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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.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Investigate Mahathir With The Same Vigor As With Najib

 Investigate Mahathir With The Same Vigor As With Najib


M. Bakri Musa



The praises heaped upon Chief Justice Maimun and her fellow Federal Court Judges on their handling of Najib Razak’s criminal appeal were not misplaced. They could have rendered a very different verdict.


Imagine had the Chief Justice been that character who was caught holidaying in New Zealand with a member of the defense bar (I wonder who picked up their tab!), or the former UMNO Legal Advisor who perjured himself in hiding his secret second marriage in Southern Thailand. Worse, remember that infamous lawyer whose VVIP clients at the time included then Prime Minister Mahathir? That attorney was caught on videotape uttering “Correct! Correct! Correct!” on the phone. The party at the other end was a senior judge, later to become Chief Justice; they were trying to fix an upcoming case.


            Then consider had the Anti-Corruption Agency still been under Dzulkifli Ahmad, the ilk who was caught holidaying in Bali with someone other than his wife. Personal morality aside, this was the same idiot who later tipped Prime Minister Najib of the then on-going 1MDB criminal investigation. It was unfortunate for both but lucky for Malaysians that their phone conversation was tapped and later released by Latheefa Koya, Dzulkifli’s successor. Dzulkifli was confused on whether he was on the nation’s or Najib’s payroll. Dzulkifli was not alone in being confused. Witness the many court testimonies of other civil servants. Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan was paid more than his official salary to be on the 1MDB Board to “do nothing.”


Likewise, had the prosecution been led by career civil-servant “Kami menurut perentah” (We follow orders!) lawyers, the outcome would also have been very different. There is more! If that third-rate former UMNO lawyer Apandi had remained as Attorney-General, Najib would not have faced any charges. Najib would today be lauded a Wira Negara (National Hero!), with the Agung feting and decorating him on a garish obscene scale as only a Malay sultan could.


There are many honest, dedicated and competent civil servants, but those are not the ones being promoted. Instead we have the likes of Dzulkifli and Sidek Hassan reaching the top. I am also aware that there were many brave civil servants who literally paid with their lives for their integrity. Remember the late Deputy Public Prosecutor Kevin Morais? 


            Those aside, the tipping point that led to the unmasking of Najib’s sinister nature and egregious greed was voters’ denying his UMNO-led coalition victory in the 2018 national elections. Prior to that the UMNO-led Barisan and its earlier Alliance coalition had suffered only two major but not power-shifting electoral setbacks.


            The first was in 1969 when the Alliance failed to secure a supra-majority of Parliamentary seats, and polled less than half of the popular votes. That setback triggered a race riot that nearly tore the nation apart. The second was in 2008, also with a loss of its supra-majority. That resulted in Abdullah Badawi’s resignation and Najib’s ascendancy to the top slot.


            As for Najib, he had a near-death political experience in the 1999 elections when he barely held on to his long-held Pekan seat which he had won with over a 10,000-vote majority in the previous election. In that 1999 contest he scraped through with a threadbare 241-vote majority, rescued at the last minute by “mail ballots” from the nearby army base.


            The 2018 national election was a game changer. Unlike the Nigerians and Pakistanis,  Malaysians were finally disgusted with their leaders and voted out the corrupt UMNO-led coalition. The new administration, though brief, nonetheless triggered the subsequent cascading events that led to Najib’s incarceration.


            As such, praises for Najib’s final conviction should go to the Malaysian electorate. That is the key lesson for the next election. The most powerful instrument in getting rid of corruption is for voters to know where to put the “X” on their ballot.


            Had Malaysians been similarly wise in 1999 and booted out the Mahathir-led coalition, they would have uncovered similar egregious corruptions and gross mismanagement of the past. Think of London Tin, the massive Forex losses, and Bank Bumiputra bankruptcy, among others. Then remember the gruesome murder of the Bank’s auditor, Jalil Ibrahim. With Najib, there were the model Altantuyaa, banker Ahmad Najadi, and prosecutor Kevin Morais. 


Had a similar tough scrutiny been done back then, Malaysia would have been spared the later 1MDB and other boondoggles. The nation jailed the wrong leader following the 1999 election. 


            Najib is Mahathir’s political son. Najib would not have risen so early and so fast had it not been for Mahathir. He was also instrumental in Najib replacing Abdullah in 2009. Mahathir greasing Najib’s path was in the old Malay tradition of berbalas budi (reciprocating a debt of gratitude). Earlier, Najib’s father Tun Razak had resurrected Mahathir when the latter was in the political wilderness following his expulsion from UMNO back in 1970. 


            Come the next election Malaysians must again repeat the 2018 lesson and boot out the Mahathir-controlled coalition as well as the UMNO-led one. Only then could the nation do a similar much needed albeit delayed scrutiny of Mahathir’s many outrageous follies. Today the old man is strutting around pontificating on Najib’s sins while remaining blissfully ignorant of his own massive ones. Voters must disabuse him of his delusion. There is no statute of limitation to the crime of plundering the nation. Mahathir should be investigated with the same vigor as Najib for only then would justice be done.


            Regardless whether such investigations be undertaken, one fact remains glaring and indisputable. In being directly responsible for Najib becoming Prime Minister, Mahathir had inflicted the greatest damage on the nation. You cannot put a price tag on that colossal blunder.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #43: Back To Another Black Area

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 43:  Back To Another Black Area

It reflected the basic fairness of British colonial rule, at least with respect to its personnel policies, that those who had been posted to a black area could after a two-year stint request a transfer out. My parents did that and were transferred back to our home village of Kampung Tengah. It was also still a “black” area then, though not as “black” as Lenggeng, with nighttime curfew relaxed and imposed only from 10 PM to 7 AM. Still, at the entrance to my village there was the threatening sign of a soldier with his rifle cocked. Like Lenggeng, there was also a small mud fortress at the center of the village, manned at night by the Home Guard, an armed civilian unit made up of the villagers. 

My father had bought a 16-acre rubber estate at the end of the war. That was a huge parcel. It was his statement to my mother’s family and clan that he was ready to make his own mark. He dreamed of building his own home and being independent of my mother’s inherited ancestral one (tanah pusaka). As per Adat Perpatih of my matriarchal Minangkabau culture, my father was but a squatter on my mother’s property. He was often reminded of that by his orang pesanda (male in-laws). Divorce your wife and you have to vacate, leaving behind everything including your home and children. You would be lucky to have only sehelai dipinggang (the sarong hugging your hips). 

That parcel of land was in Senaling, a village a few miles from my school. Its Chinese owner sold it with minimal initial earnest payment based only on an oral promise from my father to pay up later. The desperate seller assumed that as teachers my parents had a secure income to pay off the loan. 

It was a good parcel with productive rubber trees. A few months before the sale, a band of communists had burned an Eng Giap Bus Company coach right at the entrance to the property. No one was killed; it was more a statement that they controlled the area and could do anything with impunity. Anyone cooperating with the colonials would pay a severe price. That explained the seller’s desperation to get rid of the property. 

The debt took a huge bite on my parents’ budget, forcing them to be frugal in the extreme. We had a prolonged austere ration of sawi and kangkung (cheap, easily-grown vegetables) and ikan bilis (dried anchovies). To be sure, that was still better than what we had endured during the Japanese Occupation. My daily shopping list was such a standard fare that the shopkeeper did not have to wait for my orders. It was the joke of the village, but that did not faze my father. He was determined to get out of debt as fast as possible. 

I would be reminded of that post-war family austerity years later when I moved to California from Oregon. Even though it was during the real estate bust of the early 1980s, homes in California still cost three to four times more than in Oregon. I was not confident that there would be a commensurate increase in my income. My realtor however, persisted in pushing the most expensive homes. “Eat hamburgers and hot dogs if you have to!” she urged me, “this slump is temporary.” She was right, for the most part. 

There was so much uncertainty in Malaysia right after the war that everyone was trying to unload everything. Because of their assured income (not just one but two) many desperate landowners sought out my parents. The post-war British Administration was determined to make landowners pay on those missed land taxes during the war. Selling would relieve them of that burden. 

Later when his land investment proved profitable, my father would never fail to remind me of his regret in not being more daring and had bought more. 

My parents had planned to settle down on their new land, but being public servants their future was not in their control. Soon they were again given an unexpected transfer to another communist hot-spot area, Triang, in Kuala Klawang district. As I was already attending school in Kuala Pilah, I stayed back with my older brother and sister with our grandparents. 

Triang, like Kuala Pilah, is on the eastern side of the Main Range. There were two ways to get there. One was to keep on the eastern side of the mountain through Bahau, the other to cross the Main Range at Bukit Putus to Seremban and then east re-cross it again at Bukit Tangga. The first route was longer but straighter and thus the drive much smoother.For the first visit we took the longer route. With the flat straight road, the bus driver pushed his machine to its limits. It was the fastest bus ride I ever had. I could hardly breathe and had to squint in the wind. 

At Simpang Pertang we waited for the police escort to accompany us for the rest of the journey. During the war this was a Chinese village and the Japanese massacred everyone there. Only the burnt scars of the shop houses remained. The lone standing structure was the police station. 

The distant rumbling soon announced the arrival of the caravan from the other direction, led by a black Saracen armored personnel carrier (APC), followed by a bus and then a few cars. At the tail end was another APC. The two APCs stopped at the police station while the rest of the convoy continued unescorted towards Kuala Pilah. 

After about thirty minutes, the first APC started to move and the policeman sitting in the gun turret waved us on. Our bus followed the APC; behind us were a few cars and the other APC. As we were not moving fast I was able to enjoy the scenery. 

Soon we were in a thick jungle. The policeman who earlier was perched on the gun hole had now disappeared into the belly of the tank. That scared me. I imagined terrorists lurking behind those trees ready to pounce on us, and we would be the next day’s headlines. 

After about an hour on that deserted stretch we began seeing a few Malay houses. That eased my tension. Soon we were at Kuala Klawang. My father met us and we took a rickshaw ride to Triang, a mile beyond on a dirt road. Unlike at Lenggeng, even though Triang was one of the blackest areas, there were no sandbags against the walls of the house. As the school was in a Malay village, as in Labu, the campus was deemed safe. 

Out in front of the teachers’ barracks was a badminton court; my parents had taken up the sport. The nation had just won the Thomas Cup and Wong Peng Soon was the new national hero, idolized even by Malays. Badminton fever was everywhere. My parents’ rackets were the top-of-the-line Dunlop Maxply. I was surprised that they had indulged themselves. Only a few months earlier we were on the sawi and ikan bilis ration. My parents could luxuriate as this was the rubber boom triggered by the Korean War. His earlier investment in Senaling proved profitable beyond his dreams. 

The irony struck me. Here we were benefiting from another war when we had just suffered through an earlier nasty one. 

Next Excerpt # 44: Exposure To Scientific Research Literature

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Single Rotten Apple Versus The Whole Barrel Infected

 Single Rotten Apple Versus The Whole Barrel Infected


M. Bakri Musa



There was no joy with that pengkhianat bangsa (traitor to our race), aka Datuk Sri Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak Al Haj, now behind bars. Some relief perhaps, what with the protracted hearings, appeals, and request for adjournments now over. However, this is Malaysia. Hang on and be prepared for the ensuing even more ugly sagas, however difficult that may be to imagine.


            More fundamental is this. Is Najib the lone corrupt leader or is corruption now an ingrained trait of modern Malay leadership? A lone rotten apple versus the whole barrel being infected. Or to resort to a clinical metaphor, is Najib a solitary cancer or has the malignancy metastasized throughout Malay culture?


With the former, the best chance of cure would be to take aggressive action, as with wide radical excision of the tumor. That is, throw Najib in the slammer for a long time so as to impress others who would be similarly tempted. Even when the cancer has spread, it is still important to gain local control of the primary lesion but you would have to have additional modalities as with chemo and radiation therapy.


This localized versus disseminated cancer metaphor becomes more relevant what with new scandals like the Littoral Ships Contracts now unfolding and many old ones like the Bank Bumiputra, Forex debacle, and Perwaja Steel Mill still to be fully examined. 


            As for corruption, the narrative of a pious, upright and not too bright Malay leader being cheated by a slimy cunning Chinaman is an old one. Today that still resonates among not only Najib’s seemingly urbane lawyers but also by insular Islamist leaders like Hadi Awang. To them, their Najib is honest, only that moonfaced Jho Low had swindled their man.


At the practical level, Najib being jailed does not make those massive 1MDB debts disappear. They would still have to be serviced, consuming the nation’s scarce resources for the next decade or more. Imagine the colossal opportunity costs, with citizens bearing that burden, not Najib. Those costs are at least quantifiable. Not so the many more far greater and longer-lasting negative consequences. Already Najib is perceived a hero, and not just among simple kampung folks. Recall that earlier palace invitation of a few months ago. 


This degradation of our society’s norms and values may already be irreparable. In short, the cancer has spread.


Consider Najib’s last moments of freedom yesterday (August 23, 2022). He was whisked away not in the usual prison lorry but a dark-tinted luxury SUV, with police outriders fit for the Agung. Those tinted windows notwithstanding, Najib was seen through the clear front windscreen to be still in his Armani suit. Mug shots and orange prison garbs are only for opposition politicians and the common criminal, it seems. 


Somebody must explain this gross breach of standard protocol. Otherwise be prepared to see for even more bizarre and offensive scenes, the cancer having spread to the prison system. 


 Najib’s endless legal maneuverings, fervent multiple appeals, and cheap delaying tactics did not impress the judges. As per Chief Justice Maimun, “Putting aside the personality of the appellant, this [was]. . . a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering.” Najib was found guilty on all seven charges, reinforcing the earlier decisions of the Trial Judge and Appeals Court Judges. Both appellate decisions were unanimous. 

Chief Justice Maimun went further. “[T]he evidence . . . points overwhelmingly to guilt    . . .  so much so that it would have been a travesty of justice of the highest order if any reasonable tribunal, faced with such evidence staring it in the face, were to find that the appellant is not guilty . . . .” 

As for spurious delaying tactics, imagine bringing up an issue that allegedly first appeared in social media over four years ago, as the defense attorneys did in trying at the last moment to recuse the Chief Justice. I wished one of the Judges would have asked Najib’s smart lawyers whether they had first ascertained the veracity of that alleged Facebook posting. Very elementary, my dear! On the other hand maybe Najib’s lawyers should appreciate the judges’ kind courtroom gesture of sparing them this embarrassing basic question.


These ugly courtroom spectacles that Malaysians had to endure could all have been prevented if only Judge Nazlan had used his discretion and denied Najib bail, sending him straight to jail back in July 2020. Considering the gravity of the offense, Najib’s brazen manner, and the unprecedented size of the loot, Judge Nazlan would have been justified. And we would all have been spared the ubiquitous hideous displays of his “Malu Apa Bossku” (What’s there to be ashamed of?) placards, with Najib’s grinning face dominating the local social and mainstream media. As it turned out, Najib had a lot to be ashamed. 


For Nazlan, that would have at least spared him Najib’s clumsy, belated, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at smearing his (Nazlan’s) integrity. 


Those notwithstanding, it did not stop the Agung from inviting Najib, a convicted criminal, to an official palace dinner. I do not know whether the Chief Justice was also invited to that event. If she was, she did the right thing by not accepting. The King and his advisors should have known better not to invite a criminal onto hallowed palace grounds.


Any bets that the Agung, the current Sultan of Pahang (Najib’s home state), would in the coming 65thAnniversary Merdeka Celebration proclaim a new Wira Negara (National Hero) and grant Najib a pardon? Stay tuned!


There are many villains in this sorry expensive saga. Some have paid the price. Whether Najib would be included in this group remains to be seen, this latest denial of his appeal notwithstanding. This after all is Malaysia. 


There are also many victims, but Najib, his family and cronies, are not among them despite the cries of protestations of UMNO people. Instead there are those millions of Malaysians, the burden disproportionately borne by the poor. Imagine the many decrepit rural schools and underfunded hospitals because of 1MDB looting! 


There are also many heroes in this sad chapter of the nation’s history. Foremost are ordinary Malaysians. It was their collective courage in throwing out the whole corrupt lot in the 2018 elections that made possible the emergence of Latheeffa Koya to head the Anti-Corruption Agency, then Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, and most of all the prosecuting team headed by Datuk Sithambaram. 


The nation owes you much, and thank you for what you have done!


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Casr From The Herd: Excerpt #42: The Lenggeng Years

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 42:  The Lenggeng Years

From Labu my schoolteacher parents were transferred to Lenggeng, a village in the hills one third of the way up from Seremban along the trunk road to Kuala Lumpur. This was at the height of The Emergency, and Lenggeng was a very “black” area, with a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew. 

Unlike at Labu, there were separate schools for boys and girls. The teachers’ quarters were on the girls’ campus. Our house was a spacious bungalow high on cement pillars and the cement floor underneath being an open living area. 

Also unlike at Labu where the school was safe amidst pastoral surroundings, the girls’ school was behind a row of dirty Chinese shops. At one end of the road was a small fortress-like police station; the other, a small Chinese cemetery. Behind the school was a huge rubber smokehouse. Once a week there would be a terrible stench when they took out the smoked sheets. The rest of the week we had to endure the acrid smoke. Behind the smokehouse were marshes and beyond that, a rice field in the middle of which flowed a shallow river, at least at that time of the year which was just after harvest time, the dry season. 

That rice field was my playground. The hollow stems of the harvested rice plants made very good serunai, a poor boy’s recorder. You cut a length to include one node and made vertical serrations just below that. Depending on the length of the stem and number of serrations, the vibrations (thus pitch) and timbre would change. By having three or four of these serunais of various lengths simultaneously in his mouth, and by selectively blowing into them in the manner of a harmonica, my friend was able to produce beautiful music. I however, could not. 

There was a small earthen dam and a huge water-wheel to run the rice mill. Traditionally women did the husking of rice using foot pounders (lesong). They would step on a lever which carried a pounder at the other end, an asymmetrical seesaw. By stepping off, the pounder would drop into the bowl of rice grains, stripping the husks and releasing the pearly rice seeds. I used to help my mother and sisters doing that. It would be years later before I would appreciate the physics of the contraption through the concepts of levers, fulcrum, and mechanical advantage. 

The watermill’s moving parts were open, with no protective barriers. If my parents had known of the danger, they would never have let me go near the mill; I could have been crushed. Yet there I was improving on the contraption in my imagination, like lining the moving axles with metal sheets and lubricating them with coconut oil to reduce the friction and noise while lessening the wear and tear. That mill design had not changed over the generations; my culture’s operating philosophy being that whatever was good enough for our ancestors was good enough for us. Little need to tinker. 

A few years later the villagers in my Kampung Tengah, reflecting their contrarian Minangkabau cultural instincts, formed a cooperative and bought a British-made diesel-driven mill. While the watermill was a quantum leap in technological advancement over the lesong, that diesel engine was a universe beyond the water mill in efficiency.

The Chinese graves at Lenggeng, unlike the big one near Seremban, had only simple markers, often some pebbles supporting a burning joss stick. At certain times of the year the families would leave generous offerings of fresh fruits, delicious cookies, and of course money. For me, those were temptations too hard to resist. The more I took, the more would be left the next time. Those family members must have thought that an angel had taken their offerings to their loved ones in heaven. I had no wish to disabuse them of their belief. Or perhaps indeed I was an angel! 

The fortress-like police station was a constant reminder of the communist danger, as were the sacks of sand lining the outer walls of our house. Government properties were the communists’ favorite targets. Some nights I would be awakened by the sound of rapid gunfire – the police station being attacked – followed by the roar of armored personnel carriers to the rescue. Then all would be quiet. This happened often enough for my parents to reassure me to just go back to sleep. 

One hot afternoon I fell asleep on my parents’ bed. I must have rolled over to end up underneath it and hidden behind the bedcover. I woke up at dusk to find the house deserted. I called for my parents, and all I heard back was my echo. Frightened, I searched around but found no one. 

The communists must have attacked and took the rest of my family away! My being hidden underneath the bed must have saved me. I shifted tactic and became very quiet, tiptoeing around the house. I peeped outside and the playground too was deserted. Perhaps the entire village had been kidnapped! I sneaked out of the house and ran to hide in the nearby bushes. 

Then, “There he is!” someone shouted. 

I crouched to the ground to avoid detection. Soon others came rushing towards the bushes. I recognized one of them, a teacher at the school. “Abai!” He called me by my nickname. “Where are you? Are you okay?” 

I peeked through the leaves and saw his furrowed forehead. “I am here! I am here!” I cried and crawled out seeking help. 

Then my mother too came running towards me screaming, “Abai! Abai! Where have you been?” She hugged me, and her voice trembling, again asked me amidst her not-so-silent prayer of gratitude. 

I too cried and hugged her. Soon others came, including some policemen. My mother assured all that I was fine. Then my father appeared with a group of men, some carrying guns and others, parangs (machete). 

When you had sandbags stacked around the walls of your house and heard gunshots at night, your reactions would be programmed. On coming home that afternoon and finding out that I was missing, my parents sounded the alarm. This was after all only a few years after my oldest sister had disappeared in Kampung Tengah. It did not occur to my parents to first look underneath their bed. 

Decades later I re-visited Lenggeng; I did not recognize it. The old watermill and smokehouse were gone. The rice fields were dried up and overgrown with weeds, or more kindly put, left to fallow. I inquired from the older-looking patrons in the nearby coffee shop whether they remembered those old fixtures. I drew a blank. Then a frail old man volunteered that yes, he remembered them, and yes, one of his teachers was Cikgu Musa. 

From his recollections, that gentleman was of my vintage, but I did not think that I was that old. Life in a kampung was tough. It still is. 

Next:  Excerpt # 43:  Back To Another Black Area

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Let Us Undertake Our Own Hijrah!

 Let Us Undertake Our Own Hijrah!

M. Bakri Musa



I was touched by my Imam Ilyas Anwar’s Friday, August 5th 2022 Awal Muharram 1444 khutba (sermon). Awalmeans first in Arabic, and Muharram, the first of the twelve months of the Muslim year. 


Prophet Muhammad’s hijrah (migration) to Medinah from Mecca was such a pivotal event that the second Caliph (Omar) retrospectively made it (17 years later) to be the beginning of the Muslim calendar. To be precise, that hijrah did not take place 1444 years ago rather 1400 as the lunar-based Muslim year is shorter than the Gregorian one by 11 days. Further, hijrah was completed on the tenth day of the third Muslim month (Rabi al Awal), and not during Muharram.


Hijrah, my Imam Ilyas reminded us, means to migrate, to leave something and start anew. The Prophet, s.a.w, undertook it because he was being hounded by his fellow Meccan tribesmen intent on killing him and with that, his divine mission. Islam’s message of justice posed an existential threat to them.


Imam Ilyas reminded us that hijrah could be physical or spiritual. As for the physical, Muslims have no equivalent Abrahamic burden of being in a permanent state of exile (diaspora), dispersed in alien territories and to return to the promised land upon some messianic intervention. To Muslims, every new country is a promised land, an opportunity for a fresh beginning. 


When the Prophet, s.a.w., undertook his hijrah it was more to preserve and transmit the divine revelations he had received, less with his personal safety. Although the hijrah was the command of Allah, nonetheless the Prophet , s.a.w., took all necessary precautions. It was far from a spur-of-the moment decision typically associated with “escaping.” He did not depend only on Allah’s protection. For example, the Prophet, s.a.w., had arranged for a guide, mapped out his route carefully, and prepaid for the animals that would transport him and his companions. He enlisted the help from non-Muslim shepherds to cover his tracks in the sand. 


That last point should disabuse UMNO [Malay-based political party] and PAS (Islamic Party] chauvinists’ unfounded distaste of working with non-Muslims for Malaysia’s good. 


To the Prophet, careful planning did not conflict with and was indeed part of tawakkul (what Allah has bestowed upon us). This point, Imam Ilyas reminded us, is often missed by Muslims, now and then. To be pedestrian, predestination notwithstanding one should always look both ways before crossing a street. That is a necessary and much needed reminder as well as antidote to the entrenched fatalism (“Leave it to Allah!”) of Muslims, and not just among uneducated simple villagers.


In leaving Mecca the Prophet, s.a.w., went from a homogenous society of his Bedouin tribesmen to a then plural and diverse one in Medinah, with its established Christian, Jewish, pagan, and polytheistic communities. There he used Islam’s touchstone of justice to govern, not whims, revenge, hatred, or desire to dominate. He demonstrated as much as he preached this new faith, following the Qur’anic injunction (Surah Al-Kafirun 109:6):  “Unto you your religion, unto me, mine.” 


That simple, pragmatic, and peaceful creed is today missed by many, and not just the zealots.


In Medinah the Prophet, s.a.w., emphasized civic engagement and good communal relations. Among the first things he did was to set up marketplaces. Being a merchant he knew that trading was the best way to create and increase social bonds and interactions. It still is. As such I find the current Malay obsession with “Buy Muslim First” an aberration and counterproductive, from the business sense as well as faith-wise. As a vendor you would want the widest possible customer base; as a consumer, the best product and price. With the greater profit from the former, and the money saved with the latter, you would have that much more for zakat


The Prophet, s.a.w, lived the message of Surah Al-Ma’idah (5:8), approximately translated, “Bear witness to justice and not let hatred for a people lead you to be unjust. Be just, for that is nearer to reverence and to God.”  


That inspiration from hijrah was demonstrated to me by a student refugee from Ethiopia. She related her perilous journey escaping the land of her birth. What kept her going through the parched desert and stormy Mediterranean was remembering the Prophet’s own hijrah. While she was being hounded by those who were other than her own kind, and thus more understandable though no less painful, the Prophet, s.a.w., was being chased out by his own tribesmen. The pain must have been that much more wrenching. 


In Surah Al Nisaa (4:97) the Angels reprimanded those who had wronged themselves using the convenient excuse that they could not escape their plight. “Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated?” That should be the sharp rebuke to those who would use the ready rationale of “They always do it this way here!” to justify their evil conduct.


That was what that Ethiopian student did by migrating. As for those jingoistic Malay nationalists with their endless exhortations of hujan emas di negri orang, hujan batu di negri sendiri . . . (There may be showers of gold abroad but hailstorms in your native land but . . . ) in discouraging us from our own hijrah, heed Rumi’s wisdom:


“Muhammad says, ‘Love of one’s country is part of faith.’ But don’t take that literally! Your real ‘country’ is where you’re heading, not where you are. Don’t misread that hadith.”


Rumi too had done his share of hijrah. As for not going to where showers of gold, you are depriving yourself of Allah’s bounty. Worse, you are belittling it. In this regard, my Minangkabau tradition of merantau(wandering) is one to be celebrated, and emulated.


Imam Ilyas’s Awal Muharram khutba was refreshing for yet another reason. As I view similar sermons elsewhere, I was struck by two sad observations. While my Imam exhorted us to be inspired by hijrah, most Sunni Imams emphasized the ritual aspects of Muharram as with fasting on the tenth day. Meanwhile the Shi’ites were consumed with re-living the senseless tragedy of Karbala when the Prophet’s grandson was butchered and his body desecrated. Those ulama missed or skipped the essence and key lessons of hijrah


As we enter the Muslim New Year of 1444 let us again as per my Imam Ilyas, internalize the noble values and aspirations of that initial hijrah. Heed our beloved Prophet Muhammad (May Allah be pleased with him!): 


المهاجر من هجر الخطايا و الذنوب المهاجر من هجر ما نهى الله عنه


We do not have to physically migrate, rather abandon all that Allah has forbidden.





Sunday, August 07, 2022

Casr From The Herd Excerpt #41: The Labu Years

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #41:  The Labu Years

Though born and raised in Kampung Tengah, Negri Sembilan, my earliest childhood memories were of Labu, a village just north of Seremban along the main North-South railway line. My parents taught there right after the war. Mak Biah, my father’s youngest and unmarried sister, took care of us – my two younger sisters Zahariah and Mariah, and me. Mak Biah is a contraction for ‘Emak’ (mother or auntie) and Rabiah (her name). My older brother Sharif and sister Hamidah stayed back with my grandparents in Kampung Tengah to attend school in Kuala Pilah. 

The bus ride to Labu from Seremban passed by a huge hillside Chinese cemetery, the slope scarred with grave markers, from simple rock piles to gaudy elaborate shrines. The slope looked like an adolescent face pocked with acne of varying stages. As the old bus labored up the hill I had an irrational fear that it would break down, stranding us there beside the cemetery. There would always be a funeral procession, slowing the bus even more. The road would also be littered with fake paper money thrown from the cortege, the surviving relatives ensuring that their loved ones would be well stocked cash-wise (even though fake ones) in the Hereafter. Why they would need cash there I know not. 

In Labu we lived in a raised duplex on the school grounds. Near the front steps was a palm tree. One morning I saw a huge cobra coiled up there. I screamed! Mak Biah rushed out holding my baby sister Mariah in her arms, and on seeing the critter, screamed just as loud and rushed back in. That brought the school gardener to the house. He had that snake killed within minutes, but I had nightmares for weeks. 

Beyond the school grounds were rice fields. At that early time of the year they were fallow, with roaming water buffaloes and the ubiquitous bangau (egrets) on their backs, like barnacles on the hull of an overturned boat, feasting on the abundant ticks. Soon with the planting season, those beasts would be working the plows. 

The earliest nursery rhyme I learned from my Mak Biah was Oh Bangau! It began with a forlorn query as to why it was so thin. How could it be otherwise, replied the egret, with no fish to eat? The song then inquired why the fish did not spare any of its kind for the poor bird. The reply was that there were so few of them, what with the overgrown weeds. The weeds were then asked why they had overgrown. The buffaloes had ceased thinning them. The buffaloes in turn justified not eating those weeds because of upset stomach brought on from ingesting wet rice, which in turn was caused by the rain called for by the frog to protect it from being eaten by the snake. When asked why it ate the frogs, the snake replied that frogs were its natural food. Thus ended the long lullaby! 

I did not know it then, but that was my earliest and most beautiful introduction to the concept of food chains, and the interconnectedness of the various species – the essence of the science of ecology. Who could have predicted that a childhood nursery rhyme would help me answer years later the pivotal bonus question on my life-changing Sixth Form Entrance Examination! 

Beyond the rice field was the railroad track connecting Kuala Lumpur to the north and Singapore to the south. My favorite pasttime was watching the daily southbound mid-morning “Mail Train” with its distinctive cream and chocolate-brown coaches pulled by a powerful black locomotive billowing out thick smoke. Only after the train had long gone would I dare venture near the tracks. Mak Biah warned me to always look in both directions to make sure that there was no train coming, a needless advice as the roar of the train and vibrations of the tracks would scare you long before that. They don’t call those machines “iron monsters” for nothing. 

I often waved at the passengers, and when they responded I would jump with joy. When Mak Biah was not looking, I would “moon” the train. Once she caught me doing it; she spanked me hard and threatened to tell my mother. I always felt forlorn after the train was gone. I wondered where those passengers were headed or what they would do in Singapore. I imagined walking along the tracks and the places I would pass through and people I would meet. 

My brother Sharif said that if I were to put a coin on the rail and let the train pass over it, the coin would be flattened thin and sharp. It could then be used as a knife. I never had a chance to prove that as my father warned me never to touch the tracks, less because of the danger of being hit by a train more that they were filthy. The toilets on those coaches, he told me, were nothing more than holes in the floor. That was enough to make me stay away. 

Today those Malayan Railway (or its present name, Keratapi Tanah Melayu) coaches are gleaming and air-conditioned, but it is still a hole in the floor for a toilet. At least that was the situation as late as the 2000. Those coaches are an apt metaphor for today’s Malaysia – modern on the outside, primitive on the inside; First World facade, Third World interior.

Next: Excerpt # 42:  The Lenggeng Years