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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.

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


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