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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 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


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