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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 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


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