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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.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #59: My First Religious Instruction

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 59:  My First Religious Instruction

My parents were very much aware of their obligation to impart religious instructions on their children. Unable to do that himself, my father sought the help of others. He did not consider his responsibilities discharged by doing that however, for he always kept track of what was heaped upon us. 

My first religious “class” was with our neighbor Lebai Leman. Lebai (derived from rabbi) is a religious honorific signifying piety and learning. I began my lessons at early evening sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor in front of the kerosene lamp along with the other neighborhood children, our kitab (book) on a foldable wooden rack. I learned to read and write Arabic jawi script, progressing to simple words and phrases before memorizing short verses of the Koran, a prerequisite for learning to pray–the ultimate objective of the exercise. 

When Lebai Leman finished his Maghrib (evening) prayer, he would go over our assignments. If you had executed it well, he would give you a new one. Even if you were to struggle twice in a row, he would pass you the third time, sparing you from being bored. He may have been a simple villager but he intuitively knew something about child and learning psychology. 

The language of the Qur’an is very poetic. Even though I did not understand a word of it, nonetheless I could feel its inner rhythm and sense its visceral beauty, like listening to good music. As with my poetry class in later years, I was adept at memorizing and was soon tagged Mat Lebai; abbreviated to Mat Bai or Abai. 

Soon I “graduated” to Imam Mondot’s class. Being the village imam he commanded instant respect. That however was not the reason my father chose him. Rather he was impressed by the man’s piety and simple life along the straight path during the trying times of the Japanese Occupation. Imam Mondot also helped our family during the tragic death of my oldest sister. 

My father related how otherwise honest men turned to petty thievery or worse to survive during the Occupation. Not Imam Mondot; he would feed his family paku-pakis (wild ferns), mushrooms, or whatever he could gather from the jungle. Islam kept him on the straight path. He reminded us often that it is easy to be generous or honest when we have plenty. The real test is when you have so little or are desperate. Trying times do not justify suspending our ethics, morals, or values, rather a test for them, was the way he put Islam to me. 

Later my father enrolled us in a formal afternoon after-school religious class in Sri Menanti. Being a royal town there were many princes and princesses among my classmates. They received special attention from the ustadz (religious teachers). Indulged upon, those royal brats behaved accordingly, bullying the rest of us. Their imperious tantrums were given free rein. 

One afternoon the princesses ganged up on my sister. Taking it as an affront to my fraternal gallantry, I yanked the mousiest one by her hair. She squealed, and the rest fled screaming like startled geese. When I let her go, instead of fleeing she clasped her hands to her forehead, prostrated herself, and begged forgiveness from me. She was making sembah (genuflecting) to me! 

The other non-royal pupils were horrified. I knew then that I had done something terrible. My older brother was not at school that day, so I had no one to turn to. Instinctively my sister and I knew that we had to run to our bicycles and flee as fast as possible. On the way home we stopped at the dam for my sister to freshen herself. The more practical reason was that we did not want to get home early as then we would have to do some major explaining. 

When we reached home my mother was already waiting for us, anxious and trembling like a mother hen receiving her errand brood. She already knew. How, I did not know. Her horror was understandable. In the old days heads had been chopped off for far lesser offenses against members of the royalty. 

Later she apprised my father of the incident. He too looked grim; that in turn worried me. I was expecting, “Good boy! You taught those spoiled brats a lesson!”. Instead only anxious glances were exchanged between my parents. 

My father decided that we would no longer be attending that school. As there were no other religious schools nearby, that meant I would not be attending any. A great relief to me! Everything about that school was getting to me. To those ustadzs I was but an empty bin, to be stuffed with their dogmas and dictates. I had too many disciplinary problems and was caned more than once. Religion was beginning to turn me off. 

My father’s precipitous action would suggest that he was cowed by possible royal retributions. That would not be the complete truth. As he related to me years later, he had already discerned an internal conflict within me long before that incident with the princesses. 

Indeed I had many internal issues. I struggled to reconcile what was taught by those ustadzs versus what I had learned in my science class. In science I was taught the earth rotating around the sun while those ustadzs told me that angels in a golden chariot with invisible cables were dragging it across the sky. In my mind only one explanation could be correct. Thank goodness my father was smart enough to sense my conflict and help remove me from the dilemma.

Excerpt # 60:  Many Unresolved Conflicts With My Faith

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #58 A Safe Return

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 58:  A Safe Return

A few months later, my grandparents left for their Hajj. In Islamic theology there is great merit in sending off as well as receiving pilgrims, with the burkat (blessings) rubbing off on all. They took the train to Singapore where they would board the steamer. My father accompanied them to Singapore. Earlier he had charted a bus to the train station at Tampin for the send-off. It was a Friday, a holiday for my parents but a school day for me, but my parents let me skip it. That was the only time I missed school other than when I had chickenpox. To my parents, attending school was almost a religious obligation; only with wars, illnesses, funerals, or sending off Hajj pilgrims would we be excused. 

That morning as the bus passed by my school, I felt strange in not being with my classmates. I imagined what they were doing at that particular moment. It was nine o’clock; they must be doing math. 

The train station was packed. For every pilgrim there was the entire village in attendance. My grandparents’ party was the smallest. The crowd was subdued, the piety palpable. Soon someone recited a du’a over the public address system and all was quiet. After the final “Amen!” the train blew its whistle and inched its way forward amidst the waving and sobbing crowd. 

The return trip to the village was quiet; everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally. That afternoon as I passed by my grandparent’s now empty house, a sudden fear struck me. Only the night before I was sleeping there with them; now that the house was empty, it frightened me. I assumed it was haunted, the ghosts moving in as soon as my grandparents had left. 

When my father returned from Singapore, my mother was anxious to know the details of the ship, but he was not keen to reveal any. After much pestering, he relented. 

“It was a rusty steamer,” he lamented, “and dirty too!” furrowing his forehead. The third-class cabin was nothing but a vast empty deck and everyone had to scramble for space. “I got one for your parents near a pillar so they could hold on to something.” He described the horrible passageway to the communal toilet:  wet, messy, and slippery. He hoped the passengers would not slip and hurt themselves as he was not sure what medical care was available on board. Those details heightened my mother’s anxiety. 

            “We should have spent more for second class,” rued my mother. That was not a realistic option as the family could barely afford third class. 

Years later I read Conrad’s Lord Jim. So that was my grandparents’ experience! Thank God theirs was a safe journey. 

They returned home over a month later, disembarking at Port Swettenham (now Port Klang). My uncles Idrus, Nasir and Tahir met them; there was no delegation from the village as it was too far away. 

When they arrived at the village there was already a large crowd waiting. My grandfather looked regal in his long flowing white robe and oversized turban, with its trailing end down his back like a stallion’s tail. My grandmother was covered in her black hijab, exposing only her face. They looked dazed and tired. My grandfather managed to recite a prayer as he stepped out of the car; he struggled to finish as tears flowed freely. Then the crowd rushed to kiss his hand. As for my grandmother, it was not so much a handshake as the tapping of her palms from underneath her hijab. 

There is great merit in sending off pilgrims as well as in welcoming them home. This is greatest just before the returning pilgrim steps back into his house and rapidly declines thereafter; hence the large throng welcoming my grandparents. Everyone was caught up in the religiosity of the moment. Even the taxi driver initially refused our trying to double his fare; the borkat of driving my grandparents home safely was reward enough, he said! After the obligatory third offer to pay, he accepted. 

During the next few weeks my grandparents were invited by one relative after another to attend their thanksgiving kenduri. At every event my grandfather related his experience, inspiring his listeners to undertake their own Hajj. Everyone now addressed him as Haji Sallam bin Tachik, and my grandmother, Hajjah Kalimah binte Yahya. My mother too re-wrote her name, “Jauhariah binte Haji Sallam.”

Next:  Excerpt # 59:  My First Religious Instructions

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt # 56: Answering The Call

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 56:  Answering The Call

During one family kenduri my grandfather surprised everyone with an announcement. He said that both he and my grandmother had had a dream, a distant call that they could not hear very well. They prayed hard since then to seek Allah’s guidance as to the meaning of that dream. There was no mistaking the heavy religious connotation–two individuals having the same dream at the same time. 

“We heard the seruan (call),” he declared, “it is your grandmother’s wish, as well as mine, to undertake our Hajj this season, Insha’Allah!” (God willing!) 

Silence greeted the announcement, and for good reason. The furthest anyone in our family had gone was to the adjacent state, a distance of at most fifty miles. Now we were talking about a trip across the continent, thousands of miles away. How audacious! 

Undeterred by the embarrassing silence, he continued. “I have a few thousand dollars saved from selling my buffaloes.” So that was the reason he had earlier suddenly sold his precious herd. It was more than that. Those buffaloes were his pets.

My Uncle Tahir, my grandparents’ youngest son, the teacher, responded. “The cost is not insignificant.” Sensing the discomfit he had created, he quickly added, “We are a big family. We can contribute. Emak and Bapak can make it!” 

The discussion then shifted. Now wild figures were thrown around and the atmosphere descended to that of an oriental bazaar, with prices stretched and then shortened like rubber bands. 

My usually taciturn Pak Khamis, unfamiliar with the big and rarified dollar figures bandied around, then spoke. “I don’t have much,” he said with a nervous giggle as he took a dollar note out of his pocket and placed it on the tray in front of him, “but I’ll put a little bit each day until grandpa and grandma here get their wish.” 

I did not know if that was a challenge for the rest to make their contributions right there and then, but he went on. “Grandpa and grandma here have six children. All three sons have good jobs, and the husbands of all three daughters also have good salaries, except my humble self.” 

Silence! The jab took a while to sink in. My Uncle Nasir salvaged the situation. “Emak and Bapak have heard the call. It’s up to us to make it happen.” 

“I had an offer for my land,” my grandfather interjected, perking himself up. 

My father too jerked up on hearing that. He was against selling land to finance a pilgrimage. The Hajj is incumbent only upon those who can afford it. In the end it was agreed that the journey was possible without having to sell any property. Then as everyone was readying for dessert, having solved the crucial funding issue, my grandfather again spoke. 

“There is one other matter,” he added as he adjusted his songkok (skull cap). 

Silence again. What could possibly top going for Hajj? 

“Your grandma and I cannot undertake this pilgrimage with a heavy heart,” straining as he shifted his pose while grimacing like a man stricken with painful piles. He had difficulty continuing. “Right now our hearts are weighed down. This journey will be long and hazardous; we might not return.” He could barely finish his sentence even with my grandmother softly massaging his shoulders. 

Every family has its skeletons. Some families are good at hiding them, others less so. I always knew that there was a rift in the family but could not figure out who the protagonists were. I assumed it was over a minor slight or unintended snub, as typically it would be. Or a squabble over a durian that grew out of a seed dropped by a monkey. Now that tree straddled the two properties and instead of bringing joy to both sides became the source of never-ending strife. Those were the nature of kampung disputes. They still are. 

It was then that I discovered that there had been a simmering rift between the husbands of my mother’s two older sisters, Pak Donchang who worked for Malayan Railway, and Pak Khamis who contributed that first dollar. I never did find out what caused the conflict as it was not brought up. Instead it was agreed that there should be a reconciliation kenduri to bring the two together. That would be the highest priority, for even if you were to have the funds but with the conflict unresolved, there would be no point undertaking the pilgrimage. Allah would not accept it and there would be no burkat (blessings). 

It fell on my father as the third orang semenda (male in-law) to do the mediating, a task he was not adept at or thrilled to undertake. He did not know of the intricacies of Adat Perpatih. He was also not close to the two in-laws as he had been posted out of the village most of the time. However, with everyone in a forgiving and reconciling mood, he had to oblige. He arranged the event for the upcoming December school holidays. 

Excerpt # 57:  A Uniquely Kampung-Style Dispute Resolution