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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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Unwise To Increase Salaries Of All Teachers

 Unwise To Increase Salaries Of All Teachers

M. Bakri Musa


June 1, 2023


Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek’s call on May 27, 2023 to increase the salaries of all teachers with higher qualification is expensive, misguided, and would not solve the critical problems facing Malaysian schools, specifically declining standards. On the contrary that would only aggravate them. This tendency to institute a general solution instead of focusing on specific problems is alas typical of Malaysian policymaking.


            Fadhlina’s proposal would result only in more of those with higher qualifications in Islamic Studies and Malay Studies becoming teachers. You do not need them as there is already a glut. The pressing shortage is with teachers (with or without higher qualifications) of English and STEM subjects. This is most acute with rural schools.


            Instead, give extra allowances only for teachers of English and STEM. That targeted approach would be less expensive, more effective, and not carry the permanent burden of a salary increase. You could reduce or remove those allowances once conditions improve. You cannot reduce salaries with ease.


            Grant an allowance of 25 percent of basic salary to those qualified to teach English or STEM, an additional 25 percent if they were to be posted in a rural school, and another 25 percent if they have higher qualifications in those subjects. Thus a math teacher with a Master’s degree teaching at Sekolah Kebangsa’an Ulu Kelantan would increase her emolument by 75 percent. Incentive enough! That would boost the teaching in those schools.


            Go beyond and provide quarters for these hard-to-get teachers. Many schools have these quarters but they are occupied by religious studies teachers. Again you do not need incentives for them.


            Beyond special allowances and living quarters, reexamine the national syllabus. It is overloaded with sterile Islamic Studies and “soft” subjects like civics. I have no issues with the former if that would make these students fluent in Arabic. It is always beneficial to be bilingual no matter what the second language. However, Islamic Studies in Malaysia is less education, more indoctrination. Critical thinking is not encouraged; that is bidaah (adulteration of the faith). You are to blindly accept the status quo, and be graded on that.


            Heed the wisdom of Munshi Abdullah. He likened a child’s mind to a parang, and teachers are to sharpen it. With a sharp parang you could hack your way out of the thick jungle or carve an exquisite work of sculpture. Islamic Studies teachers however, treat their students as dustbins to be filled with dogmas. The most you could get out of that is what you had put in, minus what would inevitably be lost or stuck to the bottom. That is also Paulo Freire’s criticism of what he referred to as the bank account model of education.


            There is minimal critical thinking or probing questions posed in Islamic education, even at the graduate level in Malaysia and most Islamic countries. No surprise that the discipline today flourishes and the brightest Islamic minds found only at Western universities where critical thinking and inquisitive analyses are the norm.


            There is a price to pay for the current unenlightened Malaysian education, and that is borne disproportionately by Malays. It is a tragedy to see so many bright young Malay minds rotting in national and religious schools being deprived of a progressive education. That a precious few become successful are the exceptions.


            Strengthen the curriculum by having Malay, English, science, and mathematics be taught daily. It is no surprise that increasing number of Malay parents opt for Chinese schools for their children to escape the intellectual oppressiveness of national and religious schools. That flow would become a torrent if leaders of these vernacular schools were to be enlightened enough to change the names of their schools to Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Mandarin), linking more to language, not race. For added measure, have halal canteens, name these schools after Malay heroes, and have Muslim teachers from China to teach Islamic Studies.


            Education Minister Fadhlina and her advisors should work on a focused policy targeted at the most pressing problems. There are plenty of those. Though outside her purview, consider that with the country desperate for teachers of English, yet not a single public university has a dedicated Department of English. Nor is there an English-medium Teachers’ College. She should not try to solve all problems. Be more modest with your aspirations, and most of all, be realistic of your capabilities.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Cast From the Herd Excerpt # 80: High Table Dining

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 80:  High Table Dining 

Back at the dorm, the “veterans” always complained about the food. To me it was tasty and rich. Imagine having meat, chicken, or fish every day! With many complaining and disdainful, there were plenty of leftovers. I was initially tempted to indulge myself but concerns over “table manners” restrained me. 


         Then at one dinner Raja Azman and I were in an extended political discussion. When everyone had left he commented on the students’ complaints about the food and remarked how ungrateful they were. Like me, he found nothing wrong with it. Noting the generous leftovers, he asked me to go ahead and help myself if I wanted. That was all I needed. 


          From then on whenever there were tasty leftovers, I would strike up a conversation with Raja Azman on some controversial topic to ensure that the discussion would continue on after the rest had left. Raja Azman and I would then gorge ourselves. 


           The first Thursday evening I was invited, together with a few other new Sixth Formers, to dine at the “high table” with the headmaster. My immediate reaction was to decline, thinking it was but a sneaky trick to check on my table manners. Raja Azman advised me otherwise. He said that the food up there was superb and the service even better. So I accepted, and he was right. 

            My apprehension over high-table dining was minor compared to my anxiety for the following Thursday evening’s “Introduction Night” when we new Sixth Formers were to introduce ourselves to the entire school, a refined form of hazing. We also had to put on a performance and the audience would be supercritical. I asked Raja Azman what he did the previous year. He performed the silat (art of self-defense), but then he was an expert at it having won many trophies. 

            After much contemplation, I decided to sing. That would be no easy task. My repertoire was restricted to nursery rhymes, and then only in the bathroom. I would also need some musical accompaniment and there were no ready volunteers. After much pleading from me, my classmate Mat Lias agreed to teach me a few chords on his guitar. 


          I wanted to sing a popular song by the immortal P. Ramlee, Hujan di tengah hari (It Rained at Midday). It was a slow, melodious, and most important to me, of limited tonal range well within my capacity. Besides, the song’s forlorn tone matched my mood at the time. Unfortunately I could not find either the lyrics or the score. Instead I flipped through the popular songbooks and found a piece that had the easiest chords. With Lias prodding me, I settled on Fat Domino’s Blueberry Hill that was then on the hit parade list. 

            That meant practicing every afternoon and the weekend, with Lias as my voice coach and music instructor. With the first few bars I belted out, he grimaced. After much patience and many heart-breaking sessions I was able to render a few bars without Lias covering his ears. 

            Thanks to my previous activities at the Speech and Debating Club at my old school, I was not worried about the oral presentation. I gathered some basic materials and planned to tailor my speech as the evening unfolded. I practiced a few variations of my “impromptu” speech in the bathroom when no one was around. 

            With that I was ready for the second phase of my hazing, albeit this time more refined and civilized.

Next:  Excerpt 81:  Introduction Night – Part One

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Fraudulent, Vacuous Proklamasi Melayu 43

 Fraudulent, Vacuous Proklamasi Melayu 2023

M. Bakri Musa



Fraudulent and vacuous! Or in Malay, bohong dan kosong. That describes the recent (March 19) “Proklamasi Melayu (Malay Declaration) 2023,” Mahathir’s latest cuckoo idea. He is egged on by his dwindling coterie of equally clueless fellow Malay leaders. Is Malay culture incapable of producing enlightened leaders? What have we done to be so cursed?


            Likewise with the so-called “Agenda Pinggir Kaum Melayu” (Agenda to Marginalize Malays), the racist rhetoric propagated by those opposed to Anwar Ibrahim’s more inclusive agenda. In truth the real culprits responsible for marginalizing Malays are our own leaders, secular and religious. Our intellectuals meanwhile equate the studying of English as but a manifestation of hatred for our Bahasa dan Bangsa (language and race), and burden the national curriculum with sterile religious content at the expense of STEM and English. That is quite apart from the egregious corruption of Malay leaders that siphon precious funds meant for schools.


            Mahathir deludes himself that he ‘still has it.’ That’s the kosong part, if not also bohong. With Anwar Ibrahim now Prime Minister, Mahathir’s vacuity as well as his many frauds would soon be exposed! Raja Ali Haji’s Gurindam 12 (Part IV) “Tiada orang yang amat celaka / aib dirinya yang tiada ia” (Cursed are those blind to their own flaws) is apt here. Nature however is kind to the elderly, sparing the likes of Mahathir his aib. Instead, that heavy and tragic burden falls on his followers and the nation.


            Remember the earlier grandiose Malay Dignity Congress of October 2019 officiated by Mahathir? That was glittered (or more correctly, littered) by many Malay intellectuals. Same fraud, same vacuity but different time.


            Following the 2018 national election, leaders of the victorious Pakatan Harapan in their misplaced sense of gratitude asked Mahathir to lead the new government, thinking that the old man still had his mojo. The result? An unneeded political crisis.


            Today it is the losing Perikatan Nasional’s turn to be Mahathir’s latest prey. Their leaders have all signed on to his Proklamasi Melayu 2023, again feeding the old man’s delusion. I am not surprised with PAS Hadi Awang; he has had his turban on too tight for so long. As for Muhyiddin Yassin and Hamzah Zainuddin, well, they were never too bright.


            It is Terengganu’s Chief Minister Ahmad Samsuri Mokthar who baffles me. Even those simple Langkawi voters have one up over this engineering PhD. They long ago realized that Mahathir is well past his political shelf-life, and like an overripe durian, stinks if not also toxic. In his latest antic, Mahathir again abandoned his newest party because “it is no longer received by the voters.” He missed that voters had rejected him too! Again, Raja Ali Haji’s aib dirinya yang tiada ia.


            Those Proklamasi cosigners should heed its message, in particular the fourth point, “Puncanya kecuaian pemimpin Melayu” (The key reason being the dereliction of Malay leaders); fifth, “Parti Melayu ... sudah diselewing menjadi parti untuk memewakhkan diri” (Malay parties have been corrupted to enrich their leaders); and sixth, “Rebutan jawatan dan wang telah menjehanamkan perpaduan bangsa Melayu (The grab for positions and money is what destroys Malays). They all should have looked into the mirror as they recited the Proklamasi.


            As for the other nine points (Malays lacking economic clout, not having control of our future, and having to sell Malay Reservations land, etc.), if Mahathir could not solve them as Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 and when he was much younger, what hope is there now that he is in his nineties and ailing? A gratifying note is that this Proklamasi Melayu 2023 is not gaining traction in the social or mainstream media, especially Malay ones. That is not because these commentators are now more enlightened rather that they, like their predecessors, see little benefit in backing losers.


            Malaysia is fortunate today in having Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. No pushover, he has called on Mahathir and his cronies to account for their wealth. There is no statute of limitation when it comes to plundering the nation!


            My plea to my fellow Malays, whether a PhD-holder, housewife Mak Minah, or rebellious Mat Rempit is to emulate Langkawi voters. Reject this charlatan and his coterie of “has-beens” masquerading as our national saviors, and do so now. Remember, an idiot, even an old one, could still burn down the town with a match. It is our collective responsibility to snatch that match from him and at the same time clean up the rubbish. Arresting Mahathir and his cronies would be the equivalent of snatching away the match as well as cleaning up the mess.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 79: A Refreshing Foreigner As Our Math Teacher

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 79  A Refreshing Foreigner As Our Math Teacher

We were  well into the third week before Mr. Allen Brown, our Canadian mathematics teacher, arrived. Tall, athletic, and casual, he whistled down the corridor. He was taking a few years off before pursuing graduate work at Cambridge. He did not so much enter class as wander in. He was embarrassed when we all stood up. He was taken aback thinking that we were in mass protest and ready to walk out with his arriving late. After a long silence waiting for him to greet us first, as was the tradition at Malay College, we finally said in semi-unison seeing that he had remained silent, “Good morning, Sir.” Presumably they did not greet their teachers in Canada. 

            What I noticed right away were his pants; they were like my first one, khaki and un-pleated. He had on a long-sleeved white shirt and tie that lent elegance to his casualness. New to the country, he did not harbor any preconceived ideas, and proceeded to treat us like his students back home. He began without any fuss; no long drawn-out preamble on how “tough” calculus would be or that we had to buckle up. He assumed that we could handle his subject matter. 

            He began by drawing on the board a series of arcs from the same center point, each successive one with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shapes of the arcs. 

            That was obvious; as the radii got longer, the arcs became flatter, or less curved. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be almost straight, we responded. He beamed. “Yes! A straight line is but a curve with a radius of infinity.”

            “Now imagine the other extreme,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve infinitely close to each other.” Then he took a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify this part of the curve a zillion times,” he gestured with his outspread arms, “the two adjacent points on it would essentially be on a straight line.” 

            Then he exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes.” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line were just as applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it. 

            Thus was the mystery of variable change and differential calculus revealed to me! I had taken the subject the year before in From Five and had aced it. Yet I did not grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that. Thanks to Mr. Brown, I now had a fuller understanding of the underlying concepts. 

            Later that November we sat for the national examination (subsidiary level for Lower Sixth Form). When the results were released the following February, our entire class but two had aced calculus, a record not just for the school but also the country. We were whooping it up back at the dorm when Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what the excitement was. To him, it was not a surprise at all; he had seen our performances on the many class tests he had given us during the year. For him, the surprise was that we were surprised. 

            I was pleased for Mr. Brown, but for very different reasons. Malay College was an elite school and a posting there was highly coveted. Yet Brown was raw and untrained. The other teachers did not bother to conceal their disdain for him, seeing him as but an expression of latent malignant tribalism. That is, Headmaster Ryan would not have accepted Brown at our school except for the fact he (Brown) was a fellow ‘white man.’ After our superb performances with our Lower Six national calculus examination however, nobody ever referred to Brown again as that ‘hitchhiker’ or ‘pseudo’ teacher. Trained or not, permanent or temporary, foreign or ‘our’ kind, he was very effective and we loved him. Brown had also done a superb job coaching the junior varsity rugby team, an achievement not lost on Ryan.


            Years later I would read about another math teacher in a Los Angeles inner-city school, Mr. Jaime Escalante. When his Hispanic students excelled in their AP (Advanced Placement, equal to first year university) calculus, the test administrator suspected mass cheating and forced them to retake it under a strict external invigilator. They did, and they replicated their earlier success. Escalante’s experience was made into the celebrated movie, “Stand and Deliver.” 

Next:  Excerpt # 80:  High Table Dining 

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #78 A Soporific Teacher of English

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 78:  A Soporific Teacher of English

The period before lunch break was General Paper. This was not any specific subject, more designed to develop our written communication and critical thinking skills. We had to pass the paper to secure a full certificate. The teacher, Tan Cheng Or, also taught English Literature. He was, bluntly put, boring. The combination of the heat of the day, my stomach grumbling, his monotone soporific voice, and an uncharismatic character teaching essentially a language course was a sedative bar none. The school bell not so much announced the end of class as to wake me up. 

          The college had not always been cursed with such lousy teachers of English. A few years earlier there was a Mr. John Wilson, a colorful character on and off campus. He turned his quarters into a pub, to the consternation of the then headmaster, a Mr. Howell. In class however, Wilson was inspiring and much adored. He would later be more known as Anthony Burgess, having authored among others, A Clockwork Orange

           In his Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of an Autobiography, Wilson wrote of his experience at Kuala Kangsar. It revealed something of his erratic behavior then that resulted in his falling out with Howell. Being an English Catholic, a minority, Wilson empathized as well as sympathized with the oppressed natives and was contemptuous of the privileged Anglo-Saxon Protestant colonials like Howell. 

            Back to my class routine, the afternoon was for labs but since none had been arranged as yet, we were free. 

            Thus began my first academic day at Malay College; an invigorating start in chemistry, continued with a rigorous problem solving in physics, a bust in mathematics, an absentee teacher in botany as well as zoology, and a soporific session in General Paper. Two out of six! Considering that I had studied all on my own during the previous year, this was a vast improvement. That first day was predictive of the year and beyond.

            I never had the privilege of meeting any of my former teachers after leaving Malay College, except for one. A decade and a half later when I was a surgeon at the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur (GHKL), Mr. Malhotra was visiting his wife who was then warded for pneumonia, a victim of the then yet-to-be-recognized “second-hand smoke” syndrome. He saw my name on the wall and sought me out.

            I was taken aback when the nurse brought him to my office as he was unduly deferential towards me, much to my embarrassment. However when I closed the door and we were alone in the privacy of my office, I again saw my old, strict disciplinarian physics teacher. He expressed his pleasure and sense of reflected glory in seeing so many of his former students being specialists at GHKL. He also brought me up to date on his career, being a senior lecturer at the nearby Technical College, soon to be upgraded to a university. I complimented and thanked him for his services to Malaysia.

            He was taken aback. Unlike the vast majority of Indians in Malaysia who were brought in by the British colonials early in the last century to work as menial laborers on the rubber estates, Malhotra was an expatriate recruited by the Malaysian government post-independence. He was very much aware of his exalted albeit temporary status compared to local-born Indians, as well as those he had left behind in the subcontinent. He was thus grateful to Malaysia and felt the need to express that, and often. As such he was ‘more Malay than a Malay’ in his support of the country.

            I remembered back at college having many casual conversations with him (on his initiative of course) in the evenings when he was the duty master. He could not hide his disdain for the local-born Indian teachers for not doing more to better the lot of the natives who had been so generous in accepting them. I too noticed this not-so-subtle divide between Malhotra and the other expatriate teachers with their local-born Indian ones. At that time I viewed it as professional envy, the former being treated so much better.

            Our conversations that day in my office soon turned to other prominent former collegians. A few days earlier Prime Minister Razak had announced his new cabinet. One “old boy” surprisingly had been given a senior portfolio. I mentioned that to humor Malhotra, expecting him to share in the reflected glory. Instead he flopped his right forearm on my desk, leaned forward, and in a conspiratorial tone asked, “What’s wrong with your people, Bakri?”

            I was startled, not knowing how to respond. “I mean,” he continued, thus rescuing me, “I can see you or Nik Zainal reaching the top, but not this character. Nothing good will come out of him.”

            I was less affected by his praise of me, more by his concern for “my people.”

            Malhotra was then working on his permanent residency status and (not unexpectedly) was having lots of hassles. I wanted to suggest to him that a simple letter from this new minister would grease his path. Malhotra also knew that, yet he remained brutally honest in his assessment of the man and did not choose that easy option. He was particularly prescient, for a few years later a scandal broke out and our friend had to leave the cabinet.

            Today, decades after that revelatory conversation, Malays had Malu Apa Boosku? (What is there to be ashamed of with my leader?) character Najib Razak as Prime Minister. How did this nincompoop who barely passed his “industrial economics” degree from a provincial British university rise so high? There are more such characters. Muhyiddin Yassin, Ismail Sabri, Hamzah Zainudin, and Hadi Awang are all now regarded as Wira Bangsa (national heroes and saviors). 

            Malhotra’s plaintive query of nearly half a century ago, “What’s wrong with your people” still haunts and eludes me.

Next:  Excerpt # 79:  A Refreshing Foreigner As Our Math Teacher

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Islam And Mother's Day Celebration

 Islam And Mother’s Day Celebration

M. Bakri Musa


In preparing for his Friday’s khutba before Sunday’s May 14, 2023 Mother’s Day, our Imam Ilyas related his experience “googling” ‘Islam and Mother’s Day.’ He was surprised and disappointed that the first two dozen or so entries were taken up with articles on such issues as the permissibility of celebrating it. That reflects a much bigger problem – the sorry state of Islamic discourses today, consumed with trivia while missing or ignoring the essence.


            The Qur’an and hadith are replete with verses and examples on the pivotal role of mothers. Imam Ilyas quoted, among others, Surah al-Isra’ (The Night Journey), approximately translated, “Thy Lord decrees that you worship none but Him, and be virtuous to your parents.” This twin imperatives to worship God as well as be good to our parents are also expressed elsewhere. In that specific ayat (17:23), the Qur’an added the need to respect and take care of our parents especially when they get older, that being much more challenging.


            Imam Ilyas related the story of a young man who sought the Prophet’s permission to undertake jihad. The Prophet, s.a.w, inquired, “Are your parents alive?” When the young man replied in the affirmative, the Prophet, s.a.w., advised, “Then exert yourself in their service!”


            Heaven lies at the feet of mothers, goes another ahadith. This also applies, as Imam Ilyas reminded us, to reverts whose parents remain non-Muslims. As for adopted children and their (adopted) mothers, in 2022 on the occasion of Maulidul Nabi, Malaysia honored an 83-year old non-Muslim teacher, Chee Hoi Lan, with its Ibu Sejati-Keluarga (True Family Mother) Award, the first to a non-Muslim. What uplifting news!


            Chee was the adoptive mother of one Rohana Binte Abdullah who was born to an unwed Indonesian maid who had worked for Chee. When the maid was deported, Rohana was only a few months old. Her mother decided that Rohana’s future would be better off in Malaysia rather than in her native Indonesia, and as such entrusted Rohana to Chee’s care.


            It spoke volumes of Rohana’s mother’s relationship with her employer that she entrusted her daughter to Chee even though she was not a Muslim. Respecting Rohana’s Muslim heritage, Chee took extra effort to ensure that the baby was brought up in the Islamic tradition.


            Malaysia’s Mauludul Rasul award to Chee brings forth many hitherto unaddressed issues. Would Muslim children be better off being adopted by stable nurturing non-Muslim families, or should they be with only Muslim ones as required in Malaysia, no matter how dysfunctional those families. Failing that, be institutionalized.


            Muslim orphanages are a “growth” industry in Malaysia. Worse, these “illegitimate” babies are permanently tagged and stigmatized because they are forced to have “bin Abdullah” or “binte Abdullah” (as with Rohana) on their birth certificates. All babies are legitimate, Allah’s precious gift.


            That permanent tagging aside, adopted Muslim children are denied many privileges vis a vis their “natural-born” siblings. They are not entitled to faraid (inheritance), only hibah (gifts), and then only in a limited amount. Adopted daughters must observe mahram with respect to their non-adopted brothers, as with always donning a hijab in their presence and not hugging them.


            Back to Mother’s Day and gifts, growing up in rural Malaysia right after the war, gifts then (whether for Mother’s Day or anything else) were rare if not unheard of. Nonetheless for me, seeing the joy in my mother’s face whenever I brought home good grades was the greatest gift I could bestow upon her. Her response motivated me to study even harder. That also reveals the powerful impact, for good or bad, a mother has on her children.


            In my matriarchal Minangkabau culture (unique among Muslim societies), at my talqin (requiem for the dead) I will be introduced to Allah as “Bakri son/of Jauhariah” (my mother’s name), and not as in this temporal world “Bin Musa,” after my father. What a tribute to my mother!


            On this Mother’s Day, for those who still have their mothers, bring joy to them with your presents, or just your presence. For those like me, let us pause and offer du’a that Allah would place our dear departed mothers among the solehah (righteous).


Sunday, May 07, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 77: Dud Teachers For Biology And English

Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 77  Dud Teachers For Biology And English

When class resumed after recess, Ramli asked me where I had gone. When I told him that I was at the tuck shop, he reminded me that they served free drinks and snacks back at the hostel. Here I was spending fifty cents of my own money! That was the last time I visited the tuck shop. 

     After recess we had botany and zoology, two separate classes but taught by the same teacher. I had looked forward to both as I wanted to be a doctor and both subjects were essential. Another reason was that the teacher, a certain Dr. R U Ahmad, was a PhD. There was reflected glory in having someone with a Malay-sounding name, and a doctorate to boot, as our teacher. He too was a recruit from India. 

     Dr. Ahmad was short and plump, neatly dressed in white long-sleeved shirt and equally white and stiffly-starched long pants. His attire accentuated his coal black hair, well swept backwards. He looked very clinical. He breezed in, wished us good morning in his sing-song soft Northern Indian accent, told us that he was not ready to teach, and then left. Just like that! 

      It was weeks later before he decided to teach. By that I meant he sat behind his desk and read the textbook, occasionally rising up to write something on the board. It was more to relieve his leg cramps. That was his “teaching.” 

      Our first lesson was the basic structure of the cell; old stuff for me, and together with his boring voice I had a tough time keeping awake. So it was a great relief when he gave us an assignment. That meant he would be leaving us alone. 

      We were to draw any human cell of our choice and then write down the similarities and differences between that and the simplified cell he had earlier taught us. Easy enough! I initially picked the red blood cell as it was sufficiently different; it lacked a nucleus. Then I thought of the difficulties in explaining why not having a nucleus would be an advantage. So I opted for the white cell instead. It had variable shapes and I was not good at drawing. 

      Wan Aziz, also a new Sixth Former, chose the respiratory tract cell with its columnar shape and cilia on top. He was an artist. Instead of drawing a two-dimensional cell like those dry textbook figures, he drew a three-dimensional one. For the nucleus he created a stunning effect by slicing off half of a quadrant, as you would a segment of an orange. It was a novel, attractive, and accurate three-dimensional depiction, much superior over the typical flat drawings. I had never seen such a representation except in the donated American books I saw back at Kuala Pilah. He threw in some flourishes, as with thick mucus above the cell. It was impressive. 

     Dr. Ahmad soon returned. Wan Aziz, eager to show off his masterpiece, held it high, shaking it. It caught Dr. Ahmad’s immediate attention alright. He grabbed it and raised it even higher for the class to see. 

       “Look at this scribbling!” he screamed as he shook the paper and his eyes bulging. I never knew that a soft-spoken man could so quickly transform into a raging bull. “This is not an art class, gentlemen!”

He went on a tirade, red in the face, visible despite his dark complexion. I thought that he was going to tear the drawing; instead he threw it back to Wan Aziz and the paper went flying all over the room, twirled by the overhead fan. 

      “I do not want to see anything like that ever again!” and with that he grabbed his books and left. 

      We were stunned. Yusof fetched the crumpled drawing and laid it out on his desk. “I see nothing wrong with this. It is scientifically accurate and beautifully drawn too!” 

      Wan Aziz was not comforted. Another student chimed in, “Dr. Ahmad doesn’t like those gaps you have in the cell wall; he wants it watertight.” 

      I remarked that there were indeed pores in the cell wall. I went on with my detailed description from what I had learned in reading the A-level books. By this time the discussion had become so technical that many were lost. So too was Wan Aziz. In frustration, he tore up his drawing. Later at the dorm Wan Aziz was still fuming, like a boiling pot whose lid had been carelessly left ajar, or the creative chef who had painstakingly cooked a gourmet beef Wellington to impress his patron only to find out later that he was a Hindu. 

     “It doesn’t matter,” he declared, throwing up his arms, “I am dropping it!” Just like that he had made a life-altering decision. He aspired to be a veterinary surgeon, and as such biology would be a core subject. He could not drop it and still hope to be one. Then he added, “I want to be a naval architect.” 

     A naval architect! I never knew such a profession even existed. My imagination of floating crafts did not extend beyond my village rakit (bamboo raft) and sampans. You don’t need an architect for those. Wan Aziz was from Kuala Trengganu; he had been a head prefect at the local school. That area was famous for boat building. Perhaps that was where he got the idea. 

     Aziz did make a wise decision. He was good in mathematics, a skill he would need in his new chosen profession, and had the artist’s flair of looking at things beyond two dimensions. An architect is at heart an artist. Bless the man! He did become a naval architect after winning a Colombo Plan scholarship to Australia. 

Next:  Excerpt # 78:  A Soporific Teacher of English