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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.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 109: A Personal Guided Tour of Hong Kong

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 109:  A Personal Guided Tour of Hong Kong

The next morning after breakfast I strolled in the hotel’s spacious lobby and struck up a conversation with a Chinese boy about my age. He was there to pick up his airline tickets. He had on stylish creamy pants, not the typical handiwork of the “famed” Hong Kong tailors, and with his white shirt and blue blazer he looked very much like a proper preppy. He too was headed for Canada. In fact we would be leaving on the same flight that afternoon. That commonality bonded us right away. Yes, he had indeed spent the last few years in a British boarding school, hence his preppy style. The upshot of our new friendship was that he invited me to his house and a tour of the city. 

            I returned to my room to retrieve my suitcases. We went to his car and lo and behold, he had a driver! Without saying a word, the driver loaded up my suitcases and off we went. 

            Chris Tan and I visited the turf club (must be familiar ground to him) but it was empty. Nonetheless we saw beautiful thoroughbreds. Driving up to the Peak, I saw shacks along the roadside. Many were nothing more than holes dug against the hillside with cardboard boxes as roofs and walls. There were people living in them! I was shocked; I had never seen such squalor. 

            We parked at the top, and as soon as I opened the door I was swamped with touts. Hong Kong was nothing but tout city. Chris cursed in Cantonese to discourage them. Then as I was peering through the coin telescope to see the port and airport far below, a young handsome man came up to me. He looked out of place amidst the raggedly-attired crowd. He shoved some pictures of pretty young girls as if he was shuffling baseball cards in front of my face. He pointed towards some rickshaws nearby and in them were pretty Chinese girls. 

            “Virgins!” he breathlessly proclaimed. “Take two!” 

            I glanced at those young faces. They reminded me of my sisters. I felt repulsed and nauseous, mixed with homesickness. How could they do that to their daughters and sisters? 

            “Hookers,” Chris informed me. “There are better ones at your hotel!” as if recommending a dining selection. 

            Earlier at the hotel I had read in the morning papers that the authorities had stepped up guards at the border to stop the influx of refugees from China. Conditions over there must be desperate for them to escape to this wretchedness. As I reflected, I thought what a wise move for my prime minister to seek early independence from Britain so we could control our borders. Those desperate people would do anything to escape China, and Malaysia would be heaven compared to Hong Kong. Had Malaysia remained a colony, I could see the British dumping those refugees upon Malaysian shores. 

            Little did I realize then that I was witnessing the debris and detritus of the greatest man-made calamity of modern times then raging on the Mainland across. It would be a decade or more before the world would come to know of the horrific Mao’s Cultural Revolution. 

            Chris however, showed no sympathy; in fact he was downright contemptuous of those poor souls. He was from a different world. If I had any doubt of his affluence, that vanished when we reached his home, nestled among the woods on the hillside. I met his parents; they did not speak a word of English but from the sprinkling of English words thrown in, Chris was saying that I was his friend and that I too was headed for Canada. That pleased them. 

            A few more bags were thrown into the car and we were off to the airport. His parents stayed behind; no hugs, no tearful farewells. Leaving for abroad must be a common occurrence with that family, akin to my going to town. At the airport the driver unloaded our baggage and drove off; again no good-byes, no wishing good luck, or even a thank you from Chris, or me for that matter. At immigration, Chris endured an extended search while I was just waved on. Chris was unperturbed. “To these government idiots,” he told me later, “only drug-dealing Chinese could afford to travel abroad!”

Next:  Excerpt #110:  A Storm Deep In The Night

Sunday, December 17, 2023

cast From The Herd Exceprt # 108: A Touch of Luxury!

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 108:  A Touch of Luxury!

Customs and immigration when I landed at Hong Kong Airport posed no problem for me; not so for a fellow Chinese student. He was detained for extra scrutiny. Without realizing it then, I was witnessing an early and very crude form of racial profiling. The only difference with this oriental variety, in contrast to the American (then and now), was that both perpetrator and victim were of the same race and skin color. Thank God I was spared the humiliation. 

            Upon exiting, I was mobbed by touts offering all sorts of services. I had to keep a tight hold onto my pockets amidst the din and chaos. Then an officious-looking Chinese lady in the distinctive bright orange Canadian Pacific Airline jacket came up and grabbed the ticket in my hand. “You go Canadian Pacific tomollow?” she asked, to confirm what she had already read. I nodded. She dragged me to a van where some other passengers were already waiting. 

            After navigating the narrow congested streets, with cars blasting their horns and rickshaw drivers tempting fate, we arrived at the ornate porch of our hotel. We were greeted by a platoon of Oriental beefeaters eager to grab our bags and lead us to the glittering lobby with its huge chandeliers and ornate plush carpets. I was now entering a new world of luxury and opulence on a scale much grander than that of the Sri Menanti palace. I felt like a sultan; now all I had to do was act regal. 

            I was ushered to my room with the bellboy lugging my suitcases. As I entered the room I glimpsed at a portrait of myself in the huge dresser mirror – a kampung kid incongruous amidst the opulence, like a scrawny village water buffalo plunked onto a lush meadow. After placing my suitcases on the wooden stand, the bellboy muttered in his choppy Chinese, “Loof top lestaulant best!” as he pointed his thumb up. 

            It took me a few minutes, and only a few, to get used to the luxuries. I flung myself over the vast expanse of the firm bed and cuddled one of the overstuffed soft pillows. Outside were high-rises, and down below and a world away, the congested dirty streets of Hong Kong. As a typical Malay boy would do in the afternoon even though it was cool in that room, I took a shower. More luxury! Hot water and thick velvety towels! Invigorated, I then explored my new abode. 

            I went to the rooftop restaurant as earlier recommended by the bell boy and wandered into a hushed, empty dining room. I was about to retreat thinking that it was closed when the maitre de came up and guided me to a table by the window, repeatedly bowing over and over while extending his right palm to lead the way. From my table I could see the vast expanse of the harbor. Soon the waitresses were all over me. One spread the cloth napkin across my lap. Such attention, and a bewildering selection on the menu! 

            Remembering the earlier halal advice of my imam, I chose seafood. Soon I was served soup in a turtle shell. A moment of theological crisis:  Is turtle land or sea animal? I remembered the turtles I saw in the rice fields; those were definitely not edible, by sight and what they eat. On the other hand the sea turtle eggs of Trengganu were prized treats. After having a sip, I decided that the soup was of sea turtles. It was heavenly; must be halal. Allah would not deny His mortals such delicacies. 

            Dinner was now a whole new experience for me. Used to piling my food on the plate and then gobbling it down as fast as possible, I was now very much conscious of the elegant presentation, coaxing me to relax and enjoy. Whereas dining at the high table at my old college I had to slow down so as not to trip on my table manners, here I wanted to pace myself and savor the experience. Even the shrimp was meticulously laid out on my plate; likewise the vegetables, so artistically presented. It would be a sin not to appreciate this great work of culinary art; an even greater sin if I were to gobble down the delicate morsels. I savored the moment, taking in the aroma, color, sight, and taste. I could get used to this – of being treated like a sultan – with ease and without much encouragement. 

            Back in my room despite the excitement of this new experience, I was sleepy, the post-prandial serotonin rush affecting me. In the movies this was where they would start smoking cigars, drinking wine, and reminiscing about the good old days, except that in my case the good days were that very moment. However, the most decadent thing I did was to slump on the sofa with my feet on the coffee table. If I were to do that at home my mother would reprimand me in no uncertain terms. 

            I was deep in revelry when the phone rang. I hesitated. Who would want to speak to me in this strange land? Must be a wrong number, but it kept ringing! Out of curiosity I picked it up. A loud shrill voice of a hysterical Chinese woman blasted from the other end like a burst fire hydrant. I put the phone away from my ear to avoid her verbal deluge. After she confirmed who I was, she commanded – yes, commanded! – me to pack my bags. I had been assigned the wrong hotel; mine was the cheaper one across town, not The Empress. I was to be at the lobby in thirty minutes to be picked up. 

            I knew there had been a mistake. I felt guilty indulging myself although I could not deny that I enjoyed the decadence. Given a few more opportunities and I could without much effort overcome my guilt. I decided to linger for a few minutes, the after-dinner hyperglycemia now overcoming me. Just as I was dozing off, the phone rang again. Oops! I was late and they were waiting for me. In my absentmindedness I picked the phone up again; the same high-pitched gush from the other end. 

            “Neber mind! You stay dare!” Then more choppy instructions, like a telegraph message. “Your plane lip tomollow, two o’cock. Van pick you lobby, noontime. Don’t be late.” Then before hanging up, “You hap blekpass at hotel!” 

            A last minute reprieve! I got to enjoy The Empress after all! 

Next:  Excerpt # 109:  A Personal-Guided Tour of Hong Kong

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 107: A Grip of Homesickness

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 107:  A Grip of Homesickness

Between the reassuring humming of the jet engines and the cool air from the overhead vent, I reflected on my earlier novel physical sensation of acceleration. How many other concepts in science and mathematics had I learned by rote but because of my limited physical environment, had not fully grasped their true meaning even though I was facile in using them to solve artificial problems in the classroom? 

            My contemplation was pleasantly interrupted when the stewardess handed me the lunch menu. Amidst the many fancy French names, I saw a familiar item – curried beef. With all the new experiences and sensations it was nice to be grounded onto familiar terrain. The curry tasted great! The obvious difference was the generous helping of meat, made more so with the small portion of rice. In my village it would have been the reverse. Then I remembered my father’s earlier observation about the price of the airline ticket. 

            I did not know whether it was the familiar smell of the curry or the expansive view of my country from a height of 40,000 feet, I was now gripped with sudden homesickness. I would be away for six or seven years. In that time my younger sisters Zahariah, Mariah and Jaharah and brother Adzman would have grown up. I missed them already, as well as my parents and grandparents, and the familiar surroundings of my village. Only a few days earlier I had been bicycling through the village enjoying its sights and sounds. 

            “When will you be leaving?” they shouted. When I replied, they cheered me on, “Make us proud! We are praying for you!” 

            Remembering those kind remarks made me even more homesick. I wondered what my family was doing at that particular moment. Perhaps Ariffin had taken them out for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Then I thought of my former students at Tanjong Ipoh. Who would be teaching them? How would I compare to their new teacher? I could not stop my tears. I discreetly wiped them off with the napkin and muttered half-convincingly to the passenger next to me that the hot curry had made my eyes watery. She, a middle-aged lady, perhaps a returning diplomat, smiled. 

            She enquired whether this was my first trip away from home. She obviously did not buy my story of curry making Asian eyes watery. I replied that I had been at boarding school, and yes, it was my first plane trip. I might have convinced her that I was not homesick, but I could not convince myself.

            Soon we descended into Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, and again the clearing of the ears. We flew so close in between those tall apartment buildings that I could see into their living rooms. Like the Chinese in Kuala Lumpur, those in Hong Kong also hung their laundry out of their windows for the whole world to see. There in the bright sunshine were the colorful bras, pajamas, and cheongsams. 

            A light thump followed by a rapid change in velocity, ‘negative acceleration,’ and we were on terra firma again. My first plane ride went way too fast, literally and emotionally. I was just beginning to savor the pampered service, excellent cuisine, and most of all the safe, smooth flight. 

Next:  Excerpt #108:  A Touch Of Luxury

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Simple But Neccessary Steps To Enhancing English In Schools

 Simple But Necessary Steps To Enhancing English In Schools

M. Bakri Musa


Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement on November 23, 2023, the anniversary of his Administration, to improve the standard of English in schools is commendable and much needed. However, he does not need to be reminded that between aspiration and realization is a vast gap, with many traps and obstacles, subtle as well as brazen.


            The rot in Malaysian education has been going on for decades. One does need outside confirmation as with the recently released PISA 2022 figures. As atrocious as those figures are, they are worse for Malays, if only someone cares to analyze the data. Before hiring expensive consultants and setting up fancy “high-level” committees, let me suggest five simple but necessary preliminary steps.


            First, set up English-medium Teachers Training Colleges. This may seem obvious but thus far this escapes those government experts. Enroll trainees directly after their Form Five (based on their SPM projections) and start the program in January. Like Teachers Colleges of yore, these students would be paid, thus attracting bright school leavers. Further, with their subsequent enhanced English proficiency and teaching diploma, they could secure entry as advanced students into good universities in the vast English-speaking world.


            In addition to producing future teachers of English, these colleges should also teach STEM so they could produce future teachers in those subjects.


            Related to that, teach STEM in English. Although the language content in STEM subjects is low (as compared to history or geography) nonetheless there would be double benefits – enhanced STEM competency together with English proficiency. Both command a premium in the marketplace outside of teaching. Consider such supposedly “Malay” words as kotiliden and naterium. Why not stick with the original English or scientific terms? Less confusing when reading scientific literature.


            Second, increase the hours devoted to English. As there are only so many hours in a school day, those devoted to subjects taught in Bahasa must correspondingly be reduced. Anticipate resistance. As Islamic Studies consume a major portion of the national curriculum, why not teach that subject in English as they do here in America. A superior model would be the Aljunid Religious School in Singapore. An even better example would be Church schools in America. Although religion is a minor part of the curriculum, its values are incorporated in the school’s culture. Those schools produce more than their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, lawyers, and writers. Only a few ended up being in the clergy class.


            Incentivize English-language teachers by giving them extra allowances especially for those teaching in rural schools. Five years hence when those English-language Teachers Colleges are in full swing, wean off those incentives.


            Third, have an English-only week or month where the school assembly and other communications with the students would be in English, emulating earlier National Language week and month of the 1960s.


            Fourth, prioritize. Start with the two extremes, residential schools at one end, and kampung schools the other. The former because that is where the brightest Malay kids are; the latter because of the low level of English at home and in the community.


            Last is more symbolic but no less important. As the problem of lack of English proficiency is most acute among Malays, publicly recognize those who could speak and write in English well. I am surprised that accomplished Malay writers in English like Hanna Alkaf (The Weight of Our SkyQueen of the Tiles, etc.) are not more well known in our community.


            As can be seen, the problem of enhancing English proficiency among Malays is straightforward. The challenge is to find the will to execute it. That would require significant efforts at removing entrenched mental as well as cultural blocks. That in turn calls for steely leadership from the Prime Minister down to the local headmaster and teachers.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Casr From The Herd: Excerpt #106: My First Airplane Trip

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 106:  My First Airplane Trip

The next morning, Monday September 16, 1963, was a holiday on account of the declaration of Malaysia. We set off early to Sungei Besi airport. The single-storey building was nearly empty, no planes on the tarmac, and only a few cars in the parking lot. While waiting in the small lobby and seeing those people saying their goodbyes over and over, my mother began crying. She tried to control herself, but the more she tried the more the tears flowed. Finally my father told her that if she kept on crying she might just make me change my mind, and then she would never be able to get rid of me. That made her laugh! 

            My plane was supposed to leave at 10 AM for Hong Kong, so the ticket said. Meaning, it must arrive by 9 or so. The cover of my ticket featured the Malayan Airways logo, so I presumed I would be flying that airline. At about 9 or so a Cathay Pacific Convair jet landed from Singapore bound for Hong Kong. I paid no attention, assuring my family that it was not my plane. With that, I went exploring the building. 

            It must have been close to 10 when the receptionist who had issued my boarding pass rushed towards me to check my ticket. On seeing it she dragged me swiftly through the departure gate. I managed a perfunctory wave to no one in particular and was the last to board. I would have loved to see my parents wave goodbye to me.

            It was my first plane ride. Even though it was still morning, the cool air rushing from the vent above refreshed me and evaporated my sweat from rushing up the steps. I had a window seat. As the plane began to taxi, I felt no different from the many bus rides I had taken in my village, except that the huge beast lumbered forward without the jerkiness of gear-changes. Then the engine roared and the cabin began to vibrate. A few seconds later I was jerked back in my seat with the runway swishing by. 

            So that was acceleration! Up to that point the concept was nothing more than a mathematical abstraction, “the rate of change of velocity,” the δv/δt in my textbook. While I was facile enough with the formula to solve many a problem in my math class, I had no idea what acceleration meant in reality. The fastest vehicle I had been on was the creaky school bus that took agonizing minutes to reach its “Maximum Speed 30 MPH,” and my father’s old four-cylinder Austin Minor that already had too many miles on it. The train was no different. Up to then I had never experienced the physical sensation of acceleration. 

            Now I felt what it meant. At the beginning, the plane was inching forward at a speed of perhaps three or four miles per hour; a few seconds later just before becoming airborne it had a speed in excess of 150 mph; a rapid and dramatic change in velocity, which is acceleration. I could go on with my differential calculus and introduce a new concept, as with the rate of change of acceleration, or δa/δt. For that physical experience I would need to be in a rocket. Even then I would not experience it as I would probably pass out. 

            After the initial discomfort of clearing my ears, again a novel sensation for me, I settled into my seat. For the first time I had a different view of my country. The hot muggy jungle that was so menacing at the ground level, with leeches and poisonous snakes crawling all over, and thorny vines threatening to sear your limbs, now looked smooth and velvety, a lush green comforting carpet. Across it, like creamy ribbons carelessly strewn, were the rivers with their milky waters. Patches of white clouds floated in the sky like cotton fluffs. 

            We flew over the peninsula, with the Main Range contoured in the center like a spine of our back, then the flats of the east coast. The ribbons were now more carelessly strewn – the meandering rivers. Soon we were over Kuantan, according to the pilot, and beyond that the light-blue South China Sea which soon turned dark blue with the depth. I saw endless miles of pure white shoreline lapped by ceaseless breaking waves smothered with white foam. Interspersed in the vast ocean were islands of varying sizes and shapes, again covered by velvety green carpet. It was a serene scene.

Next:  Excerpt 107:  A Grip of Homesickness