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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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 27, 2006

Spare Me The Pak and Tok

Spare Me The Pak and Tok!

I was dining with my wife at a fancy restaurant in Malaysia a while back. As the only non-foreign looking face among the patrons, I elicited some curious stares from the local staff. This was especially so as I spoke in formal and respectful Malay, addressing them as “Encik.”

All went well until a young waiter unhesitatingly inquired, “Abang mau kopi lagi?” (More coffee, brother?)

I burst out laughing, telling him while pointing to my generous crop of gray hair that since he addressed me as Abang and not as Pak (Uncle) or worse, Tok (Grandpa), he would get a generous tip! That elicited a joyful response from him. I do not know whether it was from the offer of the generous tip or to his successfully appealing to my vanity.

For decades Prime Minister Abdullah has been referred to as Pak Lah. It went as far back as when he was only in his thirties. Some claim that such forms of addressing someone is a mark of respect or even endearment. Really!

I wonder why then no one dared call then Prime Minister Mahathir, Pak ‘Thir, or even more appropriately Tok ‘Thir. After all he is over 80 years old and more than deserves the honor. Not only that, he is a real Tok as proven by his many lovely grandchildren.

Any soul brave enough to address Mahathir as Pak or Tok ‘Thir would get a silent searing stare from the man. Yet here is Abdullah Badawi absolutely reveling in his Pak Lah moniker. This more than anything else reveals the crucial difference between the two men, but that is not the theme of my essay.

Pak Cik is music to my ears when they come from my nieces and nephews. And I cannot get enough of the sweet melody of my toddler grandson, our first, when he addresses me as Datok! My daughter has purposely not taught him the abbreviated form.

The Malaysian Obsession with Titles

Malaysians, especially Malays, are enamored with titles. Peruse the annual King’s birthday honor list. It runs to the thousands. In addition to the King, there are nine other royal sultans, plus four non-royal governors with equally pretentious regal aspirations. Those medal-minting companies must be raking it in; I suggest the authorities outsource it to China and save some money.

Then there are the ornate court attires that must be worn on such occasions, a windfall for the tailors. Never mind that many of these Malay knights wannabes look silly in such costumes. Well, a Malay would look just as clownish clad in one of those Ming’s Court formal regalia.

These honorifics are fast degenerating into yet another source of revenue for our sultans. Who says they are not enterprising! Once at a social gathering of some powerful visitors from Malaysia, the discussion came around to the going price of these titles. I casually remarked that it would be nice to have one of those to decorate the wall of my office. And the price seemed to be in my range too! If it does not add any decorative value to the wall, at least it would be quite a conversation piece.

Imagine my surprise in receiving a long distance phone call from Malaysia a few weeks later to “explore the idea I talked about earlier!” I had a tough time convincing the caller that I had been merely joking. I did not expect that my ugliest suspicion to be confirmed, and so quickly!

My car already has the license plate, “Tan Sri,” causing me forever having to explain to my American friends what it means. To my Malaysian visitors, it commands instant respect! I assured them that in America, such vanity plates could be had for a few extra dollars.

Avoiding Names in Malay Culture

To address someone by name is considered disrespectful or even uncouth in Malay culture. Everyone must be addressed by his or her title. Even in childhood we had titles, such as Bang Long, the eldest, from sulong. If you run out of titles based on series, there is always one based on skin hue; thus Pak ‘Tam from hitam (black).

As we do not address one another by name, Malaysians tend to be careless with their names. Your birth name may have been Chairil Annuar, but some smart aleck Education Minister decided to “modernize” the spelling, and now your transcript would read, “Cairil Anwar.”

In this computer age such carelessness can be risky. Malaysians arriving in the West invariably get entangled with different spellings of their name. Their applications to universities often get filed under various folders. In my orientation talks to American managers assigned to Malaysia, I caution them about “Google-ing” their Malaysian counterparts. It can be frustrating. Google is not smart enough to consider that “Annuar” and “Anwar” refer to the same person, at least in Malaysia. In the same vein I advised them of the futility of looking up the phone directory.

I once spent hours trying to look up Malaysia Airlines in the phone directory. Some idiot had it under Sistem Penerbangan Malaysia! He probably also listed John White as John Puteh.

Malaysians also have long elaborate names. The problem is aggravated by the common practice of incorporating titles into one’s name, including that of one’s father. Thus Datuk Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein. How do you file an application from such individuals? Under “H” for Hussein, or “T,” “B,” or even “D” for Datuk?
Once at Los Angeles Airport I helped extricate a Malaysian dignitary from the hassles of immigration. The gentleman’s name on his ticket did not match that on his passport. Obviously the latter document had not been updated to include his latest grand title.

This obsession with titles afflicts Malaysian academics too. On an American campus one can get away with addressing someone as “Prof” or “Dr.,” not so in Malaysia. Malaysian academics are as obsessed with their academic as well as civil titles.

In my general essays I avoid my professional title; it is irrelevant. In my professional essays, I only have my “MD” after my name. I do not add my undergraduate or graduate degrees, or my fellowships. It is understood that to get your MD you must have had your bachelor’s degree and certainly your high school diploma.

Such unnecessary titles often are barriers to communication. Without my titles to mess up my message, I often get vigorous rebuttals from young readers, which I enjoy immensely. They obviously mistake me for some wet-behind-the-ears graduate student; hence their unrestrained comments.

Once I accidentally let slip to one of my persistent critics that I had trained his physician father. My critic suddenly became very muted and deferential in his subsequent comments. I had unintentionally defanged him.

Such are the powers and perils of titles and labels.


Blogger The Eugenist said...

salam, dear Uncle Musa.

I read this article with full of joy and happiness. It is very true that Malaysians are very proud with their "Datuk" or even an "Tan Sri" ship. I sometimes wonder, is it neccessary for someone to include their parent's title (for example - Datuk Seri Najib bin TUN Abd Razak)

I noticed none of Tun Dr. Mahathir's sons or daughters even put their father's title in their own name.

Is it that important?

1:05 AM  

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