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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, 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



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