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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, April 26, 2020

We All Shared The Grief

We All Shared The Grief
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

         Back at the hospital, the staff had still not yet received any communication on the aircraft tragedy from the police or anyone at the frontline. We were the first to bring them the terrible news. After some discussions, the team at the hospital was disbanded with only a skeleton crew left “in case of miracles.” The others were to make themselves available if needed.

         For the next few days as the body parts began arriving at the morgue, more gruesome details emerged. The 737 passenger jet had been hijacked just before it landed at KL’s Subang Airport. Eyewitnesses said that the plane was only a few feet from touchdown when it gunned its engines and took off, headed for Singapore. Then the villagers’ accounts of hearing a loud boom and seeing fireballs of red flames. One hundred lives perished in that disaster.

         My sole pathologist colleague was overwhelmed. It would paralyze the nation’s entire forensic services if the government were to identify the various body parts found. In the end, Prime Minister Hussein Onn in a rare display of pragmatism and leadership ordered that the body parts would not be individually identified but be buried in a mass grave. That Friday there was a multi-faith funeral service at the hospital grounds right next to the morgue. Only VIPs and the victims’ close family members were invited.

         Days preceding that, the hospital campus was inundated by the press, especially foreign media. It was even more crowded than during the first few days following the Johor royal mishap a few months earlier. Yet it was orderly, unlike that earlier royal circus.

         Even though I did not have a pass to be at the funeral, being a member of the hospital staff I was able to view it from a good vantage point. The head of every religious faith to which the victims were assumed to have belonged gave their sermons. It was touching, a reminder that whatever our faiths, we were all united by a common bond caused by this tragedy. We all shared the loss and grief.

         I was never more proud of my country than at that moment. Malaysia showed the world the meaning of unity in diversity at its core. We were united in our loss and expressed that in our own unique ways.

         A few weeks later my in-laws sent me clippings of The Edmonton Journal. It had carried the news of the disaster on its front pages. There was reference about a “local medical graduate” leading the search and rescue team. Not quite accurate as I did not “lead” it and there was no rescue. Journalists however loved and strived to have a local angle when reporting distant events. Yes, I did remember being interviewed by the foreign media.

         For the next few weeks I spent time writing a report on the inadequacies of our collective response to such mass disasters, and suggested a policy based on those at the hospitals where I had worked in Canada. In my report, I made the editorial comment that it would be unlikely for us to have another such catastrophic aviation disaster. I opined that the more likely scenario would be mass civil disturbances a la the 1969 race riots in KL where we would have to deal not only with the physical injuries but also the raw racial emotions and distrust of both victims and rescuers.

         I also praised Prime Minister Hussein Onn’s decision not to identify the body parts, and instead to have an ecumenical funeral service for all victims at the same time. I submitted my report to my Medical Director. He was so taken aback that I had even thought of writing it as it never even occurred to him to ask me for one. He promised to forward my report up the chain of command. He did not say whether he had read it, much less commented on the contents.

         Recollecting those tragic events of well over four decades ago, and knowing what Malaysia has turned into today, I wonder whether, God forbid, if such a similar catastrophe were to happen now, how would the current Prime Minister react? I hope he would be as ecumenical and generous in spirit as the late Hussein Onn. Likewise, I shudder to imagine what the current Religious Minister and former Federal Mufti would say in his sermon. Would he be as generous in providing much-needed spiritual balm to all the grieving families regardless of faith as that old Mufti of yore did? Or would he, together with his colleague the Health Minister, have directed and devoted scarce resources of the hospital for the futile purpose of segregating the remains into “Islam” and “Bukan Islam?”

That remains my unsettling thought as I recalled and reflected on that sad day of December 9, 1977.

Next:   Excerpt # 59:  Operating In A Small District Hospital
Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

A Very Different Ramadan, But The Essence Remains

A Very Different Ramadan, But The Essence Remains
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  With the Covid-19 pandemic still roaring and state-imposed lockdowns still a reality in much of the world, communal religious activities, like other mass gatherings, had to be curtailed.]

It would be a severe understatement to say that this Ramadan is very different from all previous ones. What with the lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, our central social and religious activities normally undertaken communally at mosques, suraus and elsewhere are now suspended.

However, if we take our core religious values and commitments to heart, independent of rituals, circumstances, and places of worship, then we should be able to adapt to the current reality. This challenge is not unique unto our faith. We should be comforted by the fact that Islam had prevailed over many such tribulations in the past, from ravaging deadly plagues and barbaric Mongol invasions to the messianic secularism of Ataturk and the brutal despotism of Stalin.

We will get through this, Insha’ Allah (God willing!).

            For those fascinated with numbers and happenstance, there is much to celebrate this Ramadan. It is the rare one with five Fridays, and also in Year 1441 of the Hijrah. Note the symmetry of that number!

            Our small Muslim community in Morgan Hill, California, continues to adapt to this new normal through the enlightened spiritual leadership of our Imam Ilyas. We acted preemptively by closing our masjid ahead of the state-wide lockdown. Every Friday now at 1 PM, about the time of Zuhur prayer, our Imam would go on live video to deliver his talk to the members of our congregation. We are careful not to label that a sermon as it is not associated with our regular congregational prayer, but the essence and intent remain the same–uplifting message for and active (albeit only virtual) engagement with our members.

Likewise with this Ramadan. Every evening our Imam recites the Koran on live podcast and our congregation gets to follow with him. Again we are careful not to label that as Taraweeh but the essence and intent remain the same–to seek guidance and inspiration from our Holy Book.

Indications are that our Imam will also have to deliver what otherwise would be his Eid sermon in a similar virtual manner.

It is not a surprise that our community, located as we are at the southern tip of Silicon Valley and with many of our members engaged in the industry, has taken to this digital revolution with relative ease. After every one of these on-line sessions, I thank those pioneers and engineers who made possible this wonderful medium. It is the same technology that enables me to celebrate with my granddaughter her birthday, thousands of miles across the Pacific.

More poignant, it is software like Facetime and hardware like smart phones that make possible for many to bid their last farewell to their loved ones afflicted with Covid-19, prevented as they are to be by the bedside.

I do not know whether those chip engineers and software designers are religious or not, but I am certain that Allah has a special place in Heaven for them. If, as an ahadith has it, that a man was admitted to Heaven for removing a nail from a path thus saving others from possible injury, likewise those ingenious engineers that enable me to listen to my Imam and converse with my granddaughter miles away should also be deserving of such divine favors.

I say this to counter the tendency among many Muslim intellectuals and other religious types to belittle or even ridicule these modern Western innovations. Yet they use them with enthusiasm, without ever giving thought much less express their gratitude to those who made that possible.

Knowledge is knowledge, with no artificial differentiation between religious and secular. This “Islamization of knowledge” fad to assert that there is a uniquely “Islamic” variant is folly. It is but a massive intellectual fraud perpetrated upon the ummah.

Religious Minister Dzulkifli Al Bakri reminds us to be thankful and positive in spirit during this Ramadan. “Someone, somewhere right now is fighting for his or her life. We still have ours, so be thankful and spend it in obedience of Allah.” That was the theme of his Madrasah Ramadan message.

He also has a special message for those selfless, tireless frontline workers. If they find it hard to fast, it is harus (leeway) for them to break it so their focus and ability to treat the sick would not be compromised.

As a surgeon I know how exhausting it can be to attend to the sick. On more than one occasion I had to break my fast. I did so without regret or hesitation. My patients’ needs come ahead of my personal salvation.

That advice from former Mufti Al Bakri is wise, timely, and practical. As he reminded all, Ramadan is a month of charity. I cannot think of a more charitable deed than to be of service to your fellow human beings, more so when they need it most. In these trying times of Covid-19, there are many in such desperate state. Our zakat (tithe) is never more precious and needed than now. Please give generously and make this Ramadan special for them and us.

Ultimately that is the mark of devoted Muslims, how well we serve our fellow man, not how rhythmic our ratib. Likewise, a true Muslim leader is one who brings justice, peace, and prosperity to the people, not how overflowing his robe or eloquent his sermon.

May this blessed Ramadan bring peace, prosperity, and most of all good health to you and yours! Keep safe!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Excerpt #57: Yet Another Tragedy, And A Massive One

Excerpt # 57:  Yet Another Tragedy, And A Massive One
M. Bakri Musa (bakrimusa.com

         The second tragedy coming a few months after the Sultanah’s death was more tragic and claimed many more lives. On Sunday, December 4, 1977, a normal working day in the state, I was called in the late afternoon after work to return to the hospital. There had been a mass casualty. A Malaysian Airlines 737 passenger jet on a routine flight from Penang to KL had been hijacked and diverted to Singapore. It was feared crashed in the swamps at the southern tip of the peninsular. I was familiar with that flight path as I saw many planes landing and taking off daily from the Paya Lebar Airport in neighboring Singapore.

         When I arrived at the hospital, all the doctors and other medical personnel were already there in the emergency room. I went over the triaging with the staff and then to the operating suites and the floor to oversee the preparations.

         Then, we waited, and waited for the casualties to come in. None came, and no news. More than an hour later and still no news. In desperation and out of curiosity I took a team to where we thought the crash would be, banking on the local villagers to direct us once we were there. There was only one problem. We had no way of communicating back with the hospital. If we were needed more at the hospital, there was no way of knowing that. Nonetheless we took a calculated risk, eight of us in two cars and with the appropriate medical supplies. We saw no ambulances or police cars returning from the direction of the crash site. Then we saw a few villagers on bicycles headed towards the presumed crash site. When we asked, they pointed to the direction where they had heard a big boom and saw the big ball of fire.

         Soon we came upon a rubber estate and in the distance a patch of clear blue sky, the tree tops having been sheared off. This was the crash site; the leaves were still fresh and not yet wilted, with white latex still dripping from the broken branches.

         A few hundred yards beyond we came upon some woody marshy areas that appeared to have been cleared by a huge brute earth-shearing machine with the mud turned over in large swaths. When we came out of our cars we were assaulted not by the smell of the fresh overturned muddy earth but by the penetrating and overpowering odor of gasoline fumes and burnt flesh. We knew something catastrophic had happened there. Fear overcame us; we did not dare wander around lest we would step upon some charred body parts or even fresh ones. We may be doctors and used to gory mutilated bodies, but only in the sterile clinical ambiance, not in the raw brutal form. We sensed and smelled massive deaths; we were all cowered, not wishing to disturb the spirits.

         Yet there were no pieces of luggage, metal, or debris of any kind hanging in the branches to suggest a massive airplane crash or explosion, except for the ubiquitous overpowering smell of kerosene and burnt flesh. Nobody uttered a word. Silence had engulfed us just as it did the scene. We all came to the same conclusion in our own unique silent way; this was the crash site and there were no survivors.

         Overhead too, was silent; no buzzing planes or hovering helicopters. Soon a police Land Rover came over to us. We identified ourselves and they confirmed our suspicions. The actual crash site was a hundred yards beyond in the swamps, they told us. The fuselage was buried deep in the mud; it had disappeared as if it had dived underwater. There was nothing for us to do but retreat. 

Before we did, my intern Dr. Hashim Nik Omar gathered us around and with us holding hands, led us in prayer for those who had perished as well as for their loved ones. After the obligatory Al Fatihah in Arabic, he continued  on in English. The non-Muslims in our party too joined in.

The way back we were in total silence, made worse by the rapid engulfment of darkness as if someone had accidentally pulled down the heavy drapes. We had witnessed a massive tragedy even though we did not see any bodies or severed limbs. It was a sight we wished others would be spared from seeing.

I was glad that Hashim had gathered us together in that prayer. The very act of all of us joining hands and offering our prayers in our own way for those victims did not alter their fates or help their families in anyway. That moment of prayer was for us, to calm and help us come to terms to something that we could not otherwise comprehend. In truth I should have been the one to comfort my junior staff but I did not sense that emotional and spiritual void, preoccupied as I was in my own deep thoughts. I was glad that Dr. Hashim stepped in.

Next: Excerpt #58:  We All Share The Grief

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

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Deny Satan An Easy Victory!

Deny Satan An Easy Victory

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

[News item April 8, 2020:  The faithful throughout the world are fuming that in their hour of need they are denied access to their places of worship to seek guidance and solace. For Christians with their Easter masses and Muslims the upcoming Ramadan and Eid, this unprecedented barrier put up by the secular authorities in response to the escalating Covid-19 pandemic is hard to accept or fathom.]

Evangelical Christians in the American South, pious Muslims of Southeast Asia, and Hindu devotees in India continue to throng their places of worship despite the clear evidence of the dangers that they would pose to themselves and others. To them, Corvid-19 is but an instrument of Almighty God to punish mankind for its excesses. This conviction is expressed in such statements as “We fear God more than Covid-19,” or “At times of difficulties we seek solace and guidance in His house of worship.”

            Myths, religious and otherwise, are difficult to challenge with facts or rationality. We are more likely to succeed if we were to replace one set of myths with another, one we hope that would be beneficial or at least less harmful. The myth of the superiority of the White Man gave way to that of Kipling’s White Man’s burden. That in turn yielded to the current conviction of the universality of Western values. That’s much more benign and could even be beneficial.

Viruses too are like myths. They can change (mutate) or made to, and in the process become harmless or even useful, as with the live polio virus vaccine.

            As the scientific evidence has failed to convince those believers to alter their behaviors, I suggest mutating their myth while still retaining its religious framework of God, and of good versus evil. Convince them that Corvid-19 is not God’s instrument but of His archenemy, Satan, intent on destroying mankind. Thus it would be incumbent upon every believer to thwart the devil’s machination. That also is the universal theme of sermons of all faiths throughout history.

            Meaning, those who are Covid-19 positive must do their duty to isolate themselves, or be forced to do so. The ancients caged their mentally deranged in the belief of containing the devil within them. It was for their own (and community’s) good, they rationalized. We should do likewise with Covid-19 positive individuals (and those suspected of), except we don’t cage but quarantine them. The purpose is the same, to protect them and the community.

Likewise, those symptomatic Covid-19 patients must be ‘exorcised.’ The ancients had their candle-cupping, blood-letting, and skull trephining to let out the evil spirit. Modern medical interventions are but highly refined, considerably more hygienic, and therapeutically more effective albeit horribly expensive versions of those ancient practices.

We could liken modern ventilators blowing positive pressure oxygen into the lungs as unseen forces of good driving out the evil spirit, akin to ancient shamans blowing into their victims’ ears!

Those healers of yore may not have been rigorously trained but they were well attired and equipped with their set of rituals and incantations. Likewise with modern medical personnel, with their personal protective equipment (PPE) and sterile technique rituals but sans those incarnations.

In ancient times those who succumbed to plagues deserved extra cautious treatment lest Satan would continue his evil intent through those contaminated remains. Thus their special dispensation from the customary funeral rites. In Islam, they are considered syahid (martyrs). As their place in Heaven is assured, there is little need for elaborate prayers and other rites.

That ahadith should not be regarded, as some misguided ulama have, as a license for believers to willfully expose themselves in order to achieve martyrdom. Religious devotion should not be wrapped in reckless courage and ignorant obedience. Instead, that ahadith is meant to be a balm to grieving families. They already bear the terrible emotional burden by not being by the side of their loved ones at the very end.

That prophetic wisdom is also congruent with safe public health practices. Imagine the contagion if family members were allowed their usual contacts with contaminated bodies, as in normal funeral practices.

            Be wise and be pious. Do not let our bodies and those of our loved ones be the conduits for the devil’s malicious intent. Wear masks and wash the devil off our hands frequently. Most of all observe social distancing even if that means staying away from our places of worship. Deny Satan an easy victory.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Excerpt #56: Aftermath Of The Sultanah's Death

Excerpt #56:  Aftermath Of The Sultanah’s Death
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

         My sojourn in Seremban was as much a break as it was a time for me to take stock of Malaysia and her feudal system, especially now that I was posted in the royal town of JB.

         It did not help that my experience with royalty had not been entirely endearing despite my being born and brought up in a village in the shadow of the royal town of Sri Menanti. As a youngster, I attended afternoon religious classes there with my sister. As expected, many of our fellow students were princes and princesses. With the feudal ambience, those royal brats were given free rein by the ustads (religious teachers). Indulged upon, those princes and princesses behaved accordingly.

         One day the princesses ganged up on my sister. I came to her rescue and yanked the mousiest one of them by her hair. Startled, she screamed, begging for mercy from me! I let her go and they all scattered away like rats startled after one of them had been whacked by a cat. My parents were scared on hearing of the incident. In the not-too-distant ugly past, such insolence on the part of a peasant would have been met with instant beheading! As luck would have it, there were no repercussions from that incident. My parents however, did take my sister and me out of that school. Wise precaution!

         That incident with my Ob-Gyn colleague, amplified by memories of my childhood episodes with princes and princesses, stirred doubts as well as anger in me. What mistakes await me and what punishment would I and my family have to endure? How would I explain things to them?

         All that were forgotten as we were busy celebrating Adzman’s wedding. It was a three-day and three-ceremony affair, two at the bride’s side and one in Seremban. It began on Friday evening with the actual marriage as per Muslim rites; the next day was the bersanding or reception. Both were large events at the bride’s home in KL, the Saturday one much bigger. The third in Seremban was in contrast a small family affair. My parents were not for large weddings; besides there had already two big ceremonies.

         When that brief holiday was over, I was not in the least eager to return to JB. I was wary of a trap being laid for me, ready to ensnare me.

         Later, one of the doctors related to me the events immediately following the royal death. He told me that I was lucky to have left town when I did. Had I stayed a day longer, I could not have left as upon the sultanah’s death all leave was cancelled. Worse, all Muslim civil servants were ordered, yes, ordered, to attend prayer vigils at the mosque every night for a week. Not just to pray but to recite the Koran till midnight regardless whether you had a morning case the next day. If you were caught during that week not in mourning attire, black arm bands for non-Muslims and headgear with a white band for Muslims, you would be whipped on the spot.

         I thanked God that I had taken my vacation at the right time. Somebody up there was protecting me. No telling what my reaction would have been had I been stopped for not wearing my songkok with a white band, or worse, been late for or absent from the mosque because I had a major case to do.

         With the usual hectic pace at GHJB, the memories of the royal mishap, my colleague’s summary banishment, and the Sultanah’s death soon faded. The Sultan remarried that November, as soon as the official mourning period ended. What was not forgotten, because we suffered the consequences daily, was that the hospital had exhausted its discretionary funds and then some in catering to those hordes of important visitors.

Next Excerpt #57:  Yet Another Tragedy, And A Massive One

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