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Commonwealth troops learning about the Senoi Praaq's deadly blow pipe.

The Prime Minister paid the ultimate tribute to our men in blue recently when he said that the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) personnel and officers had made immeasurable contributions over the years in ensuring our nation’s security.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s speech during the 211th Police Day celebrations struck a chord with many Malaysians, including me. Our nation is indeed grateful for the countless sacrifices made by the RMP personnel, especially those during the Malayan Emergency.

Despite the relentless onslaught of the communist terrorists throughout Malaya from 1948 to 1960, our police force remained steadfast in their quest to ensure that our young nation didn’t fall into the hands of the bandits.

The most prominent event permanently etched in the recesses of my mind is the unprovoked attack on the Bukit Kepong police station on Feb 23, 1950. At that time, the communists considered police stations as one of the vital nerve centres of Malaya’s security forces. The bandits figured that taking control of at least one police post would lend credibility to their cause and strongly underscore their strength and ability.

The main objective was to win over as many aborigines as possible.

The communists, who were superior both in terms of number and firepower, were confident that their pre-dawn attack on the isolated police outpost would be a walk in the park. At that time, they were oblivious to the fact that their well thought out plan had a major flaw. They had underestimated the tenacity of the defenders.

Several hours into the attack, the terrorists became desperate as there was still no progress. They threatened to kill three captured women in a bid to coax the policemen to surrender. This futile attempt led to the senseless execution of the three innocent souls.

Finally, the five hour standoff ended with the bandits setting alight the officers’ barracks and police station. Thanks to the bravery and selfless sacrifice of the men and women, the bandits retreated back into the jungle empty handed. Their attempt to over-run the police station and seize its weapon and ammunition cache had failed miserably.

News of the 25 policemen and their family members who gave up their lives in defence against the terrorists sparked public outrage throughout Malaya. The Government, on its part, strengthened its resolve to fight the communist insurgency. It was time to take the fight to the bandits in their own backyard — the jungle.

The song request card sent in 1957.

Police Field Force

Plans were immediately put in place to improve the efficiency of the existing Police Jungle Squad. Formed in late 1948, the Police Jungle Squad members received training at the Federal Jungle Warfare Training School in Sik, Kedah and Sungai Buloh, Selangor.

During those early years, these squads conducted regular jungle patrols in areas near rural settlements. Working in teams of 15 to 20 men, these jungle policemen were mobile and made many successful operations against the communists.

About a year after the Bukit Kepong incident, all the 200 part-time jungle squads were reconstituted into 22 full-time jungle companies known collectively as the Police Field Force. Placed under the command of the Police Commissioner of the Federation of Malaya, the force was deployed throughout Malaya to conduct jungle based operations.

The formation of a centralised Police Field Force Training School in Dusun Tua, Selangor in 1953 led to the closure of the earlier training centres in Sik and Sungai Buloh. This new and better equipped school further improved the effectiveness of the enlisted recruits.

At this juncture, I suddenly remember having a Radio Malaya song request card sent by members of Platoon No. 3 who were stationed at the school. The card was sent on June 1, 1957, just three months before Malaya achieved independence. Obviously caught up with the euphoria of the impending self rule, the men asked for Zera Agus’ rendition of Malaya Merdeka.

I did an online search and studied the lyrics of this patriotic song. I’m sure the men of Platoon No. 3 were all fired up and ready to head off into the jungle to fight the bandits when they heard their request playing on air.

While on their jungle forays, members of the Police Field Force learnt about the ongoing relationship between the communist terrorists and the aborigines. It turned out that the communist upper echelon was exploiting the Orang Asli and using them as guides and porters for their troops. The forest people were also employed as food cultivators as the cunning terrorists knew that the government wouldn’t destroy the aborigine ladangs.

Despite all these factors, the main thing that bothered the authorities most was that the communists were putting the Orang Asli’s supreme knowledge of the dense jungle to their advantage. The aborigines became efficient radar screens that warned the terrorists of approaching security forces, allowing them to escape undetected.

The Senoi Praaq men poring over the maps.

Aborigines fighting unit

The idea to win the aborigines over by setting up a force comprising solely of the jungle people was the brainchild of Colonel R.O.D. Noone, who was the-then Adviser on Aboriginal Affairs. Acting on Noone’s recommendations, General Gerald Templer approved the formation of the Senoi Praaq (War People or Orang Perang) in 1956.

A year later, in 1957, the Senoi Praaq set out on their first patrol. With that, the world’s first fighting unit composed completely of aborigines came into existence.

The Senoi Praaq’s objectives were two pronged — to help exterminate the terrorists belonging to the Malayan Communist Party and be the jungle-thrusting arm of the Federation Army. Right from the beginning, the aboriginal force was never intended to be the spit-and-polish, drill-perfect type of troops and neither were they supposed to be a front-line assault unit.

These men took on the role of the hunter which was actually second nature to them. Joining the army taught the Orang Asli discipline and modern tactics. They swapped their loincloths made of bark and cotton for military-issued uniforms and exchanged their deadly blow pipes for the even deadlier Bren guns and rifles.

Gone were the bamboo baskets on their backs and traditional method of feeding off the jungle during their forays. As uniformed men, they carried regulation packs and opened tins of specially prepared army rations at fixed meal-times.

It was a surprise to many when these Orang Asli recruits took these changes all in their stride. Their seamless adaptation exceeded even the hopes of Noone, the first man who believed that they had a place in safeguarding Malaya’s internal security. Noone became so attached to the Senoi Praaq that some quarters began nicknaming them ‘Noone’s Private Army’.

During his visit to the Aboriginal Research Station in 1960, Straits Times journalist Harry Miller spoke to the men of the Senoi Praaq. There, Miller listened as the men exchanged notes about their jungle patrols in simple Malay. What struck the journalist most was the Senoi Praaq’s frequent bursts of laughter. Their friendly gestures underscored the wrong public perception of them being hostile people.

The Senoi Praaq are most at home in the jungle.

Men of the Senoi Praaq

Looking at the men, Miller realised that Noone had pulled off a major coup. A high proportion of the Senoi Praaq in his presence were once trusted comrades of the communists. The very people whom the communists had once called brothers and allies were now their worst enemies, primarily because the Senoi Praaq knew the communists’ habits, customs and location of their lairs. On top of it all, the Senoi Praaq were masters at meeting cunning with cunning.

During the Emergency, the Senoi Praaq served primarily in the deep forests bordering Pahang and Johor. These troops were equipped with wireless sets manned by aboriginal signalmen skilled enough to send and receive messages as well as regularly maintain and repair their sets when the need arose. Other resourceful members were experts at map reading and the use of the all important compass.

While it was their task to eliminate terrorists wandering within their sphere of active duty, the Senoi Praaq’s principal role was to bring back into the fold as many of their aborigine brothers and sisters who were still working with the communists.

The Senoi Praaq swapped their blowpipes for Bren guns and rifles.

The Senoi Praaq troops had strict orders that ‘hostile’ aborigines were not to be fired at unless they were fired upon first. The men relied heavily on stealth and cunning but even these skilled were not enough to ensure success as the aboriginal ears were synonymous with ultra sensitive microphones. They’re easily alerted to the slightest sounds made by an approaching human or animal.

During the interview, the troops told Miller about a recent incident that started off with the discovery of tracks belonging to about 15 persons. Looking at the fresh foot impressions in the mud and broken branches, the men knew that the party was just half an hour ahead of them.

The Senoi Praaq went into swift pursuit and eventually started hearing voices ahead. A reconnaissance mission was sent out and the information received minutes later disclosed that there were five terrorists and seven aborigines, including children. As shooting was forbidden, the Senoi Praaq had no alternative but to opt for unarmed combat.

With the element of surprise on their side, the men quickly made their move. Caught flat footed, the enemy panicked and started running helter skelter. During the ensuing chaos, the Senoi Praaq managed to pin down a terrorist and intercepted two fleeing aborigines. Miller found it rather hilarious to learn that the frightened children ran in the wrong direction and found themselves in the waiting arms of the security forces.

Subsequent follow up operations in that area saw the Senoi Praaq apprehending four terrorists and bringing under government control 150 ‘hostile’ aborigines. That was indeed a success worthy of wide coverage by the Malayan media at that time.

The Police Field Force’s multiracial pioneer recruits were commanded by British Police Officers.

End of Insurgency

The Senoi Praaq remained a unit of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs until the onset of the second communist insurgency which began when the communists ambushed the Malaysian security forces at Kroh on June 17, 1968. After that incident, the Senoi Praaq became a unit of the Royal Malaysia Police known as the 3rd Battalion, General Operations Force.

The communist insurgency officially ended with the signing and ratification of the Hat Yai Peace Agreement by the Malayan Communist Party and the Malaysian and Thailand governments at the Lee Gardens Hotel in Hat Yai, Thailand on Dec 2, 1989.

With the end of the insurgency, jungle patrols by the Senoi Praaq began taking a back seat. The men started taking on duties similar to those of the normal General Operations Force battalions of the Royal Malaysian Police.

Today, the Senoi Praaq forces have come a long way since their early bandit-hunting days. Nevertheless, these men still maintain their reputation as one of the finest jungle fighting forces the world has ever seen.

With battalions stationed in Bidor and Pengkalan Hulu, the modern day Senoi Praaq continue to prove their mettle during search and rescue missions to locate missing jungle trekkers and mountain climbers.

To the Senoi Praaq units as well as the other Malaysian security forces, our nation owes each and everyone of you a debt of gratitude. Thank you for preserving peace and the continuation of our way of life.

The Orang Asli were expert trackers.

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