KUALA LUMPUR: Factually written historical records should not be distorted to suit political or religious agendas.
This is the take of the country’s first local Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) chief, Rear Admiral (Rtd) Tan Sri K. Thanabalasingam, who turned 83 on March 12.
Thanabalasingam, popularly called Bob Thana in naval circles, said history was the study of past events.
“To make sense of current affairs, we must remember our history as everything happening around us today is, one way or another, related to our past.
“Therefore, historical records should be factually written and generations later, countries should not distort history to suit their needs,” he said at the Malaya at War conference at the Royale Chulan Hotel here recently.
Thanabalasingam added that there should be no shame in what had happened in the past, whether decades or centuries ago.
“Historical denial is a felonious distortion of history as it inhibits us to learn from the past.
“(Former British prime minister) Winston Churchill once said that those who failed to learn from history were doomed to repeat it.
“Somehow, humans have an astonishing tendency to ignore the obvious signs, which can lead to war and subjugation,” said Thanabalasingam.
He called on government and military leaders to identify the warning signals and attempt to avert conflicts, failing which disasters would prevail.
WAR EXPERIENCE AT A TENDER AGE
Thanabalasingam recounted how he, at the age of 5, had experienced the perils of torment during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during World War 2 in 1941.
“The war disrupted my education, which I eventually completed at Victoria Institution here later on before joining the navy,” he said.
He also said he had witnessed traumatic moments during the war and his family had to shift home several times to escape danger.
“While living in a government bungalow in Kampung Attap one day, I remember once looking at the sky and being fascinated by some glittering objects floating down from an aircraft, unaware that they were actually bombs.
“My father frantically grabbed and dragged me into an air-raid shelter,” he recalled.
His family shifted to, among others, Effingham Estate (now Damansara) and several places in the city.
“While at home one day, I witnessed from my upstairs balcony, how armed Japanese soldiers were physically abusing some cyclists.
“I just stood there frozen by what I was seeing. My father then spotted me and whisked me off quietly inside the house.
“He made sure I understood that if the Japanese soldiers had spotted me observing them, our family will be in serious trouble,” said Thanabalasingam.
LIFE IN THE NAVY
Thanabalasingam said as he grew up, he further experienced the two Emergencies (1948-1960 and 1967-1989) and the Confrontation with Indonesia (1963-1966).
“Those were trying times for the country,” said Thanabalasingam, who joined the RMN in Singapore on May 1, 1955 and became one of the pioneer nine cadets sent to Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) at Dartmouth in England in December that year.
After graduating from BRNC on May 1, 1958, Thanabalasingam served briefly onboard the British frigate HMS Chichester before the RMN was established on July 1 that same year.
“I was invited to be transferred from the British Royal Navy to the Malayan outfit in October 1958.
“My first posting was as an instructor at the Federation Military College in Port Dickson in 1959 before I was posted out for sea duties in April 1960, for six years,” said Thanabalasingam.
BEING GROOMED TO HELM THE RMN
He recalled vividly how, when he was serving as the resident naval officer, as well as KD Tawau’s commanding officer in Sabah, the government had earmarked him to eventually helm the RMN.
“It was a time when (the then prime minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman (Putra Al-haj) wanted local sons to helm the tri-services — the army, navy and air force.
“I was groomed to helm the RMN, while (Air Vice-Marshal Tan Sri) Sulaiman Sujak for the Royal Malaysian Air Force, (General Tan Sri) Hamid Bidin as Army chief and Tunku’s nephew (General Tan Sri) Tunku Osman Jewa as the armed forces chief,” he said.
Within 1967, Thanabalasingam was meteorically promoted a record four times (from lieutenant to lieutenant-commander, then to commander, captain and commodore) to become RMN chief on Dec 1 the very year at the age of 31.
He, however, prematurely retired in 1976 at the age of 40, along with Sulaiman at age 42.
“I had just returned from a familiarisation visit to Australia and New Zealand when the government appointed me as RMN chief.
“I was fortunate to have an Australian, (now retired Rear-Admiral) Guy Richmond Griffiths as a naval adviser for two years,” said Thanabalasingam, who was able to renew his acquaintance with Griffiths, 96, after 52 years at the conference.
EXPANDING THE NAVY
When Britain decided to withdraw its forces East of Suez in 1968, Thanabalasingam had his hands full in the RMN’s rapid expansion.
During the RMN’s infancy, it had several operational vessels, a naval base and just over 1,500 personnel.
“One of my first major tasks was to procure surface-to-surface missiles to thwart communist terrorists infiltrating arms and personnel by sea across southern Thailand, on the east and west coasts of the peninsula.
“The terrorists preferred to come by sea as the Malaysia-Thailand border was tightly controlled by the security forces,” he said.
Thanabalasingam said similarly in Sarawak, the RMN played a pivotal role in using its vessels to transport troops, vehicles and artillery equipment 112km up Sungai Rejang.
“At that time, the RMAF did not have heavy-lift capable aircraft to get the job done.
“Thus, the army relied on the RMN’s riverine boats like the landing or riverine craft personnel, landing craft mechanised and workboats for its operational requirements.
“Our vessels were often the target of the terrorists who took pot-shots from lofty vantage points along the river,” he said.
He added that the RMN had established a base in Sibu, eventually expanding its fleet from 18 vessels to 32 by 1974.
When Tun Abdul Razak Hussain succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister, as well as defence minister, he initiated the establishment of the Rejang Area Security Command (Rascom) in March 1972 to fortify Sarawak’s security.
Thanabalasingam, who was trained as an anti-submarine specialist and diver in 1963, had steamed the newly acquired
KD Sri Kelantan home from Britain.
He was instrumental in the planning and construction of the naval bases in Lumut, Perak, and Kuantan, Pahang, as the RMN relocated out of Singapore’s Woodlands and Sembawang bases.
He had introduced the MM38 Exocet missiles into the RMN during his tenure and even had recommended that the navy be equipped with submarines, way back then.
At one time as RMN chief, he was briefly appointed as acting armed forces chief when Hamid who succeeded Tunku Osman, was away overseas.
To date, he remains the youngest and longest serving RMN chief, as well as the only non-Malay service chief.
He is a member of the prestigious “Chiefs Circle”, reserved for retired tri-services and armed forces chiefs and is life patron of the Retired RMN Officers Association.