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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 27, 2019

Excerpt #3: A Nation Mourns

Excerpt #3  A Nation Mourns

In truth I had to take that trip home back in May 1969. I would not be able to make another one for the next five years as I would be starting my surgical training. It would be tough to squeeze in any extended vacation. A more pressing reason was that I had something important to share with my family. Karen and I were planning our engagement that summer. That was not the sort of news I could convey in a letter or phone call especially when they had no inkling of it.

            In Tokyo I was again bombarded by even more brutal scenes on the television of the riot. It was not yet under control. After a few days I phoned the Malaysian embassy in Tokyo. Again, the soothing reassurances. I fell for that, and telegrammed my parents of my expected arrival.

            As we entered Malaysian airspace, the pilot of the Japan Airlines 707 announced in his halting English that since KL was under curfew we would skip it and continue on to Singapore. I was worried, not of being diverted but what my family who would be waiting for me at the airport would think had happened. I never felt so lonely. I thought I had been singled out and rejected by my homeland, not even allowed to set foot on its soil.

            I was mentally juggling the logistics of my next step. The images on the CBC and Japanese television kept replaying in my mind. Maybe I should just skip Malaysia and return to Canada.

            Then the pilot came on again to announce that we would be landing in Subang after all. Those KL-bound passengers, because of the curfew, could if they choose to, continue on to Singapore and then fly back the next morning, with the airline covering the expense.

            As I viewed the familiar landscape below, instead of the longing for home I was struck with a sickening revulsion. When the plane landed, only a few passengers, all foreign-looking, disembarked. I hesitated and then with great reluctance joined them, amidst the silent stares from those remaining. We walked to the terminal building. When the plane took off behind me, I felt a sudden urge to run back into the safety of its belly. Haunting images of the fall of Saigon the year before with everyone desperate to get out on any plane flooded my mind.

            The airport was deserted except for the ubiquitous policemen and soldiers, all armed with machine guns. They looked serious; no smiles of welcome. We cleared customs and immigration in no time and then were herded into two police Land Rovers; we all remained silent. All except me were headed for KL. I showed the police officer the address of my sister Hamidah’s house in Petaling Jaya. Since that was on the way to the city, they would drop me off first.

            It was unnerving to have armed escorts seated across from me. So I spent the time looking outside. I did not see any burnt buildings or charred marks on the road. Good sign!

            When we reached Petaling Jaya, all the houses had their windows closed and window drapes drawn. No one was wandering around as would be expected in the subsiding heat of the day.

            “Is this the house?” the driver asked me as he stopped by a gate. I had never been to my sister’s house so I replied that I did not know. There was no one around to inquire. The officer suggested that I bang on the gate to draw the owner’s attention.

            I did, hollering “Bang Lang! Kak Lang, ini Abai!”
Moments later a familiar figure stepped out with noticeable hesitancy. It was Ariffin.

            “Oh! It’s you, Abai!” With that, my sister rushed out.

            “Yes this is the house!” I said to the policeman. Soon I was engulfed in the arms of my sister and brother-in-law.

            When the police vehicle left, everyone in the neighborhood came out, not to greet me but curious about the police. Who was their unfortunate victim this time? The only thing unusual was the time of day. Usually such malevolent activities were done deep in the night, with no eyewitnesses.

            Ariffin assured everyone that I was his brother-in-law who had just graduated as a doctor in Canada and now home for a brief holiday. That eased the tension. Soon the windows were closed shut and drapes drawn in. It was eerie to see a modern suburb descend into stultifying silence.

            Remembering that trip home six years earlier, I could not help but blame myself and wallow in self-pity. I was a curse to my homeland. Every time I came home something catastrophic would happen to my native land.

            I turned back to watch the television that my mother had just switched on. There was the familiar Radio and Television Malaysia logo and the background sound of the Koran being recited. Someone important had died. I remembered that from back during my high school days in 1960 when the first two successive Kings died within months of each other.

            I had not heard that the King was ailing. Moments later a teary Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Onn appeared on the screen. I had difficulty hearing him as he was almost incoherent with his trembling voice and frequent wiping of his nose with his sleeves.

            Prime Minister Tun Razak had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in faraway London, alone, without his family or any local officials surrounding him. A most lonely death. From leukemia.

            My parents were horrified and could only utter the traditional Muslim response on hearing of a death, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.”(To Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.)

            Tun Razak, the man who was my inspiration to return, now dead. I felt the wind sucked out of my sail. My earlier tribulations about my job now reduced to insignificance, not worthy of my attention, much less worries.

            I was an admirer of Tun Razak. I remembered his Operation Torchlight in 1955 soon after his party had won the country’s first election when as Minister of Education he undertook a massive and unprecedented exercise to register all preschool children. He did not trust the official statistics. That led him to build many new schools. In the seven-mile bus drive from my village to my school in Kuala PiIah for example, seven new ones were being built. During the hiatus between high school and leaving for Canada, I was a temporary teacher at one of those new schools in Tanjung Ipoh.

            Back in Canada and consumed with my studies, Tun Razak disappeared from my consciousness. Even as late as the summer before we left for Malaysia, Karen and I had contemplated buying a lakeside cottage. We already had a suburban home, with white picket fence no less, and well on our way to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, with a station wagon and a young family. Only the dog was missing.

            Then unannounced and unexpected Tun Razak intruded into my tranquil satisfied world. I read an excerpt of his forthcoming biography by William Shaw. I was inspired. Compared to Tun Razak’s at a comparable age, my achievements were far more modest. With that realization I abandoned the idea of a lakeside cottage. I was determined to come home and serve my native land.

            I returned and now Tun Razak was dead. Days earlier the best that my country could offer me was a slot in God-forsaken Kuala Lipis. This was not the future I had anticipated or one I had promised my dear wife.

Next:  Follow What Leaders Do, Not What They Say

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


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