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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Name:
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, May 19, 2019

Excerpt #18: Life In Bungsar

Excerpt #17:  Life in Bungsar

            When in Canada, Karen read about a Canadian married to a Malaysian and had settled in Malaysia. That was how Karen heard of Leslie Muri. She was a teacher at the International School and through her Karen became a substitute teacher there. I knew of her husband but had never met him; he was a few years ahead of me at Malay College.

            I compared what Karen did with her students at ISKL to what I had experienced at Malay College, supposedly an elite school. By that measure, Malaysia had a long way to go in terms of an enlightened curriculum and teaching philosophy. The gulf has only widened since, as judged by the experience of my first maid.

            Karen taught at the high school level at ISKL. During my time, we only read about rice planting, the rubber industry, and tin mines, Malaysia’s main commodities. She however, divided her class into groups and assigned each a specific sector. Theywent out and learned by themselves and did their own research in the library and from visiting those tin mines and rubber estates, which Karen helped arrange.

            “Did you know that when the British introduced mechanical dredges to replace hydraulic mining, thousands of those Chinese coolies were laid off?” she asked me one day. No, I did not know that. They left the mines and settled in urban areas and eventually displaced those Malays already there. No, I did not know that either. Karen learned those facts from her students. Those hydraulic mines changed forever the demographic dynamics of urban Malaysia, with the political repercussions still felt to this day.

            Ever wonder why graduates from schools like ISKL ended up at the Harvards and Princetons while those from leading Malaysian public schools like Malay College at Oklahoma State, at best? The irony did not escape me. Here was a school meant for foreigners subscribing to a pedagogical philosophy championed by our own 19thCentury writer Munshi Abdullah who likened a child’s brain to a parang(machete) – to be sharpened, not a paper bin to be filled with dogmas. To a sculptor, a sharp knife is an instrument for expressing his creativity; to a surgeon, a tool to save lives. All you could retrieve from a paper bin are old recycled papers. That was what Malaysia was getting from her young then . . . and now.

            One lazy Saturday, the rare ones when our maid Hapsah decided not to go out, she became very excited, running in and out of the house gesturing at Karen and me to look outside. We could see nothing unusual except for a stylish female couple with high-heel shoes walking gingerly on the still unfinished road. One of them had striking long, black shiny hair.

            “Noor Kumalasari!” she gushed to us in unrestrained excitement. Don’t Karen and I know her? Should we?

            The next day Hapsah brought home Wanita, and there on the cover was this gorgeous girl, the younger half-sister of Anita Sarawak. Yes, I have heard of Anita, and Noor lived only a few houses away from us! That was our only claim to fame living in Bungsar.

            One late Saturday evening, I saw a group of thuggish young Chinese men at my neighbor’s gate. I had seen them before but did not pay much attention. By now I had gotten to know my neighbor well enough to ask him who were they. He was a high government official, his wife a homemaker, and they had a young daughter. My memory of their daughter, Su Lin, was vivid only because of the raucous every morning on getting her to school. She would try to escape to our house!

            After the group was gone, I inquired from the neighbor. He gestured for me to be quiet until Karen went inside. Then he whispered that they were gangsters collecting their regular ‘protection’ money. Don’t worry, he assured me, they bothered only the Chinese. Then I thought of Hapsah and her Chinese look.

            My other neighbor was also a Chinese couple, she a veterinarian and he, a banker. But I never saw a similar crowd at their gate until I realized that their gate was slightly hidden from my front door. When I paid closer attention, they too had regular visitors though not the same group.

            During our stay at Bungsar, I never once saw the police making their rounds except when they came to my gate to deliver a message from the hospital.

            The empty land across the street was being readied for development, hence the rush to complete the road. Oh, what a painful sight to see those workers! No boots, gloves, hats, eye goggles or any protective gear as they hammered and chiseled those rocks. Imagine the potential injuries!

            Nonetheless over that unfinished bumpy street the latest model cars would drive by daily. At least that helped compact the ground. The hawkers too would ply their carts daily, loaded with fresh fish, vegetables and other produce, a mobile mini-grocery store. That was the very first time Karen bought fresh crabs. The hawker showed her how to clean and instructed her how to cook them!

            There was an open drain in front of our house, typical of modern, urban Malaysia. The grey waters from the kitchen and showers would flow into it. You could tell when someone ‘upstream’ had seafood as the stench from the drain would be unbearable. We had to flush the drain. Even that did not relieve the stink. Behind us was another row of similar linked houses with their backs facing us but at a higher elevation. A retaining wall of about fifteen feet separated us. I do not know whether it was reinforced. When it rained, green slimy material, and a stench to match, would extrude in between the cracks, telltale signs of leaking septic tanks. Despite being an upscale and high-density development, there were no central sewer connections in Bungsar.

            There were open spaces slated for parks and playgrounds on the area’s master plan. The operative word there is “slated.”

            As for traffic flow, Bungsar had only one narrow access road when we lived there. There was a huge culvert near the entrance. At the slightest rain the road would be flooded. Intrigued, one day I stationed myself nearby. As soon as the rain started, the boys from the nearby rumah kilat(illegal settlement) would dump discarded pellets into the culvert. They would then collect their ‘tolls’ for pushing the stranded flooded motorists.

            The city’s traffic and hydrologic engineers never factor in those human elements in their designs. Nor did they do the needed maintenance and inspections. As a consequence, KL and other major cities are plagued with flash floods. With the country having over 100 inches of rain annually, Malaysian engineers should be experts on hydrology and flood control. They are not because, at least those on government payroll, are desk-bound and poorly trained.

            A few weeks after we settled into our Bungsar home, our freight from Edmonton arrived. With Mindy getting her old toys and my wife and I our old clothes, we felt at last we were back in our old familiar groove.

From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia(2018.

Next:  Excerpt # 18: On His Majesty’s Service

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Excerpt #16: Having A Maid

Excerpt #16:  Having A Maid
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            Back to our new house in Bungsar, as soon as we moved in, Karen freaked out. She had opened one of the many built-in closets and was met by a blitzkrieg of cockroaches, reminiscent of her experience in our Honolulu hotel room months earlier on our trip home to Malaysia.

            Through our long-time friend from Edmonton days, Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad (Zai to us) who was teaching at UKM, we heard that the university was looking for English instructors. Zai put in a good word for Karen. She too felt good on her subsequent interview. Those good vibes notwithstanding, she never heard back.

            Those few words would not do justice for our friendship with Zai and his wife Rahmah. Zai was a Kirby-trained teacher. When his contract with the Malaysian government was over, he returned to Britain, and from there to Alberta. We met when he was on campus for continuing education. It was hard not to be friendly when meeting another Malay in snow-white Alberta!

            Zai had a beautiful booming voice and a perfect BBC English accent, but he could in an instant and with minimal prompting revert to the typical local Malay, complete with the obligatory “lah” and “mon!” Coming from him, it was hilarious! Zai was once an announcer with Radio Malaya. No surprise that he was a regular emcee for our Malaysian events on campus.

I convinced Zai on one of his visits to campus that he should go for his degree. At that time the university’s Faculty of Education, Canada’s largest, was embarking on the new field of teaching English as a second language. With Zai’s experience he would have a lot to offer on the practical side. Zai did that and went on to get his doctorate from Wisconsin. I used to tease him saying that he was the genuine Dr. Za’aba. The other Za’aba, the famous Malay grammarian, had only an honorary doctorate!

            Zai’s effort on Karen’s behalf whetted her appetite for work in Malaysia. What better way to integrate into a new culture than to work in it? However, with two little kids that meant a maid, Karen’s egalitarian Western ideals notwithstanding.

            Our first was a girl from Perak. Gee was literally just a little girl, a distant niece of one of my brothers-in-law. Karen spent more time teaching her personal hygiene than her helping us. She had difficulty relating to me, a hang-up from her religious instructions back in the village. Nonetheless from my limited conversations with her, I gathered that she did not finish her primary school. She said that she did not learn anything and was bullied often, by her classmates as well as her teachers because of her small size.

            Malaysia then (and now) often bragged about its schools being among the best in the region if not the world, but nothing like hearing directly from the children to know the reality on the (school) ground. Gee was one of those awful statistics personified.

            Soon she was homesick. We paid her way home for a holiday together with some extra cash and a return bus ticket, but she never came back. Our only hope was that whatever Karen and I had taught her about personal cleanliness and taking care of babies in the only-too-brief a time she was with us would help her when she would have her own family.

            Our second maid, Hapsah, was from Sarawak. She had been adopted by one family after another before landing into my uncle’s home. She looked Chinese. The Chinese have been known to disfavor daughters and were wont to give them up for adoption. Malays on the other hand valued girls, so that was a good fit.

            My uncle brought her to our house for a preview. Karen and I had the distinct impression that she was not keen to leave my uncle. He assured us that we were misreading her. When he left her with us, it was not a pretty sight. We swallowed our embarrassment and did our best to make her feel at home. She turned out to be good with the kids. She was also very clean, an excellent cook, and keen to learn English.

            We told her that she would be free from Saturday noon after lunch to late Sunday after dinner. Meaning, she was spared from having to cook us two dinners, a breakfast, and one lunch. For the first few weeks she just stayed with us acting like she did not deserve the break. For our part, we wanted her to leave so we could have some privacy. However, it did not take her long to enjoy her breaks.

            Like the maid before, Hapsah ate with us. We felt better that way. In the beginning she was reluctant and felt uncomfortable. The only way we could convince both maids to eat with us was that we had a rule to finish everything on the table. No leftovers so every meal would be fresh. If she did not eat with us she would have to cook again for herself.

            We did not feel right that Hapsah should be destined to be our maid for the rest of her life. That would be too heavy a responsibility and burden for us. Seeing Karen doing her knitting, Hapsah was keen to learn. She wanted to be a seamstress. Soon with us buying her the materials, she had quite a wardrobe for herself and a collection for our children.

            With time she became comfortable with us; at times too comfortable, availing herself often to our only telephone. Telephones were a scarce commodity in Malaysia then. It took us months to get one, despite the high priority with my being a doctor. Before we had one installed, the hospital used to send the police to get hold of me. That would elicit quite a bit of stares from the neighbors until they found out the reason. The police were just an expensive messenger system, nothing nefarious, we assured our neighbors.

            One night long after we had our phone installed, the police again came to our gate. It was the hospital trying to get hold of me for an emergency but could not break through the busy signals. Hapsah had been tying up the phone all night after we went to bed! I had warned her many times but we still caught her once in a while. Being that I did not want to see the police at my doorsteps again, I put a lock on the rotary dial without our permission so she could not dial out though people could still phone in.

            My uncle was right. We had misread Hapsah. She became attached to us, and we to her. With her in our confidence, Karen began again looking for a job.

From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia(2018.

Next:  Excerpt #17
Life In Bungsar

Thursday, May 09, 2019

A Wonderful Depiction of a Mother-Daughter Bonding

A Wonderful Depiction Of A Mother-Daughter Bonding
M. Bakri Musa

Book Review: Rosana Sullivan’s Mommy Sayang, Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase Series
Disney Press, New York & Los Angeles, April 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-368-01590-5 / LCCN: 2018033419
Hardcover; 48 pages; $11.72
Age level 4-7 (Preschool and Kindergarten)


Mommy Sayang: Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase


Storytelling fills our basic need for intergenerational, in particular, mother-child bonding. It has been practiced since ancient times. However few of us, mothers included, are born raconteurs; hence the enduring fairy tales and booming sales of children’s books.

In 2014 Walt Disney Animation Studio and Pixar Animation Studios teamed up with Disney Worldwide Publishing to launch a series of children’s books by their artists and storytellers. Thus was born the Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase series.

            That was also a way to recognize and provide an avenue to showcase the talents of their artists. Otherwise the only public recognition they received would be the ever-too-brief mention in the lines of credit rolling fast up the screen at the end of a movie.

            Most children’s books, being produced in the West, are heavy on themes and scenes familiar only to their Western urban readers. Even when those books venture to the countryside as with the Peter Rabbit series, the farm scenes would be heavily sanitized.

            Rosana Sullivan’sMommy Sayang (Mommy, Dear!) is a refreshing exception. Hers is autobiographical, set in a Malay kampung. Her story arc is simple and readily comprehensible but nonetheless profound:  a child’s secure, comfortable world suddenly turned topsy-turvy with her dear mother becoming unwell. This sudden reversal of fortune is a universal theme; likewise a mother’s love for her child, and vice versa.

Mommy Sayangfollows the endless curiosities of a child, Aleeya, and her mother’s ever-patient and attentive responses to her endless whys. This maternal-love theme is reinforced throughout the book. After the panoramic kampung scene on the first page, complete with the adjacent rice field, cars parked on the front yards, houses on stilts with the women casually conversing on the steps, the obligatory mosque, and yes, even a water buffalo with a little boy holding the tether, is the sketch of two mother hens with their broods happily pecking on the spacious grounds. On the next page a mother cat nursing her kittens. Mother hens and cat look contended, like all mothers.

            Then there are the scenes of her mother cooking, serving dinner, and praying. There is the touching picture of her mother’s storytelling and kissing her at bed-time that sent Aleeya into extravagant dreams of flowers, all in vivid, vibrant colors. The illustrations reveal much about Malay culture, right down to the foods we eat. There was the ubiquitous durian on the table served next to a Caucasian-looking guest, and without him grimacing!

            Aleeya’s world was suddenly turned upside down when her mother became unwell. The whole household routine was disrupted. Unable to comprehend the sudden change, Aleeya acted out as her aunts and others tried to console her.

She found solace in those beautiful flowers in her yard as well as in her dreams. She picked one colorful hibiscus in full bloom and gave it to her mother. As with all Disney stories, with that simple gesture her mother felt better – the healing power of nature’s beauty and a child’s love. And Aleeya’s world was restored!

Rosana, American-born and of Malaysian descent, now resides in Oakland, California. Among the many films she has worked on are The Good DinosaurCoco, and Incredibles 2. She recently released her first short animation, Kitbull, written and directed by her, to critical reviews.

            Mommy Sayangis her first children’s book, suitable for 3-7 years old. It is delightfully written and even more beautifully illustrated. As you would expect from an outfit like Disney, the technical quality of this hardcover was flawless. This book would make a perfect Mother’s Day gift for a young mother. I am getting a few for my many grandnieces who are now mothers or soon-to-be. The book would also be an excellent and enjoyable way to introduce your child to a very different culture – that of the rural Malay.

            The focal points of the illustrations are clear and well depicted. Thus we could see the serene reflections on the subject’s face, as with the cat and her kittens. The background is uncluttered but nonetheless conveys the essence of a Malay kitchen and kampung.

This book is a universe beyond, in content and presentation, to the A Man, A PanEnglish reading text I had in primary school back during the colonial days of the early 1950s. If the Ministry of Education is looking for supplemental reading books in its effort to increase the English fluency of rural pupils, this is the one to get.

The only anachronism in the illustrations for me growing up in a kampung in the 1950s would be the gas stove and electric fans. We had neither in those days.

In Arabic, Aleeyah means exalted or sublime. Despite Malaysia’s obsession with matters Arabic, modern Malays tend to dispense with the “h” ending, as with “Maria” instead of “Mariah.” The Western influence is still pervasive.

            With Rosana’s gift for drawing and storytelling, Aleeya will soon be a well-known children’s character, adorable to kids and adults. Elsa, meet your competition!


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Let's Eradicate Ramadan's Religious Brownie-Point Mentality

Let’s Eradicate Ramadan’s Religious Brownie-Point Mentality
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


Legend has it that the Eighth Century mystic Rabia al-Adiwayya was so upset with her fellow believers’ obsession with the Hereafter that one day she ranthrough the streets of Basra with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other yelling, “I want to burn down Heaven and douse the flames of Hell!”

To her, this preoccupation with heaven and hell blocks our path to Allah. We should worship Him not out of fear of His punishment or for the promise of Paradise, but for His love. We earn that through serving mankind and respecting all His creations.

            This fixation on the afterlife also trivializes our great faith, reducing us to boy scouts chasing religious “brownie points” to be cashed in at the Gates of Heaven.

            This mentality makes us belittle this world and its achievements. “Real” success awaits us in the Hereafter. Ever wonder why Muslims are mired in abject poverty? We forget this wisdom of our forefathers – kemiskinan mendekati kefukuran(poverty invites impiety).

            Then there are the promised 72 virgins in Heaven to seduce those young jihadists. As Imam Tawhidi observed with contemptuous cynicism, if that were true, don’t you think that those doing the advising would be the first to blow themselves up? Then there are those who think that they could plunder the nation and then cleanse their sins away by going to Mecca, or “photo-op” sessions of charity feeding for orphans.

            Ramadan begins today and with that, heightened religious fervor. Mosques would be filled to overflowing and sermons loaded with endless reminders of the extra generosity of Allah during this blessed month. The portal to heaven remains wide open, we are told. Praying and other virtuous deeds done on the “Night of Power” (Lailatul qadar) would be magnified a thousand fold.

The consequence to this mindset is that if you travel during Ramadan in the Muslim world, be prepared for unexpected inconveniences and outright hassles. Eating establishments would be closed during the day. They assume that their customers are all Muslims, and fasting. There is little consideration for serving their non-Muslim and non-fasting clientele.

Not just restaurants. Try transacting business with government agencies! It’s like France in August. At least the French have the excuse of being in holiday mood. Come September they would return with renewed vigor. In Malaysia, the sluggishness remains.

Productivity suffers. With that, so too safety. A school bus plunged into a ravine when I was a kid. The driver was asleep at the wheel. He was fasting; at least that was his excuse. His personal salvation came ahead of his passengers’ safety.

            As a surgeon in Malaysia, I once reprimanded a doctor during Ramadan for abandoning his patients while he was off for his Friday prayers. His salvation too came ahead of his patients. The fact that helping his patients would pave his own salvation escaped him.

            Serve mankind and you serve Allah. That is the mantra of the Ahmaddiya and Ismaili Muslims; they understand and practice this essence of our faith. The Ahmaddiyas built hospitals in Africa and Latin America. They recently commissioned one in Guatemala. There are not many Muslims there. The Ismailis use their tithes to build schools and universities especially for girls. The Aga Khan University in Karachi, established only a few decades ago, has the country’s finest teaching hospital and medical school, eclipsing others much older.

The Islamicity Index, using criteria extracted from the Koran, measures how well nations serve their citizens. No Muslim nation is among the top twenty.

In his book Misquoting Muhammad, Jonathan Brown quotes the advice one Mufti of Al Azhar gave his country’s rulers. Bring peace, justice and prosperity to your people, and he (the Mufti) would find the hadith or Koranic verse to justify those policies. By definition those would be Syariah-compliant. Malaysian ulama have it backwards. They would be consumed first with whether those measures were “Islamic” even before they have been proven effective. To those ulama too, lies and stealing are Syariah-compliant if they would get a piece of the action, or their victims were non-Muslims.

We should have an equivalent personal Islamicity Index, based not on such things as how often we have undertaken the Hajj or how erudite we are in reciting hadith, rather on how well we serve our friends, families, and community.

Yet in Malaysia the screaming headlines are of corpses being snatched from grieving families (on the presumption that the deceased had converted to Islam on their deathbed), the surreptitious conversion of minors without both parents consenting (so the subsequent custody hearings could be in a Syariah rather than civil court), and most obscene of all, the contempt for personal privacy with officers of the religious department raiding hotels looking for khalwat(“close proximity”).

On a juvenile level, those caught not fasting would be paraded around town in a hearse. Meanwhile, drug abusers, abandoned babies, HIV sufferers, and other victims of our social dysfunction cry for attention. Ameliorate those problems and you effectively defend and protect the ummah, as well as the faith. Mass demonstrations yelling “Defend Islam!” or “God is Great!” would achieve nothing except snarl up traffic.

Allah’s greatest gift is our precious life. We have a one-in-five-billion (number of sperms in an ejaculate) chance of being here, essentially zero. Yet here we are. We should celebrate this miracle by making the most of it. I cringe when our ulama belittle our lives in this world in their obsession with the afterlife.

It would be more fruitful to regard the Day of Judgement as a concept, with heaven and hell, metaphors. Study hard in high school and your day of judgement would come soon enough, as at the end of the year when your test results come out and you could be rewarded with an overseas scholarship – a youth’s heaven!

Plunder the nation and your day of judgement too would come soon, as former Prime Minister Najib now finds out. Today he is going through hell, dragging along his family.

Heed the wisdom of Rabia al Adiwayya. Eradicate this distracting religious brownie-point mentality. Instead, enhance our Islamicity Index, the personal as well as the nation’s. At least you would have a legacy then. As to whether you would end up in Paradise, Allah hu Alam(only Allah knows), as my village elders of yore used to say.


The serialization of my memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, will resume next week.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Excerpt #13: Looking For A House To rent

Excerpt #15  Looking For A House To Rent
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

With my work routine now settled, my next mission was to find a house to rent, the Director-General’s promised lodging at Lake Gardens having fallen through. We decided to rent until we could find our bearings. The rental market was undeveloped, with rental agencies more the stepson of valuation companies. There were also minimal ads in the papers, so we had to drive around the various neighborhoods.

We were disappointed with the results. I began to feel that no one wanted to rent to us. We wondered whether it was because I was a Malay, someone with a foreign wife, or had young children.

            My sister-in-law Zainab disabused me of my paranoia. We would never get anyone to rent to us if we go around in my father’s old Ford Escort, she advised us. So, for the next few weekends we went with Zainab and Sharif in their Holden. We had better reception but still no hit.

            The Malaysian real estate market gave new meaning to the term “unfurnished.” We were stunned to see electrical wires dangling from wall sockets and ceilings, their fixtures having been removed by the owners or previous tenants. In one house, even the toilets were gone! Those owners were shortsighted or ignorant of marketing strategies. If they had spent some money to make their homes attractive with curb appeal and move-in ready, as with having landscape and nice furniture, they could command premium rents.

            One afternoon Sharif called about a house in Bungsar owned by his former secretary. Her husband, a diplomat, had just been transferred to Beijing to open the new embassy there. That very day after work I went to see the house, alone. It would have been too far to go back to Cheras, pick up Karen and the kids, and then trot back into the city and on to Bungsar.

            Again, the lukewarm welcome. The wife was less interested in showing me her house but more into small talk. My patience was again tried. I was hot, tired and had a long day. However, as soon as she found out that I was Sharif’s younger brother, the floodgate of welcome opened.

            “The surgeon who trained in Canada?” she beamed.

            Then we discovered that her cousin, Wan Aziz, now a naval architect, was my classmate at Malay College. The house was now mine, if I liked it, and I did! Seeing that she was now very keen on me, it was my turn to jual mahal(hard to get!). I used the excuse to show Karen the place first before making any commitment.

            I rushed back to pick up her and the kids. She too liked it; a modern, double-story terrace house with plenty of rooms. The yard, both front and back, was non-existent but that was fine. The house was ours within hours of Sharif phoning me, and I did not have to rent a BMW to see the place! In the West, I would have needed work and personal references; in Malaysia, as long as they could place you in their universe, that was it.

            The rent was RM500 per month, nearly half my salary. We still had to buy a washing machine, refrigerator, and air-conditioner. Karen also wanted a dryer but when I told her that the whole country was a dryer, she relented.

            We were shocked at the prices of home appliances. With Sharif’s help we drove a hard bargain as we paid cash. I also made sure that Karen was not with us when shopping otherwise the shopkeeper would jack up the price. I pity those who had to buy on “hire purchase.” They had to pay the full retail price and then be charged usurious interest rates.

            Notice the absence of any mention of a television set.We could not afford it. With two little kids, not having one was not an option. So we rented one, and soon discovered that we had to have an annual license fee for it, as well as for our radio. The government had inspectors checking on that.

            Used to such iconic television personalities as Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner delivering the news, listening to their Malaysian counterparts was a very trying experience. Why couldn’t they pick someone with a less grating voice? Those local newscasters whispered into their microphones, and stumbled often even at that! Why did they pick a non-Malay with a weird accent to read the news on national television baffled me!

            Those newscasters were not journalists; they did not write their materials. They were mere newsreaders. No wonder they stumbled often, and had as much passion reading their scripts as I do reading an old magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. The local professional journalists were no better, as judged by their articles. Nonetheless I forced myself to watch the news and read the papers as I was hungry for and eager to catch up on local affairs, making up for the deficit of the past thirteen years.

            One of those newscasts was a live coverage of the new Prime Minister Hussein Onn announcing his pick of a Deputy. It took him over two months after he had assumed office to do that, an inordinate delay, the consequence of much backroom dealings and maneuverings. The suspense was palpable right to the last minute.

            Then Hussein’s announcement; it was anticlimactic. His voice was flat, dull, and with no trace of any joy or excitement. Worse, his choice, Mahathir, was not by his side; he was on a political tour in Johor. He heard the news like everyone else in the country–at that very moment and through that news conference.

            Mahathir was interviewed on the same newscast, the man could only express his appreciation to Hussein. It was obvious that he too, like the rest of Malaysia, was caught by surprise. What a way for the new Prime Minister to make his first and most important appointment! I would have thought the two would have met privately earlier to discuss their respective views. At the very least Mahathir should have been beside Hussein during that press conference. I was unimpressed with the way Hussein handled it. He did not vet his choice; it was a blind pick.

            A few years later Mahathir took over because of Hussein’s poor health. A few years beyond that, following a major split in UMNO, Hussein admitted many times that picking Mahathir was his greatest regret!


Next:  Excerpt #16: Having A Maid
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia(2018.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Training Future Doctors

Excerpt #13 - Teaching Future Doctors
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

One consequence to our lively rounds, seminars and conferences, as well as my own informality, was that my trainees acquired a reputation of being outspoken to the point of being biadab(disrespectful), or so I was told.

            One day we had a new lecturer fresh with his London University PhD. I suggested that he give a presentation in our usual format:  20 minutes of didactic session followed by Q&A around a couple of our difficult cases. On the appointed morning and after my brief introduction, I left the room to let him take charge.

            Later I asked my trainees how their session went. Not good! This young lecturer did not take kindly to their asking questions. He later dropped by my office to complain that my trainees were rude and impudent!

            Besides young doctors, I also had medical students from the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) as well as the University of Malaya (UM). The latter were fine except that they expected certitudes and believed that the answer to every clinical question could be found at the back of their textbook, just like their math problems in high school. Once we were involved in an extended discussion on a patient with a complicated acute abdomen. We ended up with a series of differential diagnoses and I concluded by saying, “We’ll soon find out!” meaning, after the surgery.

            As I was accompanying the patient to the operating room, one of the students breathlessly caught up with me. “Sir! What’s the actual diagnosis?” I repeated that we would soon find out, as we had discussed earlier. He was disappointed; he thought I had the answer and that the earlier discussions were but an academic exercise!

            In 1976 the first batch of UKM medical students entered their clinical year. They presented a very different set of challenges for me. First, coming from the Malay stream, their English was not quite polished. Second, they were mostly Malays. The university was set up in response to the bloody 1969 race riots. The faculty, administration, and most of all the students were nationalistically-inclined. Third, they were entering a profession hitherto the traditional preserve of non-Malays.

            The discomfort and barely disguised envy if not resentment among the non-Malay staff to this new order was there but muted. They had yet to accept this new reality but acknowledged its inevitability. It reminded me of the early days of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec to the increasing presence of French-Canadians at such venerable and hitherto exclusively Anglo-Saxon institutions like McGill University and Royal Victoria Hospital.

            Much to my delight and contrary to all my expectations, the English fluency issue was the least problematic. As clinical notes and operative reports were all still in English (the King had exempted those as well as other professional communications from the strictures of the national language statutes), I made those students present their cases in English. I spun it in a positive way, to save them time and effort in translating.

            It was very trying for the first few weeks with the pace slowed to an intolerable crawl. However, by the end of their rotations, I could not tell them apart from the English-stream UM students. I was surprised and much gratified.

            Looking back, I should not have been surprised. They had English classes throughout their school years. It was just that they were not encouraged to use it. English-fluency was seen as being anti-Malay, or worse, a Mat Salleh (Anglo-Saxon) wannabe.

            Once I saw a group of students examining a Chinese patient. They were all wearing gloves and hesitant in touching my patient. Something else about their collective behaviors bothered me. Sensing that I was now on to something novel and potentially sensitive, I asked Mahmud what was going on. He told me of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among the students. The faculty was very much aware of that. In fact they had scheduled a special senate meeting to address the very issue.

            That did it for me. I gathered the students, and with Sr. Fong beside me, told them that I wanted all my patients be treated the same whether they were in the Third-Class ward or the First-Class suites, from the estate in Ulu Pilah or the exclusive enclave of Bukit Tunku, illiterate or a graduate, and male or female. I skipped the race and religion part on purpose, but they did not miss my point. If they were uncomfortable with that, then they should ask their professors to post them elsewhere. No discussion!

            From then on there were no more problems on that issue. I was amazed at the ease with which I had solved a potentially explosive issue. While the university senate continued to grapple with the matter to no end, I nipped the noxious weed of religious extremism in its bud. That was not the case with the rest of the country. That poisonous weed today engulfs and blights Malaysia.

            God gives us the wisdom to solve a problem with ease to test us. Soon I became overconfident. One day we were making rounds on a challenging patient and I persisted in badgering the bewildered students on what we should do next. After yet another long quizzical silence on their part, I suggested in a thinly-disguised mocking tone, “Recite Surah Yaseen?” referring to the Koranic verse often read at funerals and on visiting the sick.

            The discomfit among my students was immediate and electric. Big blunder! I was ridiculing the holy text; the repercussions would be severe.

            Without missing a beat, I went on. If the family had wanted that, they would not be asking you or me, I told the students. The family would invite an imam or hafizwhose voice and tajweedwould be far more exquisite. The sick came to the hospital because we could offer them something else. Leave the Koran reading to those more pious, qualified, and with a soothing voice!

            With that, the relief on everyone was palpable, more so on my part. I felt like a member of the bomb squad who had successfully snipped the tripwire of his own making that would have caused a massive explosion.

            My other unpleasant encounter with religion, or at least its representative concerned a patient with cancer whom I had done a successful surgery. Her prognosis was excellent. To most, and not just village folks, cancer is a death sentence regardless how favorable the prognosis. She was a recent migrant to the city. Let loose from her comforting village anchor, she was lost. This was manifested in her endless somatic symptoms despite her successful surgery.

            I was about to embark on yet another series of tests when I decided to listen to her with extra diligence. She was obsessed not with death rather the associated funeral rites like ablution and praying for her soul. I assured her that we had an Imam in-house to take care of such matters.

            I contacted him about pastoral counselling and spiritual guidance for her. His reaction stupefied me.

            “When they have weddings, they don’t think of us. Near death, they call us!”

            This imam was paidby the government! I decided to spare my patient this charlatan. We found another imam, not government-issued. She was much relieved after the spiritual counselling.

            Like other faiths, Islam is not spared of pretenders, some very well compensated.

Next:  Excerpt #14 – Looking For A House

From the author’s second memoir, The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Excerpt #12: Initiating A Formal Teaching Program

Excerpt #12:  
Chapter 4:  Initiating A Formal Teaching Program
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


What little informal teaching I did during our clinical rounds took the form of my peppering the trainees with questions and the “what ifs.” On the occasions when they or I did not know the answer, which were often, I would assign one of them to “look it up and tell us tomorrow.”

            I did that often enough such that everyone had an assignment at least once every week or so. It was an exercise to look up the literature and also to impress upon them that we do not always have the information at our finger tips.

            As for formal teaching, I replicated the programs of my residency days. I set up four sessions, one each on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, our non-operating days, and at the end of the day on Mondays and Wednesdays, which were our assigned operating days. The morning sessions were didactic, seminar-like, with one devoted to basic surgery, the other, clinical. Within two years with holidays accounted for, we would have covered over 90 topics, the entire field of both basic and clinical surgery, plus some general topics. Come the third year we would have repeated the whole sequence. I assigned the basic surgery topics to the interns as they were still fresh out of medical school, and the clinical to the medical officers as they had more patient experience. The schedule was such that every trainee would be presenting at least once per quarter.

            The afternoon sessions were less didactic. One was our weekly morbidity and mortality conference (M&M rounds) where we reviewed our deaths and complications. In the other, Clinical-Pathological Correlations (CPC), we went over our biopsies and other specimens with our pathologist.

            I assigned the first few seminars to the most capable trainees, both to set the standards and to give the others a longer time to prepare for theirs. At our first, I asked (demanded?) the three or four of my most diligent trainees to make sure that they would be present on time. I had also prepped the inaugural presenter, Dr. Zul, such that he could present his seminar almost verbatim. His topic? “The Old Lymphocyte,” which was a cute title to introduce immunology, the hot topic of the season. He read the preamble to my thesis and added some new materials from the literature on the then-rapidly developing field.

            At the scheduled time, sure enough only the presenter and me, plus the three or four interns I had specifically asked were there. We started right on time to a near-empty conference room. Five or ten minutes later the others began straggling in. By the time the last attendee had arrived, we were already in the discussion mode. Then this late character had the nerve to demand why we had not yet started. There was embarrassed silence all round. I told him that the formal presentation was over and we were now in the discussion phase. “Do you have anything to add?”

            He cowered like a rat that had broken into a closet hoping to find a stockpile of cheese, only to be greeted by the glare of cats ready to pounce on him. If there was a hole in the floor I was sure he would have crawled into it. From then on my seminars all started on time. I had busted the curse of the “Malaysian time!”

Our seminars soon acquired a reputation among the other interns and medical officers as well as the town practitioners. I also secured the commitment of a local pharmaceutical company to publish those presentations at the end of the two-year cycle.

            The hardest part was training my young doctors for their presentations. I had to devote considerable time with each individual on how to search the literature and write up their presentations. I also made them practice their oral portion. Quite a challenge as many of them had never done that sort of exercise before. It was also exhausting, and very trying, for both presenters and me.

            One young doctor was so paralyzed that he did not know where to begin. I worked with him for hours, going through step by step in the library and helping him with his essay. He finally had a decent piece and could present it to me in a private rehearsal with some coherence. On the morning of the seminar he confidently strutted to the front of the room like a tom turkey in the presence of a flock of hens. He began without even a hint of hesitation. I was thrilled. Midway he stopped, and was lost.

            I prodded him with generous prompts, like reading excerpts from his written presentation. Still without success! Then as a last resort I told him to just read what he had written. It was painful, for presenter and listeners alike. In the ensuing Q&A I departed from my usual practice and initiated it with gentle questions. He recovered, somewhat. He must have felt like the unsuspecting foreign tourist caught in a sudden tropical downpour. Suddenly drenched, and before he could be overwhelmed, the clouds parted and the skies became clear. That was the only time I had to rescue anybody.

            I thought he handled himself well, and I was pleased with myself at how I salvaged the situation. Speaking in front of an audience can be a daunting experience. I was very proud of what I had achieved with him. The following week however, he quit my program!

            My most enjoyable and rewarding teaching exercise was our CPC. The fact that we had an eminent pathologist who was also an enthusiastic teacher was a big factor. Prior to his appointment as a professor at UKM, Dr. Kanan Kutty was the hospital’s chief pathologist. As UKM then did not as yet have a functioning pathology unit, he availed himself to the hospital. When I approached him for the CPC, he was more than eager. “Help make my salary halal, doc!” he joked.

            Immaculately dressed in long-sleeve shirts and wide ties, shining leather shoes, and always well shaved and groomed, Professor Kutty was formal with my trainees but not with me even though I was much younger, casually dressed, without ties, and with long hair. Nonetheless the informality of my group soon infected him. Towards the end, he too was mellow and casual, loosening his ties often. My trainees enjoyed their sessions with him very much. We learned much in that solid hour.

            Our M&M rounds were less satisfying. As I was involved in most of the cases, it was difficult to get robust discussions going. Mahmud too was reticent in criticizing me. So I resorted to having the senior trainees do a literature search on current surgical practices pertaining to the cases discussed. Only when Dr. Meah joined us after obtaining her fellowship, and later also Dr. Bahari, did our CPC became worthy of its label.

            Once we had a senior professor from Indonesia visiting UKM. He was a liver expert and I had just the case for him, a massive liver injury from a road accident. It would be interesting to see how things were done across the Straits of Malacca. Alas at the last minute the visiting expert cancelled the rounds. He was busy being feted by the university.

            Later we had a visit by an Australian pediatric surgeon. We also had a special patient for him, a baby with primary biliary cirrhosis, right up his alley. Being the main referral hospital, GHKL had no shortage of “rare birds.” In contrast to the Indonesian surgeon, this Australian cancelled his social engagement to see our patient. We learned much from him, helpful little tricks for the delicate surgery we were contemplating on the poor child.

            I was not a pediatric surgeon but had done a stint at Montreal Children’s Hospital under the famed Dr. Harvey Beardmore. Earlier as a medical student I had spent a summer at Mayo Clinic under Dr. Hugh Lynn, also a well-known pediatric surgeon. As a senior resident I had a rotation with a pediatric surgeon, Dr. Sam Kling. When we compared notes, I had more cases under my belt than Mahmud. Together we performed many pediatric cases, including the first Duhamel procedure in the country for Hirschsprung’s Disease. That jaundiced baby would have been our first Kasai procedure, but the parents refused the surgery, and the child died.

            I have many fond memories of Sam Kling. One Christmas he gave me a bottle of scotch. I knew nothing about the stuff but when my fellow residents saw the label their eyes bulged with envy. It was rare, premium label. Imagine, a Jewish surgeon giving his Muslim resident a bottle of fine whiskey . . . at Christmas!

            That was Canada and Canadians. Those qualities are still very much reflected today; notice their intake of Syrian refugees in 2016 when many in the West, specifically America, shunned them.


Next:  Excerpt #13 - Teaching Future Doctors

From the author’s second memoir, The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.