Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Once were warriors, Malaysian fashion

In Malaysiakini’s Break shackles of racism, free the civil service we get to hear our dear Uthayakumar lamenting the loss of Indian dominance of the senior echelon in the Malaysian Civil Service, where once 50% of the service’s top postings (division A and B) were Indians.

As for the Armed Forces, Uthayakumar recalled that the first Malaysian navy chief was an Indian, rear admiral K Tanabalasingam.

This is surprising news for me, so I rang up one of my uncles (a sweetie once remarked I have many uncles wakakaka) who once served in the Armed Forces, to confirm Uthayakumar’s assertion.

Unc agreed with Uthayakumar, both in that fact that Tanabalasingam was the first Malaysian to be the nation’s naval chief, and Uthayakumar’s cry that "No Indian Malaysian however capable will ever get to this position ever again."

Unc also asserted that neither would ever a Chinese Malaysian.

However he reckoned (though he couldn't be sure) that Tanabalasingam only reached the rank of Commodore (one-star) and not Rear Admiral (two-star) before he retired. [update-note: yes, he was promoted to Rear Admiral before he retired]

Unc said that relatively the Indians had done far better than the Chinese in the Armed Forces, despite there being 4 times more Chinese Malaysians than Indian ones.

He remembered that during his time there were more Indian than Chinese generals in the army and navy. The first non-Malay air force general was also an Indian.

He can’t be sure but he reckoned the Indians also had more 2-star generals than the Chinese.

Despite the population ratio, the Indians had fared far far better than the Chinese in the senior ranks. My Unc’s personal opinion is that in the armed forces the Indians were more trusted or liked than the Chinese.

The exception in the ‘trust’ category for the Chinese was the Police (in his days), where the top SB man would be a Chinese. The rationale, inherited from the British, was to use a Chinese (SB policeman) to catch a Chinese (communist).

Incidentally the two men who virtually crippled the MCP and silently won the war for Malaysia against the insurgency were two police officers, Paul Kiong and Sia Boon Chee. Both were awarded Malaysia’s highest bravery award, the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa in 1983, but they weren’t generals. Kiong eventually reached the rank SP (roughly equivalent to the military Colonel) whilst Sia retired as a DSP (= Lt Colonel).

So, all in all, in the 52 years of Malayan/Malaysian independence, the Indians had performed remarkably well in the senior ranks of the armed forces when compared to the Chinese. At least they enjoyed having an Indian become a Service Chief.

I believe that was the case too in the senior positions of the Civil Service.

On Tanabalasingam, a Tamil whose family were of Sri Lanka extract, Unc added a bit of juicy gossip, that by the time he became Navy boss and a Commodore Rear Admiral (twoone-star general), he found it impossible to marry as the dowry for a person of his status would have been frighteningly astronomical, way beyond the reach of any Malaysian Tamil parents (of Sri Lankan heritage).

Besides, according to Unc, the (most eligible) bachelor Commodore Rear Admiral was seen dating only non-tangachees ;-)

I wonder whether he was eventually married. Just imagine the convoy of trucks (or ships) carrying his dowry wakakaka!


  1. Well, as a Tamil of Ceylonese extract, I can say a lot of our kind were brought in to be senior civil servants (not too sure about the military though).

    And trust me, the attachment to the civil service runs pretty deep (at least in my extended family). I don't think the ability of Ceylonese to assume top positions in post-colonial Malaysia had anything to do purely with their merit, rather their preexisting position within the civil service.

  2. i heard that he was "force" to retire.in fact ,he was the one whom selected lumut .

  3. Hi ktemoc

    In the early days of RMAF/TUDM, there were many pilots who were of Chinese descent at the airbase in Kuantan. Flying Nuri helicopters and Tebuan fighter-bombers.

    It should not be surprising to know that "Indians" (by no means a homogeneous group) were overepresented in the post-Merdeka civil service and armed forces. Many "British troops" in colonial Malaya were Indians and the lower ranks of the colonial civil service were staffed by Ceylonese Tamils and Malay aristocrats educated at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar. So this persisted into the early post-colonial days
    (including white British continuing to head various civil service agencies for a few years beyond Merdeka and the deepening of "Malayanization")

    Phua Kai Lit

  4. A lot of my non Malay friends in the Armed Forces were forced to retire by the time they had attained the ranks of Captain or Major as most of their Malay subordinates who were junior officers became heads of department. These new heads would more or less do less work while their former seniors had to carry their new bosses 'balls'. It is usually embarassing when there are joint exercises and these so called senior officers will be dumb-strucked by the foreign officers with their low-military knowledge and their juniors having to 'rescue' their commanding officers. S'pore officers like to do this when having conversations over drinks and yes, these muslim officers drink free liquor like no tomorrow!

  5. I seem to remember Thanabalasingam became a Muslim because he fell in love with a Malay ga. I dunno if that was before or after he became the Navy Chief.

  6. FYI, Rear Admiral (R) Tan Sri Dato' K. Thanabalasingam is not married.