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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, 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 


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