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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, November 05, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #102: A Thanksgiving Kenduri

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 102:  A Thanksgiving Kenduri

Before leaving for Canada my parents hosted a kenduri for me. The evening began with the usual communal Maghrib(early evening) prayer with our family Imam Mondot leading it. The imam was piety and humility personified. Leading a prayer is a singular honor and tradition would have the host do it. Whenever Imam Mondot was our guest, he would always point to my father to lead it when asked. My father would decline the honor; after all he specifically invited the imam. Then Imam Mondot would suggest my grandfather. Only after going through such rituals of polite decline a few more times would Imam Mondot lead the prayer, as he did that evening. 

            There was a rhythmic quality to his recitations; his soft, melodious voice gave gravity and solemnity to the occasion. You knew that he was contemplating the meaning of each verse and not merely going through the ritual. After the prayer he recited some supplications, all in Arabic, and we all responded with a collective “Amen!” even though we did not know what they meant. Then speaking in Malay and looking me straight in the eye he said that the collective prayers he had just led expressed the good wishes of all those present, as well as the many who were not. It was their collective appeal to Almighty Allah that He would bless and guide me along the straight path. When said in Malay and in his soothing voice, it was much more meaningful. Those kind words touched me immensely. 

            I have always admired this softness and subtlety of my culture, as with the ritual declining of the honor to lead a communal prayer. Like everything else taken for granted, we would notice it only when there is a departure. Then it would be jarring; bordering on the obscene. 

            I once saw a picture of Abdullah Badawi leading a congregational prayer of his ministers soon after he became Prime Minister. Standing behind him was the mosque’s imam. I could just imagine him, in the traditional humility, of offering the Prime Minister the honor to lead the prayer. The greater magnanimity if not humility would be for Prime Minister Abdullah to decline so the honor would then fall on the imam. Had the Prime Minister done so, it would have been the highlight of that imam’s career, a legacy he could keep telling his grandchildren, “I once led the Prime Minister in prayer!” 

            That Prime Minister Abdullah did not, exposed his lack of class. It was worse. His advisors had that picture of him leading the prayer splashed all over the media, a staged image of a secular leader also being a spiritual one, a pretentious attempt to be in the grand tradition of our Prophet (May Allah bless his soul!). That was crass, made more vulgar in the context of soft Malay values. 

            At that kenduri my fellow villagers saw a different me, not the little boy who used to bicycle around the village but a young man ready to merantau. I was not the first from my village to go abroad. None however, had gone to Canada. Imam Mondot asked where that was, and I replied that it was at the other end of the world, beyond England and next to America. Even in the remotest villages they had heard of those two countries. Then he asked whether Canada was like England, meaning, “white man” country. After confirming that, I added that both America and Canada were once British colonies but now independent, just like Malaya. 

            “So it’s not just us brown folks who want to be free,” he added. “Those white folks in America and Canada too wanted their independence, even from their own kind.”

            Very perceptive! The corollary to Imam Mondot’s sharp observation is even more valid. Often the most brutal oppressors are our own leaders; witness Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Chairil Anwar’s Aku, like all great poems, encapsulates a universal truth. 

            It was during these post-prayer banters that one could readily appreciate the social-bonding value of these kenduris. In addition, as James C Scott observed in his book Weapons of the Weak:  Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, it is during such sessions that those in positions of authority would hear of the community’s problems first hand, before it is too late! As with any bull session worthy of its name, those were also the times when the major crises of the nation and indeed the world would be solved if only those villagers were to be in charge! 

            In feudal times such kenduris were hosted by the aristocrats; only they had the resources. Such social rituals were what held society together, a chance for the leaders to know of the rumblings down below before it was too late. Today, the new Malay elite try to hang on to such traditions, the only problem being that their kenduris have been ‘modernized’ and held at plush hotels, with engraved invitations no less. 

            Communications on such occasions are one way, with the new lords pontificating and the guests listening, or at least pretending. With head tables and seating assignments, the spontaneity is gone, and with that meaningful interactions between host and guests. This is a major factor contributing to the increasing disconnect between the Malay masses and their leaders, as so perceptively chronicled in James C Scott’s book mentioned earlier.

Next:  Excerpt # 103:  A Village Imam’s Profound Observation And Advice


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