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‘The Son Has Not Returned: A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia’

October 23, 2019

Bakri Musa’s essays and musings in his blog are always good read. Last year he published his second memoir. Do check it out – enjoy!

* A Not-So Welcom Home!
* Practical Policies, Not Party Politics

Amazon  ;  Kinokuniya  ;  M Bakri Musa 

Dr M. Bakri Musa

Prologue of The Son Has Not Returned published in Amazon …

The Son Has Not Returned: A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia is a memoir of a Malaysian-born and Canadian-trained surgeon’s tenure in his native Malaysia from January 1976 to May 1978, and at a time when the term “brain drain” had not yet entered the popular lexicon.

When he left Canada to return home, it was to be a permanent move. Alas, that was only intention; other factors soon intruded.

Policymakers may expound on the dynamics of the brain drain, but in the end what makes an individual leave his country of birth is unique unto himself. To adapt Tolstoy’s line, families who stay put are all the same; those who emigrate do so for their own special reasons. This is one such story.

The writer is blessed to have been spared dramatic escapes from tyrant rulers, encounters with natural calamities, or surviving meaningless wars. Instead, the “push factors” chronicled here are the cumulative effects of rigid bureaucracies, obstinate civil servants, and widespread incompetence. Those are at least potentially remediable.

More problematic is the pernicious culture of deteriorating institutions, endemic corruption, and entrenched feudalism masked by a veneer of pseudo modernity. The deterioration of institutions ranged from the physical ones, as with operating rooms shuttered for months because of contamination to inept management that resulted in droves of physicians leaving the service and country.

The corruption ranges from shenanigans in the hospital’s kitchen that resulted in patients having only watery soup to relatives of the dead having to pay ‘tolls’ to claim the remains of their loved ones. The entrenched feudalism led to a dedicated senior colleague being banished out of state within 24 hours for having unintentionally transgressed some feudal rituals.

During the thirteen years the writer was away training to be a surgeon, both Malaysian and the writer had changed, but in opposite directions.

Parting ways early spared him many dashed hopes, unpleasant emotions, and bitter recollections. As such the memories recalled here are for the most part fond, sweet and pleasureable. This is a recollection of small and not-so-small events that in their totality make some other place in this blessed God’s planet more attractive to bring up his family and pursue his career than the land where he was born and raised.

For those inclined to use the constraints of family, culture, geography, or anything else as reasons for not pursuing their dreams, the writer reminds them of the Koranic verse. “When the angels take the souls of those who wronged themselves, [the angels] say, ‘In what state were you?’ They say, ‘We were weak and oppressed.’ [The angels] would reply, ‘Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated elsewhere?'” (Surah An-Nisa 4:97)

Bakri Musa was far from being weak or oppressed while in Malaysia and the land was neither barren nor chaotic, but Allah’s universe elsewhere was far more promising. The title is a line from Sitor Situmorang’s poem, “Si Anak Hilang” (The Lost Son).

The writer’s first memoir, Cast From The Herd: Memories of a Matriarchal Malaysia, recalls his growing up in the world’s largest matrilineal society, the Minangkabau.

Prologue of Bakri Musa’s first memoir Cast from the Herd: Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

Cast From The Herd is a cultural memoir of a young Minangkabau boy, later to become a surgeon in Silicon Valley, California, in rural Malaysia during the late 1940s to the early 60s.

The Minangkabaus are the largest matriarchal society, if we include those in neighboring Indonesia. It is an account of the many seminal events, beginning with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the subsequent brief but equally brutal three-week reign of terror by the Chinese Communists just before the British re-established its authority immediately after the war.

The two hitherto World War II allies against the Japanese became mortal enemies as each tried to gain exclusive control of Malaya, as the country was then called.

That brief Chinese communist rule had a profound impact on the native Malays that still reverberates and colors Sino-Malay race relations to this day. That communist insurrection degenerated into a long guerilla warfare, euphemistically referred to as “The Emergency.” It was not over till four decades later.

During its early years that war was as lethal and vicious as the preceding Japanese Occupation. Malaysia remains unique in having prevailed over the communists sans any foreign help, military or otherwise, a noteworthy achievement considering that it happened at the height of the Cold War. Across the South China Sea in Vietnam, the communists prevailed over a vastly more powerful adversary.

This memoir gives a ground level view of Malaysia’s counter-intuitive but remarkably successful strategy against the communists.

While Robert McNamara and the Pentagon were consumed with “body counts” as a measure of progress in the war against the communists in Vietnam, Malaysia opted for the very opposite tactic. Its philosophy and modus of operation were simple yet effective; in fighting terrorists, first create no new ones. Every terrorist killed was a missed opportunity. Malaysian authorities saw immense propaganda value, and exploited it to the maximum, in having former comrades recant their past and lead productive lives in society.

The Malaysia of the writer’s childhood was also a society transiting from a feudal agrarian colony to a modern democratic independent state. It had its first general elections in 1955. Electing leaders was a novel phenomenon for a hitherto feudal society where leaders were anointed and the peasants had to obey them. In a democracy, leaders had to seek citizens’ votes. That 1955 election paved the way for Malaysia’s independence that came in 1957.

The electoral dynamics of that first free election forced leaders and citizens alike to address the harsh reality of Malaysia’s race dynamics. The last transformative event was in 1963 when Malaya expanded to form greater Malaysia through union with the other remaining British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak. That triggered an ugly diplomatic tiff with one neighbor, Philippines, and a bloody konfrontasi with another, Indonesia.

Being brought up in a matriarchal society where women play major and decisive roles gave the writer a unique perspective on feminist issues. Consider the 19th Amendment to the American constitution (allowing women to vote). To someone brought up in a matriarchal society, that amendment seems quaint. Had the Framers of the Constitution been brought up in a similar society, the need for such an amendment would not have even arisen.

The book chronicles the writer’s experience in a colonial English school in rural Malaysia and later at a boarding school modeled after a proper English grammar school, dubbed “Eton of the East.” The book ends with the writer’s brief teaching career before leaving for Canada to pursue medicine, and the inevitable culture shock.

Besides giving a glimpse of recent Malaysian history, this memoir shines a different perspective on feminist issues, one not appreciated by those brought up in a male-dominated society. The title is from the Indonesian Chairul Anwar’s poem “Aku” (Me!).

From → Malaysia Upclose

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