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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.

Monday, July 27, 2020

New Book Release: The Plundering Of Malaysia: Najib Razak And The 1MDB Debacle

New Book Release

The Plundering Of Malaysia:  Najib Razak And The 1MDB Debacle

ISBN 9798645555467   May, 2020   260 pp  $12.90
Available at Amazon.com

Back cover blurb:

On July 20, 2016 the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed what it described as “the largest single action ever brought under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.” From 2009 through 2015, DOJ alleged, more than US$3.5 billion in funds belonging to One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian government-linked company, were misappropriated. The central culprit was “Malaysian Official 1,” today identified as then-Prime Minister Najib Razak.

            These commentaries trace the degeneration of an inherently corrupt Najib Razak, as well as the failure of Malaysian institutions at all levels and those entrusted with running them. Najib’s sinister side was exposed only when the coalition he led was defeated in the May 2018 General Elections.

            Malaysia is still reverberating from the humungous financial and other liabilities, the consequences of this massive heist. Worse, 1MDB is not the only mess; there are other potential 1MDB-like scandals lurking out there, awaiting exposure.

            Today Najib, his wife, several ministers and other top officials face many serious criminal charges in Malaysia.

Najib is not terribly bright. As such he could not have executed this massive heist on his own. He had many enablers who not only paved his rapid political ascent but ignored his many obvious dark traits and blatant corrupt acts. His flawed character and dark tendencies were obvious much early on but Malaysians refused to recognize them in deference to his pedigree, being the son of the country’s much revered second Prime Minister, Tun Razak.

Najib’s many enablers in turn owed their rise through his father. Their enabling and paving the way for Najib was but an expression of that old Malay cultural tradition of terhutang budi (repaying the debt of gratitude).

The most consequential enabler was Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister from 1980 to 2003. Beyond that, Najib was also Mahathir’s political heir.

Najib learned his corrupt ways only too well from his mentor, and brought them to a new obscene high, or egregious low. The only difference between Najib’s insatiable greed and Mahathir’s traitorous perfidy is that Najib lost the election and thus his evil ways were exposed. Mahathir won elections; his crimes remain hidden. Quantitatively as well as qualitatively, that is, in magnitude and kind, the evil deeds and characters of Najib and Mahathir are in the same league.

            It may seem perverse that despite facing multiple criminal charges, each of which could put him behind bars for the rest of his life, Najib is still being held in high esteem among a good segment of Malaysians, especially Malays. They refer to him with unabashed adoration as Malu Apa, Bossku! (My boss! What’s there to be ashamed of?)

As these essays make clear, there is a reason for this cultural perversity. To a significant segment of Malays, Najib’s path to the top had the imprimatur of not only Mahathir but also the Sultans and Agung. The Sultan of Pahang for example was an unabashed admirer of Najib. As those criminal charges have revealed, the loot from 1MDB have flowed generously towards the various palaces and other elite of Malay society.

The religious sector too was not spared, with 1MDB’s loot being used to sponsor free Hajj trips. No wonder the religious establishment deemed Najib’s greed and perfidy as other than that. To them, those bounties acquired by Najib were not illicit. Quite the contrary. Seeing that the funds were routed through Middle Eastern entities, that money was seen as God’s bounty. To Muslim Malays, anything emanating from the land of the Prophet is holy and blessed. Even the flies in Mecca are considered halal!

Najib inherits his father’s darker side. Consider Tun Razak’s to penchant to misled. The Tun concealed his fatal illness from everyone, even his family. As for his hypocrisy, Razak exhorted the masses to send their children to Malay schools while he sent his to England. These odious traits of the father find full and ugly expression in the son, Najib.

            These essays also cover the more general failures of Malaysian institutions, and the pivotal judgements of Malaysian voters as expressed in the 13th and 14th General Elections of 2013 and 2018, respectively.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Excerpt # 71: On To Practical Matters

Excerpt # 71:  On To Practical Matters
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            After my parents had accepted my leaving, our conversations then quickly shifted on to practical matters, like what we planned to do with our proposed dream home in PJ. My father mentioned that someone had offered quite a hefty premium to buy that land, being the rare empty lot in that exclusive neighborhood. I told him that I would return the title to my sister Hamidah and her husband Ariffin; they would decide what to do with it. At that point my father remarked that he knew that my heart had already left Malaysia for not even the prospects for a potential hefty profit had tempted me to reconsider my decision.

            My mother too went on to practical matters, as how I planned to bring up my children the Islamic way knowing well that I had not even khatam. I told them that the mosque in Edmonton was one of the oldest in North America and that there was a sizeable Muslim community there. I assured her that despite my limited knowledge of Islam, I would take the extra effort for my children to know our faith. Then she wanted to know how they would maintain their family and cultural ties in Malaysia. I again assured her that going back and forth from Canada to Malaysia would pose minimal problems, what with modern jet planes. We had the same concerns about distance and travelling when my older brother Sharif left for Teachers’ College in Kota Baru back in the 1950s, I reminded them. Today those places seem like the next town. She was not quite assured about the ease of air travels considering the costs. Today while cost is less a factor, we now have to contend with such “Black Swan” events like the current Covid-19 pandemic.

            My father rescued me on the matter of my children forgetting their heritage. My children will always be Malays no matter where we live. They would have my parents’ and grandparents’ as well as my genes, he assured my mother. She should not be worried whether they would be “Malay” enough.

            As I sat there conversing in a very relaxed manner and far from the high emotions that I had anticipated, I could not help thinking that I had been through a similar conversation before, only a few years earlier and thousands of miles away, with my in-laws in Edmonton when we decided to move to Malaysia. Then too I was not at all thinking of their sadness of the impending departure of their beloved and only daughter and grandchildren but of my anticipated joy of meeting my parents and family in Malaysia.

            This time it was the reverse. I was anticipating the joy of my in-laws meeting us in a few months’ time. Like then, I was not thinking of the sadness of the other party.

            My mother regretted that our native land could not accommodate me, or was it the other way around. She was convinced that I would have been a great asset to Malaysia, a mother’s pride in her son showing. She was also confident that I would achieve something abroad but then she would know nothing of the values to appreciate that.

            She hoped that when I leave I should not disappear like a rock dropping to the bottom of the lake. Instead I should be like a pebble skipping the surface, creating splashes and ripples. You would never know where those would end, she counselled me. Noting that I used to write to various Malaysian officials when I was a student about my ideas, she and my father urged me to continue doing so, and to reach a wider audience.

            When Ariffin and Hamidah came home that weekend, seeing that I was alone, they asked what I did all that week. I replied nothing except being my parents’ chauffeur and overall “Joe boy.” Ariffin commented that there would be a special place in heaven for the likes of me, quoting a familiar hadith on the merits on being a devoted son.

            My parents may have accepted my leaving but they were careful not to let the word out, not to the neighbors or non-close family members. Indeed for the first few visits after I had left Malaysia, my parents would always introduce me to their friends and neighbors as being the son who was away for “further studies.” My father could not bring himself to say that I had emigrated for fear of possible negative reactions, as being an ingrate or worse, a traitor. Yet when we were young my parents did not hesitate to defy the prevailing social trend as when he kept us in English schools at the height of nationalism and intense pride in our national language.

            Only decades later would I hear him introduce me as “my son who had migrated to California” with unrestrained glitter of pride in his eyes, “He has his own private practice there as well as a sheep ranch!”

            I knew then that he had fully accepted my moving away. Before that my mother would never cease asking me every time we came home for visits the inevitable question, “When are you coming back?”

            Once at a family gathering on a visit after I had left Malaysia, my Uncle Darus too posed that same question. Before I could answer him, he replied himself. “The Malaysia of today is not the same as the one you left decades ago!” He went on to relate that there were many more private hospitals and people with health insurance. Malaysia too had a more dynamic leader in Dr. Mahathir, not like his book-bound sluggish predecessor Hussein Onn who was in power I left.

            I replied by turning the question around to him, but with a twist. Seeing that he too had left the village decades ago as a youngster to work in KL and then decided to settle there, would he now consider returning to the village seeing that it is today very unlike what he had left decades ago, with electricity, piped water, and paved roads.

            He laughed; he had grasped my point.

Excerpt # 72:  The Logistics Of Leaving
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Ecerpt # 70: Reliving My Childhood Years

Excerpt # 70: Reliving My Childhood Years
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            I spent my time that week in Seremban visiting the old places of my childhood. I asked my parents if they were interested in visiting the old villages where they had taught. My mother was eager but my father was not. As she did not want to go without him, I ended going alone. I drove to Labu, a village a few miles to the north. Only the railway tracks remained familiar; the surrounding scene had all changed. The school where my parents taught and the teachers’ duplex where we lived were gone, as were the padi fields between the school and the railroad track. My auntie Mak Biah who took care of us then used to take us every morning to the tracks to wave to the passengers on the “mail train” bound for Singapore. She always warned me to look on either side before getting close to the tracks lest I would be hit by an oncoming train. I thought that was a superfluous advice as the roar of the locomotives and the vibrations on the tracks would scare anyone way ahead.

            I also visited Lenggeng, up on the Main Range on the way to KL. My parents taught there too, at the height of the terrible communist insurgency. There too nothing was familiar. I thought the old small Chinese cemetery at the end of town would surely remain. That cemetery had a special place in my heart as a youngster. I used to visit it to collect the oranges and other goodies left behind by the families of the deceased. The tributes were especially bountiful during the certain festive seasons. It seemed that the more I collect, more would come! I was sure that to those families, I was their divine intermediary for their long-gone relatives!

When my parents taught there in the early 1950s, it was a very “black” area, with strict curfew from 6PM to 6AM. The two unisex Malay schools were also gone. The padi fields where I used to make and play serunai (reeds made from the padi stalks) with my friends were now gone, as was the water rice mill and the rubber drying kilns. The weeds had taken over the once fertile rice fields.

            I visited my old village of Kampung Tengah. There by contrast, the difference could not be more stark. A decade and half later the scene remained all too familiar to me. It was eerie. It was as if everything had remained at a standstill after I left. The royal town of Sri Menanti where I had attended religious classes in the afternoon that seemed so far away during my youth was now but a few minutes away by car. Likewise, the reservoir behind the dam near my house which I struggled to swim across then was now but only a few strokes in length. I could even swim underwater across its whole breath. Those listless schoolchildren taking refuge from the blistering Malaysian sun underneath the shade of the roadside tree waiting for the still erratic village bus could have been me. I wondered where they would be or what story they would tell twenty years hence.

            Contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s assertion, you can go home again, to the old familiar scene and people. To me that was the unnerving part. I wondered whether what I had been through for the past decade and a half, going to Canada, becoming a surgeon, marrying Karen, vacationing in Hawaii, visiting San Francisco, living briefly in Montreal were all but a dream. Now I was back to the listless existence and purposeless life in the kampung. Should I dare pinch myself?

            Then I imagined if fate would have me back to the kampung after all those years away. Could I survive without my credit card, bank account, and a steady job? What would I do if all I had was the knowledge and skills that I had acquired?

            That was an intriguing thought as I enjoyed the coolness underneath the shade of the roadside ipoh tree, picking my teeth with the fresh grass stalks. That distraction was momentary, for upon my return to Seremban I still had to apprise my parents of my decision to leave the country. I still had to have their permission and blessing. I promised my mother earlier that I would never leave otherwise. That still remained my solid commitment to her.

            At dinner that evening, my father inquired about the happenings back in the village. He and my mother had not been back for quite some time. Their roots were now deep in their new suburban community; they had little reason to go back except for weddings and funerals.

            I replied that I was saddened that nothing much had changed in all those years. I saw so many kids who reminded me of my youth, waiting for the still erratic village bus and listless in the heat. At least during my youth I knew that if I were to study hard, the world would be open to me. By contrast, even if those kids were to study hard, with their Malay-only education and language skills, their horizons were limited. My parents agreed.

            I thanked my parents for their wisdom in keeping us (my siblings and me) in the English stream despite the tremendous social and professional pressures upon them, being that they were Malay schoolteachers. If they did not show support for Malay schools by enrolling their children there, who would? I told my parents that I met some of my old friends whose parents had taken them out of English schools on the exhortations of our Malay leaders. How my friends envied me now! Their only comment on seeing me was that my father was wiser than theirs!

            To this day I still do not fully comprehend how my parents, my father in particular, managed to remain steadfast in their decision to defy the popular opinion of the day. For my part, even though I, like my brothers and sisters, was forever grateful for the decisions my parents made on our behalf, nonetheless I do not remember ever fully and formally thanking them for their wise and brave actions.

            I was about to make good on that particular glaring deficit when my father interrupted me. He said that both he and my mother had accepted my decision to leave. His casual and almost off-handed remark caught me unprepared. I should be jumping with joy–my mission accomplished–but I did not. Instead I had no reaction. I was flat. What I thought would be a tough and very emotional challenge to convince my parents of my decision to leave turned out to be anything but. They had accepted it at their own pace. My mother was not crying.

            I do not remember whether I even thanked my parents for their supporting my decision. I was more numb and sad rather than relieved and happy. Numb because I was not prepared, and sad because I had to make that decision to leave. While I considered myself lucky at having a path out, and a very well paved one at that, not so those village kids I met in my old village. They had no such opportunities.

            My parents knew that I was not happy in Malaysia. They were just pleased that Allah had been generous to provide me with better opportunities elsewhere. They had wished that elsewhere would be somewhere nearby in the region, not thousands of miles away across the vast Pacific.

Excerpt # 71:  On To Practical Matters
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Excerpt # 69: Nostalgic Visit Home

Excerpt # 69:  Nostalgic Visit Home
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            Following that exhausting medical convention, I took an extended week off to visit my parents. As per Karen’s earlier suggestion, I went alone, taking the train so Karen could have the car. At first I wanted to revert to my kampung mode by travelling in the Third Class coach. At the last minute, seeing that it was already hot and stuffy even though still in the morning and I did not want to reach Seremban hot, dirty and exhausted, I opted for the air-conditioned Second Class. I had been up late the night before and needed to sleep during the trip.

            I had never experienced Third Class travel on Malayan Railway. When I went to Malay College Kuala Kangsar, it was always on Second Class even when I did not buy my tickets! Unlike the rest of the students, Sixth Formers had to pay their own way. The train conductors did not know that. They were too lazy to check on every Malay College-looking student, assuming that everyone was on travel vouchers. I hitchhiked my way in Second Class coach to and from Kuala Kangsar many a time.

            The coolness and quietness of the coach, together with its gentle swaying put me to sleep in no time. When I reached Seremban I was rested and invigorated. Reverting to my old village pattern, I took the local bus to my parents’ home. The driver, a Malay, was disheveled with his shirt untucked, and with dirty worn slippers on. The bus was also dirty. I had to wipe the seat before I sat down, an action that warranted the driver’s attention for its oddity. The bus groaned, belching black soot from its exhaust pipe when the driver stepped on the accelerator, jerking my head and neck against the stainless-steel bar that was the headrest. Like the other passengers, I too would have been oblivious of those irritations had I not lived in JB. There the clean and exhaust-free SBS buses from Singapore with their crisply-attired drivers and conductors were too obvious a contrast to their local counterparts not to miss.

            The driver was busy yacking with his conductor trying to solve the country’s myriad problems when he should have been paying attention to the road. His conductor should have at least picked up the obvious garbage littering his coach. It was a nervous twenty-minute ride. Then I realized that was what ordinary Malaysians endured every day. Even those Malaysians in Johor with Singapore next door showing how things could be done better, tolerated those everyday mediocrities and irritations.

            It was a good ten-minute walk from the bus stop to my parents’ house. I felt funny walking through the neighborhood as I had always driven along the way. My parents’ house was in a new suburban neighborhood next to a Malay village. My parents’ backyard however bordered the Seremban International Golf and Country Club, a fancy establishment. My father’s neighborhood was a buffer between the elegant golf club and the slum-like old Malay village with the typical wooden houses on stilts and their outhouses covered with leftover plywood just enough to satisfy their modesty.

            My parents’ neighborhood was new, with detached homes and large (for city lots) yards as well as paved though narrow streets. It was “modern” only up to a point. The roadside ditches were uncovered, the utility lines dangled overhead, and more to the point, there were no central sewer connections despite the density. When I visited my father in 1969 when the house was being built, he told me that his Chinese contractor suggested that the bottom of the cement septic tank be broken after it had passed inspection. There would be an extra fee for that but the contractor assured my father that he would more than recoup the cost from the savings in not having regular pumping out of the tank.

            I was horrified when my father related that. Yes, you would save on the pumping out but at the cost of contaminating the soil and water tables of the entire neighborhood and beyond. Down the street were those Malay village huts which depended on shallow wells for their water supply. Those villagers could die drinking contaminated well water. My father was angry at the contractor for suggesting that and warned the other new neighbors of the risk. No, that contractor did not get his extra fee, at least not from my father. He was the rare exception. Stroll along any exclusive neighborhood in Malaysia, especially after a heavy rainfall, and you could not miss the sight or smell of the telltale green gooey slime seeping through the cracks of retaining walls or along the slopes.

            Back to my trip, when I reached my parents’ home their front gate was locked. My banging on the chain lock brought my mother out. Her first query was on Karen, whether she was alright. I assured her that Karen as well as the kids were fine and repeated that she had prior engagements, what with Mindy being in school, albeit only preschool.

            I had travelled light, no reading materials, no charts to review, and no plans to write anything. I wanted to devote myself totally and exclusively to my parents. It felt odd that first day, like a deer long confined to a small paddock and now released to the familiar wide, open pasture. I did not know what to do. I turned on the television and there was nothing worthwhile to watch. I read my parents’ old Malay newspapers, an exercise more to enhance my jawi reading skills and my Malay than to catch up on the news. I accompanied my parents to the market, indeed wherever they went. I was their unofficial chauffer for that week.

            Karen phoned me that first evening. I talked to the kids; I missed them already! We must have had an animated conversation for my parents were relieved and pleased to see the joy on my face and hear it in my voice.

            They were worried at the beginning seeing that I had arrived alone even though I had apprised them of that fact earlier. There must had been a domestic discord and we wanted time to be away from each other, they presumed. After my animated conversations with Karen and the kids, my parents were reassured.

            My parents had other reasons for their unease about Karen and me. It was their practice that whenever they had a new in-law, he or she would plant a fruit tree in the yard of their Seremban house. When Zainab and Sharif returned from Tasmania (they were married there), she planted a rambutan tree. It blossomed to bless them with a bountiful harvest every season.

            Likewise, the day after we arrived in Seremban from Canada, my parents had Karen plant an apple-mango that they had bought specially for the occasion, and to maintain the family’s tradition. The plant took off and within months we had big, sweet, juicy fruits. Karen had the privilege to pick the first ripe one. It tasted heavenly. To my parents, just like the rambutan planted by their other daughter-in-law, that mango tree was a good omen, reaffirming their good vibes and high hopes for us in Malaysia.

            On this trip however, I noticed that the mango tree was gone. Thinking that it had outgrown its location and had to be transplanted elsewhere, I asked my mother about it. The ants had destroyed the roots, she dismissed my query with uncharacteristic haste. The tree had only two seasons of bountiful fruits.

            My parents, like most Malays, were superstitious, their modern surroundings notwithstanding. That mango tree was their internal or soft antenna, and it was giving them bad signals, rotting after a very promising beginning. That would only make my convincing them of our leaving that much more difficult.

            I ignored the thought. I was just beginning to enjoy their company after all those long homesick years away from them, and the freedom to be back to my carefree kampung childhood days. I refused to let anything interfere with the joy of the moment. I deferred discussing the primary purpose of my visit, to tell them of our decision to leave Malaysia. When you have unpleasant news to deliver, you exploit every opportunity to delay doing so.

Next:  Excerpt # 70: Reliving My Childhood
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Ex cerpt # 68: A Royal Banquet

Excerpt # 68:  A Royal Banquet

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrinusa.com)

I did not know where or how I acquired my boyhood nickname of ‘Abai, a contraction of lebai (from the Jewish ‘rabbi’). My mother related that as a youngster I was quick at learning jawi, the Arabic script, and in reciting the Koran. I was among the first in my religious class to memorize the assigned verses. My mother harbored high hopes that I would one day be a hafiz, one who could memorize the entire Koran. Alas, her hopes were dashed as I did not even khatam (complete reading the Koran).

            Brought up as a Muslim, respect for (and obedience to) parents is sacrosanct. Heaven lies underneath a mother’s feet, testifies a familiar hadith. My mother’s deeply emotional reaction at that kenduri had affected me to my core. I had to think long and hard about it. Beyond the prophetic injunction, to me my mother personified practical wisdom, common sense, and rational thinking. She was the one who, when we were growing up, would or could calm my father and make him rethink his ideas and actions. When my father was ready to give up on their dream house in Seremban, it was my mother who convinced him otherwise, using all the rational arguments as well as not so rational ones that she could marshal, including using Karen as a convenient battering rod to make him change his mind. When growing up I had heard of many glowing stories from the other villagers of how diligent and smart my mother was in school. She was the top student in the state for the entrance examination to the Teachers’ College in Durian Daun, Malacca, and was a member of its inaugural class.

            Her emotional outburst at our family kenduri thus baffled me as it was so out of character. Karen suggested that she had to resort to emotions as she could not rebut my rational arguments. I viewed it differently. It was more an expression of her missing me. I had been away for thirteen years except for that brief visit in 1969, a trip marred by the turmoil of the race riot that shook the country. It was far from being a restful occasion to make up for valuable lost bonding time between mother and son. Besides, they were still teaching then and had little time to spend with me except in the evenings and the two weekends. Then before going to Canada, I was away at boarding school for my Sixth Form.

            When I left, I was a teenager, dutiful, and far from being rebellious. Then over a dozen years later I appeared with a wife and family. Too abrupt a transition. Like my father earlier who was confused on whether to address me as “Tuan Doctor” or plain ‘Abai, so too was my mother. Karen suggested that I should invest some quality time with them in Seremban, just me, without her and the kids, so they could relive those early years that they had missed with me as a youngster. That was an agreeable as well as wise suggestion, and I planned one as soon as the busy medical convention was over.

            That was fast coming up in early April, and I was deep in the preparations. My trip to Seremban then would also give me much-needed recuperation after the hectic convention. I told my parents of my plans well ahead of time so they could savor the anticipation. I also told them that Karen could not join me because of her other commitments (among them judging a “cute” baby contest!) and what with Mindy starting her preschool.

            The convention went well, at least the parts that mattered to me, the scientific sessions. The hassles, and where we wasted most of our time were on non-substantive matters. One pertained to our guest of honor for the gala dinner and dance, Sultan Ismail. The Sultanah had died the September before, and he had observed the minimal waiting period of 44 days as per Muslim tradition before marrying his new wife.

            Nothing was or is straightforward in Malaysia, and no decision no matter how simple could be taken with ease or speed. The new wife happened to be his daughter-in-law’s sister. Yes, the sister of his son’s wife! The Sultan’s new consort had not yet been formally installed as the Sultanah (wonder why the delay?) and thus could not be addressed as such, at least officially. The question arose as how to address her and what to put on the gold-embossed invitation card? Such were the weighty decisions facing the organizing committee, emblematic of the nation’s major decision makers.

            The Sultan solved that problem when he announced that his new wife would not be accompanying him on any official functions, not until she was formally installed. I wondered as to the necessity of stating that stipulation! At any rate, that was a relief to our organizing committee. The other guest of honor was the new Ketua Setia Usaha (KSU-Secretary-General, the ministry’s top civil servant). He had just been appointed the previous September and was eager to be seen as “doctor-friendly.” I did not remember him wanting to give a formal presentation on any policy matter. He just wanted to be at the dinner.

            That did not surprise me. By now I had come to the sad realization that these top officials manning the various ministries were less policymakers or chief executives, more glorified chief clerks and vastly overpaid titular heads.

            Then came the weighty deliberation on the head table lineup. Again, nothing was simple or straightforward.

            Royal protocol would have the guests including those at the head table be seated before His Highness’s arrival. It said so on the invitation cards. That was no problem; we were all doctors; we followed instructions well, which was how we did well in our tests and could enter medical school.

            Then at the banquet, a brief commotion! The Sultan had arrived early, or perhaps on time but the others were late. The KSU, one Alwi Jantan, and his wife had not yet arrived. You could not keep the Sultan waiting. There was no anteroom where we could divert the Sultan on the excuse of powdering his nose or some such pretext. Instead he was brought in (or did he make his way?) right away to the head table. With everyone now seated, the glaring gap on either side of him was obvious, making him look as if he was afflicted with a communicable disease and everyone avoiding close contact. If the Sultan was irritated, he hid it well.

            Karen and I were seated together with Dr. Bhattal and his wife and two other couples on the first table below but far to the side. He chaired the hosting committee. He took the glaring gaffe as a personal failure on his part. Bhattal knew the Sultan well; he had taken care of him during his automobile accident a few months earlier. So Bhattal grabbed Karen and they both went up to the stage to fill in the embarrassingly glaring empty chairs on either side of the Sultan. As our table was closest to the side and Karen’s seat was nearest the exit, their leaving the table was not visible to the rest in the banquet hall.

            As they came up to the stage, the KSU shuffled in, alone, and late. He took his seat to the right of the Sultan who maintained his gaze straight on without acknowledging his most senior civil servant. Meanwhile Bhattal continued accompanying Karen to the empty seat to the left of the Sultan as if that was the plan all along. As the waiter came up to serve the Sultan, Karen slipped to the empty side seat from behind the waiter. When the waiter retreated, the Sultan acknowledged her presence with his nodding to her. They appeared to me to be engrossed in some conversations, but she could not recall anything. She was too nervous. The Sultan did remember her from our visit a year earlier. Yes, Karen assured me many times upon my repeated asking, the Sultan did enquire about me.

            There were other dignitaries in the audience who by ranking and other social criteria should be at the head table with the Sultan. The challenge was how to get them to leave their seats without being obvious and be seen by all in the banquet hall. Credit my colleague Bhattal for that quick thinking.

            I kept reminding myself that these KSUs were the Ministries’ chief executives. Ministers and other political appointees come and go but KSUs stay put; they provide the anchoring stability to their Ministries. At least I thought they did. I remembered my negotiations the year earlier with the Ministry’s top officials about setting up a surgical residency program and threatening them because of their recalcitrance to go over their heads and deal directly with their superiors, meaning their DG (Director-General) and KSU. Having seen the performance of these DGs (Dr. Majid Ismail being the remarkable exception) and KSUs, I was unsure whether that would have changed anything.

Next:  Excerpt # 69  Nostalgic Visit Home

From the writer’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned:  A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia, 2018.