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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, December 26, 2021

Blame Not The All-Mighty But Our Leaders

 [Excerpt of my memoir will resume next week]


Blame Not The All-Mighty But Our Leaders

M. Bakri Musa


Last week’s devastating floods were heart-wrenching, with Malaysian leaders’ incompetence aggravating it. That is not new. A decade and half ago when the southern tip of the peninsula was similarly inundated, then Prime Minister Abdullah saw fit to fly to Australia to open his brother’s new restaurant. While Prime Minister Ismail Sabri was at home this time, he might as well have been in outer space. He was (still is) but a bobbing ping pong ball, visible everywhere but just as useless.


            This latest flood came at the worst possible time, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. The ulama viewed that as a test from Allah; to me, more a failure of leadership. Quoting the Qur’an, they reminded us that those are the signs of the end of time. I hope so – for those leaders.


            I was enmeshed in two past Malaysian disasters. First, the May 1969 riot while on holiday at home immediately after graduating from medical school. That tragedy claimed thousands of lives. The second was as a surgeon in Johor Baru responding to the Malaysian Airline System (MAS) hijacking crash on December 1977 that killed all 100 on board, including the seven crew members.


Four observations from both experiences. One, the critical importance of accurate timely information, and the dangers of misleading ones or outright lies. Silence is just as dangerous as vicious rumors would then fill the gaps as quickly as air to a vacuum. Two, the need for adequate preparations, as with having a disaster plan and frequent drills. Three, competent empathetic leadership to direct operations and comfort those affected.


Last, disasters, more so natural ones, are oblivious of class, race, or other artificial labels we pin on each other. The current Covid-19 pandemic is illustrative, what with rich nations favoring citizens over others in dispensing vaccines, and ignoring the needs of poor countries.


Disasters claim far fewer victims and caused much less damage in the West than in the Third World. God is not testing those in poor countries more stringently, as some religious types would have it, rather those in the West have used their God-given akal (intellect) to learn from earlier tragedies.


California’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake measured 6.9 on the Richter-scale but took far fewer lives than less powerful ones elsewhere. I remember that calamity well. After checking on my family’s safety, I phoned the hospital. Unable to make contact, I drove there, to find that nearly all the other off-duty doctors and nurses were already on site. They too had reacted like me. Because we had a disaster plan and frequent drills, we knew what to do.


With the Johor plane crash, I too rushed to the hospital on hearing the news, as did many of my colleagues. There we waited and waited, with no news or any communication from anyone. Frustrated, I took two car-loads of personnel and supplies to where we thought the crash site would be, only to be overwhelmed by the eerie silence, downed trees, and upturned earth amidst the penetrating smell of gasoline fumes and burnt flesh.


A poignant moment of that tragedy was the funeral service the following Friday held on the hospital grounds by the morgue. Then Prime Minister Hussein Onn had decreed that there would be only one inter-denominational service, with leaders of all the victims’ presumed faiths represented. I was never more proud of Hussein Onn’s leadership for that one profoundly wise decision. That beautiful memorial service was a much-needed closure for the victims’ loved ones, as well as for the nation. Of even greater significance, no ulama carped about mixing “Islam” versus “non-Islam” remains in one mass grave, or having Muslim prayers said alongside Buddhist and Christian ones. The power and influence of enlightened national leadership!


Fast forward to last week, our ulama bemoaned whether those volunteers at the Sikh temple were serving halal vegetarian meals! I applaud former Federal Mufti and Religious Minister Zulkifli Al-Bakri for visiting the temple and thanking those hard-working volunteers. As for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and his Religious Minister, they were irrelevant – and useless, missing in action.


Following that MAS crash I submitted an unsolicited report outlining an effective mass disaster plan, recommending regular drills and improving the communication system. My superior was impressed, and promised to forward my recommendations “higher up.” If he had meant to compliment me, he failed. I would have been more impressed and satisfied had he responded, “Let’s do it!”


            As for misleading information during a crisis, despite the gory images on Canadian and Japanese televisions of the May 1969 riots, the Malaysian embassy staff both in Ottawa and Tokyo whom I had earlier contacted for advice kept reassuring me that “everything was fine.” Those horrifying scenes were but Western propaganda intent on besmirching “Malaysia’s good name.” The result? I landed at a deserted Subang Airport and had to be escorted into town in a police Land Rover.


            Back to floods. When I lived in Bungsar in 1976, the slightest rain would inundate the sole access road. Intrigued, one day I stationed myself at the entrance. Sure enough, with the first rain drop young men from the neighboring rumah kilat would congregate and throw pellets into the culvert. They would then collect a few ringgit for “helping” stranded motorists.


As for those engineers and civil servants, they remained comfortably ensconced in their cozy offices and luxurious homes oblivious of citizens’ misery, or what caused the flood. That is still the tragic reality today, and not just in Bungsar or by young men only.


Often the dangers with disasters are the ensuing chaos and panic. Competent leadership, regular drills, and timely accurate information help reduce that. Malaysia lacks all; that remains her greatest and continuing tragedy.



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