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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, September 29, 2019

Excerpt #37: A Cool Christmas In Hot Malaysia

Excerpt # 36:  A Cool Christmas In Hot Malaysia
M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com

            Soon it was Christmas, Karen’s first in Malaysia. Since all my colleagues were Muslims, I had no difficulty finding coverage, unlike during the earlier Hari Raya that August when I had to scramble back to KL as all my colleagues had taken off too.

At that time I told my colleagues that I had not shared the festivities with my parents as well as all my brothers and sisters for over a dozen years. Thus that Hari Raya would be extra special for me. They sympathized with and readily agreed to cover for me. As my parents reminded me, a similar fortuitous occasion may not arise again in the future. As things later evolved, for a variety of reasons there would not be another occasion where all my family members would be present at any one time.

            On that occasion, I left KL on the eve of Hari Raya anticipating a much-needed rest, as well as taking in the festivities with my family, an emotional treat that I had been deprived of for so many years. That anticipation helped me endure the terrible traffic exodus out of town.

            That morning of Raya I came home from prayers at the mosque only to be greeted by my mother with a message to phone my medical officer at GHKL. After a frustrating delay with the phone lines, which were as busy as the roads the day before, I finally got through. One of my patients had turned sour and my medical officer could not get hold of any of my colleagues who had agreed to cover for me.

After some discussions, I agreed with him that the patient needed to be re-operated and told him to prepare the patient. I had earlier established the rule that no case should go into the operating room without an attending surgeon present in person, a departure from the prevailing practice where the surgical trainees would call the surgeon only when the case proved to be more complicated than expected. I told him that I would be there in about 45 minutes, a reasonable estimate as I expected the roads to be empty on Hari Raya day. And they were.

            My mother was horrified seeing that my brothers and sisters had yet to arrive. My father however understood my predicament, and the awesome responsibilities of being a doctor. My mother was not persuaded; surely I was not indispensable. She was right; I was not but my error was depending on others whom I thought were dependable.

            Karen and I packed up right away with my mother throwing in some Hari Raya treats. The drive back was a breeze; the highway into KL was deserted, as was the city. Karen dropped me off at the hospital and took the kids home. I arrived just in time for the surgery. My medical officer was right, the patient needed the operation. I complimented my trainee for his clinical decision. I also thanked him for calling me.

            When Karen came to pick me up, seeing that the city was deserted, we decided to take a leisurely tour. What a wonderful occasion! We had the streets, parks and playgrounds to ourselves. The air was pristine. That was the only time I enjoyed Kuala Lumpur. The opportunity would never again present itself.

            The next day when my back-up consultant returned, I apprised him as to what had transpired. He told me that I should not have returned but to enjoy my Hari Raya as that particular trainee could have handled the situation. He did. However, what if he could not?

            So for our first Christmas holiday in Malaysia we decided to spend it at the hilly resort of Cameron Highlands with our friends Karen and Badri. The couple had two children, Susanna and Adam, of comparable ages to our Mindy and Zach. We knew the couple back when we were all in Canada. They had stayed with us on their way back to Malaysia in 1971 after Badri received his PhD in Chemistry from Dalhousie University in Halifax.

I had known Badri much earlier when he had spent a summer as a researcher at my University of Alberta in Edmonton. We met on a chanced encounter in the hallway of our department; I was then a demonstrator in the Chemistry Department for the summer session. By that evening Badri had already moved into an apartment I shared with another Malaysian, Thad Demong. Through Badri our cuisine improved by a quantum leap!

            The drive up to Cameron Highlands was hot and humid. We saw a huge cobra crossing the hot macadam pavement. We had to stop to let it go as we were afraid that if we were to run over it but failed to kill it, then it could crawl up and get in through the windows! The snake was an impressive sight. It hardly touched the pavement as it was blistering hot but simply skipped over it like a just-released coiled spring!

            Karen and I were looking forward to the trip to escape the tropical heat wave. I had been there once while at Malay College. I could not remember much except for the difficulty of finding halal restaurants (in fact there were none at the time) and those beautiful hillside tea plantations in infinite hues of green. And the terrible scourge of flies!

            The road up the hill was narrow and winding. On one side was thick, virgin jungle with steep majestic centuries-old trees. To a lumberman those meant untold wealth but the colonialists had in their wisdom declared the whole area a Forest Reserve. On the other side, steep ravines with crystal-clear streams cascading down.

            There was a price to be paid for that colonial foresight. That road was notorious for being the most dangerous, not because of its many hairpin turns, rather that the thick jungle provided an excellent cover for roadside snipers. That stretch of road was the favorite for ambushes by the insurgent communist terrorists during the Emergency. It was where Sir Henry Gurney, the top colonial officer in the country, was assassinated in 1953 on his way up, just like us, to escape the tropical heat.

            With my father’s old car, we were crawling up. Despite the cool air blowing through the windows, we were sick when we reached the town. That night it rained. I did not realize how miserably cold the tropics could be at high elevations. The only warm clothing we had was our thin sweaters meant for the cool tropical nights. How we wished the rooms had heaters! Even with the extra blankets we were still miserable in the wet cold. We had the kids sleep with us, not only to keep them warm but also us! The temperature outside was in the upper fifties (Fahrenheit); that should have been balmy for the two Karens from Canada, but it wasn’t because of the added dampness.

            Those being pre-disposal diapers days, Karen could not get the diapers dry and there were no dryers. The next day we took a sightseeing trip but did not leave the car as it was too cold outside, what with the thick cumulus clouds blocking the sun. Even though we were used to the green of the lowlands, nonetheless the lush green of the hillsides was striking. The hills were covered with neat tea plantations that from afar looked like giant well-manicured lawns. The roses and other flowers were huge and stunningly colorful, made more so amidst the all dark-green background.

            If the cold did not make us miserable, then those flies certainly did. They were everywhere and huge! In KL one trick we found to avoid flies was to stay and eat in air-conditioned places. There were no such places in Cameron Highlands as the whole area was air-conditioned. We must not have been careful enough for the next day Sue came down with a high fever as well as nausea and vomiting. As there was no local medical facility, we decided to cut short our vacation. We also had had enough of the cold miserable weather. How ironic!

            Thank God, Sue’s illness was self-limiting.

Next:  Excerpt # 37: The Saga Of Our Transfer
Excerpted from the author’s memoir, The Son has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.


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