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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 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


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