It had been a hectic and far-from-pleasant week despite attempts by my parents to make us, especially Karen, comfortable. Tun Razak’s death had cast a gloom on the entire nation. My being posted to Kuala Lipis only made the mood worse despite my earlier spin at viewing that as an exotic sojourn.
My father was conflicted on whether I was still his teenage son whom he could order around or a young surgeon deserving of some awe and respect. He occasionally addressed me as “Tuan Doctor!” but seeing that I did not respond, reverted back to the familiar “‘Bai!” My mother stuck to ’Bai. To her I was still her young boy to whom she had waved a long, tearful goodbye some thirteen years earlier, and now desperate to make up for all those precious lost times. She was noticeably restrained however, in ordering me around in Karen’s presence. I in turn was very effective in using that as a convenient shield.
This Kuala Lipis posting was not what we had expected. That Friday, as we had promised before we left Canada, Karen phoned her parents. She broke down during the call and had to hand the phone to me as she could not continue. Her earlier excitement of a new adventure had now given way to a terrible homesickness. I did my best on the phone to reassure my in-laws. It helped that the call was expensive and thus had to be brief. Ruth maintained her composure. Her parting words was a pleading “take good care of my baby and grandchildren.”
Karen and I were not the only ones down in the dumps that week. The day before, the Tun’s body arrived at Subang Airport from London. The place was packed and the grief palpable. His funeral was, as expected of a much-loved leader, somber. The mood was amplified by the live coverage. Everyone who could not go to the airport were glued to the television sets, at home, in the restaurants, and community centers. The whole nation was in despair. It was the suddenness and unexpectedness that shocked the nation. Malaysians had not at all been prepared for the tragic news.
I felt detached through it all. That surprised me for I had admired the man. He had after all inspired me to return! Engulfed in my own turmoil, the Tun’s death was more disappointment than sadness. That soon turned to anger as details of his malady became known.
He had been sick for years, stricken with leukemia. He had kept that secret, from his family as well as the nation, right till the very end. Even when he took the final trip to London for his desperate and ultimately futile treatment, there was an elaborate ruse to disguise and hide it from the public. This despite his obvious emaciation. Hard to believe that his fellow cabinet ministers, top civil servants, and others close to him did not notice this dramatic physical deterioration in the man. You did not have to be a doctor to know that there was something wrong–and mortally so–with him. Yet he was able to deceive everyone right to the day he left Malaysia by sneaking through Singapore on the pretense of a routine visit.
As details of that and other deliberate deceptions later emerged, I became angry. He had not taken Malaysians into his confidence. Now his demise had caused so much pain. The Tun’s keeping his fatal illness a secret was not an act of courage or favor but the contrary.
When you are in the doldrums, indulging in one bad thought would in quick order degenerate into other more sinister ones, with subsequent contemplations even less charitable if not downright ugly. I wished Allah would let the Tun have a final look on earth and see the grief he had inflicted upon his people. He could have lightened that burden had only he had taken them in his confidence. We Muslims are very accepting of death.
My thoughts flashed back to my childhood days in the old village. I remembered my cousins and others being taken out of the English school we attended, opting instead for the new Malay stream. They had fallen for the sway of the nationalists. My father managed to dissuade some of them. “We should not listen to what our leaders say, instead follow what they do,” he advised them. The Minister of Education at that time was Tun Razak. While he was exhorting the Malay masses to send their children to Malay schools, he was surreptitiously sending his, all of them, to English schools, and in England to boot.
That was Tun Razak’s first deception. He succeeded very well. No surprise then that others would follow, until the ultimate one that January.
Years later my cousins whose parents had kept them in the English stream would never cease to express their gratitude to my father. On the other hand, a friend whose parents had taken him out of English school, on Tun Razak’s exhortations, on meeting me later (now a surgeon) would only comment that my father had been wiser than his!
Tun Razak was the man who inspired me to give up my career in Canada and return home. Now the best my country could offer me was a slot in Kuala Lipis District Hospital, and without an anesthesiologist!
I was directing my anger on and disappointment to the man. He was now the focus of my conflicting emotions. How on earth did I end up in this predicament?
The sparkles of the fond memories I had of the late Tun were now dimmed but I still harbored a tiny reservoir of goodwill for the man.
To escape the turmoil within me, or more correctly, to distract myself, I decided to take the weekend off to go Port Dickson. We pretended that the last week or two had been but a bad dream and that we were back at Honolulu and extending our stay there. Although the amenities at the Rest House in Port Dickson were far from those at the hotel we stayed in Waikiki, nonetheless our brief make-believe diversion was therapeutic.
Next: Excerpt #5: Meeting The Big Chief
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia(2018).