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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 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


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