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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 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


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