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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, June 25, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 84: Chanced Learning Deep In The Tropical Jungle

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt  # 84:  Chanced Learning Deep In The Tropical Jungle

It took me some time to get accustomed to the school week. At my old school in Kuala Pilah I had both Saturdays and Sundays off; come Monday morning I felt well rested. At Malay College the weekend was chopped up, with Friday and Sunday as holidays but intruded by Saturday as a full school day. To make it worse, Friday was not a full-day break as the morning was consumed with getting ready for dorm inspections, followed by the congregational noon prayers at the nearby mosque. You would be free only by mid-afternoon. I never felt fully rested during weekends. 

            I joined the Nature Club, made up of biology enthusiasts. One day I proposed surveying the campus flora, an easy enough project I thought, consuming a couple of weekends at most. So one weekend Yusof and I surveyed a corner of the campus. He noticed that the hedges were far from being a monoculture, for interspersed were varieties of flowers, epiphytes, and mushrooms. We were engrossed with our discovery. 

            We collected the specimens and brought them to our lab so we could ask Dr. Ahmad come Monday morning for guidance in identification, only to be chided for our efforts. We should be studying our books, he admonished us. We were deflated, but refused to give up. That following weekend we surveyed only the trees; that was more manageable. 

            Later in the year we were on an expedition up Maxwell Hill near Taiping, thirty miles north and in the heart of the Main Range. If I had been mesmerized by the plant diversity on campus, Maxwell Hill was a botanist’s heaven. Such varieties of ferns, palms, trees, and wildflowers! We were enthralled and collected many new specimens. 

            Another biology teacher, Mr. Peter Chen, accompanied us on that trip. He was new to the school having just graduated from London University. Lanky and bookish-looking with thick glasses, he had no teaching experience and was thus assigned to the honeymoon (Fourth Form) class. I turned to him; he too was impressed as he had not seen those plants before either. That was not a surprise. Being a town boy he had never been in the jungle. As a kampung kid, the jungle is second nature to me, except that until I took botany I did not appreciate those wonderful flora and other gifts nature had bestowed in my backyard. 

            Chen assured me that my frustration in not being able to identify those specimens was common among naturalists. I should not be discouraged, he advised me. He went on to describe what scientists would do under such circumstances:  collect the specimens, take or sketch as many pictures as possible, note the natural surroundings, terrain, temperature, and other ambient characteristics like time of day and year, weather, and document as many details as possible. 

            Later in the comfort and support of the laboratory you could begin the laborious process of identification. Even then you may not be successful, he warned me, and that is why laboratories have museums and archival facilities to keep those specimens intact until such times they could be identified through newer techniques. Such archives also serve to preserve the genetic lines of rare or threatened species. Mr. Chen went on to detail how biologists would declare new species, and on the work of the International Commission of Botanical and Zoological Nomenclatures. 

            On an informal conversation during a field trip deep in the jungle of Malaysia, I learned much about the scientific method and approach to problem solving, plus how to be a naturalist. Even though he did not have a formal role as my teacher, Chen taught me an important lesson that day. Yes, what I had learned would never appear in any examination but its impact stayed with me. That is, some of the most significant learning occurs at impromptu sessions and at the least expected moments, often outside of formal settings. The corollary is that we must always be prepared to learn, at any time, any place, and from anyone. 

            “Chance favors only the prepared mind!” observed Pasteur. Accomplished scientists readily admit to the crucial role of serendipity in their insights and discoveries. 

            Over a decade later during my brief tenure as a surgeon in Malaysia, I saw many patients whose maladies mystified me. That was not a surprise as I was trained in Canada. When I queried my local colleagues on these unusual cases, their answers would invariably be a dismissive, “Yeah, we see many such cases. So what?” 

            Yet when I searched the literature, there would be scant information. Nobody had thought of documenting them. Remembering Chen’s earlier advice, I would record such cases as detailed as possible and had my trainee-doctors research the literature. Then depending on how interesting the case was, I would either write it up or have my trainees co-write it for publication. It was a splendid opportunity to teach them to be inquisitive, be sensitive to unusual presentations, and most of all the exercise of scientific writing. I am proud that all my trainees at GHKL had written at least one paper each when they were under me.

            My role as the campus naturalist back at Malay College drew the attention of another explorer, Mr. Whitfield, an Englishman and history teacher for the junior classes. An avid photographer, he was free-lancing for The Illustrated London News

            There he was snapping our pictures which later appeared in an article about our college published in the July 15, 1961 (No: 6363; Vol: 239) issue of that august but now discontinued magazine. I was thrilled to see our school profiled in such a widely-read publication, and with my picture in it! I used to have a copy of that issue for years until it got mislaid somewhere.

[If any of my readers have a copy of this issue of the Illustrated London News, or know where I can get hold of one, please message me at bakrimusa@gmail.com]

Next:  Excerpt #85:  No Eton of The East


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