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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 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


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