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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, August 18, 2019

Excerpt #30: Sex And Corruption

Excerpt #30:  Sex And Corruption
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

Sex and corruption, the two go together. One day I noticed that the soup served to my patients was nothing more than spicy hot water with pieces of vegetables floating. Sister Fong commented that the food quality had been deteriorating for some time. Everybody noticed that but nobody did anything about it.

            One morning on the pretext that I was finding my way around, being new, I wandered into the kitchen, unannounced. The grocery truck had just delivered its supplies, or making a show of it. The staff reacted to my presence like a herd of deer that had smelled or seen a tiger in the neighborhood. They all perked up, frozen, staring towards me with their eyes wide open. It was obvious they were not used to being visited. I greeted them in Malay and introduced myself as the new surgeon, wanting to know the workings of the hospital. I sought out their supervisor.

            I made innocent queries like where the best place to buy meat, the going price, and complimented him and his crew for having to cook for so many. “It’s like having a big kendurievery day!” I remarked. I used simple village language with my comments and questions, as well as put on my humblest Malay mannerisms to make them feel at ease. Yet they all maintained their guard throughout.

            Then I saw a big beef carcass being carted away to another van. I asked in as casual a manner as possible whether the hospital had another kitchen elsewhere. There was a scurry of embarrassment with the director asking the man where he was going with the meat and that it should put it back in the refrigerator. The man was startled by this apparent departure from the usual routine.

            Later at lunch time I went up to the ward. That was the day when my patients had more than just watery soup in their bowls!

            The dead too were not spared from corruption, or at least their families. The relatives of one of my deceased patient sought me out because they could not retrieve his body from the morgue. The attendant said that I had not released it. For a fee, he could “persuade” me to speed up the process. Sensing something smelly, I escorted them to the morgue to claim the body. Again, I received the now familiar deer-in-the-presence-of-tiger look on the part of the morgue workers.

            Public facilities like hospitals are underfunded. Combined with corruption and you have a major problem. I was stunned to see disposable items being reused with minimal cleansing and sterilizing. The nasogastric tubes used for my patients were stained and friable, having been reused once too many times. I solved that problem by taking a pair of scissors and cutting all the tubes removed from my patients. That way those tubes would never again be reused. The nurses were horrified by my actions! There was no budget for such necessary consumables. My rationale was that those patients were already sick, and with their reduced immune system there was no need to increase their risk to infections.

            Granted, many disposable medical devices today could be reused as they are robustly made. However, one must be assured of the re-sterilizing processes and their quality control. Even with modern sterilizing techniques of American hospitals, I still react with horror when my colleagues use a gastroscope for a colonoscopy! There have been many reported cases of diseases being spread through contaminated instruments.

            With the top honcho of the hospital busy chasing skirts and sexually harassing his subordinates, the management of the hospital suffered. If you do not have talented managers and executives to begin with, or if they are plain incompetent, mediocrity would be the consequence, if not disaster. Corruption was only one manifestation. The other was deteriorating facilities from lack of maintenance.

            One day I looked up at the air vent in my office and saw the edges were black. The vents had not been cleaned for ages. I wiped the vents and was stunned at the grit. I asked the janitor to show me the filters. He did not know what I was talking about. With my pestering, he finally called the engineer from the JKR (Public Works Department). The hospital did not even have its own dedicated engineers.

            After many attempts he finally pried open the air-conditioner panel. Phew! What a mess! Even he coughed when he removed the filters. One of the nurses commented that no wonder she had to go out every so often to catch her breath while working inside!

            Those soot-filled filters and gritty vents were emblematic of the maintenance culture, or lack of one, in Malaysia. Next to GHKL was the huge Maternity Hospital. During my entire time at GHKL, that maternity hospital’s operating suites were shuttered because the ventilation system was contaminated. Its patients had to be transported by ambulance to GHKL for surgery. Imagine a patient needing immediate C-section. Yet there was no sense of urgency to fix the problem.

            Now whenever I am in a public building in Malaysia I always look up at its air vents. If they are black, I do my waiting outside.

            During my tenure at GHKL I did not feel at all that I was on a crusade to clean up its mess. I was merely trying to correct the glaring deficiencies that were adversely affecting my patients. However, one morning the jaga kreta“boy” (parking lot attendant) who had been washing my car, greeted me with a look of concern. My immediate reaction was that I had been chintzy with my tips.

“Tuan Doktor . . .” he stammered and then paused, not knowing how to proceed. He hummed and hawed, in rhythm with the shaking of his head. “I hear lots of good things about you from the nurses and young doctors,” his raised eyebrows and wavering voice betraying his compliments.

“I mean, uh, I’ll watch no one would slash your tires,” he mumbled on!

I got his message! Somehow I was not at all concerned, perhaps the naivety of an innocent newcomer. I did not at all feel threatened. After all I was not trying to disturb the hornet’s nest, only clearing the cobwebs that came in the way of my patients.

Next:  Excerpt #31: Exploring A Surgical Residency Program

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

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