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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, 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.


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