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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, October 29, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 101: Threatening Clouds

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 101:  Threatening Clouds

After the unexpected difficulties I had with my otherwise fine students, I followed my cousin (and fellow teacher) Baharuddin’s suggestion. I began talking of my immediate future, of leaving for Canada and studying to be a doctor. With that I regained some measure of authority, but I felt uncomfortable. It felt like I was bragging. While the thought of my scholarship being withdrawn never occurred to me, those students must have been perceptive enough to detect some unease on my part. There were indeed some dark clouds hanging that could derail my future. The daily headlines blared of konfrontasi, a bastardized English word that meant not what those literate in English would think – confrontation, a minor misunderstanding – but war. 

            The authorities had already initiated the national registration of young men. I thought nothing of it; my mind was already in Canada. My father who had been through war before saw things differently. To him, this was how things would always begin, with a benign gesture of only ‘registering.’ Before you knew it young men would be sent to the front to be killed. He was worried that such a fate awaited me. His anxiety must have cast its shadow over me, and that was what those students saw in me that made them conclude that my scholarship had been withdrawn. 

            To my late father there was no such thing as a ‘just war,’ only skillful home propaganda machinery. He just wished, to quote Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum est” (It is sweet and right): 

            My friend, you would not tell with such zest / To children ardent for some glory / 

            The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori. (25-28)

            My father had seen too many horrors of war to believe the old lie that there is no greater glory than to die for one’s country. After all he had been in the British Volunteer Army. The very name itself testified to the power of propaganda. My father never volunteered. With war, they wanted to turn him into a killing machine. Only his inner steely resolve and faith saved him from becoming one. 

            I did not realize the depth of my father’s pacifist conviction until one episode during my secondary school. My teacher had nominated me for a military scholarship to go abroad. Anytime a young boy is selected by his teachers, even if it were to go to hell, to the youngster that would be a special moment. So it was for me. 

            I brought home the good news; I was expecting an enthusiastic response. My father’s lack of any startled me. Later he told me that it was good that I was thinking of my future. He acknowledged that we were not well off and thus my concern about funding my education was commendable. However, he believed in Almighty Allah that something would turn up for me and that as a family we need not sacrifice our values to achieve our goals. The next day I returned the nomination form to my teacher, unfilled. 

            The threat of war was real. Indonesia’s egomaniacal Sukarno was threatening to ganjang (lynch) Malaysia. Our equally grandiose Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman, egged on by the British, showed no inclination at finding a peaceful resolution. The two young struggling nations were headed towards an inevitable collision, with no restraining elements anywhere. 

            Finally, I announced my departure to my students. They were stunned. My earlier reassurances had not been convincing enough. This time I grabbed their attention; they listened to my every word. I told them that I would be teaching right up till the day before my departure, and that I expected to have all their homework corrected and returned by that day. That triggered some snickering. 

            Then I continued on how much I had enjoyed teaching them and what a wonderful group they were. I must have gone on and on for soon the class joker interrupted me. “Heck, when he gets on that big jet with all those pretty stewardesses, he’ll forget us.” 

            The class roared with laughter. I knew then that they had once again warmed up to me. A young boy confirmed it when he asked, “Once you are a doctor, would you still treat us even though we are poor?” 

            “Of course!” I replied. There were crackles of rejoinders and banters to that one. At that point I knew they had accepted my leaving. 

            The last few weeks went smooth; I was able to make up for some lost time. Emotion-wise however, I was ripped apart. I could not look at them without thinking that their whole future was uncertain. They were entering uncharted waters on a jury-rigged craft, and without a competent skipper. 

            I impressed upon them the importance of English despite their being in the Malay stream. I did not have to do much selling; they saw how my English education had opened up the world for me. I was headed for Canada. The most for them would be going to Indonesia, and with konfrontasi even that was now closed. 

            On my last day I said my goodbyes as if it was just another day before the long holidays except that I skipped the “We’ll see you in the new term” bit. They burst into applause. I was glad that I had discussed my departure earlier; now I could leave, satisfied that I had done my job. 

            Years later I was visiting my village when a smart-looking young man came up to me. “Do you remember me?” he asked in crisp American English as he gave me a firm handshake very unlike the usual native palm sliding. 

            I tried hard to recall the face from my English-speaking universe, but could not.

            “I was your student at Sekolah Idris.” His English sans accent made me not think of my brief teaching career. “You always advised us to learn English,” he continued. 

            He did exactly that, through private classes. With his enhanced English skills he was able to secure a job with an American company and was now doing very well. He wanted to express his appreciation for that singular useful advice. It is such instances that warm a teacher’s (even a temporary one) heart! He did not mention anything about the math and science I had taught him. 

Next:  Excerpt #102:  A Thanksgiving Kenduri


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