This is how you should see us, Mr Koon

I was one of the privileged few who had the honour of serving my country as a member of the Malaysian Armed Forces. I was an aircraft technician with the Royal Malaysian Air Force. I joined the armed forces in 1964 after Form 3 because my father’s business failed and our family was saddled with debts. Seeking a job was the next best thing to do. The choice of joining the Armed Forces was entirely mine. I have no regrets.

Reading Koon Yew Yin’s recent comment on the army was unsettling and disturbing for me. It sparked a huge outcry, rightly so.

Perhaps Mr Koon did not have the opportunity to serve the country and to view the Malaysian Armed Forces from our lens and with a better appreciation of our sacrifices. I write this letter not to extol the virtues of servicemen, past or present. I write this to discharge a responsibility to respond as a former member of the armed forces and as a Malaysian citizen.

When I first joined the armed forces, I was paid RM60 a month as a recruit. Not a high amount even at that time, but I was able to put food on the table and I had a roof over my head. I was grateful to be given technical training to carry out my role as an aircraft technician.

Malaysia was fairly young, she was barely a year old. I joined at the height of the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation. Many Malaysians do not register the Confrontation as a major or historical event, but to us who served during this dangerous time, it was a pat on our backs, a job well done. The armed forces were tested, some comrades fell, we cried, we mourned but we moved on. It was tough. Barely a few months into service, I was called to duty. I was fearful, but I held my ground.

But, Mr Koon, our test as a young nation did not end with the Confrontation. We faced a bigger test on home ground, a real and present danger in the form of the communist insurgency.

I was called for duty in East Malaysia in the 1970s. I had just got married. We stayed in the army quarters. Every day, we would hear of attacks by the communists and occasionally our hearts would sink and our spirits dampened when the people we knew became casualties.

It was a trying time. I remember vividly on one occasion we had intelligence information that our army quarters would be attacked. We were told to arm ourselves with rifles. The quarters did not only house servicemen but also family members who were non-military personnel. I questioned my decision to join the forces. I realised my sacrifice for the country had also become my family’s sacrifice. Yes, we risked that much.

I fought back tears as I taught my wife how to handle the rifle that night in case I fell.

Mr Koon, you would not know how I felt or how my wife felt. My fellow comrades did not have it any easier. We swallowed our fears to put up a brave front, we wiped our tears to have the strength and courage to hold our rifles and pistols. This was all in exchange for the peace that Malaysia and Malaysians deserve.

Communist threats were everywhere. On a trip to Sibu, I had to hide my military IC which we called BAT C-10 (now renamed ‘MyTentera’) in my socks for fear of being discovered. The communists would stop buses and conduct random checks for members of the armed forces. I am not a brave man, but I loved my country enough to find some strength.

In the military, race and religion were not divisive. In fact, it is irrelevant to us. The casualty rate was high and there were always skirmishes with the communists. Unlike prisoners on death row, we never knew when our last meal would be. I put my faith in my comrades. I watched their back, knowing that they were doing the same, as we had the same enemies and hoisted the same flag.

I left the military after the Communist threat ceased. My last drawn salary was RM350. I was a bit more fortunate than others when I took up an offer with Iran Air as an aircraft technician. I was paid approximately RM3,500, many times more than what I earned in service.

Mr Koon, our sacrifice goes beyond putting our lives on the line. Many of us are capable of earning a better salary doing other jobs, just like you. We did what we did because we want our children and your children to live in a better Malaysia. Peace and stability for Malaysia did not come cheap.

I returned to Malaysia many years later and, just like you, Mr Koon, I went into business. My business grew, but some of the former army personnel were not as fortunate. Their sacrifice became a lifelong sacrifice. I tried my best to do my part and I took an active role in the association for ex-servicemen where I still serve today. The camaraderie is still strong and the ugly race and religious cards never surface amongst us because we have been through worse.

The members of the armed forces serving today are no less worthy than those of us from yesteryear. They have in no uncertain terms, placed themselves at the forefront to defend the sovereignty of Malaysia. In so doing, they have placed their duty to the country as a priority. These people have a choice to be just like any civilian but they choose otherwise.

Mr Koon, please do not dent our pride. We, the members of the Malaysian armed forces, are proud people. We have served our nation and we have sacrificed more than mere words can describe. Let us move forward and I hope with your apology, bygones will be bygones.

Sgt Chee Sze Hsien (rtd) is a committee member of the Federal Territories branch of the Malaysian Armed Forces Veterans Association.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.