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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, August 09, 2020

Excerpt #74: A Final Cruel Tease

 Excerpt # 74:  A Final Cruel Tease

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)



            Karen, who had been preparing breakfast, heard the gist of my phone conversation with Tan Sri Hashim Aman, at least from my half of it. She asked who the caller was, and I replied that he was head of the University of Malaya.


            “Let me guess! He offered you the job?” she teased.


            “I wished!” I replied.


            Karen already knew that from hearing snippets of my side of the conversation. Our airline tickets notwithstanding, she was still disappointed that I did not get my dream job but at the same time was greatly relieved that our plans were not derailed at the last minute.


            A few days later I had another trunk call. The caller introduced himself as Datuk Seri Doctor Syed Mahmud, Vice-Chairman of the University Council. He did not miss any title he had to his name. He said he was with Tan Sri Hashim Aman at the interview meeting that I had missed. He reiterated what Hashim had indicated to me, their willingness to set a new date for my interview. I again rehashed what I had told Hashim Aman, but Dr. Syed Mahmud was not persuaded. Instead, he tried to lay an emotional guilt-trip on me.


            “It behooved those of us who have been privileged to get a superior education to give back,” he pontificated.


            I knew of this doctor. He and his physician-wife lived in a house next to my empty lot in PJ where I had planned to build my dream home. We would have been neighbors! He was in private practice and had varied business interests, including a private hospital.


            I had heard that spiel of his in its infinite variations many times before and was ready for it. When I was in Canada, some of my fellow Malaysians castigated me for staying behind after I graduated. I should return to serve my country at the earliest opportunity and not think of my personal ambitions. Malaysia was in desperate need of general doctors, not specialists. Even the Malaysian Ambassador to Canada who was visiting our campus at the time echoed the same theme. My rebuttal was simple and direct:  Surely as a doctor I knew best the medical needs of Malaysia better than them, being that they were not even doctors. That shut them up.


            I let this Datuk Seri Dr. Syed Mahmud have his smooth stroll down this familiar path. When he finished lecturing me I responded, “I agree with what you one hundred percent!”


            “Good!” he replied, savoring his easy victory over a meek prey.


            I then suggested that both he and I should join the university; I, the Department of Surgery, and he to start a Department of Family Medicine. A burgeoning new field, I assured him, with all major universities in Canada having one. Together we could transform the medical school.


            He demurred. I knew I had him snared. He had too many lucrative private businesses to give up for a mere academic job. As he was struggling to find some ready excuses, I went for the jugular. Surely, I suggested to him, that he had by now made his fortune and could live on his investments alone. He would not be dependent on his meagre academic salary, unlike me with a young family and just starting out.


            He stuttered and began enumerating his many reasons of why he could not do that, and of the difficulty disentangling from his many businesses. I cut him off. If he were to quit his many businesses to join the university, then I would return my airline tickets and join him. Like Hashim Aman earlier, he too was surprised that I had already bought my airline tickets.


            On that less-than-cordial note we ended our conversation; he more eager than me to do so.


            Hashim Aman and Syed Mahmud typified Malay leaders at all levels and across the spectrum, then and now. They excel in exhorting others to make sacrifices but spare themselves that chore. Prime Minister Najib Razak never tired of urging Malaysians to be frugal, yet he traveled around the world in luxurious private jets, as did his wife, all on taxpayers’ expense of course. The weddings of their sons and daughters rivaled that of princes and princesses. The hypocrisy is obvious to all but them.


            Years later after my sister Hamidah had built her house on my old PJ lot, she asked me many times when I visited her to meet her neighbor Dr. Syed Mahmud, but I always managed to find a ready excuse until one day. He was a having a Hari Raya “Open House,” and I ran out of excuses. I finally told my sister about my phone conversation with him years earlier.


            That last cruel tease from the university disposed of, we were set to leave.


As an epilogue, a few months after we had settled in Canada, a friend who was associated with the University of Malaya wrote us about the university wanting to get a hold of me. Should she give them our address in Canada? I replied, why not.


            A few weeks later I received a big fat envelope from the University of Malaya. In it was an offer for an Associate Professorship of Surgery, together with open-ended airline tickets from Edmonton to Kuala Lumpur for me and my family, as well as a voucher for a container for our household goods, both issued by a Malay-sounding travel agency. I threw it out just as I did with the interview letter months earlier while we were in JB. Karen retrieved the tickets. She noted that while they were all one-way just like our earlier tickets from Singapore to Edmonton, the price was nearly doubled of what we had paid. Both were for economy class. Perhaps the open-endedness of the tickets was the reason for the huge price differential. Or maybe not. That could have been an early ugly manifestation of UMNO’s (as exemplified by Mahathir and later Najib) Malaysia Inc. business transaction model.


            I tried to maintain my routine on that last day of work and said my goodbyes as if I was going away for a brief vacation. Meaning, minimal fuss. I wanted no ripples. The last person I bid farewell to was my colleague, Mr. Bhattal. I met him in his private office and he gave me a warm hug. He confessed that he knew that I would not last long but wished I could have stayed just a wee bit longer. Then he slumped on his chair, staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. It would be impolite of me to take leave at that moment.


            “I was thinking of my daughter,” he finally blurted, as he came out of his revelry. He and his wife were contemplating sending her abroad for further studies. He wondered what adjustment problems she would have on returning. Then realizing my presence, he apologized and wished me luck.


            I arrived home to find it empty of our possessions, with Karen and the kids throwing balloons in our now spacious living room. I was surprised to see our maid still there. She would usually leave after cooking us lunch, but on that last day she had no lunch to cook as we were all packed up. As we were leaving, I handed her an envelope with some cash in it. She knew what was inside and refused my gift, despite my repeated offering it to her. In the end I just left it at the gate; she would have to take it then. As I was about to step into the car she asked me to tell Karen to remember to recite often the prayers she had taught her. I was touched by her gesture! So I did, and Karen came out of the car to hug her. There were tears flowing freely on both faces.


            We left our Jalan Baiduri duplex, our home for the past twelve months, for Seremban. We had said our goodbyes to our neighbors the day before and had shared with them the last harvest from our property, the bananas I had planted at the back of the house.


            As we drove off we looked back; we could hardly see our house. The trees we had planted had now reached the roof level. What a contrast in color and scenery, the cool sight of those trees and its white-purplish flowers in full bloom instead of the monotonous creamy color of the bare walls of the house.


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


Next:  Excerpt #   75:  Leaving Malaysia



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