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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, 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


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