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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, May 10, 2020

Excerpt #60: Envy, A Dangerous Sentiment

Excerpt #60:  Envy, A Dangerous Sentiment
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            The next morning the surgeon I was subbing for, Dr. Rahman, a contract surgeon from Bangladesh, called me. He apologized for taking me away from my family during Hari Raya. He thought that he would be replaced by my predecessor, a non-Muslim Indian surgeon.

            Dr. Rahman invited me to his house. I was not ready for what I saw. He lived in a mansion, at least as compared to my duplex in JB, with spacious grounds, lush green lawns and shady trees. The lot was so spacious that there was little need for fences as the neighbors were far away. Again, I noted the noticeable absence of any fruit trees. The lawns were well manicured; the leaves raked. The roses and hibiscus were well trimmed and in full bloom. He apologized for the few unpicked leaves as the JKR workers had been lackadaisical because of Hari Raya holidays! The nerve of him to complain!

            On finding out that I had been trained in Canada, he said that he had a distant cousin who was a doctor in America. He asked why I did not stay there. I had no answer other than the old standby about family ties. I learned a lot from him about the perks enjoyed by a contract surgeon, apart from the spacious bungalow with gardeners provided. He also earned a heck of a lot more than me, with regular paid trips home for him and his family! I envied him, and envy is a dangerous sentiment to harbor.

            That afternoon at rounds, I was joined by a young Malay medical officer. He was a graduate of an Australian university and was interested in pursuing surgery as a career. However, despite having expressed his career preference, the bureaucrats saw fit to place him not on the surgical unit but the medical ward! He had heard about me from the other intern and decided to cut short his holidays to join me. We made rounds and I had him scrub with me on a couple of cases.

            Now, that was the kind of young doctors I would like to have on my service if only I had the clout to transfer him to my unit in GHJB. I did my part. Upon returning to JB, I went to see the State Medical Director to plead for this young aspiring surgeon’s case. No such luck. Those bureaucrats in KL had assigned him to Batu Pahat, and that was where he would be for his mandatory three years of government service. What a waste!

            I wish I could say that was my only disappointment with trying to “fast-track” promising young talent I met along the way. A few months earlier I had encouraged one of my interns to apply for a UN scholarship to do Public Health at UCLA, one of the top schools for that discipline. I wrote a very strong letter of recommendation for him. It also happened that one of the UCLA’s faculty members was in KL giving a seminar advocating breast feeding. I was at the meeting and pleaded my intern’s application directly to him.

            To cut short the story, he was accepted. To cut the story even shorter, no, the Ministry of Health or to be specific, the Public Service Commission would not release him as he had not yet fulfilled his mandatory three years of service. That was a blow for me, but my intern accepted it with equanimity. It was not his turn! I on the other hand was livid. That however, too soon turned to equanimity; one more crucial factor to making my big final decision, I calmed myself.

            One afternoon while I was in Batu Pahat and during a lull in my schedule, I drove by the river near the makeshift dock. There was a bustling boat traffic to the village across the river. I wanted to visit that village but just to be sure that I would not be stranded, I asked the sampans’ operators what time would be the last boat from there. The moment I uttered those words, I knew I had made a social if not security boo-boo. What do you mean by at what time would be the last boat? The last boat would stop when there would be no more riders! Duh!

            The boatman gave me a suspicious stare. I must be a stranger. Who else would ask what time the next boat be but a stranger? Before I could get into more trouble, I retreated to my car and back to the safety of the hospital.

            Batu Pahat was a notorious entry point for insurgents coming from Indonesia across the Strait of Malacca during the height of konfrontasi in the 1960s. The area was also a favorite entry point for illegal immigrants from there. He must have thought that I was a leftover intruder or an illegal alien masquerading as a tourist.

            Late Saturday evening, the end of my weekend relief for that surgeon, I returned to JB. I was glad to be back. It dawned on us that that was the first time we had been separated in Malaysia. The kids kept asking where daddy was; that was the hardest part for Karen. For my part, I was so busy in Batu Pahat that I felt like I was back at my residency days when I would not see Karen for days.

            For me, there was yet another not-so-pleasant emotion when I returned to my modest duplex in JB. Images of Dr. Rahman’s spacious bungalow kept intruding in my mind to disturb my emotions and equilibrium, reminding me of my village wisdom, Kera di hutan disusukan, anak di pangkuan mati kebuluran. (breastfeeding the infant monkey you found in the jungle while your own dies of starvation). Again, the dangerous sentiment of envy!

Next:  Excerpt #61:  A Not Unexpected Bad News

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


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