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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, October 13, 2019

Excerpt # 38: JB, That's Where We Will Be!

Excerpt # 38: JB, That’s Where We Will Be!
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

As luck would have it, that January before my transfer to JB, my sister Jaharah and her husband Nik left for Syracuse, New York, he to pursue graduate work. We did not envy them as we had lived in Montreal for a year and the weather there and in Syracuse was similar. The practical effect of their leaving was that we got the use of their car. It was a later model, larger, and most of all, air-conditioned. It also had all the necessary gadgets needed to entertain us–radio and tape cassette.

            As our earlier trip to JB did not accomplish much (not that we tried hard), this time my brother-in-law Ariffin joined us for our first few days to help us settle in. Being from Kluang, JB was his old stomping ground. We took a leisurely drive spending the night at Malacca, halfway down to JB, staying at the Shah Beach Motel. The location of the hotel was fantastic; you stepped out right onto the beach. That was the only thing fantastic about the place even though it was considered an upscale lodging, at least by local standards.

Malacca did not impress us except for the historical part of the town. We toured the ancient and distinctive blood-red brick forts built by the Dutch and Portuguese when they colonized the port before the British took over. Compared to Port Dickson, both the water and beach were dirty. We stayed just for the night.

            I explained to Karen that the red color was from the stain of the betel nut juice the natives used to spit on the building, an expression of their contempt for the colonizers. She was not impressed with my story.

            We arrived in JB early the next day and stayed at the Rest House. Like the one in Port Dickson, this one too was made of wood and on wide, short, brick stilts, located on a hillside with lush surrounding gardens. Unlike the Orchid Hotel downtown, it was quiet and peaceful. The rooms were spacious and airy. The Rest House was a clean pastoral patch, a welcomed contrast to the dirty disheveled city.

            We spent the first few days just resting. The public library was within walking distance, and we checked it out. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was well equipped, with many wonderful children books as well as a substantive collection on Malaysian affairs, a stark contrast to the libraries in KL or Seremban.

The State Library in Seremban was in the imposing State Secretariat building up on the top of the hill. What few books they had were kept locked in their expensive glass-covered bookcases. When I asked to see some of the Malay books, the body language response I received from the lady (I would not call her a librarian) was, “Who would want to read them!” The national library in KL was not much better.

            Early in our married life Karen and I had discussed what we would look for in a town or city to live in. What made our life in Edmonton so enjoyable despite its long cold winters was the city’s wonderful libraries, beautiful parks, and other public amenities. Karen had worked with the city library before we had our family. We decided that those would be the deciding features in choosing where we would settle down. JB had both a good library and attractive parks!

            Two books in the Jubilee Library grabbed my attention, and I borrowed both right away. Having been deprived of general reading materials for over a year, what with newsmagazines and periodicals being exorbitantly expensive, I devoured both books in no time, a desert traveler who had stumbled upon an undiscovered watering hole in a lush oasis.

            One was Milton Esman’s Administration and Development in Malaysia. Institution Building and Reform in a Plural Society.[1] The other was by a Canadian economist-geographer who had studied the cash flow and other economic activities of JB street hawkers, specifically those along the waterfront road by the hospital.[2] It so happened that the evening before we had dinner at one of those satay stalls. The place was packed despite the lack of any formal visible organization. I was struck by the economic vibrancy of the place despite the absence of authority figures like the police or health inspectors. Yet everything went smoothly. The crowd was pleasant and orderly; the stalls neatly lined up against each other. Each stall had their own generator and fluorescent lights. Even the traffic was smooth. The soft sea breeze helped cool the evening.

            During my youth, carbide lamps were used. That was not only hot but also attracted moths that would get burnt to a crisp. You had to be careful that they did not end up in your soup! It would be difficult to differentiate them from fried onions, except through taste, which would be too late!

            That book by the Canadian economist captured well not only the social atmosphere of the place but also its underlying hidden economic dynamism. The “hidden economy” may be hidden to officialdom but it was nonetheless organic and smooth running, as if directed by an invisible hand, to quote Adam Smith, and serving a very useful function.

Esman’s book and his observations struck close to home for me, having by now had many encounters with those senior Malaysian civil servants he was observing. One particular account he recounted validated my earlier low opinion of them. At one meeting of the nation’s top civil servants, the ministries’ KSUs (Ketua Setia Usaha–Secretaries-General), Esman was astounded that half of the time was devoted to discussing trivial matters as whose turn it was to occupy a palatial government mansion that was to be vacated by a retiring official! Ever wonder why Malaysian schools are awful or the roads always flooded?

Those top civil servants were more glorified “cc’s” (chief clerks); they occupied themselves with administrative trivia and were consumed with kami menurut perentah (We await directions–the motto of the civil service). Brilliant executives, enlightened policymakers, or strategic thinkers they were not. No wonder I was impressed with the few outstanding individuals like the Medical Director-General Dr. Majid Ismail whom I was fortunate to meet a few weeks after my arrival home in Malaysia.

Excerpt # 39:  Finding A Home, Again!
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

[1] Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1972
[2] McGee,TG: Hawkers in Southeast Asian Cities. Planning For the Bazaar Economy, International Development Research Center, Ottawa, 1977.


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