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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, May 19, 2019

Excerpt #18: Life In Bungsar

Excerpt #17:  Life in Bungsar

            When in Canada, Karen read about a Canadian married to a Malaysian and had settled in Malaysia. That was how Karen heard of Leslie Muri. She was a teacher at the International School and through her Karen became a substitute teacher there. I knew of her husband but had never met him; he was a few years ahead of me at Malay College.

            I compared what Karen did with her students at ISKL to what I had experienced at Malay College, supposedly an elite school. By that measure, Malaysia had a long way to go in terms of an enlightened curriculum and teaching philosophy. The gulf has only widened since, as judged by the experience of my first maid.

            Karen taught at the high school level at ISKL. During my time, we only read about rice planting, the rubber industry, and tin mines, Malaysia’s main commodities. She however, divided her class into groups and assigned each a specific sector. Theywent out and learned by themselves and did their own research in the library and from visiting those tin mines and rubber estates, which Karen helped arrange.

            “Did you know that when the British introduced mechanical dredges to replace hydraulic mining, thousands of those Chinese coolies were laid off?” she asked me one day. No, I did not know that. They left the mines and settled in urban areas and eventually displaced those Malays already there. No, I did not know that either. Karen learned those facts from her students. Those hydraulic mines changed forever the demographic dynamics of urban Malaysia, with the political repercussions still felt to this day.

            Ever wonder why graduates from schools like ISKL ended up at the Harvards and Princetons while those from leading Malaysian public schools like Malay College at Oklahoma State, at best? The irony did not escape me. Here was a school meant for foreigners subscribing to a pedagogical philosophy championed by our own 19thCentury writer Munshi Abdullah who likened a child’s brain to a parang(machete) – to be sharpened, not a paper bin to be filled with dogmas. To a sculptor, a sharp knife is an instrument for expressing his creativity; to a surgeon, a tool to save lives. All you could retrieve from a paper bin are old recycled papers. That was what Malaysia was getting from her young then . . . and now.

            One lazy Saturday, the rare ones when our maid Hapsah decided not to go out, she became very excited, running in and out of the house gesturing at Karen and me to look outside. We could see nothing unusual except for a stylish female couple with high-heel shoes walking gingerly on the still unfinished road. One of them had striking long, black shiny hair.

            “Noor Kumalasari!” she gushed to us in unrestrained excitement. Don’t Karen and I know her? Should we?

            The next day Hapsah brought home Wanita, and there on the cover was this gorgeous girl, the younger half-sister of Anita Sarawak. Yes, I have heard of Anita, and Noor lived only a few houses away from us! That was our only claim to fame living in Bungsar.

            One late Saturday evening, I saw a group of thuggish young Chinese men at my neighbor’s gate. I had seen them before but did not pay much attention. By now I had gotten to know my neighbor well enough to ask him who were they. He was a high government official, his wife a homemaker, and they had a young daughter. My memory of their daughter, Su Lin, was vivid only because of the raucous every morning on getting her to school. She would try to escape to our house!

            After the group was gone, I inquired from the neighbor. He gestured for me to be quiet until Karen went inside. Then he whispered that they were gangsters collecting their regular ‘protection’ money. Don’t worry, he assured me, they bothered only the Chinese. Then I thought of Hapsah and her Chinese look.

            My other neighbor was also a Chinese couple, she a veterinarian and he, a banker. But I never saw a similar crowd at their gate until I realized that their gate was slightly hidden from my front door. When I paid closer attention, they too had regular visitors though not the same group.

            During our stay at Bungsar, I never once saw the police making their rounds except when they came to my gate to deliver a message from the hospital.

            The empty land across the street was being readied for development, hence the rush to complete the road. Oh, what a painful sight to see those workers! No boots, gloves, hats, eye goggles or any protective gear as they hammered and chiseled those rocks. Imagine the potential injuries!

            Nonetheless over that unfinished bumpy street the latest model cars would drive by daily. At least that helped compact the ground. The hawkers too would ply their carts daily, loaded with fresh fish, vegetables and other produce, a mobile mini-grocery store. That was the very first time Karen bought fresh crabs. The hawker showed her how to clean and instructed her how to cook them!

            There was an open drain in front of our house, typical of modern, urban Malaysia. The grey waters from the kitchen and showers would flow into it. You could tell when someone ‘upstream’ had seafood as the stench from the drain would be unbearable. We had to flush the drain. Even that did not relieve the stink. Behind us was another row of similar linked houses with their backs facing us but at a higher elevation. A retaining wall of about fifteen feet separated us. I do not know whether it was reinforced. When it rained, green slimy material, and a stench to match, would extrude in between the cracks, telltale signs of leaking septic tanks. Despite being an upscale and high-density development, there were no central sewer connections in Bungsar.

            There were open spaces slated for parks and playgrounds on the area’s master plan. The operative word there is “slated.”

            As for traffic flow, Bungsar had only one narrow access road when we lived there. There was a huge culvert near the entrance. At the slightest rain the road would be flooded. Intrigued, one day I stationed myself nearby. As soon as the rain started, the boys from the nearby rumah kilat(illegal settlement) would dump discarded pellets into the culvert. They would then collect their ‘tolls’ for pushing the stranded flooded motorists.

            The city’s traffic and hydrologic engineers never factor in those human elements in their designs. Nor did they do the needed maintenance and inspections. As a consequence, KL and other major cities are plagued with flash floods. With the country having over 100 inches of rain annually, Malaysian engineers should be experts on hydrology and flood control. They are not because, at least those on government payroll, are desk-bound and poorly trained.

            A few weeks after we settled into our Bungsar home, our freight from Edmonton arrived. With Mindy getting her old toys and my wife and I our old clothes, we felt at last we were back in our old familiar groove.

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

Next:  Excerpt # 18: On His Majesty’s Service


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