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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, June 02, 2019

A Rookie In The Bureaucracy

Excerpt #19:  A Rookie In The Bureaucracy
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

During my second week at GHKL the entire specialist staff was summoned–yes, summoned–to meet the Minister of Health at the ministry, some miles away from the hospital. Mr. Lee Siok Yew’s reappointment had just been announced by new Prime Minister Hussein Onn only weeks earlier. Thinking that as a new hire and a very junior one at that, my absence would not be missed, I thought of skipping it. Datuk Menon advised me not to.

So that morning the entire GHKL was in suspended animation as all the specialists were called away. Nobody had suggested that logistically it would have been much easier and less disruptive if the minister and his staff were to come to the hospital. As for the specialists, they lapped up at the invitation, a chance to escape their busy schedules and hectic workplace.

            There were over thirty of us seated around the huge oval conference table. You could tell the seniority of the specialists from how far away they were seated from the minister. As expected, I was the furthest away but as fate would have it, directly in front of the minister right across the huge conference table.

            Preambles at Malaysian gatherings regardless of size or formality are long drawn-out. This one was no exception. The minister expressed his gratitude and humility at having so many distinguished medical specialists around him that morning. He went on and on mentioning specific names. Those named would of course beam. I kept thinking that the minister (or anyone else for that matter) better not have any loved ones with a medical emergency condition that morning. He or she would be left unattended as all the specialists were away.

            The minister humbly apologized for the many shortcomings of his ministry. He was committed to improving things, he assured us over and over. That done, he went around the table asking each specialist to tell him what needed to be done. He was ready, an eager novice waiter waiting for his first customers’ special orders.

            This meeting was called for on very short notice. I was sure that nobody had prepared their presentations. It did not take long for the meeting to degenerate into a long venting session, no different from the cafeteria bitching my house staff engaged at in the cafeteria. With over thirty of us at that meeting with the minister, it consumed the whole morning and then some.

            My otherwise intelligent and distinguished colleagues were now all acting up, like little boys (they were all males) complaining to their favorite uncle of not getting their expected Christmas toys, or since this was Malaysia, generous enough duit rayaor ang pow. Everyone was pouring out their wish list. I did not know what else transpired for I quickly tuned out the discussions.

Then suddenly I became aware of my colleague beside me tapping my elbow to warn me that my turn was coming up. Way sooner than I had expected; either that or I had been dozing off.

            Datuk Menon, who was seated beside the minister, interrupted him to introduce me just before the minister was to recognize me. Menon was very warm and generous in his remarks such that I was put off track from the ‘spontaneous’ speech that I had been practicing silently earlier. Suitably primed, I should now say something profound but I could not.

            “I have nothing to add, Yang Berhormat,” the carefully-memorized response that I had earlier by now vaporized, “I agree to everything my distinguished colleagues have said.”

            The minister was not satisfied. I had underestimated him. “You have worked in a big hospital in an advanced country. How do we compare?”

            Now was stuck! All I could blurt out in desperation was that I shared the frustrations of my more experienced colleagues. Then like a cobra that had earlier recoiled in defense but now was ready to strike out, I added that if he could correct just ten percent of the problems, then I would be satisfied.

            “Satisfied enough that you won’t leave us then?” he teased. Earlier in his presentation he had alluded to the rash of resignations from dissatisfied medical specialists.

            I replied that I would not leave if he could attend to just fivepercent of the problems. Then as he and his staff nodded with smug satisfaction, I added that I saw no one taking notes.

            There was an immediate and embarrassing scramble among his staff looking for papers to write on! The meeting ended on that downbeat observation of mine.

            As we were leaving, a colleague came up to me. “You have guts, Bakri. I wouldn’t dare say what you just said!”

            A few weeks after my interview at the Public Services Commission, I received a formal letter of my appointment in the Ministry of Health of His Majesty’s Government of Malaysia. There were other details on that missive but I could not make them out as they were worded in dense bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. The one information that I desperately needed to plan my daily life – how much I would be paid – was not mentioned.

            I would know of that a few paychecks later. I received a few thousand dollars more in back pay, which helped replenish some of my savings, but still, I was disappointed with the amount. I still had to dip into my savings. I was told earlier that as a specialist I was entitled to be on the “Superscale” status, with the lowest “G” pay of around RM2,000 per month. Mine was way short of that.

            I sought the deputy medical director for clarification. He expounded on the government’s remunerations scheme as only a bureaucrat could. I was lost, or more correctly, uninterested. All I wanted to know was the bottom figure. He did clarify matters, up to a point. As I was a new hire I was treated, at least pay-wise, as all the new hires such as an intern. However, because of my specialist qualification I had a slight increment, but still hired and paid as a rookie. If he had meant to mollify me, he failed.

            He tried to mollify me by adding that the pay was only part of the total package. I should also consider the assorted benefits and allowances, like for a car, house and entertainment. Those would be substantial, he assured me.

            What allowances? I had none. He checked over my files and was puzzled. Then he beamed like an alchemist who had discovered the secret formula to eternal youth. I was not entitled to any as I was a new hire.

            Sensing my disgust, he suggested the university. Being a statutory body, the pay would be higher and the bureaucratic requirements less demanding, he enlightened me. He also knew the dean of UKM well and would put in a good word for me. With that he referred me to the dean.

Next Excerpt # 20  Obsession With Pay And Perks
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.


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