NOWADAYS I feel a lump in my throat, gazing towards our jungle-clad central mountain range and hills in all their varying shades of green, blue and grey. The view does not fail to evoke memories of our jungle bashing days, pursuing Communist terrorists (CTs) during the period of the “second emergency”.
How we struggled up and slid down their steep, slippery slopes. It was tortuous work with a weapon in one hand and a heavy rucksack on the back. Sometimes, a soldier would tumble downhill to a nerve-racking noisy crash. We sniggered as the poor fellow quietly picked himself up. None of us got angry though, as the mishap gave us some welcome respite from the drudgery and exhaustion we all felt at that time.
I actually grew up being afraid of the jungle. They said to us children then that in it lived ghoulish beings, man-eating tigers and unspeakable others, all bent on tearing you apart and swallowing you whole; fears and misconceptions that were only debunked later during military life.
These were eventually replaced by fears of the CTs, or more precisely, being afraid of CTs exploiting our weaknesses and mistakes. We were superior to them in many respects; but an unwanted noise, a wrong signal, a misstep, or just a moment looking the other way could get us to be at the losing end.
Fortunately, the jungle remained neutral. It took no sides during the long fight with the CTs. It stuck to its own rules and presented everyone with the same favours and obstacles. We could be safe, and even successful operating in it, for, as long as all the rules were observed, the favours appreciated and the obstacles overcome.
We most certainly must know what and how we should go about doing things in the jungle. We must foremost be clear of our operational mission and plan. Then we had to know precisely our location and what was around us, even during the darkest of nights. Prior intelligence on the area, knowledge in map reading, a good compass and adequate prior reconnaissance of the surroundings would ensure that this was attained.
We spoke softly or just whispered to each other. This was not only to avoid being detected by the CTs, but also because the jungle itself seemed to want to punish noisy visitors.
The offender could inexplicably get a nightmarish dream during the night or somebody could be stung by a scorpion. The whole troop could also encounter a panicky elephant herd, or even the striped one, could appear from out of nowhere. Any one of these could scare the wits out of anybody.
We took pains not to harm any animal, damage any tree or disturb anything that had been left by nature on the ground. If we were forced to, then it had to be for good reasons and did not go beyond what was necessary.
When we wanted to encamp, we would do it before last light. There must be enough light to look over the intended camp ground. This would include ensuring that no tree that had a rotten branch stood nearby, or the whole tree itself would come crashing down on us unexpectedly during the night.
We would also not set up camp too close to a river or a waterfall. A heavy downpour could cause its water level to rise quickly and we could be swamped. A fast flowing stream could also be noisy and could mask suspicious or ominous sounds.
Waterfalls were also places where the “orang halus” or invisible people, played and bathed. Sentries had often reported seeing them frolicking at waterfalls even during daytime and more so on a moonlit night. We must not get in their way.
The jungle itself is an inspiration and a teacher. Everything about it is testimony to the fact that life is an eternal struggle.
A struggle that can only be sustained through dogged determination and perseverance. That everything in it has its rules and order to survive and grow. It showed how ants in their unending labour, together, literally build mountains.
Trees grow big and tall by spreading its branches and leaves up high to catch the rays of the sun. That there can be existence on even a bare rocky ledge or on a tree trunk.
That little rivulets run to join together and eventually help to form streams and rivers. That if you give the jungle or anything else their due regard and respect, then your own security and well- being will be assured.
My love for the jungle and the nostalgia it evokes should be pretty obvious by now. The sad part of the story, however, is that it is also fragile and can die. Presently, it is being gradually destroyed by our own greed and ignorance.
Wanton uncontrolled logging, expanding plantations, and unfettered development have flattened large tracts. A priceless legacy, a source of inspiration and knowledge, a help to sustain our environment, looked set to disappear.
I now worry that soon the lump in my throat will turn to tears.
**The writer, a former army field commander and recipient of the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa, M’sia’s highest gallantry award, is well known for his role during the Al-Maunah siege in Sauk, Perak, in July 2000.