In my last column, I mentioned that we should not forget the struggles of our leaders and elders who spent their energy and time in birthing Malaysia.
There is also another group that deserves our deep gratitude: the security forces.
We take the police and the military for granted, especially the latter. Most of us are late in recognising, if at all, that whenever there is a physical threat to the nation – and what is the nation if not you and I – they are the first on the scene.
The older generation which has lived through the communist insurgency may recall the sacrifices of the policemen and soldiers, but today’s youngsters may just think that they are just another bunch of guys working for the government and paid for by public money.
In 1957, and also in 1963, the communists were a threat to the country. While Tunku Abdul Rahman was proclaiming Merdeka and later welcoming Malaysia in the city, policemen and soldiers were out in the jungles fighting the armed communists.
Also in 1963, they were fighting infiltration by spies, rebels armed by Indonesia and regular Indonesian soldiers during then Indonesian president Sukarno’s undeclared war against Malaysia in what has come to be known as the Indonesian Confrontation. Sukarno refused to recognise Malaysia and even used force to prevent its formation.
While Malayans, and later Malaysians, were celebrating two portentous moments, some policeman somewhere was being killed; some soldier somewhere was risking life and limb so that the rest could celebrate.
It was not just that: they could not even be with their families to celebrate festivals or other important occasions.
In the late-1970s, when I was working for The Star newspaper, I had the opportunity to visit soldiers in the jungles along the Kroh-Gerik border and saw the Spartan life they lived. They were there fighting the armed communists so that we could get on with our normal lives. They’d wake up not knowing if they’d be alive at day’s end.
But it was not just the soldiers who did not know if they’d be alive the following day, or the next hour. Arguably the most dangerous work was done by the Special Branch, whose operatives infiltrated the communists and were at risk of being found out and executed at any time. Quite a number were.
In fact, the Special Branch played an enormous role in bringing an end to the communist threat, making Malaysia a model for emulation by the rest of the world.
Let me give the example of Perak, and especially Sungai Siput which was a hotbed for communist activities.
On Aug 31, 1957, a police officer by the name of Yuen Yuet Leng, in charge of the Special Branch in Sungai Siput, was involved in what he later told me was “intelligence planning and structuring” for a priority operation called Operation Ginger.
The operation went well and within 18 months they eliminated the entire communist terrorist organisation in central Perak. Only eight communists managed to flee to the Thai border, the late Yuen said.
He said: “A number of very skillful and dangerous Special Branch penetration operations were conducted into the communist organisation which resulted in the capture of at least one third of all terrorists (targetted in the operation).”
Policemen, including from the Special Branch, were killed in the line of duty.
Yuen himself was wounded in the chest during a gun battle in the Gerik jungle in 1951, less than a year after he joined the force, while trying to ambush a communist terrorist group.
In 2013, reminiscing about this and the winning of Merdeka, Yuen said: “I really felt that my police boys of various races who had been killed in service in the jungle had not died in vain, and that the Chinese Special Branch secret operatives who participated with me in sensitive penetration projects but had been caught and executed had also not died in vain.
“It is so essential that such willing sacrifices of our early patriots in the formation of the nation are borne in mind, especially by racial extremists.”
I first met Yuen when he was chief police officer of Perak and I was a young reporter in Ipoh. One day, newsmen heard rumours of a major communist offensive in which communists and some security forces had died and arms recovered. But we needed confirmation, which we didn’t get. As usual, we telephoned the police headquarters and pestered the top officers.
Then Yuen told us he’d hold a press conference at 11am the following day. Reporters from all the media gathered at his office and Yuen painstakingly showed us slides and rattled off the details of the operation which we reporters swiftly jotted down on our notebooks.
After he had finished and we thought we had a great story, he calmly told us: “I have been very open with you, because I respect you as newsmen and, like me, you have a duty to the public. I now seek your cooperation not to publish this yet.”
It was like the carpet had been yanked away from beneath us.
Yuen explained that the operation was still going on and they were hunting sympathisers of the communists and although some communists would hear of it and flee, wide dissemination of the news would send many into hiding.
I thought it was a masterstroke. If he had not called for the press conference, reporters may have dug around and reported based on sources and these reports may or may not be accurate and would likely be incomplete. And we’d have kept pestering him.
None of us present could argue when he asked for our cooperation.
Yuen later became Sarawak commissioner of police. He played a major role in the signing of the Haadyai Peace Accord by the governments of Malaysia and Thailand and the Communist Party of Malaya in 1989. In fact, together with then IGP Rahim Noor, he went to China to meet CPM leaders Chin Peng, Rashid Maidin and Abdullah CD in the course of arranging for the peace accord.
He was not just a policeman, but a true patriot who famously said he was “A Malay, a Chinese and an Indian”. After retirement, he spoke up for inclusiveness and for everyone to see beyond race and religion. In 2013, when speaking to me, he expressed sadness at the increasing racism and religious extremism.
Even when he was Perak CPO, he could see the direction the country was taking and he was not happy. He wrote in his personal diary: “We are in danger of developing a nation of grabbers and takers in the name of everything else but the truth. In short, we have lost the understanding and spirit of compromise which won us our independence and which we thought could replace British power and authority and provide fair and good government to our people of all communities.
“Today, we have made materialistic advancement. But this had been achieved not in the spirit at the time of independence but in in-fighting unexpressed, in resentment and hatred never fully expressed and which continues to build up and is remembered in the minds of our growing generations. This can only lead to further disintegration of values and national unity.
“A more equitable solution must be found before it is too late and before the last Spartan and true Malaysian gives up and lays down his arms to die with tears for the future of his country when he would be most willing to die happily for his nation and for values which do not die.”
When he died in 2015 of heart failure at 88, Yuen was fittingly buried with full Royal Malaysian Police honours.
By the way, Yuen was my super senior in King Edward VII Secondary School, and I had occasion to meet him subsequently at the school’s old boys’ dinners.
I’m writing about Yuen because I knew him, but there were many more like him in 1957 and 1963. And let me tell you that even today there are many Yuens in the police force, as there are in the military: dedicated officers willing to risk their lives for the nation.
We need to salute them as we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.