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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 26, 2019

On His Majesty's Service

Excerpt # 18:  On His Majesty’s Service
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

After about three months at GHKL, I was called for an interview with the Public Services Commission. Only a formality; it would not affect my work though definitely my pay. Up till that time I was paid at the level of a first-year doctor – an intern – even though I was a specialist with over six years post-MD experience. That should have entitled me for a “Superscale” posting that would doubled my current pay. I had been drawing on my savings, and that was with no car payments as I was using my father’s.

            That interview was the very first time I had to fill in any application form. Up till then I could have been an imposter and no one would have caught it, except for those initial clinical queries from Tan Sri Majid, the Director-General who first appointed me to GHKL.

            I was in the same group being interviewed with all the other new doctors, including a few of my interns. They were as surprised as I was. My turn was midmorning. I wished they had told me the specific time so I could have made my hospital rounds first and not have wasted a good part of the morning waiting.

            There was a panel of five, including the chairman, a short, thin, old Malay man with wiry white hair and black-rimmed thick glasses. He had a go at me first after scrutinizing my papers with the disdain of a fussy editor consigned to peruse an unsolicited manuscript. Perhaps my hippie-style hair did not sit well with him.

            Noting that I had my science degree before entering medical school, he asked why I did not return home then and give others a chance to go to medical school. I should have been satisfied with one degree. “Besides,” he added, “our country needs science teachers badly, you know, especially Malays!”

            I interjected that perhaps I could be a teacher of doctors seeing that I had both a science and a medical degree.

            “You have a point there!” He missed my sarcasm.

            Then treating him like a high school kid who had read something in the library, or using today’s equivalent, something on Google, I lectured him that in North America, unlike Malaysia or Britain, we were required to have a good broad-based liberal education before entering medical school. Thus, I had to take English Literature during my premed. I quoted my medical school dean who said that you could learn more about human nature from reading Shakespeare than from dissecting frogs. I received a grunt as a response to that one.

            Then noting that I also had my Masters’ degree in Experimental Surgery, he intoned, “We don’t want you experimenting on our people!”

            Unable to upstage me on the degree game, he asked how many prime ministers Malaysia has had. Let’s see, there was Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak, and now Hussein Onn. I replied, “Three.”

            “Wrong!” he shouted with glee as he jabbed his index finger in my direction. I had missed the brief spell of Dr. Ismail who died in office as acting prime minister during Tun Razak’s visit to Canada. I knew that but thought he was only the acting head. “That’s the trouble with you people. You go abroad and forget about our country.”

             I could not disagree with him on that point.

            “He was formally sworn in by Agung, you know!” he smugly continued, more to his fellow panelists.

            I had no trouble with the rest of the panelists except for the last one, a young Indian man. Straightening his body, stiffening his neck, and leaning forward to appear profound, “Why do American surgeons perform unnecessary surgery?” he taunted me.

            Ignoring his bait, I corrected him by saying that I was trained in Canada, a separate country to the north, and that Canadians are not Americans. Elementary stuff! Then I went on to expound on the meaning of “unnecessary.” It happened that a few days earlier there were headlines of a well-known personality who had died in hospital following a road accident. I told the panel that doctors do not always know exactly what was going on inside a patient’s body. That individual probably died of a ruptured spleen but when he came in, the signs were not so obvious and his surgeon was afraid to operate because of fear of doing “unnecessary surgery.” He grasped my point right away and I did not belabor it. This was the days before CAT scans. Today with sophisticated scans and other diagnostic tests, we rarely have to do exploratory laparotomies.

            Later, back at the hospital I pondered what would have happened had I bombed that interview. Would they have denied my appointment when the country desperately needed surgeons?

            I had high hopes before the interview that we would be discussing something substantive, as how we could learn about hospitals and healthcare delivery in general from Canada. Instead, I faced a bunch of senior civil servants more interested in proving to me how smart they were, and how ignorant I was about Malaysia. That made my earlier chanced encounter with Dr. Majid Ismail that much more remarkable as well as exceptional.

            In truth, if I had anything to prove, I wouldn’t do it to these yahoos. Yet I kept thinking (dreaming would be more like it) that the next time it would be different and that I would meet someone with whom I could discuss something substantive. Every time I thought I had a chance, that proved to be a severe disappointment.

Next Excerpt # 19:  A Rookie In The Bureaucracy
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.


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