing spasms that threatened to snuff the life out of him. 

So he was not lazy after all; up till then I did not know that he had been tortured in the aftermath of the war. 

“What I cannot forgive were the other Chinamen,” he rued. He stopped to catch his breath and control his rising agitation. “They just stood there. Not one helped me.” 

“Not one!” he banged his fist on the railing. “I had shared my coconuts and gula melaka with them many times. Yet they left me to die like a pariah dog.” Clearing his throat and waving his finger, “I don’t trust any of them! None! Not anymore! And not any time!” 

As my father reminded us often, that was war.

Next:  Excerpt #38:  A Season For Vengeance