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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, February 26, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 68: Anticipating Merdeka

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 68:  Anticipating Merdeka

True to his election promise, and a tribute to his negotiating skills, Tengku secured Malaysia’s independence. On his return from his successful merdeka mission in London, Tengku, always sensitive to symbolism, landed his aircraft at historic Malacca, the center of the old Malay Empire. 

My auntie Kamariah, a local UMNO Wanita (Women’s Group) leader, had organized a delegation from our village to welcome him home that February 20th, 1957. When she returned, she was giddy with excitement in retelling the enthusiastic reception the Tunku, now a genuine national hero, had received. 

Later that August 30th, a Friday, she again arranged a delegation to witness the Declaration of Independence at Kuala Lumpur. The pivotal event would be held at exactly one second past midnight into August 31st. The bus full of villagers would leave that Friday morning so they could have the day for sightseeing in the city. 

     As would be expected, space on the bus was at a premium. So my auntie Kamariah had thoughtfully reserved two seats for my parents. They however, were not in the least interested. My father had seen far too many instances where such gatherings would turn ugly, and he wanted no part of it. My auntie was livid at this apparent snub. How dare my parents not witness and celebrate this historic occasion? My mother mollified her with the excuse that there was no one to babysit the children. 

    So on the eve of that historic event my parents went to bed early after warning us kids not to go out celebrating. That was the rare occasion when they were very definite. They were not being paranoid. Earlier that week my father overheard a spirited discussion among the villagers how on August 31st they would storm and grab those prized government bungalows in town now occupied by colonials like my headmaster. Afterall with merdekawe would be in charge. To those simple villagers, that was what independence meant. 

     My father reminded them that even if there were to be laws transferring those valuable assets to the natives, rest assured that there were other far more important natives than we villagers who would get that special privilege first. That dampened the crowd’s enthusiasm. 

     That night my brother and I were glued to our radio with its volume turned down, surreptitiously listening to the live coverage while our parents were asleep. We could not imagine what was being described as we had never been to the city. All we heard was the wild endless roar of “MerdekaMerdekaMerdeka!” 

     Merdeka transformed the country. New schools mushroomed all over the countryside. There was also massive expansion of teacher training, which was how my older brother and sister became teachers. Seasoned teachers like my parents were sent for refresher courses. I remembered how excited they were to be exposed to modern teaching techniques and philosophy. At school I now had to take Malay Language. 

No, on that August 31stthose colonials were not chased out; they still had their bungalows. Many however, left later with golden handshakes, courtesy of the generous “Malayanization” scheme. 

     With all those tangible developments now seen everywhere, the villagers began wondering. Where did the government get its money? There was no borrowing, foreign aid, or new taxes. Then it dawned on everyone that we were now independent. All those massive revenues from rubber and tin that previously had been siphoned off to Britain were now retained locally. From then on my parents were enthusiastic supporters of merdeka. Ours were very different to what the Indians, Indonesians, and myriad others elsewhere had endured. May Allah bless Tengku Abdul Rahman and his wise farsighted team.

Next:  Excerpt #69  The Fruits of Merdeka


Sunday, February 19, 2023

Cast From the Herd. Excerpt #67: Tengku At The Helm

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt 67:  Tengku At The Helm


ith MCA (and its merchant members) being part of Alliance, the coalition was well funded. Its logo, a white sloop against a blue background, was everywhere. How appropriate! We would all be in the same boat crossing uncharted seas. Alliance’s leader Tengku Abdul Rahman and his deputy, Datuk Razak, were both “oratorically-challenged.” Tengku’s delivery was so monotonous that I never stayed till the end. Although a member of the royal family, Tengku, unlike Onn, had the easy affability of a born politician, a distinct advantage. Only his accent and vocabulary betrayed him. 

     Tengku was Cambridge-educated; his Malay however, was the untutored “bazaar” variety. One day he was campaigning before a large crowd at the school padang (field). He stood on a makeshift stage, which was nothing more than an old teacher’s desk with a peasant-looking man beside him holding an umbrella. His attendant was forever looking at the side, making sure that both he and his patron would not drop “off stage.” 

     Being a politician Tengku spoke in Malay, the language of the masses. Expressing how humbled he was by the generous turnout, he kept uttering “besar kemaluan saya!” The root word malu means humble or shame, but kemaluan is the euphemism for that part of our body we are ashamed to display in public. He kept repeating how besar (big) his was. What he meant was how humbled he was, but in his “bazaar Malay” he was bragging about the size of his personal anatomy! 

     Malays being a tolerant lot, there was no howling laughter, only quiet snickers and the evident blushing of the ladies that even their brown skin could not conceal. 

     Razak was no better orator, but I was fascinated by him. He was brilliant and thoughtful, but also humble and unassuming. There were no hangers-on by his side holding umbrellas for him. Razak was hesitant in his delivery, stopping often searching for the right or simpler word, making him sound stilted and ponderous. He was embarrassed in not being able to communicate with his audience of simple villagers. It mattered not as his listeners drowned him out with enthusiastic shouts of “Merdeka! Merdeka!” (Independence!) That was all they wanted to hear. 

     Then there was the Socialist Front. Despite its earlier successes in municipal elections in Penang, the party did not get much support among the villagers. They saw little difference between socialism and communism. The brutalities of the communists were still fresh in the villagers’ memories. 

The Alliance won all but one seat and garnered a staggering over 80 percent of the popular votes. Its sole manifesto of independence was the decisive strategy. As for Onn, many of his candidates lost their deposits. The masses were fed up with colonial rule; they wanted merdeka (freedom), and now. Brilliant as he was in his earlier opposition to the Malayan Union, Onn failed to detect, or more likely disagreed with, this seismic shift in his followers. 

     Notwithstanding the overwhelming mandate, the elite, in particular the sultans, also agreed with Onn in harboring deep doubts about merdeka. The sultans feared being reduced to irrelevance, as in India and Indonesia. Local civil servants too preferred their British superiors. 

     Then there were the communal differences within Alliance. It reflected the genius of its leaders that they settled those differences. In truth they did not so much as settle rather merely agreed to defer addressing those critical race matters. They convinced themselves (and later the British) that they could solve those difficult problems among themselves without adult British supervision. 

     The British were not about to entertain any notion of independence unless there was inter-communal agreement. The stench and stain of the sectarian horrors in India were still fresh on their hands. Alliance’s success showed that unlike what had happened on the Indian subcontinent, Malaysians could work together and would not slaughter each other once the civilizing presence of the white man was gone. Those early Alliance leaders were right, for the most part. 

     As for the still very active communist insurgency, Tunku held them to their oft-repeated claim of fighting for the country’s independence. He offered them amnesty and initiated direct peace talks, much to the distress of the British who were still prosecuting the war against the insurgents. 

     So that December following the election, Tengku was face to face with the communist leader Chin Peng in a small rural school in Baling near the Thai border. Two pictures of that historic meeting carried in the national paper stood out in my memory. One was of Chin Peng, well dressed but stooped and downward looking. He appeared tired and beaten, far from the picture of a ruthless killer or radical revolutionary. 

     The other was of the Tengku pointing his index finger across the negotiating table towards Chin Peng. That said it all. In Asian culture, only your superior could point his finger at you, as in reprimanding or reproaching. Tengku had every right to swagger; he had just secured an overwhelming mandate while Chin Peng was a loser. 

     Tengku wanted Chin Peng and his comrades to lay down their arms as they had no more reason to fight. They in turn wanted some cover and a modicum of respect, as with their party legalized; a face-saving gesture, a dominant element in Asian culture. Tungku did not give them that. Thus ended the “Peace Talks;” Chin Peng and his troops, men who had committed murders and other atrocities, retreated to the jungle unmolested, as they were promised. They continued with their futile bloody struggle for decades until a ‘peace treaty’ was signed in 1989. That hardly made the headlines.

Next:  Excerpt # 68:  Anticipating Merdeka

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 66 Pilihan Raya-Celebrating Choices

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #66:  Pilihan Raya – Celebrating Choices

Malaysia had its first national election in July 1955. I was then in my last year of primary school (Year Six). Up till that time there had been only municipal elections in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. By this time I had taken to reading The Straits Times especially its Op-Ed Page and thus was very much aware of political developments. My favorite columnist was Vernon Bartlett. Here was a colonialist who was unafraid to criticize his own government. In my culture, then and now, that would be treasonous and dealt with accordingly. The nationalistic Utusan Melayu often translated Bartlett’s essays, which was how my father came to know of Bartlett and with that, the refined values of the British establishment.

With the campaigning, the roads and buildings were festooned with banners and posters extolling the various parties and their candidates. My village, hitherto ignored by officialdom, was inundated with visiting national figures. 

     Electing leaders was a novel phenomenon for us, as was the bewildering campaigning. Ours was a feudal society with our leaders anointed. God had chosen them to lead us. They did not need to appeal to us or get our approval; instead we had to submit to them. Now there was this strange concept of democracy imported from the colonial West where we would get to choose our leaders and they had to appeal to us. Our world had been turned upside down. The surprise was how fast we adapted to and thrived in this new political system. Malays took to electoral politics like dandelions to watered lawns. 

     The leader of the Islamic Party, Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy, put it best. Just as we celebrate the end of Ramadan with Hari Raya (lit. Day of Celebration) by decorating our homes and ourselves, so too we celebrate this freedom to choose our leaders by decorating our streets and buildings. Those “decorations” being the colorful campaign banners and posters. 

     The Malay word for election is pilihan rayaPilihan means choice, and raya, celebration; thus election means celebrating choice. It is indeed worthy of great celebration when we get to choose our leaders. 

Burhanuddin was a cerebral politician. The “Al Helmy” to his name was just decorative, a fashion statement aping the Arabs. By our own tradition his name would simply be Burhanuddin Bin (son of) Muhammad Nur. However, an Arab-like name befitted the leader of an Islamic party. He was after all a politician. Helmy means mild mannered in Arabic; that also described the man well. Though soft spoken, his speeches were substantive. He pointed out that Malaysia was the leading producer of tin and rubber, but all the end products were manufactured abroad. He argued that we should do our own manufacturing, and if we do not have the technical skills then we should invite foreign companies and experts in to do it. That way we would create jobs locally and add value to our exports. 

     Sophisticated ideas! He did not treat the villagers as simpletons; he engaged them. They in turn understood his arguments. Being not well funded, his party’s logo of a white moon against a green (color of Islam) background was not very visible. 

     The other major parties were Party Negara (National Party), the Socialist Front, and the Alliance, a coalition of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). My parents supported Party Negara, in particular its leader Datuk Onn. He was revered because he galvanized Malays into forming UMNO in 1946 and then through it, defeated the Malayan Union Treaty that would have turned Malaysia into a permanent British Dominion. Onn’s feat was even more remarkable considering that the treaty had already been ratified by the sultans. That he could also organize Malays, hitherto considered apathetic with respect to the affairs of state, only brightened his halo. He left UMNO in 1951 over major policy differences to start his new Party Negara. 

     In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I recounted the episode where Datuk Onn organized a massive public rally at the palace in Kota Baru to “show loyalty” to their sultans who had gathered there to ratify and attend the installation of the first Governor-General of the new Dominion of Malaya. That mass gathering effectively barricaded the sultans, preventing them from attending the event. That was trumpeted by Onn as a show of loyalty to our sultans. In reality it was forced royal boycott or “confined to quarters!” The British got the subtle but strong message and rescinded the treaty. That act of defiance against the sultans but camouflaged as a public show of loyalty remains the single greatest patriotic action by any Malaysian. That rally remains the most effective and sophisticated display of peaceful mass resistance, on par with Gandhi’s. It was also a display of Malay subtlety at its best; a rebellion against the sultans’ collective decision to ratify the Malayan Union Treaty camouflaged as a public outpouring of loyalty! 

     The irony was that despite his earlier vigorous and effective opposition to the Malayan Union, Onn and his Party Negara were against independence. My parents too shared that sentiment. The sorry state of neighboring Indonesia and far away India convinced them that we would be better off remaining under British rule. Freedom is overrated if it means anarchy and starvation. 

     Onn was an aristocrat, and had the bearing of one. He never looked directly at his audience but above them. He appeared as if he was wasting his time explaining complicated matters of statecraft to kampung simpletons. They should just trust him to do the right thing, as he did in opposing the Malayan Union. Malay villagers were a tolerant and polite lot; they duly applauded him. Excited they were not. 

Onn never referred to UMNO or its leaders. His disdain if not contempt for them was plain. After all he created the party; he expected it to crumble without him. Instead, UMNO became stronger in tandem with his contempt for it. 

     While Onn fancied himself a nationalist hero, he remained obsessed with his British title: Sir Onn! His party’s logo was the plebian symbolic sheath of rice, his only and pathetic populist gesture. The man probably never stepped foot in a rice field. More than a few UMNO leaders later would also have Onn’s smug arrogance in believing that their leaving the party would cause it to collapse.

Next:  Excerpt 67:  Tengku At The Helm

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #65 Potential Problem With A Neighbor Averted

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 65:  Potential Problem With A Neighbor Averted

There was a piece of land next to that owed by Lias’s father (or rather his first wife, Lias’s mother). My father had long eyed that property. One day he had his chance; the owner decided to sell it to finance his – what else – next Hajj. One dark early morning after a torrential overnight downpour, my father saw Haji Sulaiman at a corner of the property. There had been a small landslide that exposed the boundary marker. My father saw him shifting it more than a few yards into the other property. My father was perturbed, not relishing the prospect of a fight over boundaries with his potential neighbor. 

            Were my father to notify the owner, word would soon get around and my father would be blamed for instigating a dispute between neighbors. The villagers would never believe my father’s word over the Haji’s anticipated denial. 

             While my father was mulling over his dilemma, my mother suggested telling Haji Sulaiman the truth. Meaning, my father was contemplating buying the property after the owner had it re-surveyed. So that was what my father said over a casual conversation with Haji Sulaiman. The next night, my father saw a frantic Sulaiman uprooting the boundary marker and replacing it back at its original spot. My father bought the land. No, the previous owner did not re-survey it; he didn’t have to as my father did not request one. 

            That land was productive! Every afternoon after his siesta my father would tend to it; that was his recreation. Seeing the subsequent bountiful fruits only energized him. One day the village radio repairman passed by and told my father that he could plow the land with his tractor cheaply, sparing my father the back-breaking chore. So one Saturday morning the man brought his tractor, and with the entire village in attendance, like a circus show. In just over an hour the man and his machine plowed the entire property and cleared the underbrush. The machine dug deep, deeper than could be done manually. My father was so impressed that he doubled the man’s pay. The man also demonstrated other jobs his tractor could do, like digging fencepost holes. From that day my father became a regular customer, and the good word soon spread. 

             At about this time the government had embarked on many rural development schemes, opening up jungles for oil palm and rubber plantations, as well as building roads and schools. This man secured many of those contracts for grading and earthmoving. He was a true entrepreneur. He saw a need that had not been met, or met inefficiently, and using his machines served those needs in a cheaper, faster, and better way, making a fortune for himself. Capitalism at its best! That in essence is the apt definition of an entrepreneur, and why entrepreneurs are such a vital engine for economic and social development. 

             In an idle conversation while waiting for his machine to cool, my father asked the man where he had learned his skills. The Japanese taught him, and when the war was over, through prudent savings and frugal lifestyle the man bought his first tractor, an abandoned Japanese machine, the one he demonstrated for my father. From that he built a mini-empire. 

            That land was our pride and joy. I became the supplier of bananas, pineapples, and other fruits to the village stores even after we had given away generously to neighbors and relatives. My father noted that no one should starve in Malaysia as the land was so fertile. During the war there was mass starvation because the Japanese hogged all the bounty. Years later my father bragged about getting a generous offer for the land. “You can never go wrong investing in land,” he advised me. 

            I cautioned him about his conclusion. He was taken aback and asked what I meant. I told him that we had to compare the different rates of investment returns. Intrigued, he asked me to elaborate. I replied that had he put his money in the bank he would also have doubled his money in about the same time. My parents understood the concept of compound interest and readily grasped my point. 

            “And you don’t have the headache of land taxes,” my mother added, “or fencing and plowing.” 

I felt sorry for puncturing my father’s pride. He was pensive. “Is that what they teach you at university?” 

“Yes,” I replied. “In economics they call that opportunity costs.” 

            He was downcast, a peacock withdrawing its plumes after having failed to impress the hen, my mother. I felt bad; I should have complimented him. He was however less concerned with the opportunity costs of his investment, more on the lost opportunity of his education. He realized how limited his intellectual universe was with his Malay-only education. 

           After a long embarrassed silence I tried to cheer him up. “Of course one cannot consider only money. There are other tangible benefits that cannot be measured by it, like the bountiful fruits we enjoyed.” 

           He was not comforted. Then I related my fond memories of countless joyful hours my brother and I spent target-shooting squirrels that were damaging the coconuts. “You can’t put a dollar value to that,” I assured him. Then to cheer him up even more, I reminded him of my distant uncle-in-law who nearly had to abandon his children after his wife died. Now with this land no one could force my father out of the village as the property was not part of tanah pusaka (heritage). They could not take the land away from him; it was now his anchor to the village. 

Buoyed by that reminder, my father became animated. “Think of the many people I had helped through this land,” his voice now glowing with pride. “That tractor guy started his heavy equipment business through me.” 

I nodded. I wanted to tell him that his money at the bank too would benefit others as it would be lent out to other entrepreneurs. On reflection, I was glad that I did not. He had already grasped the concept of financial intermediary, as well as the recycling and velocity of money, in addition to my earlier unsolicited exposition on opportunity costs.

In later years when my father could no longer attend to his land, he shifted his investments into the nascent stock market just before it boomed. On my next visit he was busy giving me hot tips. “Everybody drinks Coca Cola, buy the stock,” he enthused, forgetting his much earlier loss with Ma’arof’s pioneering Malay National Bank right after the war. 

          My late parents had the unique gift to change with the times, and thus benefited from those changes instead of being their victims. Bless their souls! 

Next:  Excerpt #66:  Pilihan Raya – Celebrating Choices