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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 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


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