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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, 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


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