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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, November 11, 2019

Excerpt # 42: Dealing With Garbage Everywhere

Excerpt # 42  Dealing With A Federal Medical Bureaucrat

            Soon we had a medical specialist from headquarters in KL on his annual tour to apprise our equipment and other needs. I put in my request for some basic journals and textbooks, as well as for a gastroscope. Nothing fancy or out of the ordinary. That was not enough, I was told. I had to justify them. So I added in the large comment section, “Desperately needed!” My pair of words looked like an isolated island in the vast ocean.

            He was not satisfied. He wanted me to specify how many people would be using the equipment and how often. For the books and journals, I put in “daily” and the number 50, the number of doctors in the hospital. For the gastroscope, I also put in daily, and 6, the number of medical officers in the two surgical units.

            Worse than a bureaucrat would be a failed clinician turned bureaucrat. That was this character. He called for a grand summation meeting with all the doctors in attendance to go over what we had requested, and also to impress upon us how important he was. Bhattal urged me to attend lest I risk my modest wish list not being fulfilled.

            We were taken away from our busy clinics that day to listen to this self-important doctor-turned-purchasing agent. Our requests would be reviewed and prioritized by a special committee at the ministry, he intoned, and then put out to bid to get the best prices. There would be no shady practices, he declared with great pomposity and put-on emphasis.

            I asked how long the process would take (over a year) and whether with respect to the journals he could get any better price than that advertised. He could not answer me except to revert to the bureaucrats’ old standby, “It’s SOP!” (Standard operating procedure.) As for the gastroscopes, the ministry would purchase from only one manufacturer so as to achieve maximal discounts with bulk purchases. Fair enough.

            He took great pride in disposing my queries with ease. Then I suggested that wouldn’t it be much easier and remove needless hassles if the ministry were to give each hospital a fixed allocation for books, journals and equipment every year and let the local doctors decide what to buy without going through all these hoops. His job would then become redundant and he could return to clinical practice.

            He ignored the snickering among my colleagues. It was to prevent corruption, was his curt reply. He was not amused!

            Sensing that I was now the alpha dog and he, the pariah, I piled on. “Let’s see,” I rebutted, “You trust us with the lives of our citizens but not with a few measly ringgit!?”

            He had no answer to that one and I did not press him. No, we did not get the books and journals we ordered. I had anticipated that and subscribed to the journals through my trainees using their discounted student rates. The ministry could never beat those prices!

            Malaysia would save more money by having that doctor work at its clinics and hospitals instead of wasting his time and talent being a bureaucrat taking purchasing orders.

            Karen and I were pleasantly surprised at how fast and smooth our transition to life in JB was, notwithstanding our (or at least my) initial disappointment in not being able to buy that house on the hill. I was still as busy in my work as when I was in KL but somehow I was not so exhausted at the end of the day. I still had the energy to take Karen and the kids out to the clubhouse once in a while. Those visits rejuvenated me.

            The short commute to the hospital had much to do with my not being so exhausted. Sometimes I would take the bus. That would always elicit stares from the other passengers; a doctor taking the bus instead of driving his own car or even being chauffeur-driven! It also helped that my car was now air-conditioned. My taking the bus freed the car for Karen. That greater mobility liberated her. We were however shocked every time we had to fill the tank, which was often. Despite the short commute, the car consumed more gasoline because of the air-conditioning.

            One day when she was hanging the clothes outside to dry, an Australian lady who was driving by stopped and introduced herself. She was married to a Malaysian. Through her Karen was introduced to the local expatriate community.

            Karen was at first reluctant to join them, remembering her earlier experience with the Canadian Universities Women’s Club in KL. She thought they were a bunch of women with too much money and time on their hands. Karen had neither. She remembered how sorry she felt for them for missing out on the local life and culture. This JB crowd turned out to be very different.

            Our daily routine was set. After work, I would grab some pisang goreng (fried banana) at the hawker stall by the hospital (being hot allayed my reservations of the otherwise atrocious food hygiene) and Karen would be ready with our afternoon tea. Then some days we would drive up to the golf club for our swim. That swim was not only relaxing but also therapeutic for my back. The prolonged standing and stooping over in the operating room are killers to your back and neck. On Friday evenings, we would stay for dinner and take in the movie at the clubhouse. On other days we would have dinner at home. If Karen did not feel like cooking, we would hail the satay man on his motorbike and he would grill right there on our front lawn. Very cheap too, and no cleaning up!

Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Next:  Excerpt # 43  Dealing With Garbage Everywhere


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