KUALA LUMPUR: Most countries with ethnically mixed populations now welcome increased racial diversity in their modern armed forces.
The common aim is to give their nations the best possible security.
They’re keen to attract their most able citizens, regardless of race or religion, in this increasingly specialised, hi-tech age.
So why is Malaysia going in the opposite direction?
Until the 70s, around 30% of the total Malaysian armed forces (ATM) manpower was non-Malay. The Navy and Air Force had an even higher percentage.
Currently the non-Bumiputera ATM total has plummeted to around 5%.
Some might say Malaysia is squandering its most valuable resource: the unique racial mix. And as a result, the nation has a less effective defence force.
One argument is that the fault lies with the authorities, who are making things difficult for Chinese and Indian citizens to join the military and rise through the ranks.
Or is it simply that non-Bumiputeras are turning their noses up at serving their country in favour of more lucrative careers?
It’s hard for non-Bumis not to see the current military as being run by and for Malays with an “orang kita” attitude to recruiting and promotion. They feel there is no welcoming place for people like them nowadays in the military.
Perhaps the situation is a reflection of the increasing drifting apart of the races in Malaysian society.
Brigadier-General (Rtd) Mohd Arshad Raji, president of the National Patriots Association, a non-partisan, multiracial group of retired military and police officers, recently said, “Starting from the late 80s the military became increasingly religion-centred and the non-Malays felt more alienated. Officers’ mess life and the lives of soldiers became very much dictated by religious sensitivity.”
It hasn’t always been this way, as Chinese veterans who served prior to the 80s recall.
The first Chinese air quartermaster, Victor Tuan, now aged 79, is sad about how Malaysians can no longer treat each other like brothers and sisters able to serve happily together. “There was no racial divide. We used to pull each other’s legs all the time.”
Of course times were harder in those days, as Tuan, a First Warrant Officer, remembers. “There were not many other job opportunities back then, so the only thing I could do was to put on the uniform,” he said.
“When the polarisation started to come in, there were a lot of new restrictions. I experienced it as an examiner when I was told not to scold Malay students.”
He added that in the past, Umno was given too much power and always acted to promote Malays over other races.
“The recent ascent of Pakatan Harapan will be a good chance to revive the Chinese in the military,” he said
There have been accusations in recent news reports that non-Malays are unpatriotic. Tuan denies this vehemently. “The Chinese are not patriotic? It is not true,” he insisted. “Remember all the minorities who served gallantly in the past. Just give us the chance and we’ll be there again.”
Lt-Col (Rtd) Raymond Goh, when asked why he thinks there are fewer Chinese in the army today compared to his time, quoted the old saying, “Good sons don’t join the army.”
And with Chinese families having a low birth rate, typically producing only one or two sons, they don’t want to risk their early deaths in armed conflict. In this century, the same holds true for their daughters.
Goh believes the Chinese lack prospects in the armed forces because the previous government had a lot of race-based policies.
“That was how most of us Chinese ended up as middle ranks.
“Promotions up to major were based on exams open to all races. But from colonel upwards promotions were based on recommendations by the army to the King. Very few Chinese were promoted beyond colonel.
“I was a victim of these politics. I was stuck in the same rank for 11 years,” said Goh.
He explained how he saw that there were no other possibilities of promotion and so decided to leave the army.
“I made up my mind since I saw there was no future for me in the army. I have a degree in engineering, so in Civvy Street I still had a marketable value. Of course I was disappointed but what else could I do?
“I have celebrated Merdeka every year since 1957, but this year it will be special as we are finally celebrating a new Malaysia where there may be more equality.”
F/Sgt Wilson Wong, 68, served for 13 years in the air force, initially joining because he wanted to enter college but his family could not afford it.
“Back then, there were not many job opportunities in Penang. There weren’t lots of factories offering jobs like now, so people in the north joined the air force, based at RMAF Butterworth.
“About 70% of those on the technical side were Chinese. It was a good life.
“But the government’s affirmative action policies of the 1980s affected the military administration, and racial policies started emerging. The air force began to take fewer Chinese. We would apply, but wouldn’t get in, so the numbers fell.”
As numbers dropped, esprit-de-corps and comradeship were negatively affected in multi-racial units.
An even smaller minority of recruits was Chinese women.
Lt-Col (Rtd) Carol Loo Lee Fum was one of only two Chinese female recruits who got through to military training college back in 1977.
She recalls how she imagined being a special agent like James Bond (007), so she applied to specialise as an intelligence officer.
“It was not easy and not everyone could get into the intelligence unit but I was accepted. Being Chinese was a bonus as I could speak several dialects. The army recognised that this would be useful to them.”
She maintains that there was no discrimination between races in those days.
“I was in a group of 70, and only four of us were not Malay. But we were just like brothers and sisters, we didn’t have race issues then,” she says.
When asked if she notices friction between races these days, Loo says such negative sentiments do not occur among army personnel.
Today, Loo is full time with the Malaysian Armed Forces Chinese Veterans Association. She visits schools and universities, promoting the military as a potential career, for Chinese youth in particular.
“I would say that awareness is improving as more minority students today enquire with us about how to join the military,” she says.
On the political front, last year, Armed Forces chief Gen Raja Mohamed Affandi Raja Mohamed Noor called for an increase in recruitment of non-Malays into the forces by 10% annually.
DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong’s recent appointment as deputy defence minister could well speed up that process.
For whether it’s the military making things difficult with unwritten rules, or the non-bumis dragging their feet, it’s the nation’s security which is at stake.