GEORGE TOWN: It’s a cliche that countries do not generally honour the humble foot-soldiers who fought to ensure their survival through the early years of independence.
When it turns out to be true, it’s hurtful for veterans, and a reminder of how ungrateful governments can be.
Many servicemen spent years enduring immense hardship in the jungles of Borneo and the peninsula risking their lives to ensure that their new country called Malaysia would become a proud nation rather than a failed idea.
Ex-platoon sergeant Gopal Govindan Nair, now 74, has survived several different theatres of war serving his country.
From the dense jungles of Perak fighting communists, to battling Indonesians in Borneo, to the 1969 race riots in the concrete jungle, he remembers well his years of active duty.
If only the same could be said about the governments he served, but that is somehow to be expected from governments everywhere.
He is, however, terribly disappointed that his younger compatriots have forgotten those who fought tooth and nail to preserve the unity of the Federation of Malaysia.
Gopal told FMT the worst of the fighting he experienced was in the undeclared war that was the Indonesian confrontation in Johor, Singapore and Borneo.
The Indonesians had intermittently launched attacks along the coasts and through the middle of the jungles just to thwart the formation of Malaysia.
“Many think that forming Malaysia was easy. It was not, as our neighbours were pitted against us.
“Over 100 of us died between 1964 and 1966. Our army was quite new but we got good training, so in the end we won.
“What upsets me today is that youngsters have no clue about the confrontation. It was our first war as a new nation, and yet there is no honour for us.”
Gopal joined the army in November 1964, in Penang, at the age of 19. On his first trip out of Penang, he was sent to be part of the Second Battalion of the Singapore Infantry Regiment at Temasek Camp.
After six months training, he was deployed to the front lines, where he experienced tough operations fighting Indonesians in Kota Tinggi and Pontian in Johor.
Later, he was briefly posted to Batu Gajah, Perak, to fight communists, before heading to Wallace Bay, Sebatik Island near Tawau, Sabah, to combat the Indonesian communist insurgency in 1966.
He was then transferred to Serian, Sarawak, where he had the most eventful experience of his career.
“The Paraku was a communist group who were against the formation of Malaysia. They wanted all Borneo territories to be made into a leftist country.
“The jungle of Serian in the Borneo rainforest is where you needed true grit and stamina as you could be sprayed with bullets from the guerilla forces at any time.
“You are standing on a hill, thousands of feet up. There is no water and you don’t get to shower. All you can do is take off your clothes, wring the sweat out and put them back on again. You do this for two weeks while trying to bear your own stench.
“It was a 24-hour a day job. As part of a rifle company, I had to stand guard. We had to train to be energy efficient, as we were only given 14-days of food rations,” he said.
In 1972, Gopal was selected to be part of the pioneer Rajang Area Security Command. He was a strike force sergeant, fighting the Indonesian communist insurgency in Kalimantan.
“The Indonesians were on a looting and killing spree in the 3rd division of Sarawak. They were daring, but they didn’t last long as our targeted attacks soon defeated them.
“But there was a close call when I was posted to Sebatik Island in Sabah. I nearly died falling into a booby trap, but fortunately my comrade, Tan Teik Leong, came to my rescue.”
Gopal continued to serve in various parts of interior Borneo. From time to time, he was deployed to the peninsula to face communists from Thailand who were penetrating the jungles of Grik and Sungai Siput.
“In this period, I lost my platoon commander, Captain Mohana Chandran Velayuthan. He was shot in the head by the communists. A few days later, we assaulted a communist camp not far away and we took it over.
“I also remember the time my comrade Nasaldin Kassim was shot dead by a communist during a patrol. It was saddening but we had to keep moving on.”
Gopal left the forces voluntarily in 1977, as a platoon sergeant of the Fourth Malaysia Rangers, having served a total of 13 years.
He laments that he and many of his comrades were not given their full pensions as they did not serve the required minimum of 21 years.
His current full-time job as a Penang airport limousine driver is as good as gone, due to the pandemic and e-hailing drivers stealing his livelihood there, he says. He and his wife rely on their two children to help make ends meet.
Looking back at old photos of himself and his colleagues in Singapore, he recalled his earliest days in the armed forces.
“I started with a 70 Malaysian dollar salary, and on retirement, my last pay cheque was for 300 dollars.
“Even parliamentarians and assemblymen got their pensions, but what about us, who risked our lives for the safety and security of our great federation of Malaysia?
When Singapore separated from Malaysia, he was given the option to stay and become a Singapore citizen, as he was serving in their army.
He shakes his head. ”But I chose to be Malaysian because Penang is where I grew up with my family and where I wanted to live.
“Some of the soldiers today wear epaulettes enough to fill their shirts. So much recognition is given to them, but we who risked our lives in the jungles of Borneo are forgotten.
“What hurts even more is that people today often resort to racism, saying that non-Malays like me did nothing for the country.
“Well, I was part of a truly Malaysian armed force, who were all brothers and comrades, fighting for our beloved land as one united race.
“Today, only our unity can fight off the bigger threat to us that is racism.”