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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, October 06, 2019

Excerpt # 37: The Saga Of Our Transfer


Excerpt # 37:  The Saga Of Our Transfer
M.Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            The Badris had been our confidants. His Karen had been a great emotional support for both my Karen and me. Whenever we bitched about the sluggishness of the bureaucracy and everything else, Badri’s Karen would sooth us by advising, “They do it differently here!” Not wrong, just different! We did not know how many times that wise counsel helped keep our sanity. No wonder she adjusted so well to Malaysia!

            I apprised the Badris of our plan to leave KL. Earlier he was very disappointed when I told him of my “interview” with the UKM’s dean and my giving up a potential academic career. I had not completely given up and reminded him of my just-submitted application to the University of Malaya. Through the medical grapevine I discovered that it was not a new position, rather the current occupant was quitting to enter private practice. That kept my aspirations alive. If it were for a new position, they could always use the excuse of lack of funding to rescind the offer. There was still a chance that I would return to KL (or PJ at least), as an academic and build that dream house of ours.

            Like us, the Badris met during their undergraduate days in Canada. Badri’s Karen later obtained her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Malaya. Both were with the Department of Chemistry, Universiti Putra Malaysia. They lived on its green bucolic campus at Serdang, a suburb of KL. Every time I visited them I could feel my blood pressure drop and a blissful calm would engulf me, a desert Bedouin finding a lush oasis after a long journey in the dry desert. In contrast to Bungsar, it was also about ten degrees cooler at Serdang. As could be expected, we were their frequent guests. The UPM campus was my favorite sanctuary, a soothing balm for my frequent frayed nerves.

            Unlike many young Malay academics then (and now), Badri was not seduced by titles–academic, administrative, or otherwise. He was Dean of Science for a while because they could not find anyone else! That is not a complimentary thing to say, until you know Malaysia and Badri. They do it differently there! He was not in the least interested in lobbying to advance himself. Campus politics was not his cup of tea. “They can read my papers!” he shrugged.

            Badri, who was from Kelantan, was kapak siam(Siamese axe), the ubiquitous but small well-concealed personal weapon of choice for Kelantan Malays. Not readily visible but inflicts a deep lethal cut. They labelled him “hard headed.” After knowing Malaysia, that’s a compliment. So too to Badri.

            With our Christmas holidays truncated, Karen and I decided to squeeze a weekend visit to JB to get the lay of the land. We left the kids with their grandparents in Seremban and we took the MARA Express bus, after being told that it was the most convenient with respect to schedule as well as costs.

            What a ride! We had the front seat opposite the driver’s side; so we saw everything right up front and direct. Very unnerving! The driver, a young Malay with a red scarf around his neck, shirt untucked, and donning shiny oval sunglasses, was out to prove that he had just missed the final cut in the Formula One trials. He driving “skills” consisted of alternating jamming on the brakes and the accelerator while yanking the steering wheel from one side to the other.

I lost how many times Karen had to close her eyes as he was overtaking yet another vehicle on the curvy, congested two-lane road with another car headed straight towards us. When we reached JB my neck was sore and my arms and shoulders stiff from bracing myself. My neck muscles and hair still stiffen up just recalling that trip.

            We stayed at the Orchid Hotel, the only respectable lodging in town. As we had no car we took the local bus to see the town. The hospital with its distinctive bright-red brick exterior, blighted with black mold here and there, was located right on Jalan Abu Bakar, the main thoroughfare. Across the road was the Strait of Johor, with Singapore clearly visible across the narrow strip of water.

            Mixed couples were not a novelty in Malaysia but seeing one taking the local non-air-conditioned bus was. We had stares wondering where we would alight and thus where we lived. Instead we went right to the end of the line, walked around and then came back to our hotel. That was our “seeing the lay of the land.” We liked what we saw, even just from the bus, and looked forward to our transfer.

            That was scheduled for the new year but because one of the transferees in the recently-concluded promotion and transfer exercise balked, the whole carefully crafted scheme crumbled in the chain reaction. My transfer was thus delayed till after the Chinese New Year, meaning middle-to-late February. Malaysia may be a Muslim country and the Chinese a minority, but Chinese New Year holidays cripple the country, including and especially the government.

            To shorten the long saga of my transfer exercise, the moving trucks did not arrive till May. A few days earlier we had a check-out “walk through” with a family representative of the owner of the house. When we moved in we had asked permission to create an opening the bedroom wall for an air-conditioner unit. Now we asked them whether we should patch that hole as that would save them a few hundred dollars should they wish to have another unit installed. For security reasons, they told us to reconstitute the wall as before. That cost us another few hundred dollars more. When the workmen were done, we could not tell that there had been a big opening in the wall only a few days earlier. We took the unit with us to JB.

            There were not one but two trucks that arrived that morning of our move. Earlier Karen had carefully tagged the items and furniture that would stay. As we rented the house furnished, there was not much to take with us. The workers were surprised. They thought they were being sent to a surgeon’s house and that there would surely be plenty of household goods to pack. On discovering that was not so, half the crew left immediately with the other truck, empty, back to the depot. The remaining half, frustrated at having to stay and work while their colleagues had the day off, acted accordingly. They took their own sweet time. Or maybe we were misjudging them in that they were performing at their usual pace.

            Although I was looking forward to my new assignment, nonetheless I felt sad on having to leave GHKL. I felt as if I was abandoning those young trainees, especially those medical students from UKM. They were keen learners and very much aware of the severe limitations that the system had imposed upon them–their language inadequacy. What with their instructors being aloof and remote, I felt that I represented a different role model for them, one they could approach without fear.

            I was also saddened that I had to abandon my fledgling research projects. One in particular was dear to me, the immunology of parasitic infections specifically amebiasis, which we saw many cases, and malignancies, focusing on nasopharyngeal cancer, also common in Malaysia. I had a few months earlier initiated that project with a fresh PhD from Australia. We had presented our preliminary findings at the International Academy of Proctology meeting held in Kuala Lumpur that August. Nasopharyngeal cancer was also of special interest to Professor Kutty.

            With UKM going ahead with its planned new building, I was also looking forward to its new animal lab and continuing the research that I had done in Edmonton.

            Most of all I was sad that I could not contribute to the one glaring problem facing my native land, the shortage of surgeons, in particular Malay surgeons. What I did not miss about leaving KL was the congestion, pollution, and the stifling presence of those bureaucrats, medical and civilian, at the Ministry of Health.

Next:  Excerpt # 38: JB, That’s Where We Will Be!

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

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