I was commissioned into the Third Battalion Malaysian Rangers (3 Rangers) stationed at Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. There were eight of us, Abang Ali, Bujang Sapawi, Kassim, Ngo Kim Seng, Siaw, Jagdesh Singh and Stephen Bey, reporting to the Camp on that particular day. We had a rousing welcome by the seniors led by Major Day, the Battalion Second in- Command, Captain Richard King, Captain Furly, the Adjutant, Second Lieutenant Suselan and some other British officers at the Officers’ Mess foyer.
It was a very well organised welcoming party with plenty of beer to offer. Before anything else I had down three cans of beer, not that I was good drinker but was under pressure. Much to my surprise, I had never done this before in my life. Trust me! It was not too long before I threw out while gorging through my fourth can. I was baptised. It took three days for me to be officially accepted as a member of the Officers’ Mess while some took a slightly longer time. Acceptance was based on how quick one could socially integrate with the seniors. It was a simple form of orientation to “break-in” a new member. “Freshies” would undergo some ritualistic mumbo jumbos which were regarded as “traditions” organised by the President of the Mess Committee. Where supervision was weak such “orientation” had been known to gone awry. Some of these “freshies” were traumatised beyond reasons and the whole objective of the welcoming party came to nought. However, such activity is being frowned upon by the military hierarchy presently.
A week later it was the customary “mess night” held to welcome new members to the mess. That night we had the “3 Rangers Special” a drink we would remember for life. Could you guess the content? It was made of just anything edible and drinkable under the sun - brandy, whisky, beer, ketchup, chilli sauce, toname a few, blended together. A concoction guaranteed to send you to the moon!
For the next three weeks, we went through the orientation period under the watchful eyes of Captain Richard King who familiarised us with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), organisation and functionality of an infantry battalion and life in the battalion. King was a seconded British Officer, a six-footer with a strong physique. He was very knowledgeable and had plenty of experience having served in some of the most inhospitable regions of the world with the British Army. It was interesting learning the ropes from an experienced officer. He handled us well but we had problem keeping pace with him. When he opened his strides, we would be running otherwise we be left behind. He would have one or two beers during NAAFI break (10 o’clock) and some more during lunchtime and a bit more before dinner. We would be careful not to pass anywhere near the bar during these hours otherwise we would be dragged in for a drink or two that could last forever.
After the orientation period was over, we were interviewed by the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel HarjitSingh, and then introduced to our platoons which we would lead. During the interview I was informed by Harjit to take charge of a “troubled platoon” - the 12th Platoon of Delta Company. I was told no officers had survived more than six months at the helm. The platoon was commanded by a sergeant. I was anxious to meet my platoon personnel and to find out what made them so difficult to administer. The Platoon Sergeant, Sgt Suhaili, came over and gave me a smart salute and introduced me to the men for the first time. They were dashing young men except for a few veterans like Cpl Ibrahim, Cpl Lugat and the Sgt Suhaili himself. As the introduction progressed, I found out that these men were no different from rest. All they needed was someone to trust, someone to lead and to become their big brother.
It took me awhile to study their backgrounds and to understand each and everyone of them. I spent time with the men, teaching them basic military skills and tactics and other things that a soldier should know. At the same time, I took the opportunity to learn from them, their experiences and exposures. Bonding came easy, as I made it a point to be with them not as an officer but a big brother and a friend. Suhaili, Ibrahim and Lugat were a pillar of strength. They gave their undivided support although I was just a greenhorn. Once yougained their trust interacting became a lot easier Made me wonder why the previous commanders were unsuccessful in managing them. It could be their attitude or something else more sinister. Whatever it was I was
A few weeks into my induction I was selected to attend the Young Officers’ Tactics Course at Maktab Latihan Tentera Darat (MLTM) now known as Pusat Latihan Tentera Darat (LATEDA) in Port Dickson. I got through the three-month course with flying colours and was beaming with confidence upon my return to Kuala Kubu Bahru. My men were equally delighted to see their commander. Early in morning I would take my platoon for physical training. Later we would go to the rubber estate nearby to hone in our skills in field crafts and battle drills. I would organise map reading exercises in the jungles around the camp. Since we had to be proficient in public order drills, I helped my company commander conduct public order exercises from time to time. During such trainings my platoon got to exercise with the other two platoons.
The teachings I had acquired at RMC and MLTM were used to good stead during these field exercises. At night I would conduct Bahasa Malaysia classes for Lugat and the rest whose command of the language was poor. Some were illiterate and being a fellow Sarawkian, I felt obligated to impart them the knowledge. They found it hard to understand written orders and had to depend on drawings and sketches made by the Company Sergeant Major. It may seem amusing to the uninitiated but that is the truth. Soldiers those days were not as educated as they are today. In spite of them not being able to read and write, they made it up in their soldiering skills. I had nothing but my utmost respect for them From dawn to dusk we maintained a busy routine. My boys were kept busy most of the time. They obviously enjoyed it since nobody complained.
Towards the end of the year we went to Trengganu for a series of field exercises codenamed IKUTAN 1 & 2. The whole battalion was involved. This was the first time my platoon was tested. We did a superb job and Captain John Harvey, my company commander, was so delighted that he threw a party. One morning we woke up to see the four wooden walls of the Officers’ Mess collapsed. We were shocked to see the mess. There was no storm the night before. Captain Aziz, the Quarter Master (QM) was not impressed. The prime suspect was Lieutenant Edward Tay, the Battalion Intelligence Officer (IO).. “Is this your. work, Edward?” Before the QM could finish his sentence Edward replied, “yes, sir. I and a few others are responsible for the damage but don’t worry we’ll put it up before evening.” “Bloody hell, get cracking then,” said Aziz. They must have had a rowdy night in the wooden block and having drunk beyond their limit attempted to bring the roof down as well Edward grinned and left. He came back soon armed with a ladder, nails and a hammer.
In the evening the four walls were back in their original position. That was 3 Rangers. No one was indispensable. We were one great team. Mess life in 3 Rangers was simply fantastic. We were the talk of the Armed Forces. The officers had become a very close-knitted family; an envy to many others. The comradeship that was established lasted to this very day. I remember one night when we marched down to Kuala Kubu Bahru town dressed elegantly in long sleeves and neck ties for a cowboy movie at the town‘s only cinema. We had little in our pockets but still managed to share and buy dinner at the hawker stall. Ais Batu Kacang or ABC and fried keow teow were our favourite.
It was good clean fun. We would take a dig at one another but it was nothing serious or personal. These were qualities that bond us together and made us proud of being part of 3 Rangers. I played rugby and was pretty good at basketball but the game I liked most was hockey.. I was fast and could dribble the ball right up to the opponent’s goal. We used to win matches in Tanjong Malim and the surrounding areas. Our hockey captain was full of praises for me until one day when an ugly incident happened. During one of the intercompany games I was so pissed with one senior rank, Shamsuddin who started to pick on my team’s left winger. I ticked him off and cautioned him not to be hard on the guy.
“Why do you care, Sir. It’s hockey,” he retorted. I was enraged and waited for the right moment to strike back. A few minutes later someone hit a half volley and we were both running for the ball. As I reached the ball I gave a whack with the sharp edge of the hockey stick direct across his shinbone. I could hear the crack as he took a tumble and fell to the ground. Blood spurted out and soon his right leg was completely soaked. He laid face down, groaning with pain. As I stretched forward to pick him up, he looked at me and said, “thank you, Sir.” I felt remorseful. From then onwards I swore never to touch a hockey stick again.
By end of 1968 the battalion moved to Kuching for a ninemonth unaccompanied tour of Sarawak. Those days units were shipped between West and East Malaysia for short operational stint. Families were left behind in the camps. Captain John Harvey, my company commander, left for England after having completed his tour of duty in Malaysia. He was replaced by Captain Samad Ayob. Barely a week after we arrived at Balai Ringin Camp we were assigned to a commando detachment (troop) under Captain Chua Hong Kang. Our first mission was to go across the Indonesian border to attack a Communist Terrorists (CT) camp located inside one of the many caves within the Idai Complex. The terrorists, according an informer, were estimated to be around 120- strong. That evening we bade farewell to our colleagues. Wewere transported, under cover of darkness, in military vehicles to a place called Lachau. It was a frightening moment for an inexperienced soldier like me and many shared my fear too but we were excited, nonetheless. We were confident of attacking the camp successfully and were prepared for some casualties.
We started at midnight, scaling up the mountain range somewhere near a small village at Lachau and cutting across into the Idai Complex. We were instructed specifically not to follow track used by the locals to avoid detection. It took us almost 3 days non- stop walking to reach the location. We split into small groups to detect signs on the ground. There were numerous footprints but we could not differentiate between friends or foes. All of sudden we received instructions to pull out immediately. We were given a fixed period to clear the area. The Indonesian Army would fire their guns into the area subsequently. Minutes later we heard the sounds of helicopters coming to pick and move us to an undisclosed location inside the Malaysian border.
Almost immediately we heard booming sounds of the guns and of bombs crashing into the woods. I did not bother to find out why the operation was aborted. We were airlifted to Gunong Spali miles away from where we were. We were dislodged on the mountain top without food or water for two days until the weather was clear for a re-supply by air. This was my first operational experience and the beginning of many more to come. We were left on the mountain for three months. While the planners in Kuching hashed and rehashed plans for a battle we, on the ground, waited in anticipation. Finally, we received orders to move out to the Landing Point (LP) to be evacuated by helicopters. What an anti-climax. Frustrated with the way we were treated, I ordered my men to march out from the operational area in torn shirts and trousers.
Captain Samad, who was waiting at the LP, was shocked to see me in my tethered clothing. “What happened to you? Where did you come from?” he asked. I told him that we had not being re-supplied on schedule. The torn uniforms were evident enough. “March them straight to the store and give them a new pair of uniform each,” he said to the company quartermaster sergeant, Staff Sergeant Zainal. Turning around, he looked hard at me and said, “young man, join me for a drink after you are done, ok?” Samad was a lively guy, tall dark and handsome and could be passed for an actor. A polished singer, he would coax and teach me to sing. He was my mentor who taught me human resource management. He trusted his subordinates fully. He would check our progress once and would offer his help or advice only if it was needed. One day I was summoned to his office and he said, rather candidly, “don’t waste your time in 3 Rangers, go out if you have the opportunity. You have the capabilities and the talents to climb high. In the Army you must be either be seen or heard otherwise you would be forgotten. Fight when you are Captain but slow down a bit when you are a Major.”
His advice seemed plausible. I was motivated to move on from that day onwards. I was soon detached from Delta Company and placed in command of a special squad. The squad’s task was to collect and collate intelligence and passed it back to the battalion headquarters. I travelled a great deal, mostly in the Iban populated areas, tracking the movements of terrorists who had infiltrated deep inside Katibas, Batang Rejang, Oya, Mukah Tatau, Sarikei and the surrounding areas. I was literally detached from the battalion and was left to manage the special squad on my own. We were almost forgotten. The battalion even left for Taiping without me. I had to rush to the airport to catch the last flight home.
I did not have the opportunity to even say goodbye to my parents who were just half an hour’s drive away from the place I stayed. It was cruel and indeed a traumatic ending for me. Despite this little episode I was happy to reunite with my platoon. My boys had gone without me for almost three months. My platoon had arrived in Taiping a month earlier than me. Two months later we received the news of a major reshuffle in the entire battalion. New battalions were being formed up so trained men were needed to beef up the new units. Some of my men would be leaving the platoon soon. It was a very sad moment for everyone of us. Our moral was rock bottom. Friends and partners would soon split for good. We could not bear leaving 3 Rangers for another battalion. Period.
A few weeks later we were deployed to the Thai border but returned to Taiping a month later. Upon arrival we heard that some of the personnel had left for the new battalions. I asked for an interview with the Commanding Officer to remonstrate but was told off by my superiors. They did not seem to appreciate my predicament. At such tender age I simply could not see the larger picture. The army was expending and new battalions were being established to meet mounting challenges by the Malayan Communist Party. Men were required to fill up the new infantry units. There must be a right mix of old and new. I was too emotional over the whole issue and had let it crept into my thick head. One other episode which never failed to miss my mind was the uneasy relationship we had with the Police. The Kuala Kubu Bahru Police station was located next to our camp. We had not much contact with them neither do they with us. It was a tinder box relationship ready to ignite at the slightest provocation.
Late one night Jagdesh Singh popped into the Officers’ Mess while we were partying. Slung across his shoulder was a submachinegun. He looked excited.“Gentlemen,” he shouted, “there is a fight in town and some of our soldiers are in the police lock up. The Police refuse bail.” Major Ghani, the most senior office present, ordered us to fall in ranks and marched to the police station. We stopped at the gates and Ghani shouted at the police to release the soldiers. This went on for awhile until the Commanding Officer came and told us to disperse. We broke ranks and returned to the camp. To my surprise the whole camp was awake. The soldiers were on “stand-to” and were ready for battle.
The next day I witnessed a flurry of activities at the battalion headquarters. The army top brass from the Ministry of Defence dropped by in a helicopter. Colonel Harjit’s days were numbered. He was unceremoniously removed from command and was temporarily replaced by Major Ismail It was during Ismail’s tenure as the Acting Commanding Officer that I gathered enough courage to request for a personal interview. I was not too pleased with developments in the battalion. Those who slogged were overlooked while the applepolishers enjoyed the benefits. However, the interview was ill timed. Ismail dismissed me as being impetuous and hot-headed. I got a mouth full instead and came out of the office feeling more contemptuous than ever.
Somehow the dictum that young officers are not to be heard but only to be seen holds true. I learnt things the hard way. One morning I received a call from Captain Nesaratnam, the Adjutant, informing me about an offer for special forces training by Rejimen Para Komando Angkatan Darat Indonesia (RPKAD) at Batu Djadjar Bandung. Without hesitation I signed on for the selection trial at Sg Udang Camp, Melaka. The next day I left for Tampin en route to the First Malaysian Special Service Unit (MSSU) Camp, Melaka. I left a note on the table for my batman (valet) that read, hanya mayat sahaja akan kembali saya akan tetap berjaya dikomando. While in the train coach, I recalled all the happy moments I had with 3 Rangers. Tears began to stream down my cheeks. I had come to love the officers and men and they in return had reciprocated in kind. I knew I would not be seeing them again. As I sat on the seat by the window, the past flashed by in my mind. The flashbacks were so vivid like pictures on a sliver screen. I cupped my face and cried. My whimpering was drowned by the noise of the rolling stock, as the train chugged along the tracks into the moonlit night. The Ipoh Echo