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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.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Persistence Personified - Mansor Puteh

Persistence Personified – Mansor Puteh
[Reprinted from the Sun Weekend Edition, Dec 9, 2005.]

This spring, author and filmmaker Mansor Puteh will be returning to Columbia University to present his portfolio for the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). There is nothing newsworthy there, except that the last time Mansor was on campus was over two decades ago.

Students do drop out of universities, even at the Ivy League, as Bill Gates did at Harvard and Vice-President Richard Cheney at Yale. That did not seem to interfere with their careers.

Taking time out either between high school and college or between undergraduate and graduate school is quite common for American students. If he were an American, Mansor would be in good company. For a Malaysian however, his decision to leave just shy of his graduation for his MFA must have caused his family severe anguish. I can imagine the scene when he returned home! He certainly would have been branded – and made to feel – a failure.

Mansor did complete his studies except for the formality of his thesis project. He submitted this later from Malaysia, but thanks to the reliability of the Postal Service, it never reached his supervisor.

Talent, like water, has a way of finding its own level. Meanwhile Mansor has written 57 books; he intends to make that 60. He also has scores of movies and television dramas to his credit. Impressive!

Mansor does not need his MFA; his accomplishments speak for themselves. The fact that Columbia willingly accepts him back reveals the flexibility of American universities. I cannot imagine a local university entertaining such a request.

For his dissertation, Mansor will present his forthcoming film, Malaysian Snow, based on his own novel. It is about two young men from one kampong who attended the same American college. One, an albino, decided to stay back and pass himself as a Caucasian; the other returned home. Years later, their paths again crossed. As for the ending, read the book or wait for the movie!

Mansor’s own personal story is both illustrative and instructive. The fact that he pursued fine arts was itself unusual. That choice is not usually on the radar screen of Malaysians. It is drilled by parents and teachers that our young pursue “real” degrees, meaning, those that would assure a good job. To Malaysians, music and the fine arts are frivolous subjects. Fortunately, MARA Institute of Technology had a program in fine arts. There Mansor’s lecturers recognized his talent and encouraged him to further his studies.

His acceptance to Columbia should have been a cause for celebration and pride for MARA considering that it was a young institution and eager to highlight the achievements of its graduates. No such luck!

Nor were the authorities eager to fund him. At a time when the government was sending thousands to third-rate universities abroad, one would have thought that someone admitted to the graduate program at an Ivy League institution would grab the attention of the authorities.

The number of Malaysians, especially Malays, accepted to elite universities is miniscule. That being the case, we should shower those select few with offers of scholarships. That this is not so is a sad commentary on how we treat talent.

A few years ago, a young Malay lawyer was accepted to Harvard’s prestigious LLM program. MARA’s excuse for not giving him a scholarship was that Malaysia does not recognize the American legal system! Obviously the authorities do not value superior education and training.

Mansor suffered through the usual culture shock of being in graduate school and living in New York. That his classmates represented the best of America and the world only increased the challenge. The reward was that luminaries in the field of filmmaking taught him well.

An unfortunate illness, rather than academic difficulties, caused him to disrupt his studies. It is an enduring tribute to the strength of the human spirit that despite the bleak prognosis of his bone tumor hanging over him, Mansor was able to lead a productive and creative life.

Faced with a dilemma two decades ago, Mansor rightly put his personal health ahead of his studies. He overcame that considerable obstacle; this second hurdle should merely be a bump on the road. Mansor’s story is an inspiration for us to pursue our dreams despite the barriers.

[Mansor Puteh can be contacted at mbp2112@columbia.edu]

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