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Friday October 26, 2012

Brave men of the sea

Our very own: ‘KD Tunku Abdul Rahman’ docking at the Kota Kinabalu Naval base at Teluk Sepanggar . Our very own: ‘KD Tunku Abdul Rahman’ docking at the Kota Kinabalu Naval base at Teluk Sepanggar .

It takes men of exceptional valour to serve in a tin can that dives 300m deep and even braver ones to stay there for a prolonged period of time.

TO many people of my generation our knowledge about submarines comes from the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and I dare say that many submariners today, the world over, owed their occupation to that show.

The series ran for four years, from Sept 14, 1964 to March 31 1968, in the United States making it longer than the original Star Trek which was on the air for only three seasons.

While many astronauts look to Star Trek as their inspiration, many navies throughout the world can thank Voyage’s lead actors Richard Basehart and David Hendison, who played the admiral and commander of SSRN Seaview respectively in the show, for the enlistment of their submariners.

So it was great pride when Malaysia’s first submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived at the Navy Base in Lumut from Toulon in 2009. The second submarine KD Tun Abdul Razak came home a year later.

So Malaysia now has two submarines – Perdana Class Scorpene – that sailed home right into controversy with accusations ranging from corruption to poor quality.

The pride of the navy was hurt especially when politicians started questioning a submarine that could not dive because of some initial technical issues.

Last week, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) invited about 100 newsmen, including yours truly, to see for themselves the KD Tunku Abdul Rahman docked at the Kota Kinabalu Naval base at Teluk Sepanggar in the Sabah capital.

Navy chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar threw a grand welcome and opened up almost all of the base, which is the Naval Sea Region 2 headquarters, to the newsmen as they went from the submarine simulator, shooting range, visiting KD Kedah and KD Perak patrol vessels and finally KD Tunku Abdul Rahman or KD TAR as its men called it.

Admiral Aziz and his merrymen did not hide behind any Official Secrets Act and took all questions.

“I run a tight but open ship,” said the affable Admiral Aziz who apologised profusely for not being able to take us out for a dive in the KD TAR.

“We would take a few hours to prepare the submarine and we have to go out 16km into the sea before we can safely dive. We would not have been able to accommodate everyone.”

The original plan was for the navy to take us to Temburu Layang-Layang so that we could see KD TAR in operation but because of the heightened territorial disputes between the littoral states, the Government on the advice of the Foreign Ministry asked that such a trip be postponed.

However, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi and Admiral Aziz were just itching to show off their latest technology.

Also on hand to welcome us and show us around were First Admiral Abdul Rahman Ayob, who was the original project team leader in 2002 when the procurement was first inked and Captain Zul Helmy Ithinain, the first commanding officer of KD TAR.

These two men were among the first Malaysians to receive their Dolphins insignia but they had to look on longingly as the sub’s present CO Commander Zahri Mohamad took us around the ship.

Kmr Zahri showed us not only his private room, the torpedoes, missiles, engine room, command centre, the crew sleeping quarters and the most important part of the vessel – the galley (or the kitchen to us civilians).

“Our main problems in a submarine are weight and space,” said F/Admiral Rahman.

To solve both, F/Admiral Rahman revealed that food became the main solution.

Tight space meant that moral needs had to be kept high at all times and one of the best ways was to ensure good food. There are no army rations for the submariners, they have a specialist cook who can rustle up great meals anytime.

However, the Asian staple diet of rice is limited to only once in every three days because rice is heavy, said F/Admiral Rahman who is said to be quite a mean cook himself.

According to friends, this son of Johor cooks up a Nasi Beryani Gam to die for.

The front of the submarine houses the torpedo and missile room which is at the moment are also used to billet the fresh batch of trainees – all of whom are qualified naval men who have volunteered for the job.

Capt Zul Helmy readily admits that its not a job for the faint hearted.

While other neighbouring navies shipped back their submarines, Capt Zul Helmy and his 35-man crew sailed the vessel back from the French naval base in Toulon, France to Lumut in an eventful 54-day journey.

But before they left, KD TAR took on a French nuclear submarine in a war games contest and won 10 times out of 10.

“Our diesel submarines are among the best and quietest in the world. We can hold up against the best,” said Admiral Aziz, adding that those who criticised the project did not understand the significance of the tactical use of submarines in protecting our waters.

The entire submarine squadron consists mainly of officers and all of them volunteered for their assignment.

Not surprisingly the lingua franca of the unit is English.

“Like any military troop in the world the weapons and systems are only as good as the personnel using it.

“Our Royal Malaysian Navy deserves the support and not the brick-bats that have been thrown at us. We are doing this to serve the nation,” said the Navy chief.

> Executive editor Wong Sai Wan despite his apprehension looks forward to going underwater with the brave officers and men of KD TAR.

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