By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
The formation of the Malaysian Army Chinese Veterans Association (MACVA) recently caught many ex-servicemen (including yours truly) by surprise. It has never occurred to us that our Chinese counterparts would have the gumption to do the unthinkable. Most prefer to remain incognito and inactive, save for the occasional outburst whenever the going got tough. Chinese army veterans are a dying breed as their number, including those from the navy and airforce, is dwindling over time. The attrition rate is pretty high due to reasons of age and health.
The notion that Chinese prefer not to join the army is flawed. This is based on the long-held belief that only prodigal sons don uniforms. And since no one is around to refute the theory, the belief persists.
When I took my oath to serve King and Country in May 1968, there were many Chinese and Indians, including a lone Eurasian, in my batch. We started with 51 but the group got smaller over time, as rigorous training took its toll. When our two-year course ended, only 29 were commissioned as subalterns. I was assigned to a Ranger battalion based at Lok Kawi Camp, Kota Kinabalu.
Out of the 29 strapping (struggling is more appropriate) young officers, 15 were non-Malays. Out of which seven were Chinese and the remaining eight, Indians. The lone Eurasian was an air force cadet who went on to become one of the country’s top jet-fighter pilots. He now lives in Rome with his Italian wife.
Well, things were not as racially polarised as it is today. Rear Admiral Thanabalasingam, a youthful naval officer, was the navy chief then. He was appointed to the post when he was only 31 years old.
Although the army and air force chiefs were Malays, Chinese and Indian officers were directors and commanders of corps and units in the army. The Signal Corps, the Engineers and the Electrical and Mechanical Corps were headed by Chinese. The Medical Corps was commanded by an Indian. Over in the field, Chinese and Indians were in command of regiments and battalions. My battalion commander was a Sikh who had served with distinction in Congo under the UN banner.
Mine was a mixed battalion consisting of Sabahans and Sarawakians. Malays, Chinese, Indians and one Eurasian made up the officer corps. The lone Eurasian was Terence Stahlman. He was an accomplished boxer who won gold at the regional SEAP and Asian Games.
In short, opportunities for promotion were there. It was still a merit-based prospect much to our liking, as in an open competition only the best would survive. The weak and the less capable would wither away.
In the army if you are not in the right corps you are damned forever. We found this rather too late. Consumed by romanticism and a devotion to duty, we never gave promotion and progression much thought. You can be a Malay but if you are commissioned into a unit other than a Royal Malay regiment you had it. Promotion to beyond colonel is a pipe-dream.
And if a Malay feels as such, imagine a non-Malay. That was the predicament these Chinese and Indian officers had felt. Many opted out. The air force officers were fortunate as their piloting skills were in demand by civil airlines.
Now back to the Chinese veteran association. Among its five objectives, the one I find interesting is, “To provide continual support and serve as a resource to the Malaysian Armed Forces.” Sourcing for Chinese volunteers to join the armed forces is part and parcel of this definition. This was conveyed to me by the association’s secretary, Major (Rtd) Godfrey Chang. I support this noble aim but in order for things to work, a change in policy is desirous. Provide non-Malay officers and other ranks equal opportunities for promotion.
But it is easier said than done. The army hierarchy is Royal Malay Regiment biased. I don’t think they would budge. Although there are some positive changes now, a few Chinese and Indian generals, holding insignificant appointments, make little difference.