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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 27, 2019

Excerpt #40: Still In The Market For A New Home

Excerpt # 40: Still In The Market For A Dream House

            Even though we had rented a house, we still went out house hunting. Part of that was our commitment to JB and part, my curiosity about the local real estate market. At that time it was heating up fast, with Singaporeans snapping up local properties as they could not afford homes on the island. My rationale for wanting to buy was that even if we were to be transferred back to KL, we could still sell the house and reap a tidy profit, just like we did in Edmonton.

            As luck would have it, we found a beautiful house up on top of the hill overlooking the Strait of Johor onto Singapore. The backyard abutted the palace grounds of Bukit Serene. Being on top of the hill we would not have to worry about the people above us dumping their smelly garbage into the open drain, as with our house in Bungsar. The price too was well within our range. The house was empty and the agent managed to pry open one of the doors and we had a free uninhibited tour inside. There were cobwebs all over, but we overlooked that. The house had been empty for a while; we thought it had not even been occupied before.

            We could imagine ourselves having a leisurely afternoon tea and watching those planes taking off and landing at the distant Paya Lebar Airport in Singapore. That was a reassuring sight. If something bad were to happen in Malaysia, we could escape to Singapore, and from there to anywhere in the world.

            We salivated at our find. As was (still is) our practice, we arranged for a second visit, this time at a more leisurely pace, our eyes wide open, and critical faculties well honed. This second visit only enhanced the house’s appeal. We fell in love with it even more. Then we went around to the back of house to the private entrance to the maid’s quarters. It faced the spacious grounds of the palace. That very private maid’s room would be my “man cave!”

            I opened the bathroom door. There, coiled in the toilet hole in the cement floor, was a cobra, coiled and ready to strike! I jumped back! Karen saw my reaction and came over to find out what had frightened me. She saw the snake and took off to our car, grabbing the kids. Our agent was not perturbed. He had no difficulty catching the serpent and chopping its head off. The critter was about four feet long. The length did not matter. It petrified us regardless. He told us that it was probably from the palace. The sultan was an avid snake collector. Probably one of his collections had escaped.

            That was it. We gave up. I remember as a youth my father found a snake in the house. He had it killed in an instance. He was not worried about the snake itself rather by what it portended. Snakes were considered a terrible curse. So that Thursday evening we had a kenduri in the village to remove the curse. It must have worked for I did not remember any untoward consequences.

            We had to calm ourselves on the verandah where we could see even a worm that would crawl to us on the cement. I kept thinking that things were going swell until we opened that bathroom in the maid’s quarters. It was not a good omen. However, after a few minutes sitting on the verandah sipping Green Spot lemonade that the agent had brought, and with the view of the vast expanse over the Strait of Johore with modern bustling Singapore in the distance, I fell in love again with the house, the cobra notwithstanding. Persuading Karen however, took some time.

            From the modernish décor we were expecting the owner to be a rich Chinese professional. He was now perhaps fed up with Malaysia and ready to emigrate to Australia. Imagine our surprise when our agent took us to a dirty Chinese settlement to meet an elderly man living in a shack. He could hardly speak a word of Malay or English. I was sure that he was one of those hawkers described in McGee’s book who had through sheer frugality and hard work saved a lot and built for himself a beautiful house on the hill. Then when he discovered that his neighbors were doctors and lawyers, felt uncomfortable living there. Indeed, at the bottom of the hill resided the state medical director, my local superior. Across the street was a lawyer turned entrepreneur. He had harnessed the needs of the thousands of Malaysians studying in Britain to come home for vacations every so often into a lucrative airline charter business.

            The whole Chinese neighborhood came out to see what this white woman with an officious looking Malay were doing slumming in the area. It took quite a bit of coaxing by our agent to get the man out of his shack just to talk to us.

            It did not take long for me to decipher from the man’s body language and the abbreviated responses he gave our agent that the deal was not going through. The man looked like a cowed Chihuahua with a prized T-bone steak in his mouth, trying to hide it so no one could see and thus grab his prized possession. Yes, he had changed his mind about selling, the agent told us, and we left. I was devastated; Karen less so. She was in fact relieved. That earlier encounter with the cobra was indeed a premonition that we were not welcomed in that house on top of the hill.

            I related our experience to my brother Sharif and his wife Zainab. Our accepting the full asking price right off the bat was a big mistake, they advised us. A rookie’s eagerness, also a mistake. The owner took that as a sign that it was underpriced, which it probably was. I should have offered a much lower figure and also not have brought Karen along with me. Seeing a white lady only confirmed the owner’s suspicion about the house being modern and desirable to a Mom Salleh (white woman), and therefore underpriced.

            It would have been prudent had I emphasized that the property being adjacent to the palace grounds, to remind the owner that it was vulnerable. The sultan could grab it at any time without any compensation. Malay sultans are fond of doing those kinds of things.

            I should have also brought up the encounter with the cobra and the bad luck that it symbolized, Sharif suggested. However, that could have backfired. To the Chinese, snakes are considered auspicious, a mini dragon guarding the place.

            That was our only house hunting saga in JB. While our experience was radically different from what we had endured in KL, the results were the same. We were unsuccessful. We were destined to reside at No: 2, Jalan Baiduri, off Jalan Kolam Ayer.

Next:  Excerpt # 41:  An Easy Transition
Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.


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