Of Veterans and Losing Faith
By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
If the 2009 Australian eavesdropping episode on its Asean neighbours is anything but deliberate then I stand by my conviction that their dithering is for a reason. Insofar as Malaysia is concerned, I feel it is not for reasons of security per se, but more to do with the prevailing political climate then following the two vociferous Bersih demonstrations clamouring for a free and independent election.
Despite the demand for an unconditional apology from Tony Abbott, the newly-minted Prime Minister of Australia, the response has been lukewarm, to say the least. I wonder why Tony has not brushed aside the Indonesian President’s insistence with a mere, “I wasn’t the Prime Minister then, Kevin Rudd was” reply typical of how politicians in a quandary would have reacted.
Or resort to elegant silence, as a golden rule of thumb for someone in the pits. But in a Western society, of which Australia is one, such behaviour is deemed unethical and will earn the wrath of the nation and the international community.
My rambling is not aimed at placing Australia in the spotlight for its wrongdoings. Far from it, my allusion is merely an opener for a matter of lesser significance than what is ongoing in the Oceanic region. Politics, however, is not the issue here.
I respect the Aussies for one innate quality which we Malaysians find wanting. It has much to do with their attitude towards military veterans, especially their own. Australians, since the Second Boer War (1899 to 1902), have been fighting wars not in their backyards but on foreign soils.
The only time they were forced to do the inevitable was when Japanese planes bombed Darwin and their midget submarines sneaked into Sydney Harbour in an attempt to sink Allied warships at the onset of the Second World War in 1942. Otherwise, Australian troops were in harness for duties abroad all of the time.
An Australian infantry division was in Malaya propping the weak British defensive perimeter before the Japanese invasion in December 1941. They were here again during the Malayan Emergency (1948 to 1960) providing ground and air support for counter-insurgency operations. Their troops were recalled when President Sukarno of Indonesia decided to confront newly formed Malaysia, claiming it to be a British colonial stooge in 1962.
Those who died in these conflicts were being interred in a number of cemeteries located throughout the length and breadth of the country, including Sabah and Sarawak. And remembering their dearly departed has become an obsession with those who had served in the same outfits as the dead and the maimed.
These war-weary veterans and their families make annual pilgrimages to Taiping, Batu Gajah, Terendak, Sandakan, Labuan and Kuching to honour their kinsmen who had made the ultimate sacrifice, not for their country but the country that they had the misfortune to serve. Nothing can be more honourable than to remember these brave soldiers who died in the prime of their youth while fighting a war in a far-flung country whose affiliation they were never certain.
I had the privilege to attend one such service on Sunday, November 24 at the Esplanade in Penang. The Penang Veterans’ Association organised the morning service dedicated to fallen heroes of the Great War (1914 to 1918), Second World War (1939 to 1945), Malayan Emergency (1948 to 1960), Indonesian Confrontation (1962 to 1966) and the Re-Insurgency Period (1968 to 1990).
The association, under the presidency of Major Sivarajan KM Ramathan (Retired), has been doing so without fail for the last 12 years. Quite unexpectedly, I was honoured with the responsibility of laying a wreath on behalf of retired Royal Ranger Regiment officers and men. I was touched by the gesture, which I thought strange considering my abhorrence for officialdom.
Feelings aside, I was somewhat perplexed by the conspicuous absence of serving officers from Headquarters 2nd Infantry Division, which is stationed on the island. The state government and the Police were well represented and so were the High Commissions of Australia and New Zealand and the Nepalese Embassy, including the Thai Consulate-General in Penang.
If these foreign dignitaries could make an appearance I see no reason why the local army commander could not. He could at least send a senior officer to represent the division. After all, wasn’t this an occasion to honour military personnel?
The reason is obvious. It has to do with religious belief. Since the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, which led to the ouster of Shah Pahlavi and his decadent royal entourage by Ayatollah Khomeini, the country has been overwhelmed by religious fervour that is second to none. Today paying homage to a cenotaph is considered taboo as the action would, in the words of the learned clerics, cause one to lose faith in Islam or more succinctly, hilang akidah.
If I were to go strictly by this dictate I would have been a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Taoist many times over, as I had stood in reverence to an obelisk, not once but several times in my lifetime. In spite of all this my faith in my religion has never once fluttered.
Malay Muslims should be more circumspect about ceremonies to honour fallen heroes than to submit selflessly to fatwas which are man-made. I rest my case.