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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.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Spare Malaysians Your Apology- Just Get Out!

Spare Malaysians The Apology – Just Get Out!

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  On Wednesday, February 26, 2020, Prime Minister Mahathir appeared in a nationally-televised address apologizing to Malaysians for having triggered an unneeded and very divisive political crisis days before. He had earlier remained uncharacteristically silent. Then after his sudden unexpected resignation, he quickly accepted the position as “Interim Prime Minister.”]

That television address was vintage Mahathir. There he was blaming everyone but himself for the political crisis. He was no hero, hiding in his house and skipping his office.

Spare Malaysians the apology. Quit the half-assed resignation charade. Just get out!

If Mahathir could lecture the leader of the Free World to resign, so too could I to this divisive and polarizing Third World autocrat who has long overstayed his welcome.

The chaos Mahathir inflicted upon and distrust he sowed among Malaysians through his latest conniving will remain long after he is gone, forever blighting the nation. By contrast, the burden imposed by his predecessor Najib Razak, though humongous monetary-wise, was at least quantifiable. And Najib would pay the prize by going to jail. There is no price tag to this latest Mahathir’s folly. Nor would any punishment be adequate. Besides, the man knows no shame.

This is the ugly reality of Mahathir and his Vision 2020. Instead of a leap into the First World, he has plunged Malaysia into the typical Third World political chaos and the usual third-rate power brawl.

Imagine seeing lawmakers trotting to the palace for their two-minute “interview” with the Agung! If not for their misplaced joyful expressions, they resembled faithful Catholics lining up for their Sunday confessionals, what with their fancy formal attire. I was reminded of my school days when our entire class was summoned one by one to the principal’s office because no one had owned up to writing on the blackboard the insulting messages to our teacher. At least we had the excuse that we were kids then; these MPs are adults, and getting paid by taxpayers.

While Mahathir indulges his fanciful savior delusion, billions have evaporated from KLSE, and the coronavirus remains a looming lethal threat. Local schools continue to deteriorate, and Malaysian academics their blissful indifference if not ignorance. The new Minister of Education is too busy saving the nation, after he had wrecked it.

Mahathir’s latest antic recalls the dark ugly days following the 1969 general elections that saw the UMNO-led coalition losing its supra majority. Mahathir himself was booted out of his own parliamentary seat. The ensuing brutal race riot forever scarred Malaysians. It has barely sealed over. This latest Mahathir’s monkeying threatens to remove that scab and reopen the old ugly wound, and with all the ensuing stench. The ugly viciousness of the rioters and senseless sufferings of the innocents caught in the crossfire of that riot are wrenchingly recounted in Hanna Alkaf’s prize-winning novel, The Weight Of Our Sky.

Mahathir claims to be a voracious reader. Give him a copy of that book. That might just refrain him from continuing to play with his highly incendiary race card. Extend the gift to the racists in DAP and UMNO, that is, if they could read English and appreciate elegant writing. As for those chauvinists wrapped in their religious robes in PAS, well, their reading repertoire does not extend beyond ancient musty Arabic kitabs.

The divide in 1969 was between Malays and Chinese. That was horrific enough. Today Mahathir has bested that. He drives not only Malays against non-Malays, but also Malays against Malays. Now that takes some doing!

Without any trace of embarrassment he called for a “unity” government. This from a leader who could not even unite his own party, the smallest in the ruling coalition. As usual, the irony escapes the man. He is in his own delusional world.

For a man who is always confident if not cocky with the media, the image Mahathir projected in his televised address was of a leader overwhelmed by events. The format he chose was to spare him the inevitable tough and awkward questions.

Nonetheless the old ugly Mahathir streak was still evident. He blamed politicians for the current chaos. As an unnecessary reminder, Mahathir had blamed Abdullah and Najib for the failure of Vision 2020, forgetting that he chose those two duds. Likewise, Mahathir’s New Economic Policy failed because of those “lazy Malays” who “easily forget.”

Mahathir is a bitter man, intent on settling old grudges, a schemer too smart by half, the no-longer-agile old flying squirrel who had missed the last branch. A more reflective metaphor would be the pyromaniac caught with a matchstick during an inferno claiming to start a “controlled burning.”

His supporters see Mahathir differently, heaping accolades like “sly fox of Malaysian politics,” “masterstroke genius,” and “master strategist.” A few described him as “Machiavellian.” This quote from The Prince, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” is inappropriate for Mahathir. He is neither feared nor loved.

The future of Malaysia must be without Mahathir. As what exactly that would be, it is up to citizens, not the palace or Mahathir. The mandate that Malaysians gave Pakatan Harapan last May 2018 still holds.

As such after accepting Mahathir’s resignation, the King should have asked the present head of Pakatan, Anwar Ibrahim, to assume office. He should remain so until Parliament in an open, transparent, and formal session, with robust debates that could be witnessed by all, asserts otherwise. At which point Anwar should resign and either have another Pakatan leader take over or advise the King to dissolve Parliament.

Mahathir, the interim Prime Minister, advising the Agung to dissolve Parliament is Mahathir in his trademark spiteful mode.

Decisions arrived in private can be very different from that made in the open or following robust discussions. This is quite apart from Timur Kuran’s “preference falsification,” where one’s public utterances and professions are often at variance with one’s private convictions. A backroom deal, whether in a luxurious palace or a smoky bar, is unacceptable.

The Agung’s current remedy, presumably modelled after the Perak one following a similar debacle there after the 2008 elections, would not satisfy voters. Who could forget the spectacle of the Speaker of the Assembly being dragged out, or the Raja Muda humiliated with having to wait for hours to deliver his royal address! Spare Malaysia that odious scene.

I thought there was a silver lining to this recent dark cloud in that Malaysians had prevented Mahathir from anointing his third dud of a successor in Azmin Ali. Yet there he is again today, Mahathir pushing for yet another in the person of Muhyiddin Yassin.

Time to get out, Mahathir!

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Flying Squirrel That Missed Its Last Braanch

The Flying Squirrel That Missed Its Last Branch

M. Bakri Musa

[News item:  There had been endless distracting speculations since the 14th General Elections of May 2018 on when Mahathir, who became Prime Minister for the second time, would make way for Anwar Ibrahim. That was apparently settled at a meeting on Thursday, February 20 when leaders of the ruling coalition agreed to give Mahathir the freedom to choose his timing. All that ended when on the very next day Anwar’s putative deputy in his Keadilan Party, Azmin Ali, schemed to derail the plan and have Mahathir join the opposition coalition and sideline Anwar and Pakatan. That resulted in Mahathir’s unexpected resignation as Prime Minister as well as leader of his party. Azmin is kicked out of the his party and government when his nefarious scheme was exposed.]

Had Mahathir been satisfied with only getting rid of Najib Razak in the May 2018 elections and not “volunteered” himself to be Malaysia’s seventh Prime Minister, his stocks would have soared and remained in the stratosphere. He would have been anointed a national hero for having saved Malaysia.

            Malaysians would also have overlooked if not forgiven him for his role in Najib’s rapid ascent and rapacious greed. Najib was but Mahathir’s political child, his ugly legacy.

Najib’s 1MDB mess, together with his unprecedented greed and obscene ostentation, is but a variation on the theme of Mahathir’s many earlier sordid scandals. Remember the Bank Bumiputra debacle, London Tin fiasco, and Pernas’ expensive bailout of his son’s teetering shipping company? Those and many others as yet unrevealed are all Mahathir’s unmitigated blunders, so well captured by reformasi’s vote-getting phrase of a few decades ago–korupsi, kolusi dan nepotisme (KKN, or corruption, cronyism, and nepotism).

Malaysia is still reeling from that. Look at Malaysia Airlines. The difference between Najib’s greed and Mahathir’s cronyism is only quantitative, not qualitative; matter of degree, not kind.

Today, barely over a month into his much ballyhooed Vision 2020 dateline when Malaysia should have been celebrating her entry into the elite club of developed nations, Mahathir has thrown the country into an unwanted, unneeded, and very destabilizing political crisis. It was your typical Third World variety leadership tussle.

Where was Mahathir at this moment of crisis? Holed up in his The Mines luxury estate. His Deputy Azzizah, together with leaders of the Pakatan coalition, had to chase him down, first at his office (he had ponteng that Monday morning), then his official residence, before finding him holed up in his private home.

A man who always had been at ease with the media suddenly found himself desperate to escape it. None of the usual smooth press conferences with his trademark silly snide grins and snickering belittling sarcasms on those who disagree with him. The man who only a week earlier had the gumption to tell President Trump to resign, suddenly found himself tongue-tied and camera-shy.

Two iconic pictures capture best the silly and futile drama of this past few days. One was of Deputy Prime Minister Azzizah sitting on the bench outside Mahathir’s private residence, with Anwar standing, arms folded, exuding confidence. The other coalition leaders with him, Lim Eng Guan, was casually standing at the side, while Mat Sabu was busy texting on his cellphone. The implied message from their body language:  You old rat; we have you cornered. We can wait here all day.

That snapshot eerily reminded me of the scene when the American troops finally trapped Saddam Hussein in his desert rat-hole hiding place. They had cornered their slimy target. They could wait all day; he could come out and surrender, or rot in there.

The other searing sight was of Mahathir in the back seat of his limousine, alone, sans his wife who usually accompanies him on such important missions, his face glum, with defeat smeared all over it. He was on his way to the palace to hand in his resignation. That was far from the portrait of a victor.

What a way to cap your career, the hitherto agile flying squirrel who had missed his last tree branch.

In personally confronting Mahathir at his home that Monday morning, Anwar had shown that he was not in the least cowered by the old man’s usual antics and silly scheming. Anwar however described the meeting as “very satisfying.” That’s confidence verbalized.

Make no mistake. This past weekend’s sandiwara or contrived drama could have ended badly for Malaysia. The endless frightening chatters on What’sApp and other social media brought back ugly reminders of the horrors of May 1969.

In my reckoning, Anwar had saved Malaysia from that. He also saved Mahathir from committing his third and possibly irremediable blunder or strike-out.

Mahathir’s first was his having the incompetent and soporific Abdullah Badawi succeed him back in 2003. Abdullah dozed away while his “Fourth Floor “ boys were busy self-aggrandizing themselves and destroying Malaysia in the process. Credit Mahathir for owing up to that error and successfully undoing it.

Mahathir’s second strike-out was his aggressively promoting Najib Razak to overthrow Abdullah. Najib did nothing to advance himself. He was just happy to be the instrument and beneficiary of Mahathir’s effort.

Credit Mahathir for once again recognizing his error and going about to remedy his second mistake, but not before Malaysia was saddled with 1MDB and other crushing loads.

Whether Mahathir was responsible for Najib’s Barisan defeat at GE 14, or whether Mahathir was merely the flying squirrel who flickers his tongue claiming credit when the coconut fronds above swayed in the breeze, does not interest me. I am just relieved that Najib and his ilk are now facing serious criminal charges.

Ponder this. Had Anwar not confronted Mahathir this past Monday morning and exposed his scheming to his face, Mahathir was set to commit his third strike-out.

Drive around KL today and plastered all over town are tall billboards with faces of Mahathir and Azmin Ali, with privilege and a smug sense of entitlement pouring out of their pores. No mistaking the implied message there and elsewhere–Azmin would be Mahathir’s successor.

This Azmin character, with his degree from an ulu American state university, fancies himself an expert in economics, but he could not manage his family’s microeconomics. He skipped out of paying on his family’s luxurious travel bills.

There’s more! Even his mother has disowned him. His relations with his own siblings are dysfunctional. That is understating it. Nonetheless Azmin deludes himself into thinking that Malaysians would trust him to bring harmony to Malaysia’s diverse society.

The only saving grace to this weekend’s third-rate political drama is that Malaysia is spared Mahathir’s third strike-out. This deadbeat pengkhianat (traitorous) Azmin is now out. That is reason enough to celebrate. If Mahathir is anywhere as smart as he thinks he is, he should thank Anwar and the other Pakatan leaders for that.

The writer’s books, Race, Religion, And Royalty:  The Barnacles On Malay Society and The Plundering Of Malaysia:  Najib Razak And The 1MDB Debacle, will be released in April 2020.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Excerpt #54: Friends' And Family Weddings

Excerpt #54:  Friends’ And Family Weddings

         The day after I reached Seremban, the Sultanah died. I did not hear the actual announcement, only the ritualistic broadcasting of Koranic recitations on the radio and television, much like the year earlier with the death of Tun Razak. I told my parents that if anyone from JB were to phone, to take the message and tell the caller that I won’t be home for a few days. I feared that my vacation would be cancelled and that I would have to report back right away.

         There were no phone calls and I had a much-needed uninterrupted break, unlike the previous Hari Raya when I took some time off from GHKL and had to return prematurely because one my patients turned sour and my back up was not available. This time we managed to be involved with Adzman’s wedding to Azizah. That meant a lot to me. Theirs was the third Malay wedding I attended since returning from Canada. I also attended a Catholic wedding in a church in KL for one of the hospital workers, Nathan.

         The first two Malay weddings were both in Muar for friends we had known since our Edmonton days. The first was Ghaffar’s. I met him through a colleague, a neuroscience post-doc fellow at our research institute. I had barely introduced myself to Ghaffar on the phone when he invited himself to our apartment. Very un-Malay, where the tradition would be to wait till at least the third invitation.

         Ghaffar struck me as being very bright. I was surprised that he was not attending university. He quit Sixth Form in Malaysia because he found the classes and teachers boring. He became an international hippie hitchhiking through Europe before ending up in Edmonton where we met.

         When I met him, he was a bartender at one of the exclusive bars in the city. His claim to fame was having an autograph from Rod Stewart. He was staying at the majestic MacDonald Hotel, thehotel in town, and came down after his concert late one evening to the bar when Ghaffar was working. He showed me the singer’s autograph.

         I encouraged Ghaffar to take the provincial high school examination as a private candidate. He did and through that secured an admission to the University of Alberta. When he graduated, I congratulated him but he was nonplussed. It was more for his parents, he said. The degree did not alter his life plans. Very confident young man!

         A few years later there was a Malaysian cultural group visiting Canada. They performed on campus and Ghaffar met and fell in love with one of the dancers. That was the first wedding we attended in Malaysia. A degree did not change Ghaffar’s life plan; a beautiful girl did. What’s new?

         The other wedding was Mat Sabtu’s. He had a special place in our hearts. When we first met, he was a student at the Faculty of Agriculture. Karen said that he reminded her of me in my younger days even though I was only a few years older. Unlike many Malaysian students who were content hanging around with each other or returning home to Malaysia during the summer holidays, Mat Sabtu worked on a farm. He could grasp a fistful of prairie soil, smell it, and pronounce it too acidic or lacking in nitrates. A born farmer!

         After experiencing all three Malay weddings, I was glad that I had a small civil one in Edmonton. Malaysian weddings were (still are) huge, elaborate, and exhausting on all, guests as well as (I am sure!) the wedding couple.

Next Excerpt #55:  An Unfortunate And Frightening Incident Involving Royalty

From the author’s memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia (2018).

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Excerpt #53: Joining The Hari Raya Exodus Out Of Town

Excerpt #53:  Joining The Hari Raya Exodus Out Of Town

         For the trip to my parents’ house in Seremban to celebrate Hari Raya as well as Adzman’s wedding, Karen and I decided that it would be far safer if we were to avoid the busy roads and take the train instead. That would also give us a chance to see the southern side of the country at a leisurely pace.

         Days before, the public was urged to purchase travel tickets early. Karen kept reminding me of this lest we would be stranded. I was too preoccupied at work to pay any attention to such domestic details. I also could not stand being in long lines just to buy our train tickets. Besides, we would be going first class. I knew my countrymen well enough that I did not have to worry about those tickets. The crowd would be for third-class tickets, or maybe some for second class. Those who could afford first class would not take the train. They would rather drive their BMWs and Mercedes into the villages to show off to their less well-to-do folks. I reassured Karen not to worry about our tickets. As a last resort we could always drive.

         We left on a Tuesday, two days before Hari Raya. We took a taxi to the train station. Then, surprise of surprises, the driver could not drop us at the station as the mob had extended far outside. Karen reminded me in a tone of unconcealed smugness about buying our tickets earlier. Now we would have to navigate through the mob just to get to the station, let alone buy our tickets. I too was now worried that we would be stranded and have to go to Plan B – drive to Seremban with all the attendant risks on the congested highways.

         We waded our way through the throngs for the last 100 yards or so, with the kids and luggage in tow. As we weaved through the crowd I saw that the window of the first-class ticket booth was clear. I kept pointing there, assuring everyone that I was not cutting their queue. The mob seeing that I was headed not to their ticket booths, and with Karen and the kids behind me, assumed that I was either somebody important or that I was a porter for this Mat Salleh woman and her children going first class. They all made way for us!

         We arrived at the counter and there was an Indian gentleman nonchalantly reading his newspaper. I had to knock on the glass panel to get his attention. He was not at all perturbed by the massive throngs at the adjacent counters. Those were not his responsibility and thus saw little need to help.

         We had no trouble buying our tickets. There was even a special pathway for first class passengers to the platform. We were the only ones on it. We felt like one of those VIPs I saw at the hospital for the past few weeks.

         After a long wait, the train crawled into the station. It was extra-long to accommodate the added passengers. The locomotive huffed and puffed to pull its heavy additional load. The first-class coach was at the end, so we had a long trek because of the added coaches.

         As we embarked, the supercool air-conditioned coach chilled me, what with the sweating at having to walk the extra distance. The coach was near empty except for a young Chinese family and a few older girls, also Chinese, probably students who had boarded in Singapore and going home for the brief holiday.

         We had assigned seats but since the coach was near empty I let the kids sit where they wanted, and of course they spent the next few minutes moving from one seat to another. The train took forever to leave such that I had plenty of time to walk around the station and observe the crowd. That was my entertainment.

         All the other coaches were packed, but unlike Japanese trains during peak commuter rush, no one was in a hurry. There was no pushing or shoving; everyone was busy helping everyone else load their bags.

         The train left the station in the same way it came in, late, huffing and puffing, the old engine protesting like an old mule loaded with one extra bale of hay too many. We could not see through the windows because of the moisture on the glass. We had to go out in-between the coaches. That also gave us a chance to escape the uncomfortably chilled coach.

         The first stop at Kulai was also a long one such that we were able to disembark and walk around the station. The crowd was as thick as at JB. Again, the first-class ticket section was empty. In fact, nobody embarked on our coach all the way to our destination. That was the only slow train ride, apart from those I had taken the children on at amusement parks, that I enjoyed because of the pure pleasure of seeing the scenery along the way.

         One of the girls in the coach curious about us asked Karen where we were headed. When she replied Seremban, her inquirer quickly added, “Is he a member of the royal family?”

         Seremban is the gateway to the royal town of Sri Menanti. To that Chinese girl, the only Malays who could afford first class tickets would be members of the royalty and others whose tabs were being picked up by taxpayers.

         At Seremban, I tried to get a taxi but none were available. In desperation, I grabbed a teksi sapu(unlicensed taxi). That 20-minute ride from the station to my parent’s house could have been the most nervous car trip I had ever taken. I kept thinking that if we were to be in an accident, this driver had no extra insurance. We would, as they say in the village, mati katak (death of a frog – unheralded). He turned out to be a careful and defensive driver. He had to be; that car was his livelihood!

Next Excerpt #54:  Friends’ And Family Weddings

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

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Excerpt #52: Major Operating Room Royal Faux Pas

Excerpt #52:  Major Operating Room Royal Faux Pas

         With everyone busy, the anesthesiologist ventilating (using an airbag to breathe for) the patient, the neurosurgeon in the operating room checking over the instruments with the scrub nurses, and Bhattal the senior surgeon back in the Royal Suite with the Sultan, I took over in the hallway. I asked that those not in scrub suits to leave. I spoke in English. It sounded more authoritative, what with my dispensing with the usual long salutations that I would have to do had I spoken in Malay. That got rid of the assorted princes and princesses as well as the hangers-on, reducing the crowd to a more manageable level.

         In the end, all except one left. She was a Malay lady who had comfortably stationed herself at the head of the stretcher, holding tight the Sultanah’s hand. She fancied herself more important than the anesthesiologist, and he in turn had acquiesced. She refused to leave when I told her to, and she was in her street attire. I imagined that if the Sultanah had died she would have accompanied her right to her grave and be buried with her, in the manner of a Hindu wife immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Such was her devotion, at least as displayed.

         I now had a crisis on hand. In desperation, I asked one of the nurses to get an oversized scrub suit top and an operating room sheet to put over her clothes, a jury-rig operating room sarong over her street one.  Her own sarong had precluded her from putting on the scrub pants. I also had her put on head and shoe covers and a face mask so she could now accompany the Sultanah into the operating room as she was determined to do. At the very least the mask would shut her up.

         That settled, I focused on readying the Sultanah for surgery, positioning her on the operating table as well as shaving and prepping her head. I was about to throw the shaven lock into the garbage as we did with every patient when this Malay woman grabbed my hand so hard such that I could not release my grip of the hair. I froze. I realized then that I had nearly committed a severe royal faux pas.

         To Malays, sultans and sultanahs are divine. Everything about them, including their hair and even nail clippings, is blessed with rahmat, divine qualities mandated from heaven. Here I was ready to toss off those holy locks into the garbage pail. How uncouth!

         I froze, paralyzed. I could not very well push away that dainty hand. What was I to do? Just at that moment another nurse came with a silver tray lined with yellow embroidered songket. The royal attendant directed my hand to that tray and I dropped the clippings. After a few more perfunctory attempts at shaving as if I was unperturbed by that initial gaffe, I asked the nurse to take over on the pretext I had to scrub.

         We were about to drape the patient and that personal royal attendant was again in our way. This time I asked the Malay nurse to tell the royal attendant to leave as we were now ready to operate. She resisted but after seeing all those menacing stainless surgical instruments on the table she did, but not before making a big ritual of kissing the Sultanah’s hand, saying a not-so-silent prayer, and bowing backwards all the way out, accompanied by one of the nurses.

         The Sultanah regained her consciousness briefly after the surgery. That however, was her only improvement. Meanwhile other complications arose. She bled internally from stress ulcers, a common development after this kind of injury as well as from her steroid treatment. She needed an extraordinarily large number of transfusions as the family refused further surgical interventions. Later she developed pulmonary and other complications culminating in multi-organ failure.

         Bhattal was glued in the royal suite; his wife had to bring him his daily change of clothes! With him tied up in the royal suite, I had to take over his unit. After about three weeks of this double duty, I was exhausted. I told Bhattal that I desperately needed a break. With the Sultanah’s situation now reduced to a death vigil, he agreed. It was also near the end of Ramadan.

         There was another reason for my wanting to return to Seremban apart from the up-coming Eid celebration with my family. My younger brother Adzman would be getting married to Azzizah Ghani right after Hari Raya, the last of my siblings to get married. They were engaged a year earlier while we were in KL. We felt that it was important that we be with the family for this last wedding of my siblings.

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

Next:  Excerpt #53:  Joining The Hari Raya Exodus Out Of Town