Cast from the Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia
Author: Mohammad Bakri Musa
Publisher: Zi Publication, 2016
Page: 312 pages
Cast From The Herd is a cultural memoir of a young Minangkabau boy, later to become a surgeon in Silicon Valley, California, in rural Malaysia during the late 1940s to the early 60s. The Minangkabaus are the largest matriarchal society, if we include those in neighboring Indonesia. It is an account of the many seminal events, beginning with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the subsequent brief but equally brutal three-week reign of terror by the Chinese Communists just before the British re-established its authority immediately after the war. The two hitherto World War II allies against the Japanese became mortal enemies as each tried to gain exclusive control of Malaya, as the country was then called. That brief Chinese communist rule had a profound impact on the native Malays that still reverberates and colors Sino-Malay race relations to this day. That communist insurrection degenerated into a long guerilla warfare, euphemistically referred to as "The Emergency." It was not over till four decades later. During its early years that war was as lethal and vicious as the preceding Japanese Occupation. Malaysia remains unique in having prevailed over the communists sans any foreign help, military or otherwise, a noteworthy achievement considering that it happened at the height of the Cold War. Across the South China Sea in Vietnam, the communists prevailed over a vastly more powerful adversary. This memoir gives a ground level view of Malaysia's counterintuitive but remarkably successful strategy against the communists.
While Robert McNamara and the Pentagon were consumed with "body counts" as a measure of progress in the war against the communists in Vietnam, Malaysia opted for the very opposite tactic. Its philosophy and modus of operation were simple yet effective; in fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. Every terrorist killed was a missed opportunity. Malaysian authorities saw immense propaganda value, and exploited it to the maximum, in having former comrades recant their past and lead productive lives in society. The Malaysia of the writer's childhood was also a society transiting from a feudal agrarian colony to a modern democratic independent state. It had its first general elections in 1955. Electing leaders was a novel phenomenon for a hitherto feudal society where leaders were anointed and the peasants had to obey them. In a democracy, leaders had to seek citizens' votes. That 1955 election paved the way for Malaysia's independence that came in 1957. The electoral dynamics of that first free election forced leaders and citizens alike to address the harsh reality of Malaysia's race dynamics. The last transformative event was in 1963 when Malaya expanded to form greater Malaysia through union with the other remaining British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak. That triggered an ugly diplomatic tiff with one neighbor, Philippines, and a bloody konfrontasi with another, Indonesia. Being brought up in a matriarchal society where women play major and decisive roles gave the writer a unique perspective on feminist issues. Consider the 19th Amendment to the American constitution (allowing women to vote). To someone brought up in a matriarchal society, that amendment seems quaint. Had the Framers of the Constitution been brought up in a similar society, the need for such an amendment would not have even arisen. The book chronicles the writer's experience in a colonial English school in rural Malaysia and later at a boarding school modeled after a proper English grammar school, dubbed "Eton of the East."
The book ends with the writer's brief teaching career before leaving for Canada to pursue medicine, and the inevitable culture shock. Besides giving a glimpse of recent Malaysian history, this memoir shines a different perspective on feminist issues, one not appreciated by those brought up in a male-dominated society. The title is from the Indonesian Chairul Anwar's poem "Aku"