KOTA KINABALU: Mohamed Salleh was on his way up a hill on Sebatik Island, in Sabah’s east coast Tawau district, when he spotted several armed men at the top. He froze, and ducked out of sight, remaining still, until they moved away.
Five minutes later, the earth erupted around him from a mortar bombardment launched from the other side of the hill on an island shared by Malaysia and Indonesia.
They two countries were in an undeclared war, called the Confrontation. The year was 1965, two years after the formation of Malaysia, opposed by Indonesia.
The men on the hill were from the Korps Komando Operasi, an elite marine commando unit of the Indonesian armed forces. Mohamad recalls that there were five of them on the hill. They had been scouting the area and it was believed they intended to cross into the Malaysian side.
Mohamed stopped in his tracks and found cover behind some bushes and trees. He hoped the commandos had not noticed him. His heart was pounding.
Remaining as silent as he could, he kept his finger glued to the trigger on his rifle, the men in his crosshair. “If they had come closer, I would have needed to engage them. But, for some reason, they left.
“I was supposed to recce the hill and clear it before the rest of my platoon could go up. Five minutes later, the hill erupted with mortar rounds … the trees and all kinds of debris were thrown in the air,” said Mohamed, now 73.
The commandos might have sensed his presence, he said, and quickly returned to their camp on the Indonesian side and called for the bombardment. He believes the shells were launched from adjacent Nunukan Island, owned by Indonesia.
“We all scattered and dashed down the hill for our lives. That was one of the life-and-death moments I experienced when I served there,” he said, the memory still fresh after 54 years.
Mohamed, or Mat Congo among his mates, was a member of the Sabah Rangers, a regiment established by the British colonial government, comprising local recruits, like the Sarawak Rangers.
The Sarawak Rangers were incorporated into the Malaysian army as the 1st Battalion of the Royal Malaysian Rangers, with the Sabah Rangers forming the 2nd Battalion.
These battalions underwent Gurkha training, with the first and second batch sent to Sungai Petani, Kedah, and the third to Ipoh, Perak.
Mohamed was in the third attachment, joining in 1965 when he was 18.
The Sabah and Sarawak Rangers were among those deployed to thwart and repel the threat resulting from Confrontation.
The period between 1963 and 1966 was marked by violent conflict due to cross-border military incursions in the two states by Indonesian soldiers, aimed at destabilising the new nation.
There were also clashes in Johor and Singapore – still a member of Malaysia until 1965.
Then Indonesian president Sukarno saw Malaysia – which was supposed to unite Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah (then North Borneo) under one federation – as a neo-colonialism experiment by the British. At the same time, it hindered the vision of Melayu Raya or Greater Indonesia.
While Brunei opted not to join, the others said they would. This infuriated Indonesia, whose then foreign minister, Dr Subandrio, announced a confrontational policy – referred to as Konfrontasi or Confrontation – involving economic and social activities against Malaya on Jan 20, 1963.
On July 27 the same year, Sukarno launched his “Ganyang Malaysia” (crush Malaysia) campaign and the Indonesian armed forces Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) went to war.
“It was a tense time, particularly in Tawau because it’s so close to North Kalimantan. There was always a danger of infiltration and invasion,” Mohamed said, adding that Indonesia had set up a base and training camps in the area.
‘Servicemen prepared to die for the country’
The army veteran said he doubted whether many remember the significance of this period, how it could easily have gone wrong if not for the servicemen who were willing to die to protect the young nation.
He believed that even fewer still, especially the young, had heard of the Kalabakan incident on Dec 29, 1963, involving a battle in a logging town in Tawau.
Eight soldiers, including an officer, of the 3rd Royal Malay Regiment (3RAMD) were killed. Eighteen other soldiers were wounded in the ambush by 128 Indonesian military personnel, most of them volunteer soldiers.
They were among more than 40 solders of 3RAMD, led by Major Zainol Abidin Yaacob. who were sent to guard a security post in Kalabakan.
Sabah annually commemorates Anzac Day, which celebrates the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand servicemen killed during the war, including in the state. Former servicemen from the two countries and their families travel to Sandakan, where a memorial park has been built.
But hardly any ceremony is held to remember the fallen heroes and those who served during Confrontation, Mohamed said.
“There is only a small monument in Kalabakan in memory of the eight killed. Their names are etched on the stone but how many people actually remember their sacrifices?
“Without them, or former servicemen like us who served during that time, things might have been different.”
The bravery and fortitude shown by soldiers of 3RAMD, he said, were a source of inspiration because despite being outnumbered and suffering heavy casualties, they held on.
“The Indonesians ordered them to surrender but they held their ground. They were professional soldiers because unlike the Indonesia volunteer fighters, they knew how to take cover and save ammunition. The TNI just pelted the post at will.
“If these men were defeated, the TNI could have overtaken Kalabakan and that would have been a moral defeat for us,” he said. The battle began at about 8.30pm and stretched into the early hours of the morning.
He said the Indonesian volunteers retreated but were tracked down by Gurkhas and Australian and Malaysian soldiers and only 12 managed to escape.
Life as a Sabah Ranger
Mohamed left his hometown of Kampung Sungai Balang, a farming village in Muar, Johor, in search of greener pastures and arrived in Sabah, then known as North Borneo, in 1961, at the age of 14.
He had never actually thought of joining the army. “The first thing I did when I arrived in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) was go straight to Membakut (in southwest Sabah) to tap rubber,” he said.
Later, he said he decided to join the army, and after failing twice to enlist, succeeded in his third attempt.
He said he never regretted the decision because “coming to Sabah opened up a whole lot of opportunities for me”.
Mohamed said one of his proudest moments was when he obtained his Sabahan “citizenship”.
He said that when Sabah was given the rights to self govern by the British on Aug 31, 1963, everyone in the state automatically became a resident and was told to apply for an identity card.
“I got mine exactly on Sept 16 … I just can’t describe the elation. Although I have an affinity with Johor, my allegiance is with Sabah,” he said.
Mohamed married Margaret Najima Jean in 1969. They have six children. The couple lives in Kampung Meruntum, a quiet suburban village just across the Lok Kawi army camp in Putatan, near here.
After retiring from the army in 1980, Mohamed worked as an announcer with RTM. He has also written a book on the Kalabakan incident titled Peristiwa Berdarah Kalabakan (Bloody Kalabakan Incident).