My Tribute to Badri bin Muhammad, PhD
M. Bakri Musa
Last and for a very special reason, I will cite another example of a free mind, Dr. Badri bin Muhammad. Badri was special to many, most immediately his wife and fellow Professor of Chemistry Karen Crouse, and their children Susanna, Adam, Diana, Nadira, and grandson Mitchell.
Once on meeting a group of Malaysian graduate students here in America, a few happened to have attended University Putra Malaysia. To my query whether they knew of Badri, one bright student beamed widely, “Yes, he was my wonderful chemistry professor!” and the others quickly joined in the praise. Very effusive and very heartfelt, those students were among Badri’s many legacies.
Badri died recently after a brief illness. He was special to me as we had been dear friends for a long time and shared so many bonds. Our wives knew each other well and so did our children who were of comparable ages.
Both of us came from rural Malaysia; he from Ulu Kelantan; I, Ulu Muar, Negri Sembilan. Like me, Badri went to Malay College for his Sixth Form but our years there did not overlap; he came right after I left. We met a few years later in Canada when he spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the University of Alberta where I was a medical student. We met by chance on campus, and typically Malaysian, he moved that very evening into the apartment I shared with a fellow medical student from Sarawak, Thaddeus Demong.
It also did not take Badri very long to take over our kitchen after tasting our version of Malaysian cuisine, and our nutrition improved considerably thereafter. I remember well his Canadian variation of our sambal, with an extra generous helping of onions and vinegar!
Later that summer we met a group of young Malaysian nurses attending a course on campus. They were taking the same classes as the Canadian degree student nurses, but because those Malaysians had only Form Five qualifications, they could not be formally registered as undergraduates. Also typically Malaysian, those nurses took that restriction in stride.
Not Badri, however. He encouraged the nurses to enroll in a summer course to qualify for formal university admission, with Badri volunteering to coach them especially in the sciences, in return for their cooking us dinners. Badri had earlier served as a temporary science teacher in Malaysia.
The girls took his advice and worked hard all summer, driven by Badri’s firm but kind tutelage. As expected with good teaching, all five passed their “departmentals” and were allowed to formally register as undergraduates that fall. Thus instead of getting merely a “certificate of completion,” those nurses became the first Malaysians to have a degree in nursing. One of them, Nik Safiah Ismail, would later become dean of nursing at UKM and a UN consultant.
That was Badri; he saw opportunities where others would passively accept constraints as the normal order of things.
Universiti Putra Malaysia was Badri’s academic home; he was a true scientist, passionate about his research. While others were consumed with lobbying for senior administrative positions, Badri was busy guiding his doctoral students and pursuing his passion – research.
For many years he stayed on campus; it was always a joy to visit him and his family there. The UPM campus is one of the most scenic, set in a lush valley away and protected from the urban hustle and bustle not too far away. My blood pressure would drop noticeably whenever I visited them. I always enjoyed those visits; strangely we did not bitch about Malaysia, instead we were busy sharing our experiences in our respective fields and comparing the differences between “bench” versus clinical research.
Badri was the first person I confided in when I decided to leave Malaysia. Like a true friend he was not at all shy in letting me know of his severe disappointment. But also like a true friend, he was supportive of my decision.
At that time the Badris had a daughter and son, both of comparable ages to my daughter and older son. In the first few years after I left, the Badris would frequently visit my parents in Seremban. Those visits meant a lot to my parents, and Badri and Karen knew that, as they allowed my parents to enjoy their grandchildren (my children) Melindah and Zachary albeit vicariously through Sue and Adam.
Badri demonstrated best the halus (soft or subtle) ways of our people, and that being halus does not preclude one from being determined and tenacious. You have to have those qualities to be a good researcher. Badri published his first research paper while still an undergraduate, a rare accomplishment.
When Badri and Karen visited my wife and me in Canada on their way back to Malaysia after receiving his PhD from Dalhousie, I showed him a Malaysian article profiling a young student who had just been awarded a scholarship to Australia to pursue his doctorate in chemistry. The article touted him to be the “first Malay PhD in chemistry” when he would graduate. Badri simply smiled on seeing that piece!
Realizing that he was probably the first Malay PhD in Chemistry, I complimented him and told him that he had beaten the legendary star of Malay College only a few years our senior, the one dubbed “the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College.” Badri was genuinely embarrassed by the comparison. “I didn’t do too well at Malay College,” he demurred.
“Not too well” in Badri-speak meant that he was not the top student. The class that Badri joined at Malay College was among the brightest; it was the first batch of the pure science stream. I remember supervising many of their evening “prep” hours. The class had a reputation for intimidating their supervising prefects; they in turn would groan when assigned. As I was the most junior and had the least clout with my fellow prefects, that chore fell on me disproportionately. It was fortuitous, for I thoroughly enjoyed being with those bright young students. Among his classmates was one Ariffin Aton who would later obtain his PhD in Chemical Engineering and would head SIRIM.
Obviously Badri was smart; he would not have been awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship otherwise or been recommended by his teachers.
Badri too was a man of many firsts, but as with his “first Malay PhD in chemistry” bit, they were all unheralded, and that suited him just fine. That was his style – unassuming. When appointed to senior administrative positions, for example being dean, to Badri that simply meant time away from his lab and students. He was one of the few academics who returned smoothly to his laboratory following a detour in administration.
He was the Foundation Fellow of both the Islamic as well as the Malaysian Academies of Science. Once he gave me a reprint of his latest paper. I had my undergraduate degree in chemistry so I was not lost with the content, but what impressed me was that the paper appeared in a leading international journal.
“You wouldn’t believe the hassles I got over that one,” he volunteered after I complimented him. It turned out that the university was none too pleased with his publishing the paper in English and in an international instead of a local journal!
I am always mindful whenever I write critical commentaries on our education system of individuals like Badri, educators and professionals who gave all they have to their institutions and students despite the huge obstacles and other “hassle factors” they faced daily in their work. The nation would be better off if only those in authority would relent just a wee bit and let individuals like Badri do what they do best.
The most revealing display of Badri’s halus ways and free-mindedness was his ability to sway his recalcitrant supervisors back home into letting him stay in Canada to pursue his PhD after getting his undergraduate degree. Then as now, the policy was that students had to return first and then wait their turn patiently before being sent abroad again.
Badri had other ideas; he was already offered a grant from the Canadians to pursue his doctoral work, all he had to do was get that special dispensation from home. I remember discussing at length with him on the best strategy to pursue in convincing the folks back home into letting him stay.
After much deliberation and with great anxiety, he decided to pursue a reverse psychology approach. It helped that the civil servants back in Malaysia who would be making the pivotal decision were just like Badri, so he could easily put himself in their shoes and understand their psychological vulnerabilities.
So in the most polite and deferential tone Badri wrote a long pleading letter in traditional Malay, together with the obligatory elaborate and profuse salutations expressing his heavy heart and sense of serba salah (dilemma) at having to write that letter, but had to do so merely as a favor requested by his professor. It was his professor’s wish that he (Badri) should continue with graduate work directly into the doctoral program. However, he (Badri) wished to return home as he was homesick and was missing his family and Malay food, especially his favorite budu (fish paste).
When as expected he did not receive a reply, he wrote back again, this time gently reminding his Malaysian supervisor that his professor wanted an answer from him (Badri) soon. This time Badri helpfully added that his professor had heard that Malaysia would soon be opening a second university and would need qualified candidates to staff it. And his professor wanted to contribute to this endeavor by training Badri.
The reply came finally, a few months later when already deeply engaged in his graduate work. “Tuan di arahkan melanjutkan … ” (“You are directed to pursue further studies…”) Badri was ecstatic. He had outwitted those civil service guys back home.
A few years later I met another Malaysian; he too was a scholarship student but was then residing abroad. I asked him how he did it, thinking it might be a variation of Badri’s move. He replied that he simply absconded; he did not bother to return or in any way communicate with the folks back home. What about his scholarship bond? It seemed that the authorities in Malaysia had lost his file!
I thought Badri was smart, but this character was shrewd. On second thought though, I think Badri would not contemplate simply skipping out. That would not be the Badri I knew.
When you have a free mind as Badri had, it would be easy for you to put yourself in your adversaries’ moccasins, as the natives here would put it, and thus figure out their thinking. Once you can do that, you are already one step ahead. That was my lesson from Badri.
My long story on him, apart from being my way of paying tribute to a long dear friend, is to demonstrate precisely this point about a free mind. The other is that when you have a free mind, you can easily focus on your objectives and not be distracted by the current fads. Badri was a scientist right from the very beginning; he had a passion for it, and he remained a true “bench scientist” right to the end. May Allah bless his soul!
Adapted from the author’s book. Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.