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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, November 24, 2019

Excerpt # 44: A Royal Command To The Palace

Excerpt  # 44:  A Royal Command To The Palace

Midway through my first week at GHJB an ambulance drove up to the house. As in KL, getting a phone for our home was a monumental endeavor. Meaning, we did not have one at the time. Assuming that it was an emergency call from the hospital, I was ready to leave. The driver gestured for me to settle down as he handed me a note. It was from the Matron (Director of Nursing), Sister Chong.

            The Sultan wanted to see Karen and me the next morning. He had heard that there was a surgeon from Canada and asked Sr. Chong whether he was a Canadian. She, who I later discovered had an extracurricular role as the sultan’s personal nurse, had replied that I was a Malay.

             “Good!” he replied. “Ask him and his missus to see me!” How was that for a welcome?

            If not for Sr. Chong’s note, my mind would have wondered wild, speculating what royal protocol had I breached in my first few days in JB. My only experience with royalty was during my primary school prize-giving ceremony. I did not sembah (genuflect) to the Regent of Negri Sembilan when I was called on stage to receive my book prize from him. I was immediately taken off stage and made to practice the ritual before I could repeat the ceremony.

I had been down with chicken pox and thus could not take part in the rehearsal the previous week. As all the winners who had gone on stage before me had been non-Malays, I had no example to follow. They did not need to sembah, only Malays do.

            Back to the royal invitation, I rushed to the kitchen to tell Karen. She laughed, dismissing it as a bad joke. When I showed her the note, her immediate reaction was, “I have nothing to wear!”

            Later I discretely asked Yahya for some much-needed advice. He was from a long-time aristocratic Johor family and thus would be familiar with such feudal rituals and palace protocol. His immediate advice was, “Be careful!” I did not know what he meant. I wanted to know what attire to wear, traditional or formal business suit. He confessed his ignorance as he had never been to the palace.

            I then asked one of my Malay interns. Dr. Hashim was from Trengganu, a conservative state. He advised me to be traditional. You could not go wrong; otherwise I could appear biadab (uncouth). I asked Sr. Chong. Just be yourself, was her only advice. The sultan was quite modern, she assured me.

            I wore my maroon suit with a matching tie and black songkok. It was then that I realized that I was in a bad need of a haircut. A hippie in a suit! I did not remember what Karen wore. She couldn’t either.

            We were led in through the side door to find His Highness seated alone on his sofa in the parlor He was wearing a subdued Hawaiian shirt. He had both his hands on his walking cane in front of him. He looked cherubic, fair-skinned, his face with generous sprinkles of age spots. He was on the chubby side but his loose Hawaiian shirt camouflaged that.

            As we navigated in between the elaborate parlor furniture, I could not help but notice the absence of anything that would remind me that we were in a Malay house or palace. All the furniture was English-themed, Victorian specifically. It was as if we were in an English country castle except for the abundance of Chinese vases.

            He extended his right hand for a firm handshake.  “You are from Canada!” he greeted me, beaming.

I corrected him and that Karen was the one from there. That shifted the conversation to her.

            The sultan was knowledgeable about Canada, asking Karen about Vancouver, Ottawa (she had lived in both cities) and Toronto (she was born there). The conversations were now in Karen’s direction. He asked us whether we had trouble finding a house. When we replied that we did not, he went on to reassure us that should we encounter problems, to contact him. Wow, that would be quite an endorsement; a royal imprimatur. No one would dare say no to us then!

            He complimented us for what we had done to our yard. He noticed my hard work! He was pleased that we had planted the trees. As the conversation slowed down, he showed me his right elbow. There was a small lump and he wanted my professional opinion.

            There is nothing that would make a nervous young doctor ill at ease in a social situation feel confident than to be asked a medical question. I was now no longer an unsure peasant in front of his sultan but a surgeon being consulted by a patient, albeit a very important one. He kept rubbing the lump as I asked him some clinical questions, as with any pain or recent change in size. He had neither. Thinking that it might be a rheumatoid nodule, I asked him about joint pains and swelling; again, he had neither except for some neck pain and occasional knee stiffness. He spoke impeccable English with no trace of the distinctive Malaysian accent. No “lah” or “mon!”

            The lump was a lipoma, a benign fat tumor, an inch in diameter. To be thorough, I examined his axilla for nodes (I once had a patient with a rare malignant form of the disease), as well as his hands and wrists for any swelling or stiffness. There were none except for some mild degenerative arthritis expected of someone his age.

            I assured him about the lump. He asked about surgery and I replied that would not be necessary unless the lump was causing him symptoms and discomfort, as rubbing against the surface of the desk when writing. He assured me that it did not.

            He inquired about my examination of his hands. I replied that occasionally the lump could be the sign of an underlying rare form of arthritis (rheumatoid) but I again assured him that he did not have that.

            I could not decipher whether his smile expressed satisfaction with my clinical thoroughness or concealed contempt for my physical intrusion upon his body.

Next:  Excerpt # 45:  A Museum Of Vintage Cars

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


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