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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, January 20, 2019

A Big Letdown For My Parents

Excerpt #2:  A Big Letdown For My Parents

I was giddy with all the wonderful things I had in mind to transform that Kuala Lipis hospital. My bubbliness spilled over to Karen; she too was taken in with the enchantment of living in a bungalow high on the hills of Kuala Lipis. I dared not tell her that not too long ago during the Emergency that town was one of the “blackest,” with the communists terrorizing it with impunity.

            As expected, when my parents returned home that afternoon, my mother’s very first query was, “When do you start in KL?” She was referring to Kuala Lumpur and its big general hospital, GHKL, the pride of the nation.

            “They are sending me to the other KL,” I replied, “Kuala Lipis!”

            Her jaw dropped and eyes bulged. “There must be a mistake!”

            I repeated the information to my father who by now had joined in the conversation. “That cannot be right!” he added, shaking his head with incredulity.

            I confirmed that there was no mistake and that both Karen and I were looking forward to the assignment. “I have never been to Kuala Lipis,” I added just to show them how excited I was.

After a long silence he sighed. “I cannot help you there. I am just a pensioner.”

            Meanwhile my mother was becoming more agitated, a mother tiger protective of her prized cub. “Talk to your Bang Ngah and Bang Lang. They know more about these things.”

            Bang Lang, or Ariffin, was my brother-in-law. A former teacher, he was active in UMNO and had earlier mentioned my name to the many “big shots” he had met through his political connections. They all assured him that I would have a “very bright” future. So come home soon!

            Bang Ngah was Sharif, my older brother. When he returned from Australia with his accountancy degree, his local sponsor had lost his file, and with that the obligation to offer him a job. They were very apologetic about it. What a blessing! Freed from his bonds he was able to secure a lucrative position in the private sector.

            My mother was expecting a similar favorable twist for me.

            When Sharif came home later that week I had to give him blow-by-blow details of what had transpired. I was halfway through when he interrupted, “Stop being a Malay, ‘Bai!”

‘Bai, my nickname, is a contraction of Lebai, as with rabbi, on account of my childhood ability to recite the Koran. He berated me for being meek and humble, of trying to be the good old kampong kid. If I were to give those civil servants the upper hand, they would run all over me, he warned.

“Demand to speak to this guy’s superior!” Sharif chided me. “Don’t let a junior functionary push you around!”

            When Sharif was done, my father piled on. “Stiffen up,” he admonished me.
My father then related how much he regretted in not having stood up to his superiors earlier in his career and thus suffered the consequences. He was transferred from one remote school to another, with his family bearing the burden. He wished he had been more assertive and had not meekly accepted his fate.

            With her protective arms around me, my mother comforted me. “You don’t have to be rude. Just let them know your accomplishments! They don’t know you! Don’t undersell yourself!”

            I did not know whether I was enraged or humiliated. Maybe I should just consider this trip an extended holiday.

            Sharif suggested that I invest a few days in KL to meet the real decision makers, bypassing the peons and other gatekeepers. My father interjected that often the pivotal person may not necessarily be the top guy, he could just as easily be the peon. Be nice to him and he would put your file on top. Re-learn the soft local ways, my mother suggested. I had never learned those intricate subtle ways as I had left Malaysia as a young man, she reminded me.

            Through the barrage of conflicting advices I could not help but feel that they were still treating me as that young boy who had left many years ago even though I now had a wife and two kids. They meant well.

            As the animated conversations were in Malay, Karen was kept out of the loop. Nonetheless from the earnestness and raised voices she intuited that something of great import impacting me and thus her was being deliberated. Unable to contribute, she just kept quiet.

            I too was now quiet, back to being that young boy or younger brother deferring to the advice of my parents and older siblings. In the traditional Malay fashion, I thanked them but committed to nothing. I needed time to digest things.

            The next day as I was about to leave with Karen and the kids to see the town, the phone rang. Assuming that it had to do with the previous day’s discussion, I ignored it, leaving my mother to pick it up.

            “What? Who?” She hollered to the point of incoherence. “That was Ariffin!” as she rushed towards the television set in the family room. “There’s important news!”

            My God! Another deadly race riot, I thought. My mind raced back to my earlier visit in May 1969 right after I graduated from medical school. I remember then my would-be mother-in-law Ruth frantically phoning me to watch the 11 PM news on the eve of my departure.
I did. I was shocked and sickened to see burning buildings, mutilated bodies, and tanks in the streets of KL. As a surgeon, gory injuries do not faze me. Yet I felt nauseous and repulsed.

            Ruth pleaded for me to cancel my trip. No, I could not! I had been looking forward to it after being away for six long years. I had even skipped my graduation ceremony for the trip.

            More to reassure Karen and her parents, the next morning I phoned the Malaysian embassy in Ottawa and was told that those tapes were an exaggeration, a plot by nefarious Western media to put Malaysia in a bad light. I did not believe the diplomat but that was the news I wanted to hear. Karen and her parents too were not convinced. To assuage their concerns, I told them that I would have an extended stay in Tokyo and from there could better monitor the situation. If things proved to be too hot, I would cancel my trip and fly back to Edmonton.

            They were assured by that. They trusted my judgment, and soon I was on my way home.

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


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