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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, May 17, 2020

Excerpt #61: Not Unexpected Bad News


Excerpt #61:  Not Unexpected Bad News
M.  Bakri  Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            Sometime in late January 1978, the State Medical Director, another Dr. Lim, dropped by my office at GHJB; a very unusual gesture. The practice, and strictly adhered to in tradition-bound feudal Malaysia, would be for the junior officer to be summoned to the superior’s office. A genial gentleman, he was a “Strait’s Chinese,” meaning his ancestors came to Malaysia centuries ago unlike the vast majority of Malaysian Chinese. Those Straits Chinese spoke fluent Malay and had adopted many of the trappings of Malay culture, including and especially our soft mannerisms. In Malay culture, you do not confront someone with a direct “No!” That would be rude. Rather you respond with a smile and a gentle, “It’s not a propitious time to say yes!”

            Sitting across from my desk, he looked less like an alpha dog, my superior, more a poodle waiting for some treats from its master. He had just returned from KL, he said, to plead for my case with the Public Service Commission. It had denied his recommendation of my promised promotion. I had not been in the service for five years, the minimum period to be considered for entry into the permanent establishment. He even lobbied the new Minister of Health, Chong Hon Nyan, whom he knew well. The minister replied that as a political appointee he had no power to intervene or influence the permanent establishment.

            I had no reaction. Being new to the service I did not know and was not eager to learn the implications, monetary and otherwise, of those bureaucratic terms. He was surprised by my lack of disappointment, or at least a show of it.

            In truth, I was lost. I could follow quantum mechanics and the multiple steps and side branches of the Kreb’s cycle in my undergraduate years, but this convoluted rule of the Malaysian civil service code confounded me; hence my lack of reaction. He too was befuddled by my lack of reaction.

            Then, he blurted, “Will you be leaving us?”

            I replied, more as a reflex and remembering never to be direct, “I don’t know!”

            He acknowledged that since I was not yet in the permanent establishment I needed to give only 24 hours’ notice. However, he would need a much longer time either officially or unofficially so he could have ample time to find a replacement for me. The sultan would not be happy if JB were to have only one surgeon.

So that was his reason for wanting to know my response right away; his personal survival or well-being. He reminded me that was how he managed to get me to JB so quickly earlier the previous year by using the sultan’s threat to bulldoze his way with the civil servants in KL.

Quickly? That surprised me for I had waited for months for that transfer.

            I wanted to remind him about my colleagues 24-hour banishment only a few months earlier. He was in the permanent establishment but that did not protect him. Caution prevented me from uttering my thoughts.

Then I wondered. What if I were to simply abscond on a day’s notice? That would not be fair to my colleagues, trainees, and patients. If I were to leave I would let them know first.

            As he was leaving, Dr. Lim put his arms around me in a fatherly manner and again pleaded with me to let him know well ahead of time should I decide to leave. “Otherwise, the sultan would … ,” he finished his sentence by gesturing with his hand slicing across his neck.

            At least he was honest in expressing his personal concerns. I felt sorry for the man. He had really internalized the values of feudal Malay culture.

Next:  Excerpt #62:  Planning Our Future

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