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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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Chee Hoi Lan's Maulidur Rasul Award And Islamic Adoption

 Chee Hoi Lan’s Maulidur Rasul Award And Islamic Adoption

M. Bakri Musa


What an uplifting news item, the Agong honoring retired 83-year-old kindergarten teacher Chee Hoi Lan with the 2022 National Maulidur Rasul Award Malaysia–Ibu Sejati-Keluarga (True Family Mother)! Kudos to the selection committee and those who nominated her.


            Chee is the mother of Rohana Abdullah whom she had adopted when Rohana was two months old. No, there is no error with that sentence. Chee is Rohana’s mother. Rohana was given up by her birth mother, an Indonesian maid who had worked for Chee and was later forced to return to Indonesia as per Malaysia’s strict immigration laws.


            That was in 1980 when Indonesia was a chaotic repressive country under that goon Suharto. Rohana’s birth mother decided that her daughter would be better off remaining in Malaysia. It revealed volumes of her relationship with her employer that she had entrusted her daughter to Chee even though she was not a Muslim. Recognizing the baby’s mother’s Muslim heritage, Chee took extra effort to ensure that the baby was brought up in the Islamic tradition.


            Chee’s award, apart from recognizing her extraordinary generosity and unconditional love for Rohana, highlights current understanding on the concept and dynamics of motherhood (and also parenthood). It is as much biological as sociological. Depending on circumstances, one may take precedence over the other.


            Muslim thinking and practices on adoption have remained rigid and not kept up with modern understanding as well as realities and complexities. The primacy of biological parenthood remains in Islam, as well as in many other traditions. This needs to be reexamined, what with adoptions, orphanages, and foster parenthoods becoming widespread. Then we have surrogate motherhood and in-vitro fertilization with other than the husband’s sperm. If Muslim thinking were to remain unchanged, that would be as if despite satellites and people flying around the world, we still think the earth is flat.


            Islam recognizes only biological parenthood. Nonetheless the Qur’an as well as prophetic traditions exhort us to be kind to orphans, with the concomitant severe punishments otherwise. This Islamic kindness however, is limited only to things material, such as properties and living provisions. It does not extend to that most elemental need of any child, the emotional sense of belonging to and of being an integral part of a loving family. Even the material things are circumscribed. An adopted child is denied lawful inheritance (faraid); adopted parents could only bequeath gifts (hibah), and then to no more than a third of their assets. There are other subtle as well as not-so-subtle, overt as well as covert, and consequential as well as trivial matters to remind the adopted child that he or she remains different and separate from “real” or biological children.


            At marriage, the kadhi still insists that an adopted daughter get her biological father’s consent even though he may never have appeared in her life or memory while growing up. As for the trivial, an adopted daughter still has to don a hijab in front of her non-biological brothers and male relatives. These and other rituals, as with the practice of naming “illegitimate” children as bin or binti Abdullah, are there to remind them that they are “different,” meaning, not a “real” child of the family. That “binte Abdullah” appellation effectively brands the kid for life and beyond.


            Western societies place a premium on the traditional family. That takes precedence over the child’s presumed faith at birth. This can be heartbreaking for mothers who by court order have to give their child to a family who does not share their faith.


            Malay society is blighted by easy divorces and the taking of multiple wives. I have not come across any local sociological studies but anecdotally the dynamics of those children (more so the sons) are similar to Black children in America with absent father figures. I wonder whether such dysfunctional phenomena as Mat Rempits and school dropouts are but manifestations of this “absent father” syndrome.


            I was touched by a recent documentary of a Chinese girl who went (accompanied by her adopted American parents) on a visit to her old village in China in search of her biological parents, a common yearning among adoptees. She found them, and was taken aback at the highly emotional demonstrations of guilt trip that they had laid upon her in order to regain her affection as well as to excuse their giving her up at birth. That confused the teenager but her secure adopted parents reassured her.


            “Yes, you came from her tummy,” referring to the biological mother, “but you came from our heart!” The daughter returned home to America with her parents.


            “Open adoption,” where birth parents are allowed varying degrees of access to the child, is common in the West. Muslim adoption practices have elements of that. However, it too is not without its own complications as recounted by one mother of an adopted child in her memoir, Rock Needs River. One positive with open adoption is that the child has access to her family’s medical history. With today’s genetic testing, that is becoming less of an issue.


            We still read with horrifying frequency of abandoned babies in Malaysia. California has Safe Haven Law where parents and others may safely surrender infants within 72 hours of birth with no charges filed and no questions asked. Outside Emergency Rooms, fire stations, and churches is a warm attractive cot placed just for that purpose. I have yet to see one at mosques.


            I hope our ulama are not satisfied with just awarding Chee with this singular honor. It should inspire them and us to work with social workers, child psychologists, and lawmakers to make all babies wanted and loved. Issues such as faith and bureaucratic identity (as with race) are trivial if not irrelevant.



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