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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.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Excerpt #20: Obsession With Pay And Perks


Excerpt #20:  Obsession With Pay And Perks
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

A preoccupation of Malaysian civil servants, including the professional staff such as doctors, was with their pay and perks. No surprise there as doctors were poorly paid and received far meager benefits as compared to their administrative colleagues. When compared to doctors in the private sector, the gap was even wider. Still is, only much more so today.

            I decided very early on not to be too bothered with my compensation details. I had accepted the harsh fact that my returning to Malaysia meant a significant reduction in my pay, and with that a corresponding lowering of my living standards, at least as compared to what I had enjoyed in Canada. Even if I were to be made Director-General, I would still earn less than what I did in private practice in Canada. Karen too had also accepted that.

            A few years earlier while in Canada, my in-laws referred me to a magazine article of a Canadian parent whose daughter had married an Indonesian student and the couple had returned to Indonesia with their young family, just like I would be doing in a few years’ time to Malaysia. Later her parents visited them. They were heartbroken to see their daughter and grandchildren living in such desperate conditions. I assured Karen and her parents that Malaysia was far ahead of Indonesia and that, God willing, we would not face such a fate. We may not have a nice suburban home and a lakeside cottage, nonetheless we would be comfortable. After all, I would be returning as a surgeon, not a lowly intern.

            Thus whenever conversations in the hospital cafeteria turned to pay and allowances, which were often, I tuned them out. Now that reality had struck, I could not ignore those details.

            My old high school classmate, Ramli, was well tuned into those sort of things. He told me not to expect much regardless of the sweet promises of the bureaucrats. I would never qualify for “Superscale” until I had served at least five years. My alternative would be to quit government service after the mandatory two years or join the university, which was not much better, he assured me. He was with UKM.

            At my parents’ home too, the conversations were often with income. Salaries, pay grades, the car your drive, and how much was your dowry were very much everyday topics among Malaysians of all classes and at all times. As Karen found out much to her discomfit, they would even ask her how much her dress or wedding ring cost!

            It was during one of those discussions that my parents discovered how much less I was being paid as compared to my much younger brother Adzman. Not only that, he had a beautiful government-issued bungalow on a spacious lot in a secluded part of Kuala Lumpur, and with a rent a fraction of what I was paying. Even my parents realized that I was getting a raw deal.

            My parents of course could not do anything about my pay. Theirs when they were Malay school teachers was much lower yet they managed to save, made good investments, and had a comfortable retirement. So comfortable money-wise were my parents such that my older brother Sharif’s main duties on his frequent visits home were to deposit our parents’ pension checks. They would just let them accumulate as their income from their rubber plantations was more than enough.

            As I was showing my parents my monthly budget to justify my overall bitching about the government, my paymaster, my parents offered me their pension checks so I would not have to dip into my savings. I was horrified. So was Karen when I later related to her their kind offer.

            My parents knew of our lifestyle in Canada; they had seen pictures of it. They did not want us especially Karen to have a standard of living much lower to what we had been used to, and they were willing to contribute to that. Bless them, they meant well!

            My parents were also haunted by something else. The son of their colleague back in the old village had also married a foreigner. This fellow had left his wife and young family in the village to live with his parents while he was off abroad on an extended study leave. His parents spoke no English and I assumed she, no Malay. Within a few weeks her parents in Australia mailed her their airline tickets. She and her two children were gone, never to return.

            When my parents related that episode to me during my 1969 trip home and before I married Karen, no doubt part of their parental dutiful cautionary advice to me, my immediate reaction was to blame the son and sympathize with the daughter-in-law. He should have sent his family back to live with her parents in Australia, not in a Malay kampung among strangers. At first my parents were horrified by my reaction. After much reflection, they agreed with me.

            In the back of their minds my parents thought that unless I maintained a standard of living that Karen was used to in Canada, a similar fate would await their daughter-in-law; hence their offering their pension checks. I had to reassure my parents many times that their new daughter-in-law was not a spoiled white brat.

            That still did not resolve the issue of how to refuse my parents’ kind offer without sounding impudent or ungrateful. One evening with Karen by my side, I told them that we were committed to each other, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” I told them that I could live, and Karen would accept and so would my children, even if my paycheck were to be halved and we lived in a wooden house on stilts back in the kampung. I did not know whether that convinced them or not, but the issue of my pay never cropped up again.

There were not many instances of mixed marriages with foreigners in my parents’ small world. When I married Karen, my parents had only that unfortunate example.

            Bless my mother, she saw that not as a problem but an opportunity, and a very splendid one. She was not one to miss using it to her advantage.

            When I visited them back in May 1969 it was in part to tell them of their potential daughter-in-law. At that time my parents were building their dream home in Ampangan, a suburb of Seremban. It was a modern brick bungalow, with electricity, piped water, and indoor plumbing. It bordered on an elegant golf club, and a universe away from their village home back in Kampung Tengah. It was unfortunate that halfway through, the builder went bankrupt. With that, my parents’ dream house collapsed, though not literally. The nearby British army base had closed, and with that a significant part of the builder’s business.

            The house was nearly completed with only the cosmetic interior to be done. I suggested that they could recoup their investments by borrowing more and getting another builder to complete it. We secured one and my parents’ dream was again rekindled. At the last minute however, my father balked. What if this second builder too were to file for bankruptcy, and my father would then be stuck again, this time with two loans. He was ready to write off his losses. My mother was devastated again as my father would not budge.

            In desperation, my mother warned my father that if they did not build that house, it would mean that Karen had to come visit them in the kampong – no electricity, no piped water, and no indoor plumbing. How would your Canadian daughter-in-law react to that, my mother taunted him. Remembering what had happened to that young Australian mother and her two kids earlier, my father relented.

            I felt guilty that my mother had used Karen as a battering rod against my father. However, as my mother rationalized, if that was what it took to make my stubborn father change his mind, then so be it! That was Karen’s contribution to her in-laws’ (specifically my mother’s) realization of their dream house and comfort in their old age.

Next:  Excerpt # 21 Only Too Brief An Academic Association
From the author’s book, The Son Has Not Returned: A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018

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