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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.


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