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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, January 21, 2024

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #113: Lessons On Filial Loyalty

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 113:  Lessons On Filial Loyalty

Despite my physical fatigue after flying halfway across the world and encountering new people as well as associated bewildering experiences, I was still unable to go to sleep despite forcing myself to lie down on my hotel bed. In particular, my earlier culture shock of seeing the elderly lady still working, and as a hotel maid at that, was jarring. My mind refused to let me sleep. It kept motoring, reminding me of the many dinner conversations my father had with us, his children, about his wish not to be dependent upon us in his old age. He saw how his younger sister, Mak Biah to me, was kept at home and remained unmarried for a long time simply to care for my paternal grandparents, and how my father took her to live with us in Labu so she could make something out of her life. In the end her guilt about neglecting her parents made her return to the village. 

            My father too, paid a severe price for his unfettered filial loyalty. When Mohammad Said, a physician, was elected Chief Minister of my state in 1959, my father remarked that they were classmates at their village Malay primary school in Linggi. Said, two others, and my father were selected to attend King George V School in Seremban on scholarships. All but my father went; his father refused to let him go. My grandfather feared that my father would become a “brown Englishman” or worse, a Christian, an all-too-familiar phobia among Malays at that time. The residuum of that is still present and pervasive today, unnecessarily handicapping our young.

            My father never failed to remind me, and often, of the many missed opportunities on account of his filial loyalty. He did not have the courage or emotional strength to plead for his case. His sense of loss was keenly felt when Said became a physician while the other two, a lawyer and engineer respectively. I was sure that my father, in his rare moments of contemplation, would wonder at his own fate if only he had been more assertive, and his father less restrictive. That, I was certain, shaped his relationship with me and my siblings. 

            I have no recollection of my paternal grandparents. They died when I was young. I remember only their funerals. Those are never pleasant memories anyway, especially to children. 

            Perhaps out of guilt or just part of tradition, during Eid holidays my father would never fail to take us to visit his parents’ graves. After the ritual prayers he would always recall the many times they had directed his life, and also the rare occasions when he had gathered the courage and with a heavy heart to defy them. They were against his going to Teachers’ College in Tanjong Malim (too far away!). They were against his marrying my mother, a fellow teacher; they would have preferred the girl in the next village, someone who would take care of them in their old age. To my father however, love aside, to him marrying my mother it was a life insurance policy. Should something happen to him, the family would still have a breadwinner.

            Always in his retelling of these and other incidents, my father would never fail to remind us, “But those were tough times!” as if to excuse his parents’ actions, or his defying them. 

            It was from such stories that I realized why my father was always reluctant to push his views on me. He was afraid that out of filial loyalty I would do things or pursue a course of action that would not be in my best interest, rather to please him. Now as a father, I am very much aware of his dilemma. 

            Recalling those earlier conversations with my father, I began to look at that elderly Canadian cleaning lady in a far different light. Far from pitying her, I applauded her independence. She had the courage and dignity to lead an independent life and not be a burden on her children. She did not lay an emotional guilt trap on them, as my paternal grandparents did to my father. She prided herself on her children pursuing their own dreams and not being tethered to her. And from a utilitarian perspective, she was still a contributing member of society, not dependent on it. 

            Something else about that maid touched me. She personified the self-dignity and inner strength of a Minangkabau woman. Throughout our history and across the region, Minangkabau women have led independent lives, free from their husbands and male relatives. These are the women who plowed the rice fields and manned the pasar malam (night market) stalls. Remarkable, especially against the background of the male dominance of Islam and Asia. 

            If I had any hope of resuming my interrupted sleep, those competing emotions snuffed it out. I decided to have a hot shower (a luxury I had not yet taken for granted) and then take a stroll. Before leaving, I saw the phone book and on a lark looked up Osman Nor, remembering Mr. Norton’s earlier suggestion. I rang him up, but there was no answer. Nonetheless seeing another fellow collegian’s name in a foreign city’s phone book reduced my sense of distance and strangeness. 

Next:  Excerpt # 114:  A Tour Of Ottawa


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