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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, July 28, 2019

Excerpt #27: Finding A Local Architect

Excerpt #27:  Finding A Local Architect
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimua.com)

Prior to leaving Canada, I had liquidated all my investments except for my private pension. We had sold our house and earned a tidy profit. I wanted to give Malaysia my full, undivided attention. The more practical reason was that I would need the funds for a house in Malaysia. A year before I left Canada I had transferred all my accounts including my pension to the Bank of Nova Scotia. I did that to establish a relationship. That bank was the only one to have a branch in KL.

            As a consequence I had a very positive reception at its KL branch. Its Vice-President was a pleasant young Malay lady; she understood our financial needs right away. My transferring a substantial sum from Canada helped. Soon I was introduced to her boss, a Canadian. From there, a commitment for a housing loan at a very favorable rate based on my excellent Canadian credit rating. I was not sure that he would have been so generous had he known what I was earning as a doctor in government service. Or perhaps he did and was shrewd enough to predict my having a private practice soon. The fact that I already owned the lot in PJ was also a very positive factor for him.

            That superb treatment at the Bank of Nova Scotia spoiled me whenever I used the local bank. What a chore to cash my paychecks! I had to line up to get my check accepted and stamped, and then another line to get the money, in contrast to the one stop at the Canadian bank. Now I understood why my father never cashed his pension checks!

            I soon discovered that standing in line at public facilities was the accepted reality in Malaysia, and a source of income for entrepreneurial-minded high-school dropouts. They would stand in line for you, for a “tip” of course. Then when they were within minutes of being served, his partner would fetch you. Today, thanks to cellphones, they no longer need a partner, modern technology improving the productivity of even the lowest-skilled workers. Too bad that the productivity enhancement did not extend to the bank tellers!

            The theme we chose for our house was traditional wooden Malay. The first architect we consulted was well-known, from a distinguished family, and former head of his professional organization. We were attracted to him because he was Malay and thus would be familiar with what we wanted in the design. He also had a British wife, so he would know what would please Karen. His office was very elegant, with soft Japanese-type walls, doors and floors. Very cool and quiet, as well as soothing and welcoming. The bathrooms in their office suite were also clean and elegant. To me that was the litmus test!

            Halfway through our consultation I realized that Karen and I were dominating the conversation, with his agreeing to everything we said. To all of our proposals we would get the same monotone response, “We can do that!” or “I understand what you want!”

            It was less a consultation, more our giving him a wish list. We were expecting him to give us an honest feedback to our ideas. It seemed that whatever we wanted he would accommodate us. We were trying to bounce ideas off him, instead we felt more like we were tossing papers into a dustbin that accepted every garbage from us! We were discouraged.

            Then we saw an advertisement for an exhibition of low-cost rakyathousing sponsored by the Ministry of Rural Development. That seemed to be an odd place to seek ideas and inspirations for your home in an exclusive part of PJ. Nonetheless we went, just to get ideas. We saw a design that won the first prize, by the firm of Goh Hock Guan, Architects. It was a small house made entirely of wood and on stilts, just like a real kampung house, except with modern conveniences. What impressed Karen and me most was the feeling of coolness and breeziness as we sat on the verandah. You felt like just sitting there watching the sunset.

            We felt right away that this would be the architect we would engage. The irony did not escape me – a Chinese architect capturing the heart of an old kampung boy on the design of a traditional Malay house!

            The following week at the architect’s office we were surprised to be introduced to a young Malay architect. “Esa Hj. Mohamed” read the nameplate on his desk. I was taken in by the impressive diplomas hanging on his walls–Gold Medalist, First Class Honors from Newcastle, and a Masters from Sydney.

            We got into the nitty-gritty of business right away. He was excited with our ideas but warned us that a wooden house was still a novel concept favored only by foreigners, not locals, except of course low-cost housing. He also cautioned us that it would have little resale value. That was fine as this would be our dream home, not for resale. We also told him that we wanted a package deal, meaning, the house as well as the landscaping. For that we wanted fruit trees, not ornamental ones as far as possible. I also told him about village aphorisms my grandparents imparted to me during my youth, like the kitchen not facing the west, for obvious reasons that the heat of the afternoon would broil you in the kitchen heat.

            He laughed, the presumptuousness of a medical doctor giving building tips to a gold-medalist architect, or perhaps the incongruity of a modern mixed couple relating ancient village wisdom.

            We gave him the property address; he knew where it was located and promised to check on the site. He also gave us a few wooden houses in the city, all owned by foreigners (former colonials now gone native) for us to check out. We were to call him with any ideas or questions. Meanwhile he would draw up a conceptual drawing for our preview within the next few weeks.

            As a parting shot we reminded him that we did not want the typical Asian design of a huge overbuilt house on a small lot. If need be we would prefer a double-story house if that would make the foundation footprint smaller. We wanted enough space around the house to give us a sense of spatial distance from our neighbors. He smiled and reminded us that he was trained in Australia and understood exactly what we meant.

            We left his office giddy with excitement. We finally found an architect who knew local conditions and was familiar with modern needs, as well the latest building codes especially with respect to safety even if the local authorities did not require them. Most of all we had met a professional who we felt was not afraid to rubbish our ideas.

            As promised, he showed us his conceptual drawings a few weeks later. We were ecstatic. He had correctly read our mood, desires and needs. He even had my favorite fruit trees lining the driveway, the tall elegant langsat. At night, the fluorescent light would make the white stems glow. Such attention to details!

            That dream home now became our focus. When things got rough at work, I would review the conceptual drawings, and the warm glow would sustain me for yet another week.

Next:  Excerpt # 28: A Much-Welcomed Lighter Workload!

Excerpted from the author’s memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Excerpt #26: Finding A Permanent Place

Excerpt #26:  Finding A Permanent Place
M Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

We were now getting comfortable and settled in our Bungsar house. Nonetheless as it was a rental, it lacked a sense of home or permanency. We longed for a place of our own again.

            When I left for Canada, my parents were of course very proud with and excited over me, the first in the family to go to university and to take up medicine at that. At that time the University of Malaya was just setting up its new medical faculty. My parents hoped that as teaching was in our family (my parents, siblings, and uncles), one day I would be teaching there. They had big dreams for me. They went beyond merely dreaming but began acting on it right away.

            Through the efforts of my sister Hamidah and her husband Ariffin, the family bought a choice vacant lot in Section 16, Petaling Jaya, one of the few still remaining then. A measure of the area’s exclusiveness was that one neighbor was the Ambassador to the UN, and the other, a prominent physician-couple. Not too far behind lived one Dr. Mahathir, yes, that same Mahathir! Across the street was the sprawling University of Malaya campus. The family bought the property when it was still affordable, in trust for me.

            In Edmonton, we had built our first home in a new modern suburb. We were involved right from the beginning with all aspects of its construction. We visited the construction site almost daily as we were so excited. The builder told us that the most exciting phase was during the first few weeks, when you could see the most dramatic changes with the structure cropping up almost overnight with the framing, where once it was just flat land. He warned us that, like pregnancy, the last few weeks would be the most trying when nothing seemed to be happening. He assured us that may be so from the outside but inside there were plenty of work progressing. He was right, and I was glad he warned us otherwise we would have been very frustrated in waiting.

            As a result of our intimate involvement, we were very conversant with the various building codes, water drainage pattern, and directional focus so we could get maximal southern sun exposure for our living room for warmth in winter. We also saw how they had waterproofed the basement foundation. That impressed me for even though Edmonton had only a fraction of Malaysia’s rainfall, yet builders there were prepared for it, with underground French drains and the land sloping away from the house.

            I also read about residential building codes in Florida and Louisiana as the climate there would be similar to Malaysia. In particular I was intrigued at how they addressed the termite problem, a perennial pest in the tropics, by inserting a metal sheet between the foundation and the wooden floor beams.

            Before building our new house in PJ we decided to see what was available on the market. After we saw a few supposedly upscale homes, we decided against buying. We were horrified at the quality. One house, its previous owner a senior judge who had emigrated to Australia, was so dangerous that I had to hold Karen’s hand when going around. The balcony for example, had metal bars just wide enough to trap a little toddler’s head. The steps were steep and devoid of any backing; I could see my little Zack tripping and landing head first on the cement below. I was appalled at the lack of safety considerations in the building codes; or if there were any, not enforced.

            The houses also never had enough wall plugs, causing chronic voltage overloading and creating serious fire hazards. Worse, there were no standard building codes with respect to electrical outlets. When you buy electrical appliances, the plugs were not included. Instead you had to buy them separately depending on the outlets you had at home and then jury-rig the connections. No wonder that electrocutions were (still are) major hazards in Malaysian homes.

            Not just with residential constructions. A few months after I started at GHKL, there was a huge fire in KL. That was the only time my morning clinical rounds was interrupted, by the sight of the thick bellowing smoke coming out midway up the new and at the time the highest building in the country, the Campbell Shopping Complex Tower, caused by what else, electrical shorting. Only a few days earlier I was there in the open food market court treating my intern and medical officer for a late-night snack after a long and difficult case.

            That high-rise fire was dramatic, made more so as the year earlier I had seen the movie “The Towering Inferno.” My first reaction that morning was to prepare the staff for mass casualties. It was fortunate that there were none except for one unfortunate death. For months afterward, that blackened charred tower was a major attraction downtown. It did not take long for that to become an eyesore once the novelty wore off.

            Searching for a house in Malaysia gave new meaning to the term “unfurnished.” In one house, all the light fixtures had been ripped off from the ceiling and walls, with loose dangerous wires hanging from everywhere. Karen and I were so scared that we would be electrocuted in just going around the house. The agent told us this was common practice as appliances like chandeliers were expensive so the owners would take them away.

            I told the agent that he should advise his clients to leave those appliances where they were and even rent some elegant furniture just for the showing to enhance the emotional appeal of the house. They could then increase their asking price. He agreed with me but he could not sell the idea yet to local homeowners. The concept that sometimes you have to spend money to make money is still alien to Malaysians, even well-educated ones. The owner of that particular house was a doctor who had also emigrated to Australia.

            After seeing what was available on the market, and the quality, we decided to build our own. That meant finding an architect. However, first things first, like our budget and thus affordability.

Next:  Excerpt # 27: Finding A Local Architect

Excerpted from the author’s second memoir: The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Excerpt #25: Unexpected Reminders of Canada

Excerpt  #25: Unexpected Reminders of Canada
M. Bakri Musa  (www.bakrimusa.com)

My work routine was now in place. Karen and the kids too had settled down well. We could now depend on Hapsah and leave our children with her for part of the day. They in turn had bonded well with her.

            Karen was committed to integrating into the local society and culture. She had volunteered answering the phones and doing general clerical work at the hospital. Those busy nurses sure appreciated that. At first it created quite a stir from patients and visitors, a white woman being “only a clerk.” I was sure that whoever phoned our nursing station when Karen was on would be startled and wondered at the strange “un-Malaysian” voice!

            That July 1st, Canada Day, Karen and I were invited to the Canadian Embassy for a reception. We went with Dr. Badri and his wife Karen, both PhDs and Professors of Chemistry at UPM. At the reception I was pleased but also surprised to meet so many Canadian experts seconded to the country, to universities and governmental agencies. They had nothing but praise for Malaysia. Their Malaysia was very different from what I was experiencing. I was beginning to wonder that maybe I should have stayed in Canada, worked there and then be seconded to Malaysia!

            The upshot from that reception was that my Karen was invited to a subsequent Canadian women’s group gathering. Badri’s Karen too was invited but based on her earlier experiences, she was not enthused with the group but nonetheless was willing to accompany my Karen and give it a second try.

            It was held at a house on Embassy Row, off Ampang Road. From the name of the hostess, she (or her husband) must not have been high up on the embassy staff hierarchy to have his or her name be officially listed, or that she had maintained her maiden name.

            What a different world at that private party! The house was gorgeous, centrally air-conditioned, and a with sparkling pool. This being Malaysia where the price of everything was displayed or discussed in the open, Karen soon found out that the rent was about RM5K a month, ten times our Bungsar home and over three times my salary!

            The only “native” she saw in that exclusive crowd was the Chinese maid. Karen was shocked to see the hostess being rude and curt with the maid. For a while Karen thought she was at a party in the antebellum south, except for the Chinese maid, or perhaps at one of Shanghai’s elegant colonial outposts pre-communist days.

            Decades later I was invited to a Hari Raya reception at a house in the same neighborhood belonging to a senior statesman. Yes, it was palatial too. However, having lived in Silicon Valley for the past 35 years I was not as awed as Karen was then. That was after all Malaysia of the 1970s when GHKL did not even have a CAT scan.

            Karen felt sorry for those Canadian ladies. They had missed a significant part of the Malaysian experience.

            We had always been impressed with Canadian diplomats. The first one I met, and who impressed me most, was Ivan Head. He was then just a junior diplomat (Third Secretary) involved with such mundane things as processing student visas when I first met him before leaving for Canada back in 1963. He returned to Edmonton soon after to be Professor of Law at my university, and faculty advisor to our Malaysian Students Association. I commented to him that the Canadian Foreign Service must be very competitive to have a Professor of Law be “only a Third Secretary.” He laughed. Later he left his academic position to be catapulted as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Adviser. Canada’s Kissinger, the press dubbed him.

            Karen’s godmother, Elizabeth MacCallum, once served as Canada’s Ambassador to Turkey. My very pleasant memory was visiting her at her Ottawa home soon after she retired. We had just been married. She impressed me with her extensive knowledge of Islam and the Middle East, as well as her serving us Turkish coffee. It was the thickest, blackest and strongest brew I had ever tasted. And it was good! Suitably perked, I had no difficulty carrying on with the conversation.

            Karen was thus favorably disposed to her fellow countrymen and women who had served abroad. So was I.

            Seeing those Canadian ladies at the Embassy Row party however, Karen thanked her lucky star that her father had declined to accept a special assignment in Pakistan when she was young. Otherwise she would have grown up to be one of those ladies.

            I remarked that maybe those women (or their husbands) were not in the Foreign Service, rather the private sector. Canada was then a major investor in Malaysia with such companies as Electrolux and Bata Shoes. You don’t expect those corporate types to be too interested in local culture.

            A few months later Karen had a unexpected phone call. “Hi! I am a Canadian here on a visit. I used to go around with Ramli in Edmonton!”

The upshot of that brief call was that Karen invited her and her sister who accompanied her to our house. We remembered her and her boyfriend; they were frequent guests at our Edmonton home. They looked like they were in a serious relationship, hence their closeness to us.

            We did not inquire about her trip for fear of opening up a fresh wound. She was accompanied by her sister who was now on her way to New Zealand while she was stuck in Malaysia, alone. She had been to Kelantan to visit him and his family. We invited her to stay with us until her flight home. She accepted with no hesitation.

            Kelantan is more conservative and not as well developed as the west coast states. I remembered Badri’s Karen telling us of her experience there. They were already married then.

            So now we had at least five Canadian versions of Malaysia; that of this young girl, those ladies at Embassy Row, Ivan Head, Badri’s Karen, and my Karen. Which one is right or most accurate?

Next:  Excerpt # 26: Finding A Permanent Place

Excerpted from the author’s second memoir: The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Excerpt # 24: A Near Tragedy

Excerpt # 24: A Near Tragedy
M. Bakri Musa (ww.bakrimusa.com)

Back to the clinical side, there was one memorable but very embarrassing and potentially tragic episode at GHKL during my brief association with UKM. The son of a “very, very important person” (VVIP) was having minor surgery. Circumcision is normally done as an outpatient and under local anesthesia, except in rare circumstances and with specific medical indications. The surgeon for this patient was my colleague Mahmud.

            A few days before the surgery, Mahmud confided in me his anxiety about the anesthesiologist who would be doing the case as it would be done under general anesthesia. That was unusual in itself. UKM had two academic anesthesiologists, one young and very competent whom I called with great fondness as Little Ahmad. He was not to be confused with another anesthesiologist, Dr. “Big” Ahmad, who was in the government service. The other UKM anesthesiologist was much older and by now consumed with his administrative chores at the dean’s office. He had been away from clinical medicine for some years. This senior academic anesthesiologist decided that he would do this case.

            Both Mahmud and I were aware of the ultra-sensitive nature of the dilemma. To be prepared, I arranged for young Ahmad to be on standby outside the operating room for that morning, ready to take over regardless of what feathers we would ruffle. Patient safety was our top and only priority.

            On that fateful morning, the young patient was wheeled in and the academic anesthesiologist took over with his usual elaborate ritual, making a big show of it. Mahmud was there and I entered the room on the pretext of making small talk with him on how to do the procedure the “right” or Muslim way.

            Then with the patient induced, sure enough, something happened. The anesthesiologist had difficulty intubating, and he started yelling at the nurses to get an endotracheal tube of a different size. Anytime someone yells, especially your superior and in a tense situation, everyone gets flustered. The nurses could not find the right-sized tube fast enough.

            Within seconds the orderliness and discipline of the operating suite degenerated into a scene resembling an oriental bazaar – chaotic. Except that at the bazaar, the activities were purposeful and productive. In our suite by contrast, the nurses were scurrying here and there, drawers drawn open and then slammed shut, likewise cupboard doors. The academic anesthesiologist’s eyes were darting in all directions, his voice rising with increasing desperation. He was doing everything except keeping his eye on the patient who was now motionless and not breathing.

            As per my earlier arrangement, I signaled behind my back to young Ahmad who was standing outside. He stepped in, bagged the patient, and with no difficulty slipped in a smaller tube that he had in the back pocket of his scrubs (together with a few other sizes anticipating this problem). By the time the attending anesthesiologist turned to his patient, everything was already settled and I continued with my casual conversation with Mahmud as if nothing had happened. Another day at the office! With everything now under control, young Ahmad slipped out and Mahmud started his surgery. The procedure ended with no further incident.

            The beginning and end are the two critical times during surgery. When I operate on children, I make it a practice to hold my breath once my patient is induced, and hold it until he is successfully intubated and ventilated. When I ran of breath, I know then that my patient has too. I would then tell the anesthesiologist to bag the patient (that is, breathe for him). Even today with special oxygen monitors I still hold on to that old practice, especially with my pediatric patients.

            Today’s operating rooms have a mandatory preoperative check-list adapted from long-established airline cockpit pre-flight routines. We call it “surgical pause” where we re-check the patient’s identity, procedure to be performed, laterality with respect to either left or right side, all to ensure that the wrong limb is not being operated on, or God forbid, the wrong patient. Prudent anesthesiologists carry endotracheal tubes one size smaller and one bigger than what they would anticipate using, like young Ahmad did forty years ago.

            The hazards of today’s modern operating rooms are of a different nature, of false signals, what with so many sensitive electronic monitors on the patient, each with its own warning peeps such that the beginning of an operation sometimes simulate the jungle at dusk with its cacophony of warning sounds from faulty connections. Those breed a new risk – the tendency to ignore them, “alarm fatigue.” I am reminded of an old morbid joke about a pilot’s last transmission from his doomed aircraft just before it crashed, “That damn alarm is acting up again!”

            I had another incident of a different and non-clinical nature, this time involving only a VIP. One day my secretary frantically gestured to me to answer the phone while I was busy in the out-patient clinic. I ignored her. She rushed to interrupt me with a note, “Tan Sri Hamzah on the line!”

            I had no idea who he was so I asked her to take the number so I could call him back. Later in the calm of my private office about to return the call, she stepped in and gingerly closed the door behind her. “Did you know who was that Tan Sri?” she whispered, not hiding her anxiety. She went on to illuminate me on this illustrious son of Malaysia. He was the brother-in-law of Tun Razak and a minister in his own right.

            I paused, to compose my profuse heartfelt apology before dialing. With her girlish grin, she then said how glad she was that I didn’t take the call. Otherwise I would have been inundated with all the big shots wanting their sons to be circumcised by me. When she left, I made my call. It was my luck that he was out. My unintended snub that morning was my savior.

Next:  Excerpt # 25: Unexpected Reminders of Canada
Excerpted from the author’s second memoir: The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018