Hornbill Unleashed

March 7, 2013

Military rank confusion in partisan times

S Thayaparan

There were many, many times thereafter that Don regretted having enlisted – but so has every man who ever volunteered for military service.” 

– Robert A Heinlein (Between Planets)

The most tragic of duties an officer has is delivering the news of death to the next of kin. This is something I had to do one cold Penang dawn many years ago. Loved ones always know when you turn up at their doorstep. They always know.

My condolences go out to the families of those fallen commandos in Lahad Datu. There will be plenty of time and opportunity for politics to take its unhealthy hold on this matter during the campaign period of this election (and no doubt even I will participate) but for now, I would suggest a moment of reflection. The situation in Sabah is a question of chickens coming home to roost, but this is an issue for another article. Indeed, a gathering storm looms on the Eastern sea board of Sabah.

military malaysia army tentera 131106 paradeHowever, partisan politics is a never-ending war and the armed forces has unfortunately been dragged in this mess. The recent statement by Defence Ministry secretary-general Ismail Samad on the “serious concern” of the unauthorised use of military ranks by retired armed forces personnel without the approval the Armed Forces Council deserves a response.

For good measure, Ismail laces his admonishment with the threat of “appropriate actions” and “prohibited from doing so by the highest command in the MAF, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong”. Included in the press statement of the ministry were the procedural details in which retired officers were allowed to use their ranks.

Now before I get into my own ideas and some others from retired service personnel as to why this matter has suddenly become a “serious concern”, I would like to address a point made by the secretary-general.

Speaking to reporters, he said, “”If permitted by AFC, a retired officer could wear his rank while those who were dismissed from their services are not allowed to use their former ranks.” This is a highly inappropriate statement coming from the Defence Ministry during these partisan times.

Overwhelmingly partisan

Of late, retired service personnel have not been reticent of either publicly voicing their support of the opposition or being critical of policy matters that they feel have been neglected or mishandled by the current Umno-led federal government.

NONEThe response from the military establishment has been overwhelming partisan. An example of this would be the Defence Forces chief and the three service chiefs lined up behind him accusing retired service personnel of being “treacherous” for raising concerns of the electoral process.

Another example would be the (now retired) Air Force chief who harangued service personnel to vote for the incumbent government and “not bite the hand that feeds them”. He said this while in service.

In addition, let us not forget the ongoing controversy of the purchase of the Scorpene submarines and its operational capability that was justified with political Umno undertones by the current Navy chief, who saw fit to raise the specter of re-colonisation.

The military establishment has been silent when former personnel have taken it upon themselves to defend Umno honour that includes the special privileges of the Malays as when the disgraceful butt dancers launched their provocative attacks against Bersih co-chairperson S Ambiga.

The fact that the mainstream media chose to highlight these provocations spinning it as some kind of patriotic gesture by former service personnel mirrors the partisan spin of the alternative media which did nothing to enhance the reputation of the armed forces.

On the flip side, we are witness to the new phenomenon of retired service personnel making stands and in some cases taking sides in controversial issues. Retired service personnel in letters to the mainstream media or if they are ignored to the alternative media are articulating the concerns of ordinary citizens.

military tentera askar soldier malaysia 260307 wataniahRecently a former Army deputy chief (general), the former Air Force head of logistics (general), a former Navy head of support services (admiral) and a former general in the Kor Agama Angkatan Tentera (Kagat or Military Religious Corps) declared their support for Pakatan Rakyat at a press conference that was promoted in the propaganda organs of the alternative front but received scant coverage in mainstream Umno-BN mouthpieces.

With reference to the general of the Kagat, I understand that he is well-liked by the other ranks and was as popular as the late Ustaz Haji Saad, who was a ‘nazir agama’ (akin to a regiment chaplain) of the Armed Forces, who happened to be a close confidant.

Now I and many other retired service personnel understand why this would be of serious concern to the Defence Ministry. The appearance of high-ranking former military officials endorsing Pakatan is potent propaganda for an alternative front routinely demonised by every branch of the government.

Soldiers have family and friends and although there is an ongoing controversy of military votes, sympathetic sentiments for the opposition could dilute whatever vote bank the current regime feels is the armed forces.

Unacceptable rhetoric

Whatever your opinion on the participation of retired service personnel in the arena of politics, Ismail’s insinuation that there is a wave of retired armed forces personnel who use their ranks without approval without naming names is unacceptable rhetoric because its aim is to damage the credibility of those retired service personnel who voice their opinions against the establishment.

To imply that there are those using their ranks who were “dismissed from service”, especially in these partisan times without citing examples, is disrespectful not to mention dishonourable to those of us who served our country and believe that our ranks carries with it a certain responsibility that does not end merely because we leave the service.

Readers may disagree with how retired service personnel choose to exercise these responsibilities and even the political allegiances of former armed forces servicemen but their credibility should only be questioned, especially when it comes to their ranks, with the most credible of evidence and certainly not in disingenuous manner of the Defence Ministry.

Are there retired armed forces personnel who were dismissed from service using their ranks? Most certainly and most retired service people will tell you this is mostly done for pecuniary advantage. The private and public sector is littered with men and women of “rank” who trawl through the system of patronage and rent-seeking to get their due.

And if these were the people the Defence Ministry was referring to, this should have been made clear in the press statement and the words of Ismail. On a personal note, the broad brush of the Defence Ministry too has tarred me.

Mixed in with queries of how this statement relates to my writing forMalaysiakini, I have received the usual hate email from DAP apparatchiks and Pakatan kool aid drinkers of how “Pakatan does not need toddy drinking bogus commanders” or similar invectives. I guess Umno-BN propaganda is useful even if you are an opposition supporter.

I suppose it will only get worse because in the works are articles about the Pakatan manifesto and race relations in this country post-2008 tsunami – the genesis of which was a conversation with a former senior officer in the Joint Intelligence Directorate.

However, Ismail’s statement has given me the perfect opportunity to discuss in the next part of this article the concerns of Retired Armed Forces Officers (Rafoc) on the awarding of army rank (structures) to Rela (People’s Volunteer Corps).

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) – who has the permission of the AFC to use his rank – of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

1 Comment »

  1. MILITARY UNIFORMS AND INSIGNIAS: Restrict their use to military

    AS far as I know, as a former army officer who earned an Agong’s commission, no country other than Malaysia allows units other than the military to use military ranks.

    I checked with some friends, retired and serving military personnel, from Singapore, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan, and they confirmed this.

    I wonder what it would feel like for someone without the right credentials, qualifications and experience, to wear the rank of a major-general, lieutenant general or general with two, three or four stars respectively on their shoulders, for example.

    Does he know the implications and the duties and responsibilities of people with two, three or four stars on his shoulders adorning his uniform?

    Of late, we seem to see many people being conferred with senior military ranks by different people who may not have the authority to do so or “who may only assume such authority”, such as ministers and heads of departments.

    Recently, even a president of an association of people, who are entertainers, was given the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel (Rela).

    The association he leads is not even involved in the business of keeping peace and security of the country. What are the criteria used in granting him an honorary rank? Do ministers or heads of departments have the authority to confer such ranks?

    Rightfully, in this country, only the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has the authority to confer commissions to officers of our military, that is, after they have completed an approved scheduled theory and practical training for at least one year.

    We have our own Royal Military College to train qualified candidates to become military officers. Upon successful completion of their officer cadet training, they are commissioned by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as second lieutenants and they are then sent to various units to serve.

    There are others, after completing basic training locally who are sent to officer cadet schools either in the US, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India or Pakistan. These officers will receive their commissions from the heads of state of their respective countries of the military colleges they go to.

    All officers of the Malaysian armed forces take the oath of allegiance and loyalty to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and country which states, more or less, as follows, “I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the country and the Constitution of Malaysia, the King and country, against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter.”

    The oath of allegiance is accompanied by a full-length photo and fingerprints of all ten fingers of the officer and not just the thumbprint as is done in other oath or agreement documents.

    As the officer progresses in his career, he will have to undergo further training, attend courses and sit and pass scheduled examinations at various stages of his career before he gets promoted to lieutenant, captain, major and so on, and he is given added responsibilities to shoulder until he gets to be a four-star general.

    The higher the rank, the fewer are the holders. In the Malaysian armed forces, the rank of four-star general is accorded to only four officers — the Panglima Angkatan Tentera (chief of the armed forces), Panglima Tentera Darat (chief of the army), Panglima Tentera Laut (chief of the navy) and Panglima Tentera Udara (chief of the air force).

    Every ranking and non-ranking personnel in the military know exactly what their specific roles, duties and responsibilities are, and they are well trained and equipped to carry out their respective roles properly.

    Every one of them knows where they stand in the line of command. He or she may be in a section, platoon, company or a battalion or even in larger organisations such as a brigade, division or in an army corp or an army group and so on.

    The Malaysian Volunteer Corps Act 2012 (Rela Act) came into operation on June 22, 2012. As members of the Volunteer Corps, Rela members are not military officers but in the schedule (Section 22) of the Rela Act, officers of Rela are accorded ranks exactly like the military with the ranks of major up to general, considered as officers, and from the rank of private up to captain, they are known as members.

    The insignia and rank designs, including the number of stars used, are almost exactly like the ones used by the army.

    Rela personnel, officers and members, wear uniforms that have a military-like look complete with berets and they are now commonly seen everywhere: to take care of traffic at weddings, at shopping complexes, markets and schools.

    Their presence may give a wrong impression to foreigners and tourists who may think that military personnel are being deployed everywhere and questions may rise about our security situation.

    Worse still, foreign journalists may wrongly assume they are army personnel when writing about the indiscretion of some Rela officers.

    We, former and existing members of the Malaysian armed forces are unclear about the rationale for the use of military ranks by Rela.

    I do not think that the formation of Rela and the drawing up of the Act were discussed with the Defence Ministry. The Act makes light, if not fun, of military ranks.

    Rela officers and members may use insignias to indicate the respective and different positions or appointment, but they must never use insignias and ranks similar to the ones used by the military.

    Military insignias and ranks are only for military use and it must be treated like a trademark or a copyright of the Malaysian armed forces.

    They also must not wear uniforms that are similar or exactly the same as military personnel. This has to be observed, respected and honoured by all.

    Military uniforms, insignias and ranks must be restricted in their use to military officers only. Of course, officers providing essential services such as at the ports and railways, for example, who during an emergency or a war, may be mobilised as military personnel, are allowed to use uniforms, military ranks and insignias similar to the ones used by the Malaysian army and that is provided by law on certain official occasions.

    In a wedding ceremony of a celebrity not too long ago, the groom put two stars on his shoulders similar to the stars used by an officer with the rank of Major General in the army on the military ceremonial dress he wore at his wedding and he even had people who looked like police officers as sword bearers.

    Only genuine military and police officers are entitled to the services of sword bearers to parade or perform at their weddings and no one else.

    All the above questionable acts have made a mockery of military ranks and military uniforms and the novelty of being officers of all ranks is now lost.

    No one seems to be in control of the situation. In addition to that, neither the defence minister nor the senior serving military officers have said anything about the situation.

    If similar actions happen in the countries I had mentioned earlier, there would surely be a big hue and cry about it. People there respect and honour dearly people in the military and their rights and no one makes fun of them.

    They are proud of their soldiers, officers and other ranks (veterans), who have fought in the various wars in the past either in defending their country or their sovereignty.

    If the use of military uniforms, insignias and ranks are not controlled or restricted in this country, we will soon have military style organisations complete with military uniforms and ranks and they can create unnecessary problems that may undermine the country’s peace, security and prosperity.


    Captain Hussaini Abdul Karim (Rtd), Shah Alam, Selangor

    Comment by hak55 — March 8, 2013 @ 4:22 PM | Reply

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