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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, April 09, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpy # 73: Entering Babut Darjat

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 73:  Entering Babut Darjat! (Heaven-bound!)

Ramli and I took the train to Kuala Kangsar. My parents and I picked him up at his house in Terachi on the way to the station at Seremban. We did not just pick him up. As was the Malay tradition, his parents first had to treat us to lunch. My father fidgeted on whether we would ever leave in time to catch the train. We did, finally, in my parents’ old four-cylinder Austin Minor that already had too many miles under its belt. With Ramli’s suitcases and mine, all filled with books, that was quite a load. We crawled up the steep Bukit Putus in low gear. At times Ramli and I felt that we should get out and push. 

            At the station the ticket master insisted on our travel vouchers seeing that we were Malay College-bound. What voucher? We never received any. As we had to pay our way, we asked for third class, the cheapest. No third class, he bellowed, only second class for Malay College students. Only much later did we find out that Sixth Formers had to pay their own transport. 

            In the train I could spot the other students. They had their college’s crest on their suitcases. They were also so much younger. We did not strike up a conversation with any of them. The second-class coaches were luxurious even though they were not air conditioned, and not crowded. That was my first train trip. We arrived at the cavernous Moorish-style main station at Kuala Lumpur late in the afternoon with plenty of time before we were to board the north-bound train to Kuala Kangsar that evening. 

            The other students stacked their luggage on the platform and then left to see the city. Ramli and I did the same. We saw the iconic Merdeka Stadium and strolled along Jalan Mountbatten, the main shopping row. We passed by the exclusive Robinson Store but were too intimidated to enter. I peered through the windows and saw more than a few locals among the mostly colonial customers. Those natives seemed happy even though they could get the same goods at far lower prices elsewhere. Then, as now, there are profits to be made catering to your customers’ vanity – up to a point. Robinson is long gone today, and customers local and foreign, rich and poor, flock to the cheaper Yoahan superstore instead. 

            On returning to the station we saw many more young faces, including some dazed and frightened looks, like deer that had strayed into a suburban backyard. New kids, I presumed. I tried hard not to look like them and pretended that I knew my way around while watching those I presumed were old hands. One poor soul had brought his mattress and pillows, wrapped in the traditional tukar (mat) made of knitted dried palm leaves. He looked so, ah, plebeian and out of place in that elegant building. Ramli and I snickered. Thank God we were not that primitive! In my heart I thanked Nazuddin for his earlier advice. 

            We boarded the train around nine but by the time we left the station it was way past ten. I went to sleep with no difficulty only to be awakened by the cessation of the rollicking movement of the coach and lack of engine noise, together with bright lights shining through the window. We were at another large station, Ipoh. It was early morning. We stepped off to have breakfast in the station. 

            Soon the train lumbered out. It was now daylight and I could see the steep limestone cliffs and tin mines with their characteristic large muddy pools. I knew we were approaching Kuala Kangsar by the frenzied activities in the coach. The students began putting their suitcases near the exit. Ramli and I too did the same. I checked my pockets to make sure that I had everything and found that my train ticket was still un-punched. I met many conductors on the way but they assumed that being a Malay College student, I had traveled on vouchers and thus they did not check my ticket. Later I was emboldened to take many free trips by behaving as the typical Malay College student. 

            Soon the train stopped. On the platform was a huge sign, “Kuala Kangsar.” We disembarked and I followed the crowd to the blue Malay College bus parked nearby. As I was about to board behaving as best as I could like the others, someone tapped my shoulder, “You are new, aren’t you?” 

            “Umm, er, er, yes,” I replied, my voice trembling and with noticeable hesitancy while forcing a grin to gain his sympathy. 

            “Are you a Sixth Former?” When I nodded, he directed me to a group already standing in the sun. Ramli was already there with about a dozen other miserable and bewildered-looking souls standing under the blasting near-noon sun. 

            A tall lanky lad with black thick-rimmed glasses barked at us. “So mu think mu speshe to come to kolet?” (So you think you are special to come to college?) he mocked us in half-Malay and half-English, heavy in his Kelantanese sing-song accent. I had heard the Kelantan dialect before, but that was the first time I heard English spoken that way. I tried hard to suppress my laughter. Good thing I was successful; one student could not. He burst out laughing, which enraged our tin-pot commander. He yelled to the poor boy to do “ear squat” twenty times while we all watched him. That removed the smirk off his face. Poor soul; he must be from Johore and felt superior because he spoke the refined aristocratic Malay. 

            From then on things quickly deteriorated. This was the beginning of our hazing. I knew something about this dreaded ritual from Raja Nazuddin. He dismissed it as a harmless prank. It did not appear to me this was going to be the case. 

Excerpt # 74:  A Not-So-Pleasant Welcome


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