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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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Saluting Our Heroes And Heroines of 1MDB


Saluting Our Heroes And Heroines Of 1MDB


M. Bakri Musa



My commentary on Sultan Nazrin’s speech on corruption at the launching of Kamal Hassan’s book Corruption and Hypocrisy in Malay Muslim Politics on September 22, 2022 (“Raja Nazrin Missed A Splendid Opportunity”) elicited many responses. Most are supportive of my views but a few took exceptions, in particular my observation that despite the Sultan’s strong anti-corruption message he has yet to revoke Najib Razak’s Perak royal honorific. Then there were those thinly-veiled bigots who saw in Raja Nazrin’s “non-action” as reflective of the new norms of a degraded Malay culture and societal values.  


            Nazrin’s non-action rightly deserves wide attention and even more careful scrutiny. First, he is one of the few Malay rulers who have had the benefit of a superior education (Oxford and Harvard), the other ruler being Negri Sembilan’s Tuanku Muhriz (Law, Wales). Second, Nazrin and his fellow rulers were apprised of this 1MDB scandal not once but twice and as early as October 2015, months before the United States Department of Justice first filed its own charges. Third, Nazrin had experienced at a personal level the ugly effects of political corruption. Who could forget the pathetic image of him (then deputizing for his father, Sultan Azlan Shah) waiting, cooling his heels in the Perak State Assembly Hall antechamber while his Assemblymen and women were literally battling it out as who was the rightful Speaker. That bizarre May 2009 saga saw Pakatan’s Sivakumar being dragged out physically clinging onto his Speaker’s Chair.


            The Council of Rulers was envisioned to be a third House of Parliament. However its power had been severely clipped since the constitutional crisis of the 1980s. Nonetheless the collective moral and other sways of the sultans remain. Those would remain and be enhanced only if the sultans were to exhibit exemplary moral, intellectual, and leadership qualities. Attending elite universities reflect the second. As for moral, it would help if these rulers were not to cavort with foreign beaus and then abandon their babies, or be accused of keeping slaves in their palaces. That was the serious charge levelled at the Kelantan palace years ago by the family of an Indonesian beauty who caught the eye of one of the princes. As for leadership, sultans must demonstrate that on important national issues. Corruption is the national issue today.


With respect to 1MDB and Najib Razak, then MACC Chairman Shukri recalled his disappointment at the collective response of the Council of Rulers back in 2015. Nonetheless the Ruler of Negri Sembilan did withdraw Najib’s royal title right after he was formally charged in October 2018; Selangor’s sultan merely suspended his. Meaning, Raja Nazrin and his other brother rulers have had years to ponder this issue. They should now issue a powerful statement and initiate strong actions with respect to Najib and others involved. Non-action is not an option. 


That would be an insult to those brave diligent officers in MACC as well as in the Attorney-General’s office who had paid dearly for their early courageous investigations. Shukri in particular had many death threats. When he went to New York City to seek the help of the Americans early in the investigation, he was “tailed” by agents of the Malaysian government, and had to seek the protection of the New York City Police! He saw the chilling effects of his colleagues being transferred out, put into administrative “cold storage,” or forced into retirement and silence lest their retirement nest egg be taken away. That was the fate of former Attorney-General Gani Patail, former head of MACC Abu Kassim, and others. Aware of the fates of Prosecutor Kevin Morais, model Altantuyaa, and banker Hussain Najadi, it is not a surprise that these brave public servants, Shukri excepted, have remained silent. 


Then there were the two government auditors, Nor Salwani Muhammad and Madinah Mohamad, who took great personal and career risks in keeping a copy of the original audit report before it was “sanitized.” The original copy proved pivotal at Najib’s trial. 


There is still yet an unknown and unheralded hero, the individual who tapped Najib’s phone. I pray and hope that he is also a Malay. Our culture is very much in need of such brave figures. It was his (or her) action that enabled another heroine, Latheefa Koya, to release the chilling contents of those phone taps. See:   https://youtu.be/7BRgHz1qB-4


I recall these brave individuals (there are others not mentioned) because one, our culture desperately needs such heroes now to counterbalance such groveling incompetents as former Attorney-General Apandi Ali and MACC Chief Dzulkifli Ahmad. Two, to rebut the thinly veiled bigotry heard these days. “Yes, what do you expect from these corrupt, incompetent Malay-Muslim public servants?” 


That aside, my two original queries nonetheless remain:  Why are the corrupt so admired in our culture, and the converse, why are the honest, brave and talented as represented by Shukri and others not honored and rewarded? 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 47: New Teachers In The Family

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 47:  New Teachers In The Family

A few years later it would be the turn of my Uncle Darus’s younger brother, my Uncle Nasir; he too wanted to be a teacher. He was advised to leave the state. He did, with great reluctance, and found a position in Selangor despite the greater competition there. When his younger brother Tahir’s turn came up, he too left for Kuala Lumpur and also got a job as a teacher right away, again despite the much more intense competition. While my Uncle Tahir was eager to leave, Uncle Nasir was the very opposite. He felt as if he was being forced out. Tahir had a joyful look in contrast to Nasir’s earlier glum mood. My grandfather had to accompany Nasir when he left, and had to stay with him for a few days to cushion the transition and separation anxiety. 

The contrasting personalities of my two maternal uncles would again be manifested a few years later. Nasir met a beautiful Javanese girl in the village where he taught, and he brought home pictures of her to show to our family. We were all enthusiastic about her, except for my grandmother. 

At a family gathering where the main topic was this potential new in-law, my grandmother began to sob. She regretted that we were discussing her would-be daughter-in-law when she (my grandmother) had not even met the young lady. Then she brought up her favorite, the daughter of some distant relative on my grandfather’s side. This propensity to marry off one of your sons to the relative of your husband, pulang ko bako (returning the stock), was a common practice among the Minagkabaus, at least then. 

“I’m not asking you to marry her,” she pleaded to my Uncle Nasir, “just to consider her!” 

With that, my uncle’s well-laid plan unraveled. To shorten the story, he had to ask for a transfer to ease out of the relationship with his would-be chosen partner. Those Javanese had powerful “secrets” on how to get even with young men who had spurned their daughters, he was told. 

My Uncle Tahir on the other hand chose a maiden from Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Big city girl! My grandmother lamented that this sophisticated lady would not take kindly to a simple villager as an in-law. My uncle dismissed that and had a simple wedding in the city. Absent from that ceremony were my grandparents. Visiting the big city was a logistical nightmare for simple villagers like them, considering such now mundane issues as transportation and where to stay or eat.

Both marriages were successful. My Uncle Nasir’s wife, the one my grandmother had chosen for him, died young; he must have missed her a lot for he died a few months later. 

Thus was the fate of all my three maternal uncles tied to Raja Nordin, or so the family believed. As to whether my parents’ subsequent transfer to another black area was likewise connected, Allahu A’lam (only Allah knows!), as the villagers would put it. 

My father accepted this latest change in his fate with equanimity. He survived the Great Depression and the Japanese Occupation on his own wits and without having to pay tribute to local chieftains. Insha’Allah (God willing), he would also survive his transfer to Triang. He did. 

Raja Nordin soon retired. Still just to be sure, it was my mother who sought the transfer out, on compassionate grounds as her parents were getting old. As the policy was to keep couples together, my father was also transferred out with her. 

I was still in primary school then. My four younger siblings were born subsequent to my parents’ return to the old village. The first was Adzman. One afternoon my father said that my mother, who was then obviously pregnant, had a “stomach ache” and had to be taken to the hospital. He returned later and announced that we had a younger brother. 

The next day after school I decided to visit my mother at the women’s hospital in Kuala Pilah. My class was released earlier than my brother’s and sister’s. Normally I would wait for them and together we would take the same school bus home. On that day I decided to walk alone to the hospital, about two miles away. My mother spotted me wandering under the sun in the sprawling hospital grounds. That was the first time I saw Adzman, in the bassinet by my mother’s bed. He was so small and contented. 

On the way back to the bus station, I walked past an isolated building on the hospital grounds. Something told me that I should not go near it; the smell emanating was penetrating but not offensive enough to discourage me. Before I knew it I was by a stack of long, narrow wooden crates stacked against the wall. With trepidation but overcame with curiosity, I looked closer in-between the slats. Corpses! I jerked backwards and fell on my butt. Woozy, I struggled to get up and walk away as a group of policemen arrived in a truck. 

“Let’s get rid of these tikus before they rot on us!” one of them shouted as they loaded the crates onto the truck. So those were bodies of dead communist terrorists, and the building was the morgue! 

Next Excerpt #48: Unexpected Deaths In The Family

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Perak's Raja Nazrin Missed A Splendid Opportunity



Perak’s Raja Nazrin Missed A Splendid Opportunity

M. Bakri Musa


The Sultan of Perak recently (September 22, 2022) launched Kamal Hassan’s Corruption And Hypocrisy In Malay Muslim Politics. The book was published in January 2021 and I reviewed it last July. A Malay version has also been released but this royal launching was for the English edition only. The Malay version was not even mentioned. I wonder how the language nationalists feel about that.

The sultan’s speech (about 45 minutes) and the author’s subsequent remarks (over 35) were followed by an hour of panel discussion comprising Johan Jaafar, former journalist and Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission, Tajuddin Rasdi, an academic architect and public intellectual, and Hafiz Saleh Hudin from the International Islamic University. It was moderated by Annuar Zaini, former Chairman of Bernama. 

            Halfway into his speech the sultan revealed that his state religious department (of which he is the titular head) had ordered 2,000 copies of the book (not stated whether the English or Malay version) to be distributed to the state’s imams as materials for their khutba (sermons). For added measure, at the end of his speech the Sultan ordered two new duas(supplications), condemning corruption, to be recited during Friday sermons. That was his solution to the endemic, entrenched corruption in the country. In short, the sultan echoed Kamal Hassan’s thesis in his book that the answer to Malay society’s corruption is more religion, Islam to be specific.

            The sultan is the head of Islam in his state. Raja Nazrin played that role to the hilt that morning, quoting the Qur’an and hadith more than a dozen times. I ran out of fingers after the tenth. Thankfully he spared us the original Arabic and gave only the approximate Malay translation.

            For Kamal Hassan’s part, he reiterated what he had written in the book, only of necessity more briefly and thus succinctly.

            I cannot help but feel how far detached from reality the whole program and the participants were. They all professed to be aware of the grave dangers corruption poses to the nation and Malay society in particular, but alas their deliberated solution was but to resort to homilies and simplistic measures. More dua’s, and educate the imams on the evils of corruption!

            No one even suggested learning from nations that had successfully tackled the problem, like nearby Singapore, or following the example of China–shoot the bastards. That may be “un-Islamic,” but it works. Nor did anyone mention or alluded to the perverse if not pathologic national deification of that pengkhianat negara (national traitor) aka Boss Ku Najib Razak. The young participant from the International Islamic University, Hafil Salleh Hudin, briefly mentioned his displeasure to that phenomenon in the ensuing panel discussion. 

            The program could have unfolded very differently and created great national impact.

            Imagine if at the end of the ceremony Raja Nazrin had announced that, as an expression of his great displeasure with the corrupt and considering the seriousness of the pestilence of corruption, he was withdrawing Najib’s and Rosmah’s Perak royal titles! That would capture in an instance the audience’s as well as the nation’s attention. That would also be the next day’s headlines! Raja Nazrin should have emulated the Sultan of Selangor, or better yet, the Ruler of Negri Sembilan who withdrew the couples’ Negri royal awards upon their being charged and not waiting for their conviction, as with the Sultan of Selangor.

            “Innocent till proven guilty” is the standard in a criminal court. In positions requiring great trust, as with the leadership of the nation, the standard must necessarily be much more stringent, as with not even a hint of impropriety. Yet today, UMNO, the party most identified with Malays, is led by a character facing serious criminal charges. Nobody in the party’s governing Supreme Council has the gumption to demand that Ahmad Zahid Hamidi resign. If these characters cannot stand up to this slimy stuttering character, how can we expect them to negotiate with or face foreign leaders?

            With the long speeches by both the sultan and the author, there was little time for questions from the audience, the most important part in any discussion or book launching. Noting the number of ex-dignitaries from UMNO in the audience, the moderator gave the floor first to Musa Hitam, a former Deputy Prime Minister. He took his senior statesman status too seriously and went on a long monologue, with the moderator having to interrupt him. As for the other half a dozen or so speakers, they too were interested in making their own mini speeches rather than posing probing questions.

            If not for Tajuddin Rasdi, the ensuing panel discussion too would have been a dud. Johan Jaafar was asked what was the greatest pressure he faced when chairing the Anti-Corruption Commission. Political interference! Surprise of surprises! The moderator then asked him to judge the independence (from political pressure) of his Commission. Johan meekly replied a passable 6 out of 10. Good enough for a general degree, as the moderator commented. If I were the moderator I would press Johan as to what he did to resist those pressures. I suspect that Johan too was one of those all too common “Kami menurut perentah” (I follow orders) type of public servant.

            The sparkles of the panel discussion came from Tajuddin Rasdi. He prefaced his remarks by noting that this was the first time he had been invited to address an almost exclusively Malay or Muslim audience. Tajuddin is of course well known to non-Malay or at least English-speaking readers through his trenchant columns in The Star

            He made the profound observation that corruption is difficult to eradicate among Malays and Muslims because it has been enmeshed into the Malay versus non-Malay (or non-Muslim) narrative. It is but a sub-variety of the old “us versus them” divide. We have framed corruption as war against the infidel and thus halal, or can be made so. To make that narrative stick even more easily, to Malays anything coming from the land of the Arabs is halal. It is thus not a surprise that Najib had framed the loot he pilfered from 1MDB as money coming from an Arab prince.

            Another astute observation from Tajuddin is that, as in the universities, we are more into the answers without first asking the necessary probing questions. Worse, often the solutions would have been imposed upon us, as with Raja Nazrin ordering those new supplications for Friday sermons. However, we are more likely to find the right solution if we first begin by asking some tough questions.

            One simple question is this:  Why are the corrupt so admired in our culture? Prime exhibit:  Najib Razak. The next complementary question is why are the talented in our midst not rewarded? Instead we reward the duds and those satisfied with a general degree, as the moderator commented. You can bet that Tajuddin will never make it to the National Professors Council!

            Malays should learn from our peladang (farmers) ancestors. To ensure a bountiful harvest and a productive orchard, they pruned their fruit trees, getting rid of the unproductive suckers and water sprouts. They also uprooted thelallang and other weeds that would sap the precious nutrients from the soil. Malay culture today perversely nurtures and rewards those parasites. My late father (himself a part-time peladang besides being a teacher) had an apt expression for that stupidity–membajakan lallang (providing manure to the weeds).

















Sunday, September 18, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #46 Balik Kampung

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 46:  Balek Kampung (Back To The Old Village)

After a couple of years in Triang my parents were transferred back to our home village of Kampung Tengah. What made that possible or why they were posted twice to a black area in the first place was not a minor twist in kampung dealings. 

When my parents were first transferred to Lenggeng, they accepted that. They knew they were going to a dangerous area but then somebody had to go there. For its part the colonial government lived up to its commitment, and after a stint there it honored my parents’ request for a transfer back to Kampung Tengah. A year later however, they were perturbed to be sent back to another black area. They thought they had paid their dues. 

The government had not changed; it was still the same colonial one and thus the same personnel policy. Instead what had changed was my parents’ ultimate superior. He was now a local man instead of a British officer. Raja Nordin was one of the few Malays to have had the privilege of some English education. In the bureaucratic scheme of things he was several layers above my parents and as such should have had minimal impact on their careers, except that he was from our village. 

Kampung Tengah, being in the shadow of the royal town of Sri Menanti, was steep in its feudal ways. Raja Nordin may be a remote member of the royal family, nonetheless he still felt entitled to his dues from the peasants, and that included my parents and grandparents. My grandfather Salam did his part, often bringing tributes of choice chickens and delightful durians to Raja Nordin. 

When my father married into the Salam family, he was conspicuous in not doing his part in this hallowed village tradition. He was from a village in Rantau, on the other side of Bukit Putus amidst colonial tin mines and rubber estates with their vast immigrant worker population. Paying homage to local chieftains was alien to them, and that rubbed off on my father. 

My parents met when they were teaching at the same school in Ampangan, near Seremban. He married my mother for love, unusual as the custom was for arranged marriages, with love being secondary or assumed to come later. Being a practical man he also wanted a working wife, as an insurance. Should something were to happen to him, his family would still have a breadwinner. Choosing a woman who had also gone to college would also ensure that she would not hesitate to challenge his views and actions. My father did not want the traditional dutiful “Yes, master!” wife. 

In the Minangkabau tradition, the males of the bride’s family were to instruct–no, command–their new male in-laws (orang semenda) into respecting and performing the rituals of the wife’s culture, and that included paying tributes to local lords. When Raja Nordin did not receive any from my father, the blame for this lapse fell on my mother’s family, in particular my grandfather and his adult sons. 

There was a price to pay for this unpardonable neglect of tradition. At about this time my Uncle Idrus had just finished his Malay schooling. He aspired to be a teacher, like his older sister, my mother. He was comfortably in the top 25 chosen to enter teachers’ college at Tanjong Malim where my father had gone a decade earlier. Inexplicably at the last minute he was excluded from the final list. My grandparents appealed to Raja Nordin, who was then the state superintendent of Malay schools, bringing the usual material tributes. Raja Nordin was none too pleased with this belated gesture. 

“Was this the wisdom your forefathers taught you,” he berated my grandfather, “to pay tribute after your son had failed to secure a spot?” 

My grandfather was fortunate in that he was given only a verbal dressing down. Back in the not-too-distant past, he would have suffered worse. The British did usher in some progress among our folks, as with introducing the rule of law and abolishing slavery (orang hamba) in the palaces. I was sure at that moment Raja Nordin would have preferred to be in the “good old days” so he could teach my grandfather a proper lesson or two.

“Did you ever think of coming earlier?” That was his final verbal punch to my poor hapless grandfather.

In case my grandfather missed the essential point, Raja Nordin then told him not to ever hope for any of his descendants to be a teacher or anything else as long as he, Raja Nordin, was alive. Being a simple villager, my grandfather accepted that pronouncement. My uncle gave up his dream to be a teacher and left to work as a typesetter in Kuala Lumpur. Raja Nordin had no influence there. 

My Uncle Idrus would have been a great teacher; he was a keen learner and fond of books. He learned English on his own, and passed his Cambridge School Certificate as a private candidate after the birth of his sixth and last child. I remembered him as always wanting to practice his English on me. I was reluctant and embarrassed to correct him but because he was so welcoming of criticisms, I overcame my reticence. 

Once he asked me to go over an “epistle” he had written. With great reluctance I told him that an epistle meant a letter from the Pope or High Priest. He was embarrassed. He must have looked up the Thesaurus and came up with that one, an all-too-common temptation of beginner writers to, in Stephen King’s phrase, “dress up the vocabulary.” 

Excerpt #47:  A Pair Of New Teachers In The Extended Family 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #45: Caught In An Ambush


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #45:  Caught In An Ambush

My second-term holiday saw me again visiting my parents in Triang. This time we took the shorter route through Seremban. For about twenty minutes outside the town the road was like any other, with no dramatic curves. Then the scene changed abruptly; no more kampung houses, only thick jungle on both sides with the road becoming increasingly steep and winding, the infamous Bukit Tangga. Infamous because it was in the blackest of areas and its steep inclines as well as hairpin turns. Bukit Tangga means “terraced hill.” That also describes the road well. 

Soon our bus stopped unexpectedly behind some parked cars, the road ahead having been closed. I could not see any landslide or obvious physical obstacle. Everyone on the bus was quiet, and with the engine turned off, the silence was eerie. Despite the heat of the day, nobody stepped out to cool off under the shade of the roadside trees. Like Bukit Putus, the area was a forest reserve, with no human dwellings or signs of activities. The only primates, except for those in the bus and parked cars, were the monkeys among the branches. 

Then, piercing sirens! Three dark-green military ambulances accompanied by two green Saracen APCs sped by us towards the scene ahead. I peeled my eyes on the distance to decipher the unfolding drama. I heard the distant tap-tapping sound of gunshots, rekindling memories of my Lenggeng experience, except that the sound this time was muffled by the distance and thick jungle. 

The other passengers in the bus remained indifferent. A middle-aged Chinese madam continued fanning herself with her folded paper and staring straight ahead. With the sound of gunshots she fanned herself faster. A professional-looking Indian in his stiff white shirt and long pants continued reading his Straits Times, interrupted only by his adjusting his glasses and shuffling the pages. A Malay lady who sat next to my sister opened her food tingkat, and when it made a clanking sound she self-consciously wrapped her headscarf around the tray to muffle the noise. She offered a piece of fried chicken to my sister. She, in the manner of a polite village girl, declined the offer a few times before finally accepting. Soon the smell of that delicacy reached me and I cursed myself for sitting far away from her. 

With the next and louder volley of gunshots my older brother Sharif whispered to me, “It’s an ambush!” 

I wish I could say that I was scared; instead I was excited and eager to see the action. Soon two of the three ambulances we saw earlier rushed by us, their sirens wailing. 

After a long wait, the cars ahead started to crawl forward and soon our bus too. As our bus negotiated the steep slopes and sharp bends at slow speed, it made for a comfortable ride. My body was not bounced from side to side. To my left was a deep canyon with the tips of the tall trees just at eye level. They may have huge and formidable trunks but at their tips their shoots were fragile as they swayed in the breeze absorbing the energy-giving sun rays. Here and there glistening streams cut through the slopes like silver ribbons on a tapestry. With the deep gulley and sharp turns, images of cars flipping over flashed through my mind. 

Soon the road leveled off but the bus continued its crawl. I saw army trucks parked to the side and armed soldiers standing with their guns at the ready. There was a fresh clearing by the roadside with the leaves of the fallen bushes not yet wilted. There were soldiers standing around what appeared to be three people sleeping with their faces to the ground. I knew right away that this was not a sight I wanted to or should see. My stomach began to churn. I covered my face to avoid the scene but at the same time I could not help but peek through. I could see that the three bodies were not moving, their arms tied on their backs with palms pointing skyward as if the bodies had been dragged. Their clothes were dirty, tattered, and bloodied. 

Sharif whispered, “They got three tikus!” 

Tikus, rats, the term used by the security forces for communist terrorists, or CTs. Indeed, sprawling on the ground the dead terrorists looked like big, trapped tikus

I felt queasy. By now the bus was gaining speed and the fresh cool hilltop air refreshed me. I also smelled traces of gun smoke. It invigorated me. Soon we saw familiar kampung homes, with tethered water buffaloes contentedly chewing their cud under the shade of the trees. 

When we reached Kuala Klawang my father greeted us. Unlike our earlier visit, this time there was no smile, only a furrowed look. He said nothing and herded us into a waiting taxi. He must have heard of the earlier ambush and figured that we were trapped in it. He was right; thank God we were safe. 

That was the closest to any military action I witnessed during the Emergency, apart from those nightly gunshots in Lenggeng related earlier. 

Later in college I was dating a young Canadian. She saw a scar on my right calf, probably from some scraps I sustained while climbing a coconut tree. Such a story however, would lack any suspense or drama. So I embellished that ambush episode by having me caught in the crossfire; the scar a bullet wound. I was expecting an admirable gaze for my bravery; instead she went cold and pale. She told me to stop my retelling. 

She had read about Malaysia and knew about the atrocities of the Japanese Occupation and communist insurgency. The television news then were also filled with gory battle scenes from South Vietnam. However, until I related my infamous leg scar, those episodes were mere distant abstract images. Now that there was a real-life example of a war scar, even though a made-up one, she was petrified by the reality of it. 

When I confessed, she was furious, but not by much as she would later become my wife. 

Next:  Excerpt # 46:  Balek Kampung (Back To The Old Village)

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Caast From The Herd: Excerpt #44: Exposure to Scientific Research Literature

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #44:  Exposure To Scientific Research Literature

My father had found a Chinese laborer and his family to tap the rubber on his new land. The man was desperate and took the job despite the earlier bus burning incident. My father was meticulous with his record keeping and made frequent unannounced visits. Soon he became familiar with the seasonal variations in production, as with low output during the dry season. By now he had also trusted his foreman such that the visits became infrequent, relying only on his report. 

One year my father noted that the decline in production did not recover with the improvement in the weather. So he went to check. Instead of visiting his land, he went straight to the dealer, also a Chinese, to whom my father had sold his rubber sheets. The dealer was surprised to see him as he thought that my father had sold the land. The tapper had earlier told the dealer that my father had had some financial difficulties and that he (the tapper) had bought the land. The dealer believed the worker as that also fitted the stereotype the Chinese had of Malays. 

My father later confronted his worker. He at first denied it, saying that the falling production was due to the weather. When he was shown the figures of previous years, together with what the rubber dealer had earlier related to my father, he confessed. My father fired the man right away and ordered him and his family off the property. 

A few days later he and his entire family visited us at our village. They all came in a chartered taxi bringing generous offerings to beg for forgiveness. He promised my father never to cheat again and to make good on the loss. My mother was livid both at the tapper and my father as she had not been apprised of the problem. On seeing the man, his wife, and children sobbing with their palms clasped together at their foreheads, a la sembah, and repeatedly prostrating before my father as if he was Lord Buddha, my father relented. True to his word, the man remained honest. 

I learned much from my father through that incident. One is the importance of meticulous record keeping. You could spot trends and thus uncover possible frauds much earlier. The other is that people can change for the better, given a chance. 

Earlier my father had embarked on replanting his ageing rubber plantation on another piece of land he had bought. This replanting scheme was encouraged by the government and supported by generous grants. The idea was to replace those old rubber trees with the new hybrid high-yielding shoots. 

Immediately when he signed up on the program, a representative from the extension department of the government’s Rubber Research Institute (RRI) came over to explain the details. I was impressed how well he could explain biological terms in Malay to my father. He was in turn a diligent learner, taking down copious notes. 

As the rubber trees would take about five years to mature, the agent recommended planting cash crops in between the young trees to supplement my father’s income even though he did not need it. My father was a stickler in following the agent’s recommendations. And that was how we ended up with a glut of fruits and vegetables. One could indeed live quite well on those temporary cash crops while waiting for the rubber tress to yield their precious latex. 

My father (and I) learned much from that extension officer. For example, he suggested that when cutting down the old trees, to spare a few in between so as to provide shade, and only when the ground work was all completed would you cut down the few remaining trees. We also learned how to terrace the hillside when planting, to reduce soil erosion from the torrential tropical rains. Then we learned about spacing those trees, with the rows facing east and west wide apart so the sun would have maximal penetration. 

I learned much about cash crops as well as cover crops to prevent soil erosion. In fact I learned much more from that extension officer than from my biology teacher. Noting my interest, the officer put me on the Institute’s mailing list. Thus I was able to obtain original published scientific articles, my first introduction to research. I was so proud to know that our own research institute was making a contribution to world scientific literature. 

My father’s diligence in record keeping again proved useful. In fact the extension agent used my father as an example to impress the other smallholders of the wisdom in following the extension department’s recommendations and keeping meticulous records. My father even recorded how much I earned from selling those bananas and pineapples, as well as the amount (value-wise) we gave away to friends, family, and neighbors!

Next:  Excerpt #45:  Caught In An Ambush