On Tuesday, a memorial to the victims of Konfrontasi and those who risked their lives defending the country will be unveiled at Dhoby Ghaut, near the site of the MacDonald House bombing, in which three people were killed and 33 injured. The March 10, 1965, bombing was the worst in a string of attacks by Indonesian saboteurs on Singapore soil during Konfrontasi, which lasted from 1963 to 1966 when Indonesia opposed the formation of Malaysia. Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Syed Ibrahim Almahdali, 72, speaks to Jermyn Chow about fighting armed infiltrators on the front line, and the evolution of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). The former commander of the 2nd People's Defence Force Training Centre retired in 1992.
What was your biggest concern as an untested platoon commander in 2nd Battalion Singapore Infantry Regiment (2SIR) in February 1965, when you were deployed to Johor/Kota Tinggi to prevent Indonesian saboteurs from infiltrating Malaysia during Konfrontasi?
It was real stuff now. I had to look after my men, I had better do a good job. I had to earn their respect and gain their confidence.
And, indeed, a test did come – Singapore troops died in actual combat. On Feb 28, 1965, nine soldiers from Platoon 7 of 2SIR were killed in an ambush at Kota Tinggi by Indonesian infiltrators. That must have shaken your confidence.
It did, it woke us up. I was doing jungle training in Kota Tinggi, the same area where the platoon was ambushed. So the whole atmosphere changed into semi-operational, in the sense that it was conducted by the British in the jungle warfare school. Everyone was carrying live rounds. We had to be more vigilant. The problem was that, mentally, soldiers were not quite switched on because of their familiarity with the area. They still thought they were under training.
Did you feel you let the men down?
The unfortunate thing was that the platoon commander (PC) was not there, it was led by the platoon sergeant. The PC of the platoon that was ambushed and I were away because we were undergoing training. (Subsequently) we used that incident as a reference point – this is what happens if we are not vigilant enough, if we are not mindful of the whole situation. It should not have happened. We lost nine lives. How to shore up morale again took time.
Just weeks after the ambush, MacDonald House was bombed. It must have been a double blow to the men.
It was a turning point. It was a lesson learnt. There was no turning back. We were now in the serious business of looking for infiltrators in the jungle. We managed to kill 32 of the Indonesian saboteurs – it was a form of getting back.
We realised: If it is not their lives, it would be our lives. If you want to keep yourself alive, you better be alert and better train properly. The men began to realise things like this could happen if we let our guard down. From then, the vigilance in the battalion was upgraded to a higher level.
They became more vigilant, more alert and more conscious that they were in for the real stuff. It's unfortunate that we had to learn such a bitter lesson to come to that stage. We paid the price.
Did the sense of urgency and vulnerability make you better soldiers? Why?
Yes. Because we saw the real stuff. We saw real casualties. We saw men grieving, men being killed. It dawned on us that this was not something to take lightly. Therefore when we went for training, my seniors were sadistic instructors. They would throw stones and sticks to make sure we took cover. You took cover properly – or you would be gone.
We saw what the consequences to the unit and the men were if they were poorly equipped and poorly trained. You lose lives. When we were given the chance to train our soldiers, we gave them 110 per cent. We could put our hand on heart and say we had done our best, and the rest was up to them.
How valuable was your experience during Konfrontasi and how did it shape your SAF career?
It made us move to the next stage. We always had to train for war and take it seriously, although the intention was not to send you to war. The destruction in a conflict is too heavy for us to experience. So there was no let-up in training – we pushed really hard to ensure you were up to it. If not, you had not only failed yourself but also the men.
There has been talk about the role of Malay Singaporeans in the SAF over the years, even as individuals like you played key roles in building up the SAF. Why do you think the issue cropped up in the past and how has that changed?
Malays often asked me: "Why am I not called up into the SAF for training?" I told them that Singapore was going through a period of maturing, and we had come to a stage in which our loyalty and trust were being tested. If we got through this phase, things would move forward and better things could happen. I told them we were going through a period of testing. Once we got through this test, things would be better.
Have we passed this phase, and do you think recent efforts to include Malays in sensitive vocations are good enough?
We are still going through it. Hopefully, this process will be done with sincerity, a lot of transparency and explaining to people. It should not be done for show, because people can see through it and know that you are trying to buy their confidence. If there is no information, you will find that there would be a lot of question marks and they will start conjuring a lot of answers which are unwarranted.
Doubts are still lingering but, in my personal view, it is opening up. It's a good step forward, but more can be done. How can it be done? Probably through dialogue, through communication and being open with each other. After all, we are short of manpower and you deprive this group of people of the chance to defend the country, they feel alienated.
Looking back at your life, you left teaching after two years at Bartley Secondary School to join the Federation Military College in 1963. Why?
Teaching was a stop-gap measure. I'd always had the ambition of becoming a military officer. The first time round, I failed in the selection. But was selected the second time round. Why I was attracted? I was inspired by people like former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who was a distinguished officer and military commander. But more so, the uniform and the bonding of the officers, and their regimental life – I was invited to the Singapore Infantry Regiment messes, I could see the life of the officers. They were very close-knit with the men they led. I love the uniform, I love the outdoor life. Maybe adventure was in my blood.
When you were first deployed in Kota Tinggi, what was the added pressure? After all, you had been through training at military college and at Officer Cadet School in Portsea, Australia.
When you are immersed in operations, your immediate concern is your contact with your men. Will I be accepted by this group of people as a leader? I became a platoon commander by virtue of my rank, as a commissioned officer. (So) I had to earn their respect and confidence.
But you were an untested leader and unprepared?
I told myself, this is no more training, this is real. In an operation like this, it is close combat, you deal with small pockets of infiltrators and the instinctive drills kicked in. How everything fitted in the big picture was at the back of my mind.
When the SAF was a fledgling defence force that was still being built, it was made up of many volunteers. How valuable was their contribution?
They might have been weekend soldiers, but they were being pushed. Individually, some of them could not measure up to the regulars but they eventually caught up. The most important thing was that we spoke the same language and shared the same vision of defending the country.
How big a role can volunteers play in the newly formed SAF Volunteer Corps?
The greatest advantage of volunteerism is that you come in with the correct attitude and the right frame of mind. You come in to share, to contribute, to participate and move on. They are not being compelled, and come in of their own free will.
Why is it important to instill the sense of urgency and vulnerability in today's soldiers, especially when they have not seen such tumultuous times as you?
It is a very different era. We are urban in our setting and, because of that, we tend to be soft. If we leave it as it is now, complacency will set in because life is too good for them. Bringing old soldiers out to relate what happened during their time is a good way to pass on the legacy. So they are not lulled into complacency and think that nothing will happen. Aircon, aircon car, maid to do everything for you – we do not want a disaster to wake us up again. The consequences of a conflict would be so great that we do not want to repeat it. And the only way to deter this from happening is to be prepared physically and psychologically.
Her future stepdad must be a good photographer and have a lot of patience because her mother might look innocent although she isn't.