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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.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Excerpt # 32: Hitting A Bureaucratic Brick Wall

Excerpt # 32:  Hitting A Bureaucratic Brick Wall
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

Recognizing the critical importance of my upcoming meeting with top Ministry’s officials to interest them on my proposed surgical training program, I deliberated on my approach. I was less concerned with the facts; those were compelling enough to anyone with some sense, rather the tone and manner of my presentation. Should I be soft, humble and low key, with cap in hand begging for their favor, or should I be forceful, asserting my points with confidence so as to convince them with no questions asked?

            In short, should I approach this meeting the Malay or Western way. I tried the soft Malay approach on my first day at the ministry and ended up with an uluposting in Kuala Lipis. When I did it the Western way, I was rewarded with an immediate interview with the top honcho and a much sought-after posting at GHKL.

            The choice was clear. So at the meeting, I addressed the officials in English, politely and with minimal formal greetings or drawn-out salutations as I would have to, had I spoken in Malay. Taking their silence to mean that they were ready for business, I went ahead with my presentation. Again, silence. I took that to mean acceptance, or at least non-resistance. After finishing, I asked them if they had any questions, and they still remained silent.

            I took that also to mean agreement. After all what I was proposing would not involve any additional resources or increased funding, merely rationalizing and making efficient use of existing ones, as for example having medical officers assigned to my unit only those who were interested in surgery. So I continued.

“Here’s what I need!”

            Then the problems began! To every request, they had an argument why they could not help me, reverting to the familiar “GO” or General Order. After about the fourth or fifth denial, I’d had it. In a fit of exasperation, I turned to the senior-most official, “Sir, you don’t understand what I am striving at here.”

            Leaning forward and with my right elbow on his desk and my index finger pointing at him, an unmistakable display of rudeness in Malay culture, I told him that even if he and his colleagues in the Ministry were to give me their full enthusiastic support and provided me with all the resources, I would still have to work my ass off to make the program work.

            “Today we bitch about the pathetic lack of Malay surgeons. This program would remedy that. Yet you guys block me. You can have it!” With that I packed up my papers and walked out to their stunned silence. Well, at least silence, I wasn’t sure they were stunned.

            At the door, I turned around and gave my parting shot, “Twenty years from now you’ll still be bitching about the lack of Malay surgeons!”

            Today, forty years later, they still are!

            That afternoon I could not find my usual enthusiasm. My teaching rounds were flat. My students and trainees recognized that but said nothing.

            On the way home I felt so tired and dejected that I forgot my usual routine of picking up pisang gorengby the roadside stall. When Karen was ready with our tea, there were no fried bananas to go with it. With or without the treat, Karen sensed my dejection. Her immediate thought was that I had lost a patient at surgery. She was relieved when I told her it was not that.

            Karen had sensed my frustrations building up during that past few weeks. I was finding the little irritations becoming intolerable. The traffic was getting worse. With my non-air-conditioned car, it seemed that I was always behind a soot-belching truck, with the diesel smell soaking into me. The heat would get to me; the humidity soaking my shirt. I would come home drenched and exhausted.

            My earlier little disappointments like the brush off from the UKM dean and my pitiful salary increase a few months earlier now loomed large. Whenever I came home Karen would wonder what brick wall had I crushed my head into that day.

            Uncontained frustration snowballs on its own momentum. Or to use a local metaphor, a muddy shoe picks up more mud. Even if there were to be some positive news or developments, those would now be interpreted in their potential negative light. The dark clouds muted everything. It would be worse for any bad news; they would be magnified even more.

            At about this time the government announced a new ruling. New doctors would now require three years of mandatory service before they could enter private practice, instead of the then current two. I felt that the new ruling targeted me specifically as it was backdated to the beginning of the year instead of applying only to incoming doctors. I felt trapped. The added year now seemed an eternity.

            A year should in the normal scheme of things not be a factor but it was to me, as it meant a 50 percent extension of my mandatory period. By now I did not trust the government. It could just as easily extend that requirement even further to five years and again make that retroactive. Before long I would be trapped by inertia.

            When you are caught in a thunderstorm in the darkest of night, lightning becomes not a curse or a harbinger of worse things to come, rather a moment of brightness that would enable you to see your surroundings even if only for a brief moment so you could get your bearings. I remembered how dejected I was after my first visit to the Ministry of Health that many moons ago. Then the sudden elation and sense of adventure. I would be a Peace Corp volunteer, not a returning native son.

            I was not ready to give up on my native land, or roll over to ease the bureaucrat’s job as I did when I first went to the ministry and they pronounced me good only for Kuala Lipis. Instead, I took my brother Sharif’s advice and had fought back. My reward was a posting at GHKL.

            The current setback notwithstanding, I refused to let those civil servants set my agenda. I would control it. Malaysia should be big and generous enough to have a slot for her native son somewhere. I just have to be diligent in searching for that and be prepared that it may not be in KL. There was no point in being at GHKL and be on the radar screen of the powers-that-be if you were to be mistaken not as a bright promising blip but a glint of dust on the monitor. I refused to accept the fate thrown to me by those civil servants. I was determined that my future be in my own hands, with Allah’s guidance.

            That weekend Karen and I again pondered our future. We went through this once before we were married. Oh, how we agonized! We had planned our wedding the summer she graduated. However, I would graduate a year earlier and had considered doing my internship in United States and continue with my residency there. That would mean being separated from Karen for a year just before our wedding. We did not relish the thought. We compromised; I did my internship in Canada.

            Karen felt that moving out of KL meant giving up my cherished dream. She remembered how I used to imagine my articles in various journals with the footnote, “Professor of Surgery, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.” She recalled the many discussions we had on how best to prepare myself for an academic career. Now she was disappointed those dreams of mine (and hers too) would be shattered.

            Then, a glimmer of hope. I had heard rumors of a senior academic surgeon at the University of Malaya retiring to enter private practice. A few weeks later I saw an ad in the papers for that opening and submitted my application, just like the dean of the other medical school had reminded me earlier. I also wrote my Canadian referees to alert them.

            In truth, I was not terribly worried about my future. If my native land did not need my talent, I have the whole wide world. Karen however, was worried that my family would blame her if we were to return to the West. It did not help that whenever she phoned Canada (which was rare as it was so expensive) she would always end up crying. That upset my parents very much; they viewed that as their failure to make their daughter-in-law feel at home.

            After much soul searching, that weekend Karen and I decided that I should leave GHKL. I wanted to be as far away as possible from those obstructionist and hidebound civil servants lest they would infect me with their warped values. Another big reason was that should I decide to leave Malaysia, I would have had the opportunity to see more of my country. I had never seen much of it before I left for Canada. I was also getting fed up with the traffic and congestion of KL.

Next:  Excerpt #33: A Change of Direction

From the writer’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.


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