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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Cast From the Herd: Excerpt #55 A Three-Generational Family

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 55:  A Three-Generational Household

In my matrilineal Adat Perpatih culture, home, land, and inheritance all belong to the women of the family. I remember a distant uncle whose wife died while giving birth, a common enough occurrence at the time. He was left with their three young children. A major crisis erupted when he wanted to marry someone from a different village and thus clan. By tradition, he would have to move to his new wife’s family, leaving behind his three children. In Adat Perpatih, the wife’s family, specifically her surviving parents and maternal siblings, have priority custodial and inheritance rights over the wife’s property and children, ahead of her husband.

They solved the crisis when they found a maternal relative of his late wife for him to marry instead. As she was from the same suku (clan) as his late wife, he retained his rights of domicile on her tribal property. He merely tukar tikar tidur (changed his sleeping mat), as the elders put it. In Malaysia today there are many such children separated from their fathers. This happens not only with the death of the mother but also when their father marries multiple wives, a prevalent practice. 

When my parents were posted in Triang, my grandparents moved into our village house to care for us. When my parents were transferred back to the village, my grandparents continued living with us. Even in the village with its close-knit extended families, living with in-laws can be a challenge. We were a three-generation household, with two males in charge: my father and maternal grandfather. It is the law of nature that when more than one is in charge, then no one is. Or when one tries to be, there would be the inevitable conflict. 

So it was with our household. My grandfather, being the oldest and in a culture where old age is revered, was in charge, nominally and only by tradition. He had no discernible income except for his few cows and water buffaloes. His ‘tending’ of the cows consisted of nothing more than letting those critters out in the morning and letting them in at dusk. They must have had an internal homing device, a biological GPS of sorts. For the rest of the day his cows, together with those of the other villagers, would meander along the road, pooping all over the pavement. Cars had to slow down to avoid the animals and their excrements. 

Once, the crown prince was so enraged that he drove his brand new sports car right into one of the cows. He was rewarded with splashes of red (the animals’ blood) and brown (you guessed it!) on his badly-dented yellow Bentley Sport. Those cows were live, mobile, and very effective speed bumps. On my last visit to the village, they still are! 

In contrast to his cows, my grandfather doted on his buffaloes, the few that he had. He never slaughtered any; they were his pets. Every morning even before he had his own breakfast my grandfather would be out with his scythe cutting the lush grass by the river for his buffaloes. Unlike his free-ranging cows, the buffaloes were tethered to a ring of rattan through their noses. To insert it he would first pierce the animal’s nasal septum with the sharpened end of a bamboo stick, and then thread one end of the rattan stalk. The two free ends would then be twisted over each other. The beast hardly sneezed when done right.


The operative phrase there is “done right.” Done wrong, well, the giant could bolt and at worse impale you by its huge horns. I tried once to do this “nose job” and was lucky to escape without injury. I was thankful that my botched first attempt at surgery was not too traumatic to discourage me from pursuing a surgical career. I had better luck with humans. 

My grandfather’s love for his buffaloes went further. He had created a muddy paddock in our front yard, heaven for the huge lumbering beasts but a source of a huge stench, not to mention the swarms of pesky mosquitoes. 

I returned from school one day to see the wooden fence around the paddock dismantled and no buffaloes. My grandfather had sold his entire herd, including a calf only a few months old. Without the buffaloes stomping, the mud pool soon dried up, and with it the stench and mosquitoes were gone. My father covered the area with dead leaves and fresh soil. Soon, like magic, there was a lush lawn. Nature’s healing power in the hot humid tropics is miraculous. Only then did I realize what an eyesore that paddock had been. Later at a family kenduri I would later find out why he had sold the whole herd.

With my parents now renovating the house, my grandparents retreated to the house behind us that they had earlier built for their middle daughter who was now living in the city. In the beginning they would retreat only to sleep and pray while they still had their meals with us. Soon they began leading their own separate lives, which I presumed was what my father had intended. That was good for me as my grandparents’ house became my refuge during weekends or whenever I ran afoul of my parents. 

Next:  Excerpt 56:  Answering The Call


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