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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

‘We’re not fighting together anymore’

To former soldier Ng Kim Boon, the renunciation of the traditional Warrior's Day ceremony to a field-style commemoration is liberty lost and comrades dishonoured.

FEATURE

KUALA LUMPUR: On the rainy morning of Aug 31, 1957 a troop of Victoria Institution cadets walked from their alma mater to the neighouring Merdeka Stadium where they assembled in proud straight lines.

In a few hours they would march in their newborn country’s first Independence Day parade with the freedom cries of their first prime minister reverberating overhead. And they would march with heads held high as the new sons and citizens of Malaysia.

Among them was 14-year-old Ng Kim Boon who would later rise to the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel in the country’s armed forces.

And like the rest of his teenage comrades on the field that day, he hadn’t the faintest idea of what it all meant.

“If you want me to say I felt sense of nationalism or freedom then I’m very sorry because it was just a parade to me,” Ng, 68, said bluntly.

“The whole concept of independence was too abstract and irrelevant to an adolescent who had his mind on more important things like exams.”

It wasn’t until a full decade later that he had his first brush with liberty.

He was a Captain in the army, the British were finally packing their bags and the Malaysians were stepping into their shoes.

Ng was dispatched to East Malaysia as part of the ‘handover-takeover’ team of the British camps.

As both sides went over the inventory list, he was struck by the realisation that they were now on their own and they had better make good of it.

“You must understand that when I graduated from military college the British were still lording over us.

“Nothing had changed, there was no dramatic revolution like in other countries.

“The transition towards independence was so gradual that you hardly felt it,” he explained.

Renunciation of traditions

But once the feeling sank in, the Malaysian army was seized by a fierce determination to preserve and shield the new nation from the threats of the communist insurgency war and the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation.

During that time, ‘liberty’ meant ‘the pride of being able to protect one’s own country by oneself’.

Then came the racial riots of 1969; followed by the New Economic Policy (NEP) and gradually the face of ‘liberty’ took on a different expression.

Said Ng: “Politics, race and religion slowly permeated the army. The new batch of soldiers were being brought up to place on racial identification being above esprit de corps.

“Racial barriers didn’t exist in my days so much so that I could eat pork beside a Muslim soldier without any trouble.”

“We were Malaysian soldiers raised in a culture that drew no lines between us.

“But the traditions that made the army what it was have been broken and cast aside because they are (thought of as) foreign traditions.”

The most painful stab in this renunciation of traditions was on Warrior’s Day celebrations last month.

The army replaced the tradition of laying wreaths at the foot of the bronze sculpture in the National Monument with a commemoration in a field instead.

Liberty lost

For Ng this rewriting of tradition was sacriligeous.

“(The 12th Yang di-Pertuan Agong) Syed Sirajuddin (Jamalullail) deemed it unIslamic to pay respects to figurines.

“And with that we lost the army value of honouring our fallen comrades.

“The army has lost more than it gained since the British left.

“We lost traditions to religious beliefs which seemed to have suddenly sprung up.

“There is no pride in being a soldier any longer. So I opted for early retirement in 1990,” said Ng who is a fourth-generation Kelantanese Peranakan.

In his culture a patriach is called Pok Long. But Ng doesn’t see himself as the Pok Long of Malaysia.

To him the all-encompassing ‘liberty’ of before has shrunk to an insular definition.

“It (liberty) now just means the freedom to go about my daily life…

“The country is unable to bring back the liberty we once felt because we’re not fighting together for anything any more.

“Instead we fight each other over whose religion and whose politics are better,” he said simply.

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