Today at the age of 69, Sukdave Singh is bitter that not enough was done to help him. “Nobody has ever come back again to see if I am alive or dead,” he complains.
Forty years ago, the security guard was shot when he went to investigate what turned out to be the start of the Japanese Red Army siege at the AIA building in Kuala Lumpur.
Back then, his photograph was plastered over local and foreign newspapers and he was recognised for his heroism. But since his retirement, every Aug 4 passes like any other day, with no visitors.
That Monday morning in 1975 started wrong. Sukdave, then 29 and the assistant to the chief of security, was supposed to be one of three on his shift. But one person was off duty while the other was not well and had just gone to the hospital.
“I was alone at the ground floor,” he recalls, when AIA office manager Robert Leong told him there appeared to be a robbery on the ninth floor, where the AIA agency office, the Swedish Embassy and the consular section of the United States embassy were.
Actually, it was the beginning of a four-day crisis involving 53 hostages – including the United States Consul Robert Stebbins and the Swedish Charge d’Affaires Fredrik Bergenstrahle (who has since died) – but no one in the rest of the building knew that at the time.
Sukdave was also not well, but he called his boss, Mahinder Singh, and they both headed up. “He controlled the lift,” Sukdave says. “I stuck half my head out of the lift and looked at the AIA office on the left.”
The guard was unarmed but, he believes, his turban looked like a police turban. That is probably why the terrorists, who were in the US consular section at the right, fired at him. “A bullet went under my right eye and out at the back,” he says.
Till today, he believes he was lucky. “I was facing left,” Sukdave explains. “If I had been facing right, I could have had a worse injury or been killed.”
At the time, he thought Mahinder had struck him. Covered in blood, he fell back into the lift and asked the security chief why he had hit him.
Mahinder quickly closed the lift door and rushed him to the Catterall, Khoo and Partners clinic in the same building, where Dr Robert Catterall bandaged him up.
“I told him to inform my family,” Sukdave remembers. “I prayed and dozed off. I only regained consciousness when I felt the heat outdoors as they were carrying me to the ambulance.”
NEXT PAGE: “We were known worldwide for this incident, but nothing has been done for the three of us.”
The guard was taken to the intensive care unit at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. “I was semi-conscious but I saw a big crowd waiting, including my cousins,” he says. For the first 48 hours, his mother stayed at the ICU and prayed for him. Within that time he was able to move his hands, but it was a fortnight before Sukdave could be moved into the general ward and he spent two months in the hospital.
His fiancée Kuldip Kaur was also praying very hard for him. “That week, we were supposed to buy jewellery for the wedding, which was supposed to be in September,” he says. But Sukdave was unable to go back to work until January the following year, and the wedding was postponed until May.
He was not the only one injured. Police constable V. Amurthalingam had later run up the staircase to the ninth floor. When he opened the door, there was an exchange of fire and he was shot in the jaw.
Down in the car park, Federal Reserve Unit constable Ku Ahmad Ku Razak was shot in the thigh right after he moved into the spot just vacated by a US embassy photographer who had aimed his zoom lens at the ninth floor. “They may have thought it was a gun,” says Sukdave.
“Sukdave and the others injured in the Japanese Red Army terrorist act, unfortunately, were victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says former US consul Stebbins, now 81 and retired in California. “All of the 53 hostages also were subject to injury or death by the terrorists at any time while being held captive,” he adds.
But although there were very serious injuries suffered by those shot by the JRA terrorists, he notes, “No one was killed. And for that, we have reason to be thankful.”
He remains grateful that “I was released and given a second chance at life after being selected to be executed. I really expected nothing more.”
Sukdave, Amurthalingam and Ku Ahmad were honoured by the American Embassy Employees Association the following March. On behalf of the association, Home Affairs Minister Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie presented a pewter plaque to Sukdave and a Gallantry Honour Award “for outstanding bravery, risking his own life for the safety of the entire occupants of the AIA Building, Kuala Lumpur.”
AIA Hong Kong managing director Edward Tilling (who has since died) handed a cheque for RM2,000 to Sukdave and the company covered his medical costs until his retirement. AIA also extended his date of retirement, from 2003 to 2004. (Since then, Sukdave has worked part-time as a watchman.)
Sukdave received a letter and a watch from the Japanese ambassador a month after what the diplomat described as the “nightmare of the attack on the AIA Building by the Japanese Red Army”.
Michiaki Suma (who has also since died) expressed his thanks “as an individual” for Sukdave’s “services rendered for the protection of this building, and also, of the personnel confined in a certain part of this building.”
And he expressed “my deep regret that our nationals were involved in this”. The envoy said he was “relieved your injuries sustained have almost healed in the course of a month” and hoped Sukdave would “completely recover psychologically as well as physically from the shock and the injuries you had sustained in the course of this turmoil.”
But Sukdave says that because of the injury, he later had to have an operation on his tonsils. Till today, his throat is easily irritated and he gets a cough.
“My jaw is misaligned and not back to normal,” he adds. “I get headaches often and sometimes I black out. And I think my memory was affected.”
Now, at the age of 69, he is bitter that not enough was done to help him, Amurthalingam and Ku Ahmad. “We were known worldwide for this incident but nothing has been done for the three of us,” he claims.
Since it was the Japanese Red Army that shot him, the Japanese embassy should have tried to compensate the injured, he says. “The Swedish embassy also did not give any award to those injured.”
Lingam has since died, Sukdave says, and he believes Ku Ahmad is driving a taxi in Langkawi and doing some business.
But as he reflects on the trauma of 1975, Sukdave says, “I think I left and came back. I felt that the reason I came back was that I had not done work for God’s house.”
And from then on, he offered his services to the Gurdwara Sahib Ampang in Jalan Ulu Klang. He has cooked for them for over three decades.