Remember sacrifice and sovereignty

The following is an extract of a speech delivered at the Battle of Gemencheh Bridge Remembrance Ceremony.

WE gather yesterday to remember a significant battle of World War II in Asia: the Battle of Gemencheh Bridge, which took place on Jan 14, 1942.

On Dec 8, 1941, the Pacific War began when the Japanese landed at Kota Bharu, hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Penang fell on Dec 17, Ipoh was lost by Christmas, and the Battle of Slim River on Jan 7 did little to slow the Japanese advance.

Three days later, the invaders were at Serendah, and on that day the decision was taken to ambush the Japanese at Gemencheh Bridge.

When the Japanese did arrive at the bridge on Jan 14, Australia’s Captain Desmond Duffy of B Company 2/30th Battalion let hundreds of soldiers, many on the bicycles on which they had so quickly traversed the peninsula, cross the bridge.

The bridge was then destroyed and the Australians commenced a successful attack that killed hundreds of the enemy and six tanks.

Just over two weeks later, the Japanese had arrived at the Causeway, and Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in Singapore on Feb 15, 1942.

The bravery and courage shown by the alliance of Malayan and Commonwealth troops throughout the war deserves to be more widely recognised and remembered. Of the many individual stories of tremendous valour, one concerns a volunteer of the 3rd Battalion of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force based in Negeri Sembilan, Captain Raja Aman Shah Raja Harun Al Rashid.

Having fought the enemy all the way down to Singapore and subsequently been captured, he refused an offer of freedom, as his colleagues would not be freed together with him.

For this loyalty to his starving comrades, he was force-marched alongside them, stripped and then shot in trenches that were deliberately not covered so the bodies were left to rot.

Emotionally difficult as these accounts are, they form a vital part of our history and ought to be transmitted to the younger generation.

I am therefore grateful to Datuk Thambipillay Rajasingam for bringing together so many representatives from army, police, diplomats and students.

In the fading days of empire and the emergence of the post-colonial nation-state, combatants on either side were more easily identified. But today, in another part of this country, there are on-going operations that have resulted in the tragic loss of life.

Historical and legal arguments have been put forth to explain the conflict in Sabah, but the protection of our sovereignty must be the priority.

In this regard I declare my utmost gratitude and appreciation to our armed forces, whatever the political and diplomatic machinations at work behind the scenes.

Sacrifices should not be forgotten. Attending memorial events helps us to visualise some of the heroism and also contextualise the action within the wider geopolitical tussles of the day.

An earlier conflict in Negeri Sembilan neatly illustrates these shifts. In the 1874 War of Bukit Putus, Yamtuan Antah repelled invading British forces at Seri Menanti to Seremban, but their cannon fire prevailed and the Istana was destroyed. However Yamtuan Antah’s son, Tuanku Muhammad, chose to work with the British, resulting in tremendous economic development.

With his brother Rulers he urged the formation of a local army regiment.

This became the Royal Malay Regiment, which fought alongside so many Commonwealth units during World War II and the Emergency. It just celebrated its 80th birthday last week in Port Dickson.

The point of my story is that although relations with different leaders and governments of countries can fluctuate, the memory of acts of courage can bind us together.

While the military aspect of our relationship continues through initiatives such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the political and economic relationship is flourishing too. However, as we have seen, not all offers are taken up with equal enthusiasm.

The skirmish in Lahad Datu is a rare event. These days, ensuring peace and freedom within our borders more often calls for good governance, rule of law, proper check and balances, healthy civil society and free and fair elections.

Malaysians look to the police and armed forces to protect these institutions, and while I am proud of all the strides made in Malaysian civil society in the past few years, I am humbled to be able to wear this uniform as Honorary Major of Regiment 508 of the Askar Wataniah.

I understand that with the cooperation between Wira Association Malaysia, the OCPD Tampin and other supporters that this remembrance will be an annual event.

I therefore hope to return here in the future.

Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz is Honorary Major of Regiment 508 of the Territorial Army.

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