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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, March 26, 2023

Caste From the Herd Excerpt # 71: Babut Darjat-Bound

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 71:  Babut Darjat-Bound

I was down in the dumps that early December of 1960. My school farewell party was a painful reminder that I had very few friends outside of my class or school; in fact none. My village friends of yore had by now gone their separate ways. While in past holidays I would spend the time studying for the next term or year, or be in the school library, now I could no longer do that. There was little to interest me. I spent the time brooding, waking up late, and sleeping in the afternoon. I did not realize how low I was in the dump until I overheard my parents’ hushed conversation about hiring a village dukun to break my spell. That shook me up.

            I was rescued later in the week I received an official letter in a nondescript small envelope with the return address, “Headmaster, The Malay College, Kuala Kangsar.” The British had set up that boarding school in 1905 for the purpose of educating children of Malay royalty and nobility in order to prepare them for junior positions in the colonial administrative service. Despite that modest aspiration, to Malays the college was Babut Darjat (“Heaven-bound”), in reference to the subsequent exalted positions held by those who passed through its portal. Only later was the admissions liberalized to include those of “lesser births” as the school could not fill its slots with only blue blood.

            The letter stated that I would be joining the college’s Lower Six Science class in January, and that the school uniform was a white shirt and long pants. The letter, signed “N. J. Ryan, Headmaster,” was short; it did not even fill the half-scape paper. There was no mention of fees or other expenses. Up till that time I had assumed that I would be going to the King George V (KGV) School in Seremban. I showed my parents the letter. My mother was jubilant but my father cautioned me. “You mean you have been invited to apply to Malay College.”

            I told him otherwise, and re-read the letter. It was in English, so my father had to depend on my translation. He was still not persuaded. You have to first apply, be interviewed many times, undergo a medical examination, and then be measured for your uniforms, my father reminded me. “Don’t get your hopes high,” as he recalled my cousin Azizzah’s earlier fate with her application to nursing-aid school.

            My father had another good reason for his caution, although he did not allude to it then. Years earlier my older brother Sharif was also nominated to apply for Malay College. The one item on the application form that stumped my father was:  “Name a member of the nobility or royal family you are related to.” He panicked over that one, like a mule that had strayed into a stable of prized stallions and did not quite know how to extricate itself. 

            Of course we had none. In desperation he remembered that one of my granduncles had the exalted title of Datuk Laksamana (Rear Admiral) though he was no more than a palace busybody. We did not know whether that title was real or a nickname given to him by his fellow villagers. He had the regalia alright, but the only watercraft he had been on was a leaky rakit (bamboo raft). That did not stop my father from using him as a reference. 

            My brother did get the interview, and my parents’ hope soared. In the end he lost out to a member of the royalty. We were crestfallen. To cover his severe disappointment, my father reverted to a typical villager’s pat solace. “It’s God’s will.” He said that over and over to sooth his and our crushed hopes. 

            “Who are we simple villagers,” he comforted my mother, “to aspire so high for our children?” It was his uncharacteristic resigned posture and unexpected fatalistic tone that bothered me most.

            So I was well advised not to put my hopes up high. This was only a first step, as my father reminded me. However after I had put all my efforts to get into Sixth Form, I was not sure that I had anything left in me to face this new unexpected challenge. Even if I could convince myself that I had the inner strength, the question remained whether I was willing to commit to it. I rationalized that even if I could not get into Malay College, I would be going to KGV where I could come home every weekend. I was unsure whether it would be worth the effort to secure a slot at Malay College. It is amazing how protective one’s mind can be in preparing for possible great disappointments. 

            That afternoon my classmate Ramli surprised me with a visit, excited, as he too had received a similar letter. I cautioned him about what my father had related earlier. Ramli had an uncanny ability to communicate well with simple villagers, but my father was still not persuaded by Ramli’s same interpretation of that letter. “Cikgu,” Ramli finally assured my father, using the honorific title of a teacher, “I hear those spoiled rich Malay kids didn’t do so well this year in their Sixth Form Entrance Examination. The college needs us to fill its science class. Otherwise it would have to close it.” 

            Ramli’s reference to ‘spoiled rich Malay kids’ fitted my father’s stereotype of them. Now with Ramli telling it, my father was convinced that we were Malay College-bound. My mother who hitherto was engaged in the entire conversation somehow later managed to serve us tea and fried bananas. Soon the conversation drifted to our classmate Nafsiah. Her older sister Maria and my mother taught at the same school, hence the connection. Maria used to relate to my mother, and she in turn repeated that to me, how hard working was Nafsiah. That reference was an unwelcome reminder of my earlier sly scheme on how to beat her as she was academically far ahead of me. I did not want to even think about that, or the misery she and her family were experiencing. 

            Ramli again rescued me. “Don’t worry about her,” he soothed my mother. “Her folks are rich. They’ll send her to Australia or England. With us, if we don’t get into Sixth Form, we are finished.” 

            My mother was mollified, and that helped soothe my guilt. Ramli then added, “Malay College needs us. People like Bakri will raise its scores.” Then as an afterthought he asked my mother, “Did he tell you that he was first in the state?” 

            That was the first time my parents knew how well I did. They in turn asked Ramli how well he did, thinking that he would be first in the country. Ramli was perennially at the top of the class ever since he joined us in Form One, after his two years of Special Malay Class. He smiled and replied that I was far ahead of him. My parents were surprised, but they were even more pleased with Ramli’s tone of unrestrained pride instead of smothering jealousy. A true friend!

            Ramli was prescient about Nafsiah. She did end up at an Australian University on her father’s scholarship, and later, Cornell for graduate studies, the only member of my class either in Kuala Pilah or Kuala Kangsar to have landed at an Ivy League. She later distinguished herself as a Federal Minister in the Mahathir Administration.

Next:  Excerpt # 72:  Separation Anxiety


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