Between nostalgia and economic practicality

They (Iban trackers and rangers) were specialists in tracking communists in the jungle because of their experience in hunting animals in Sarawak jungles.
 – Lt Col (Rtd) Robert Rizal Abdullah, recipient of Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB), the nation’s second highest military gallantry award

Quite a lot has been said about reviving the Sarawak Rangers and the Border Scouts since Belaga assemblyman Datuk Liwan Lagang floated the idea last week.

Like Liwan, many felt that something has to be done now to strengthen security along the 1,100km Sarawak-Kalimantan border before Indonesia actually relocates its capital city to East Kalimantan.

Most, if not all, Sarawakians like the idea because they believe Sarawakians will do a better job of looking after the state’s border security. They said the Sarawak Rangers and the Border Scouts proved this point.

Indeed, the Sarawak Rangers, the Border Scouts and the Trackers have few comparisons in the war against the communists. While written records are scant, we have all heard of their jungle exploits and the many bravery awards bestowed upon them.

For some of us, these heroes, most of them unsung, were people close to us, so we did not get our story from any third party; we heard it from the horse’s mouth.

In any case, no matter how or from whom we get our story, what we learnt is a lesson in true courage, fate and sacrifices.

Lt Col (Rtd) Robert Rizal Abdullah wrote quite a fair bit about the rangers and scouts in his many posts about 10 years ago. One goes like this (with some editing):

“On Aug 8, 1948, six weeks after the Emergency was declared, the colonial government of Sarawak decided to respond to the request from the Malayan government to send Dayak Trackers to help quell the communist insurgency in Malaya.

“A group of some 49 Dayak Trackers were sent. A young, enthusiastic and confident Dayak by the name of Maja anak Barek was one of them. With his ancestors’ talismans tied around his waist and neck, he set forth to go to war and to show the world the courage and determination that was brimming and boiling within him.

“To him and his friends, as were they to their ancestors, the fearless courage of their warrior forefathers must live on in them. To the Dayak warriors, courage was a virtue and a trademark of a true warrior.

“Maja went on to serve for ‘27 years of actions against the communist terrorists, first in Malaya, the Brunei Rebellion and then the Sarawak communist insurgency…His life had been (like the proverbial egg) on the tip of a bull’s horn whenever he went on jungle operations and we could only imagine what an ordeal his family had gone through all these 27 years’.”

In one other post, Robert wrote:

“Following the successes of the paramilitary Iban Trackers in the insurgency war in Malaya from 1948 till 1952, it was felt there was a need to reform them into a full-fledged military unit.

“So, at the end of 1952, they were reorganised into two experimental platoons. In March 1953, they officially became the Sarawak Rangers, which like all other military units, was subjected to the Military Laws.

“They didn’t disappoint…in their first operation, they made their first contact with the CTs and had their first success…Twenty one of them were killed during the 12 years of fighting from 1948 to 1960…an amazingly small number, bearing in mind that they were at the front most of any operations.”

He also wrote: “In late 1952, the 380 Dayak Trackers who were attached to the various units in Malaya were conferred military status by the Sarawak government.

“They were grouped into two experimental platoons commanded by British officers. The Dayaks held the non-commission officers appointments, thus started the reformed Sarawak Rangers, a unit that was started by Rajah Charles Brooke in 1862 but was disbanded in 1930 due to the world economic recession.

“The Sarawak Rangers Ordinance no. 22 of 1953 was not passed until Sept 16, 1953. However, Sarawak Rangers was officially reformed effective Jan 1, 1953 when the Sarawak Rangers (Malayan Unit) was formed.

“Sarawak Rangers (Malayan Unit) remained until it was disbanded on March 31, 1960 to give way to the new Sarawak Rangers (Far East Land Forces) which made it a part of the British Army.

“This new unit didn’t last very long. On Sept 15, 1963 it was disbanded again to make way for the modern 1st Battalion, The Malaysian Rangers, which was formed on Sept 16, 1963 – the day Malaysia was born.”

I think it was in 1973, when my first cousin Junga Kassim took a bullet on his hip during an operation against the communists. He is 64 this year and walks with a limp. As far as stories of heroism are concerned, for my story, he is my horse.

Of course, the question remains: Will the central government agree to revive the Sarawak Rangers and Border Scouts?

If the state is allowed to, but has to come up with its own money, do we have the money and can we sustain?

Today when Sarawak is not getting the treatment it rightly deserves as an equal partner of the Federation of Malaysia, Sarawakians cannot be faulted if they believe only in themselves. And the Sarawak Rangers, the Border Scouts and the Trackers are all about Sarawakians.

Basically, what is playing in the minds of most Sarawakians — and in mine as well — today is if we have it in ourselves, why look elsewhere?

In the matter of border security, if history is any yardstick, Sarawak is capable of having the best in the business.

Unfortunately though, nostalgia is one thing, but economic practicality is surely another.