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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, January 23, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #63: My Negri Sembilan Clan

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #63:  My Negri Sembilan Clan (Suku)

There are about a dozen sukus (clans) of the Minangkabau tribe in my village. Mine is Tanah Datar (flat land), contracted to Tadata. I presume that relates to the topography of my ancestral homeland back in Sumatra. Minangkabau custom prohibits marriages within sukus, and as children assume their mother’s clan, marriages among maternal cousins are thus not allowed. Our Islamic code on the other hand prohibits marriages only among paternal cousins. Thus we Minangs are spared the blight of inbreeding as we subscribe to both codes.

            Many commentators had noted that Negri Sembilan Malays have contributed more than their share of Malaysia’s intellectual output. In Indonesia too, the Minang people there have excelled in academia as well as in trade. To what extent this prohibition on consanguineous marriages is a contributing factor, I know not. 

            The royal families in Negri Sembilan, as expected, are spared that stricture. As such inbreeding is still rampant among the royal families of not just Negri Sembilan. The first Agung, Tuanku Abdul Rahman who was also the Ruler of Negri Sembilan, had four wives. All except the first were related to him, with the last two being his first cousins. Ever wonder why royal families in Malaysia have more than their share of dysfunctional members?

            I am very much aware of my suku. There was immediate bonding whenever I met a stranger and discovered that he or she was of my suku. Today, few especially the young are even aware of their clan. 

            If I were to trace back the ancestral tree far enough, everyone in my village would be related through blood or marriage. My ancestors came from West Sumatra in the 15th century, or even earlier. It would be a stretch to call them “immigrants” as the whole Southeast Asia or Nusantara was one geographic entity. Only later did the colonials carve up the region and divided us into different nationalities. 

            Our neighbor across the road, Haji Sulaiman, was of substantial means, being a former Customs official. He also married into wealth. His wife, being the only daughter, had the family’s entire inheritance, as per our matriarchal Adat Perpatih. This aspect of our tradition is at variance with the Qur’an where sons are valued twice as much as daughters with respect to inheritance. 

            Our ancestors were very much aware of this anomaly when Islam entered the Malay world. However, in the crisp observation of the Indonesian sociologist Taufik Abdullah, the genius of the Minangkabaus is to “synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” As babies we were fed bland white rice with hot red chili early, to symbolize as well as learn this celebrating of contradictions and synthesizing of opposites. 

            My parents extended this theme, at least with respect to inheritance. They distributed their modest estate before they died, with the ancestral village home my mother inherited going to my sister Hamidah (oldest daughter, as per tradition), while the properties they acquired during their marriage (harta sepencarian) were distributed equally, after factoring in the value of the ancestral home. That satisfied my parents’ modern belief in the equality of sons and daughters. Only that small portion of their estate that was not distributed ante mortem was inherited as per the Qur’an. To my parents, their earlier distributions were not inheritance but parental gifts, thus not subjected to Qur’anic injunctions (faraid) or traditional requirements (hibah). That was their way of synthesizing contradictions (not two but three!) harmoniously. 

            Today, disputes over inheritance wreck many Malay families especially when multiple wives are involved. I thank my parents for their foresight and wisdom. As an aside and fast forward a couple decades later when they died, even that remaining modest estate of theirs went through quite a long hoop. A requirement of the religious bureaucrats was that all the waris (beneficiaries) would have to be present at the hearings. With no disrespect to my parents, I told my brothers and sisters to do or say anything to get me out of that hearing in order to expedite the process even if they were to say that I had “disowned” the family. So when the judge, always a male, asked his usual and necessary query, “Are all the entitled beneficiaries here?” my siblings could in truth reply, “Yes! Your honor!” Thus was the probate settled.

            Today literally billions (at last count over RM70 billion) of precious assets are trapped under probate. Those trapped assets are underutilized. A major impediment to the development of urban Malay land, Kuala Lumpur’s Kampung Baru being the most glaring example, is precisely because of unclear and clouded titles, the consequence of unresolved probates. There is precious little sense of urgency on the part of the religious bureaucracy as it gets free use of those assets (especially with cash and other liquid assets) as interest payment is haram.

Excerpt #64:  Next:  An Epileptic Friend 




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