THEY were labelled as ‘lakia peng’ (Dayak army), the cheapest unit to maintain and even taunted as the hoi polloi of the armed forces.
But despite the disparaging remarks, they held their heads high and fought with gallantry alongside Allied forces during the Brunei Rebellion, Indonesian Confrontation and Communist insurgency in Sarawak.
The Sarawak Police Field Force (SPFF) had a major role in shaping the country’s history although this is frequently overlooked.
They went through dangerous moments and suffered casualties and fatalities like any regular army.
They were every sense warriors, and apart from facing the enemy at their frontline, they also had to perform menial and manual tasks.
Considered as para military, the SPFF comprised, first and foremost, trained policemen, specialising in counter insurgency and jungle warfare.
In peace time, they were law enforcement officers but when war broke out, they were army and police rolled into one.
Former SPFF officers, Dato Aba Robiyel Huk, Leong Thian Kheng and Santokh Singh, have survived the dark days of Confrontation and Communist insurgency in the 1960s to tell their stories of those turbulent times.
Aba Huk was stationed in Serian as commanding officer on April 12, 1963 when Indonesian intruders attacked the border outpost of Tebedu, 20 miles away.
The only police station there was destroyed and the armoury looted.
As there were no army units present at Tebedu, the attackers came, plundered and left, leaving one dead and two injured in their wake.
“It was a nightmare for me,” Aba Huk recalled, explaining that at the time, the border outpost was a one-and-a-half day overland and two to three days by river from the nearest village of Tebakang. He had to devise a way to get the survivors and the dead out.
When they arrived at Tebedu, Aba Huk and his men turned the police station into a bachelors’ pad — they didn’t know how long they had to stay.
All the survivors were evacuated. It was mentally and physically sapping, he said, adding that the survivors’ morale was low after the attack.
Women and children together with the injured and dead were transported to Tebakang by longboat while the men trekked down to the village.
It was only two weeks later that the British Royal Marines arrived at Tebedu. Before that, the SPFF were guarding the isolated outpost and they also had to stay back to give logistic support.
“The Marines were not familiar with the terrain and language. They needed us to be their eyes and ears,” Aba Huk said.
Communism-oriented, the Indonesian raiders were locals, trained by the Paraku (Pasukan Rakyat Kalimantan Utara) to infiltrate Sarawak.
After Confrontation, they were chased out of the country but returned later to form the North Kalimantan Communist Party that was responsible for the insurgency in the state.
Since the 1950s, left wing and communist cell groups had grown rapidly among some local groups that later became the nucleus of the anti-Malaysia North Kalimantan People’s Army and Sarawak People’s Guerilla Forces (PGRS).
Their aim was to form an independent leftist North Kalimantan state.
The SPFF got the most information passed on by locals. In one instance, an informer’s tip probably saved Matang area from attack.
Recalled ex-commanding officer of Lanang PFF Camp in Sibu (Rtd) superintendent Leong Thian Cheng: “I was with this driver one day when he told me he had seen a group of men hanging around Matang area (blacklisted as a communist hotbed during the insurgency).”
According to the informer, four to six men were seen loitering suspiciously at Mile 6, Matang Road, and this report was passed on to Leong who, in turn, relayed it to the Special Branch.
All intelligence reports were given priority — and the Special Branch swung into action with a counter-measure code-named ‘Dead Letter Box’.
A booby trap was also set, and true to the information given, three communists were found dead in the area after a few days as a result.
Former second-in-command of PFF Battalion 14 (from Matang to Lundu) (Rtd) superintendent Santokh Singh recapped an incident when he and his men were called in to help as liaison officers between the locals and the army.
It was in 1963 and Gunung Gading came under attack by Indonesian forces.
Though the British soldiers and Gurkhas were there, the SPPF was roped in to provide logistic support.
“We were their interpreters and informers. Locals were more ready to talk to us — they felt more at ease with us,” Santokh said.
The SPFF had to take on the role of forensic and investigative police when casualties were brought into the station. Santokh recalled those trying moments.
“We had to identify the bodies by taking their finger prints and tagging them before sending the corpses to the morgue. Dealing with dead bodies was entirely different from action on the battlefield,” he said, adding that the former was emotionally draining while the latter was physically taxing.
Looking back, Aba Huk pointed out: “Give the Allied forces credit as they had done a good job defending the country but I also believe had it not been for assistance from the SPFF, they would not have succeeded. They couldn’t have done without us. They were trained in conventional warfare while we were trained to counter insurgencies.”
The East Malaysia Brigade was also formed to protect Sarawak and Sabah — first to fight the communist insurgency and later to fend off sea incursions from the Philippines which had laid claim to Sabah due to the Sulu Sea connection.