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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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Not-So Welcom Home!

A Not-So-Welcome Home!

It was the second Monday of 1976, a good full week after I had landed in Malaysia after being away for well over 13 years. I had now recovered from my jet lag; time to look for a job. I was in no hurry and had even contemplated postponing the chore for yet another week.

            Karen did not share my newly-acquired tropical placidity, quite a change in me from my medical school and surgical training days. Having lived out of suitcases since Christmas when we left frigid Edmonton, Canada, and being a stranger to Malaysia and its culture while living with in-laws whom she had just met only days earlier, she was understandably anxious to get settled.

            She mirrored her mother’s earlier anxiety. For months before we left, Ruth Bishop had pestered me on whether I had a job lined up in Malaysia. To my nonchalance she responded, “It’s mydaughter and grandchildren you will be taking over there, Bakri!”

            So that Monday morning in my modish maroon suit and matching wide tie, I left for the Ministry of Health in KL. I looked incongruous in my father’s old but clean light-blue Ford Escort, stick shift and no air-conditioning. Soon I had to pull over to take off my jacket for even though it was still morning and the windows wide open, I was already sweating.

            I arrived at the ministry’s leafy campus at Jalan Cendarasari. I was conscious of the many puzzling looks drawn towards me. To them I was, as they would say in my village, a deer that had strayed into a kampong, an unusual enough sight for them to stop what they were doing. Perhaps it was my stylish suit and shining black leather shoes, with a professional leather briefcase by my side. I should be arriving in a chauffeured limousine with someone opening the door for me and my car parked in one of those covered reserved spots, but I was not. Instead I had to find my own spot underneath one of those trees. Soon the silent gawkers turned into volunteer guides; I had no difficulty finding the right office on the second floor.

            I entered an uncomfortably chilled office made more so as I was already sweating after the vigorous climb up the stairs. The clerks were all wrapped up in thick sweaters. In tropical Malaysia!

            The receptionist had to clarify three times after I had told her that I was a surgeon back from Canada and looking for a job. She had difficulty comprehending even though I spoke in Malay. I also had difficulty maintaining eye contact; she was determined to avoid my stare.

            Perhaps my Malay was archaic, plebian, or convoluted. Unable to decipher what I meant, or desperate to escape my stare, she disappeared into the office behind her. Moments later a young man in a white shirt and nondescript tie emerged, smacking his lips with audible satisfaction, savoring the lingering coffee in his mouth. His name tag identified him as a doctor and the son of a Tun Aziz.

            I restated the purpose of my visit.

            “I belum dapat(had not received) papers from PSC (Public Service Commission),” he answered, half English and half Malay, rojak-fashion, after he comprehended what I had said.

            I responded that he should not expect any as I came on my own. I now felt more comfortable as I was speaking in English instead of my earlier forced Malay. He either did not believe me or did not comprehend it for he went on. “You the one kita hantar dulu(the one we sent) but flunked? Kita kena(We had to) withdraw scholarship?”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have never flunked any examination!” as I glared right back at him.

            He wilted and excused himself to retreat into his office. He returned with a stack of files. As he flipped through them with put-on deliberateness I, unable to tolerate the silence and futility of his activity, told him that I was from Negri Sembilan but was prepared to go anywhere.

            “We just recruited a surgeon from Nigeria for Seremban,” as he flipped through more pages. “Let’s see Kuala Pilah.”

            My ears perked up. “That’s my hometown!”

            No vacancy there either. Wow, Malaysia must have really advanced beyond my expectations during the years I had been away.

            Finally, “Kuala Lipis,” his face beaming.

            So was mine. Then the letdown. “There is no anesthesiologist, lah!” he added. “The one we had absconded.” At least he knew that a surgeon would need an anesthesiologist.

            “That’s okay,” I replied, “I am facile with spinals and regionals. I can do a lot with those.”

            That settled, I was given a thick file which I assumed contained the application forms. “We would need your certificates and diplomas.”

            He made no mention of referees. Good! That would have meant a few more weeks if not months of delays.

            Kuala Lipis District Hospital it would be for me!

            I should be disappointed but I was not. I was expecting an exuberant welcome befitting the return of the prodigal son. I had read the statistics. When I passed my surgical boards, I had doubled the number of Malay surgeons!

            Perhaps they were right. There is no glory in being second!

            The joy of being back in my native land, to be with my family who I had missed so much for the past dozen years would not let me be overwhelmed by anything else. No dark clouds could intrude upon my serene blue sky. I refused to let that happen.

            I left Malaysia at nineteen, unsure of myself, my face still blemished with pimples. I left before there was even a Malaysia, in fact on the eve of its formation, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Now I was returning as a full-fledged surgeon, having trained at a leading university center, won a coveted research fellowship, had a few scientific papers under my belt, and assorted degrees.

            Under a bright blue sky even the darkest corners look inviting. I had never been to Kuala Lipis. It would be an adventure, and an exotic one at that. I fancied myself a Peace Corp volunteer sent into the deep jungle to help the natives. Only a few months earlier I had bid farewell to one of my former interns who had left for Botswana as a CUSO (Canadian Universities Services Overseas–the Maple Leaf version of the Peace Corp) volunteer. Oh, how I envied him and the excitement of his adventure. I saw my Kuala Lipis assignment as a challenge to leapfrog that small-town hospital into a First World facility, an endeavor worthy of my talent. The glory of being a big fish in a small pond is never to be underestimated.

Excerpted from the writer's second memoir, The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia (2018).


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