The low non-Muslim enrolment rates in the armed forces

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LETTER | Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan (PPK) fully supports Armed Forces chief Raja Mohamed Affandi Raja Mohamed Noor’s recent call to increase the enrolment of non-Malays by 10 percent annually into the armed forces, including the Royal Military College.

PPK will do our best through our influence to help the Defence Ministry achieve its goal, even though we see it as a very tall order at this juncture. 

The call for non-Malays to join the security forces and shoulder the responsibilities to defend our country has been ongoing for the last three decades. Various politicians at times made outrages statements accusing the non-Malays as disloyal when the political biddings were at their convenience.

Patriotism regarding non-Malays in particular, the Chinese and Indians in the military have never been an issue. In fact, since the pre-independent years, through the first and second emergencies, from the early years of the Home Guard, Templer’s Super 12, the Federation Regiment, the Congo peacekeeping mission, the Confrontation, the urban communist terrorism, jungle warfare in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak; the non-Malay officers and men fought gallantly alongside their Malay brothers-in-arms.

In the Air Force, numerous non-Malay pilots flew their helicopters in dangerous mission for supplies and evacuations, and enemies shot at their aircrafts. These officers and men had their share of casualties and also their much-deserved share of gallantry awards.

In addition, the much-cherished success of our security forces against the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) insurgents and urban terrorists was to a large extent attributed to the many dangerous and highly classified covert operations of the police Special Branch and military intelligence, many of whom were of Chinese ethnicity.  

From the 1960s until late 70s, non-Malay armed forces personnel comprised about 30 percent of the total manpower. The Navy and Air Force, excluding the Army, had a higher percentage. Over the years, this figure gradually dropped to the current five percent.

In those years we had military commanders at different levels of command, of different ethnicity - British, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, and Iban. The military had one common trait, which gave it its glorious outlook and high esteem by civilians.  

The establishment comprised of trained and organised fighting units. The officers and men were ready to die for their King and country. The men were ready to follow orders of their commanders into dangerous and life-threatening missions.

Imagine a Malay officer giving orders to his subordinates of mixed ethnicity, for a search and destroy mission in a heavily booby-trapped area. Likewise, a Chinese officer giving orders of the same to his predominantly Malay subordinates.

For such fighting men of valour to function, there has to have genuine love and care between the commanders and men. Everyone has to feel needed and important. The accomplishment of the mission is the ultimatum. 

Though long considered taboo subjects, we give our views as truthful as possible to some of these issues that are ultra sensitive. Most non-Malay veterans take pride in having served in the armed forces and they will claim they are successful in the after service civilian life partly because the military moulded them into what they are today.

If we ask them two questions: If you go back in time, would you join the military after having experienced it? Secondly, would you encourage your own children to join the military like you did? The answer to question 1 will be "Yes", while the answer for question 2 will be "No". So, what has changed over the years since the 1980s?

The followings are some of the sensitive issues:

More distinctive division along ethnic lines

The government’s affirmative policies of the 1980s had seeped into the military administration. Strange sayings like "orang kita" have crept into the minds of military commanders. Slowly and surely, the commanders saw some of those under their command as half-brothers or stepsons, unlike the 'all are equal' mindset of previous years.

Individuals are not made to feel important and desired. Instead, the feeling of an ‘outsider’ has made many feel unwelcomed. Thus began an era of individualistic and selfish attitude and behaviour among those in the military.

Little Napoleons causing disharmony

Many generals were sympathetic and caring towards all under their care. However, it was the little Napoleons in the Defence Ministry, the civil servants with authority, who made policies pertaining to promotion and enforced an unwritten regulation and quota system. In the late 70s and 80s, any promotion for officers above the Major rank would be considered as political.

For military officers and men, politics was viewed distastefully. This particularly affected the non-Malay officers, as it entered their careers and left an ever-lasting bitter taste. When these officers left the service in the 1990s, few would speak highly of the organisation.

By-passed promotions

Yearning for a merit-based promotion system, the non-Malays would not mind if their Malay subordinates were promoted if they were really deserving. Perceived as incapable to many non-Malay officers, there had been a haphazard promotion of officers very much undeserving to their roles and rank.

The act was followed by having to address them as ‘Sir’ and salute their one time subordinate, which was another demoralising factor. There was simply no course for complaint. It was a system emplaced and as military men, any form of protest or dissent could be deemed insubordination and an offence under the military law.

Needless to say, a mediocre officer given promotion and command on patronage would breed mediocrity and substandard results. Further, numerous deserving Malay officers of merits were also adversely affected. Malay officers who were promoted based on their merits earned an endearment of loyalty and respect from the non-Malays.

The military being religious-centric

Starting from the late 80s the military had become increasingly religious-centric and non-Malays felt ever more alienated. The officers’ mess life and the lives of soldiers became very much dictated by religious sensitivity. This eventually affected esprit-de-corps and comradeship negatively in multi-racial military units.

The above-mentioned setbacks as seen in the military are not an occurrence in insolation but identical to those in the police force and the public service organisations.

The problems faced today are an outcome of the policies and decisions of our government of the past few decades. Right or wrong, it is left to history to determine.

But we have a prevailing problem today, i.e., the officers and men who retired a decade or two ago, despite serving our King and country with honour and pride, do not encourage the youths to enrol in the military. The problem is endemic, a cause-and-effect of the "unwritten" rules and regulations of the past. To solve a problem, we have to first recognise the problem.

The intention here is not fault finding, rather it is to fully comprehend the grievances from the perspectives of the non-Malays, and help those in position make decisions for the betterment of our country.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.