February 15, 2010

Pride in our armed services

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

MANY things have been said about the acquisition of our first submarine, but as I descended (rather slowly) into the cramped confines of the pride of our navy, my initial apprehension quickly turned to awe. The control room looked like the bridge of Captain Picard’s USS Enterprise, with numerous consoles displaying statistics, charts and codes incom-prehensible to the layperson, squeezed into the size of a PLUS highway toll booth.

As we viewed the torpedo bays and were briefed on the capabilities of the arsenal of weaponry, I tried to imagine the impact on hypothetical enemies on the receiving end. If we had this back in 1941, we could have single-handedly ended the Pacific War, I thought, and saved the lives of millions.

By the time I saw the squalid living quarters, my respect for the submariners had increased tremendously. For them, it is an honour to serve on the princely vessel, and having been given an overview of the training regimen, I am glad that they are.

While the exploits of land forces are more easily related on the big screen in movies like Leftenan
Adnan, it’s far more difficult to make long tours at sea visually exciting, usually relegated to the sidelines even in Hollywood blockbusters to when the battles actually happen. Furthermore, our national story, unlike that of the European maritime powers, has never glorified the sea (we don’t sing “Rule, Malaya! Malaya rules the waves!”), even though the livelihoods of our ancestors depended on the prosperity of our great ports.

Rear Admiral (Rtd) Datuk K. Thanabalasingam, the first Malaysian navy chief, and himself responsible for the early evolution of our navy, also credits our first prime minister for initiating the transformation of the navy from a coastal to an ocean-going force. It seems fitting, therefore, that this new chapter is marked with a boat called KD Tunku Abdul Rahman.

It was in Langkawi last week, and of course there was also the aerospace exhibition, which was as much an exhibition of technological as defence capabilities. The rules of physics seemed not to apply when our pilots looped, twirled and even stopped midair. Once again I witnessed the Sukhoi 30MKM, which I last saw dropping bombs near Gunung Ledang. And then there was the 1Network communication solution, which has many important civilian functions in addition to its military ones.

Overall, they were important reminders that while our politicians make lots of noise, our voluntary armed forces have long worked quietly, professionally and steadfastly for the nation’s sake.

Despite this, there are groups who actively try to downplay their role and even try to suppress proper and public tribute to them during events like Warriors’ Day, like they do in most Commonwealth countries. We now have a situation when the deeds of heroes of World War II, the Emergency and Konfrontasi are barely remembered by large segments of the public at all.

That’s why the relationship between the military and politicians is an important one (unless you live in a military dictatorship). There’s a hilarious sketch in the BBC political comedy Yes, Prime Minister where the head of the army conspires with the top civil servant to ensure that the prime minister buys new weapons of mass destruction (“It is the nuclear missile Harrod’s would sell!”).

Recently in the UK there has been real friction, with generals criticising the government for not supplying enough equipment to Afghanistan. But like any other institution in a democracy, the military – just like the judiciary and the Houses of Parliament – should not come under undue executive control: their loyalty is to the Agong.

A couple of years ago, Malaysia sent an astronaut of Minangkabau descent into space; and now we can roam the dark depths of the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. The next challenge must be to match these technological feats with genuine civilian pride in the forces.

I wonder if the subject is taught in these famed patriotism courses that are the subject of much debate – perhaps I’ll find out soon.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz would like to thank Mej Jen Datuk Zulkiflee Mazlan, Brig Jen Datuk Noordin Md Yusof, First Admiral Rusli Idrus, Kapt Zulhelmey Ithnain and Datuk Shahril Shamsuddin. Comments: