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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 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.


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