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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, April 30, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt # 76. Not So Heavenly

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 76:  Not So Heavenly

My first class at Malay College was chemistry. Mr. Peter Norton, who was also our form teacher, was from India but he did not look Indian, more Eurasian with his light-brown complexion. He also did not have the thick Indian accent; his was more American, probably a consequence of his Fordham graduate degree. He had a slight limp from childhood polio and looked serious until he spoke and smiled. Then he transformed himself into your warm, supportive favorite uncle. After a brief digression where we newcomers had to introduce ourselves, he dived right away into his subject. 

     “Folks, you are now in Sixth Form,” he reminded us. “No more spoon feeding. Much of the studying will be done by you!” as he wagged his index finger at us. “We also have to go much faster,” he continued. “No more hand holding. All right?” 

     With that he began his lecture. “Today we will cover ionic equations,” and the class was off to a roaring start. He lectured, wrote on the blackboard, walked across the room, and then wrote some more. When the bell rang, I did not realize that 45 minutes had gone by. He actually taught us. That was remarkable as my chemistry teacher in Kuala Pilah, that textbook writer Menon, just sat behind his desk and read from his notes. Norton explained things. And they said that Sixth Form would be tough! 

     Next was physics with Mr. K. N. Malhotra, another recruit from India. A former army officer, he had the bearing:  stiff, ramrod posture, and a commanding voice. He was a chain smoker and nicotine reeked through his hairy pores. He had a well-deserved reputation for being strict. He walked straight into our class and stood at attention, a platoon commander inspecting his raw recruits from the villages. It was the tradition at Malay College for the teacher to salute the class first. So there we were, standing straight and quiet waiting for him to say, “Good morning, class.” But he didn’t. He scrutinized each one of us in turn. It was unnerving. After what seemed like eternity, “Good morning, gentlemen!” 

We all responded and sat down.


     He too made us newcomers introduce ourselves. Unlike Norton who was free-flowing, Malhotra was targeted. “How many are you from Johore?” A couple of hands shot up. “Which school?” he commanded. 

Only my Tuanku Muhammad School had sent two students; I was proud of that! The others, only one each. Then after all we newcomers had introduced ourselves he continued, “In my class there will be no fooling around. You can do that in English, not here. Understand?” 

     “Yes, Sir!” We took our cue from his military bearing and commandant’s voice; our response was equally assertive and confident. 

     “Today we will start with optics.” He wrote a problem on the board. It looked familiar; I had solved it when preparing for the entrance examination. I smirked! Then he turned to the class for the answer. We were all quiet, afraid, looking down at our notebook fearful of making eye contact lest be called upon. 

He picked his first victim, one of the newcomers. Before the poor fellow could respond, Malhotra cut in, “Don’t guess! If you don’t know, say so right away! Don’t waste my time!” 

     The poor fellow, sufficiently intimidated, replied, “Err, um! I don’t know!” 

     He moved on. After many more I-don’t-knows, his eyes narrowed on a bespectacled, scholarly-looking student next to me. “Nik Zainal! Tell the class the answer!” 

     Nik was the top student ever since he joined the college at Form Four. Nik gave an answer that I knew was wrong. Mr. Malhotra jerked back, unable to control his disappointment, but quickly recovered. He then turned to me. “Bakri,” he commanded, “do you want to try?” 

     I had just introduced myself a few minutes earlier together with a dozen other new students and yet he remembered my name. Amazing! I gave the answer. He tried to rattle me, but I stuck to my answer. He went ahead and solved the problem step by step on the board. The answer was what I had given. 

“So that boy from Kuala Pilah got it right!” He even remembered where I was from! He looked at his watch, the period was ending. “Tomorrow we’ll go over the theory behind today’s problem.” Then the school bell rang. 

      I reckoned Mr. Malhotra was a good poker player; his face, voice, and posture could easily fool his opponents, but that morning I was confident of my answer.

While the rest of the class bolted out, I savored my moment of glory. I needed that after the humiliation of the day earlier. As I was picking up my books to leave, Malhotra approached me. “Did they teach you this back in Kuala Pilah?” 

     When I told him no and that I saw a similar problem when studying for the entrance examination, he was incredulous. “You mean you studied it on your own?” 

     He complimented me, and at that very brief moment I saw not a stern teacher but a supportive counselor. 

     The next class was calculus but as our teacher, Allen Brown, had not yet arrived from Canada we all drifted to the library. Brown was a Canadian Universities Overseas Organization (CUSO) volunteer, a Maple Leaf version of the Peace Corp. At the library the conversations gravitated to what had transpired earlier. Ramli patted me on the back and said that I did our old school proud. 

     Mokthar, one of the old timers, offered, “Bakri, you were lucky. Had you been wrong, he would have creamed you.” Mokthar had not seen Mr. Malhotra beyond his gruff military front. 

At recess I followed Nazuddin to the tuck shop. He assured me that it was good that I had started on the right side of Malhotra and confided that his gruffness was but a front and that when the crunch came, he would be very supportive. 

Next:  Excerpt # 77  A Dud For Biology And English


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