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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 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


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