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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, April 26, 2020

We All Shared The Grief


We All Shared The Grief
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

         Back at the hospital, the staff had still not yet received any communication on the aircraft tragedy from the police or anyone at the frontline. We were the first to bring them the terrible news. After some discussions, the team at the hospital was disbanded with only a skeleton crew left “in case of miracles.” The others were to make themselves available if needed.

         For the next few days as the body parts began arriving at the morgue, more gruesome details emerged. The 737 passenger jet had been hijacked just before it landed at KL’s Subang Airport. Eyewitnesses said that the plane was only a few feet from touchdown when it gunned its engines and took off, headed for Singapore. Then the villagers’ accounts of hearing a loud boom and seeing fireballs of red flames. One hundred lives perished in that disaster.

         My sole pathologist colleague was overwhelmed. It would paralyze the nation’s entire forensic services if the government were to identify the various body parts found. In the end, Prime Minister Hussein Onn in a rare display of pragmatism and leadership ordered that the body parts would not be individually identified but be buried in a mass grave. That Friday there was a multi-faith funeral service at the hospital grounds right next to the morgue. Only VIPs and the victims’ close family members were invited.

         Days preceding that, the hospital campus was inundated by the press, especially foreign media. It was even more crowded than during the first few days following the Johor royal mishap a few months earlier. Yet it was orderly, unlike that earlier royal circus.

         Even though I did not have a pass to be at the funeral, being a member of the hospital staff I was able to view it from a good vantage point. The head of every religious faith to which the victims were assumed to have belonged gave their sermons. It was touching, a reminder that whatever our faiths, we were all united by a common bond caused by this tragedy. We all shared the loss and grief.

         I was never more proud of my country than at that moment. Malaysia showed the world the meaning of unity in diversity at its core. We were united in our loss and expressed that in our own unique ways.

         A few weeks later my in-laws sent me clippings of The Edmonton Journal. It had carried the news of the disaster on its front pages. There was reference about a “local medical graduate” leading the search and rescue team. Not quite accurate as I did not “lead” it and there was no rescue. Journalists however loved and strived to have a local angle when reporting distant events. Yes, I did remember being interviewed by the foreign media.

         For the next few weeks I spent time writing a report on the inadequacies of our collective response to such mass disasters, and suggested a policy based on those at the hospitals where I had worked in Canada. In my report, I made the editorial comment that it would be unlikely for us to have another such catastrophic aviation disaster. I opined that the more likely scenario would be mass civil disturbances a la the 1969 race riots in KL where we would have to deal not only with the physical injuries but also the raw racial emotions and distrust of both victims and rescuers.

         I also praised Prime Minister Hussein Onn’s decision not to identify the body parts, and instead to have an ecumenical funeral service for all victims at the same time. I submitted my report to my Medical Director. He was so taken aback that I had even thought of writing it as it never even occurred to him to ask me for one. He promised to forward my report up the chain of command. He did not say whether he had read it, much less commented on the contents.

         Recollecting those tragic events of well over four decades ago, and knowing what Malaysia has turned into today, I wonder whether, God forbid, if such a similar catastrophe were to happen now, how would the current Prime Minister react? I hope he would be as ecumenical and generous in spirit as the late Hussein Onn. Likewise, I shudder to imagine what the current Religious Minister and former Federal Mufti would say in his sermon. Would he be as generous in providing much-needed spiritual balm to all the grieving families regardless of faith as that old Mufti of yore did? Or would he, together with his colleague the Health Minister, have directed and devoted scarce resources of the hospital for the futile purpose of segregating the remains into “Islam” and “Bukan Islam?”

That remains my unsettling thought as I recalled and reflected on that sad day of December 9, 1977.

Next:   Excerpt # 59:  Operating In A Small District Hospital
Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

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