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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, 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


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