Sunday Star talks to the men who helped take down communism in Malaysia.
THERE was a war going on in this country from the 1960s to the 1990s – but it was a quiet war fought in the shadows and deep in the jungles, one that most people were not aware of.
Then, last year, the Government decided it was time to declassify the top secret missions of the war that helped bring down the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
Finally, the public can hear the stories of the unsung heroes of the elite E3F squad, codenamed the “F-Team”.
Working in small teams, these members of the Bukit Aman Special Branch department’s secret section focused on collecting actionable intelligence that helped the authorities to take the fight to the CPM.
Sunday Star speaks to three former members of the F-Team about their experiences.
Springing a trap
Bullets are flying about, barely missing his ears, and the enemy vastly outnumber his unit – it looks like Abdul Kalam Suhaimi and his men are facing certain death.
But for them, this is just another day at the “office”. And if they should be killed doing their job, so be it.
Abdul Kalam – who rose to the rank of Chief Inspector in the police force before retiring in 1996 – recalls that moment in 1985 clearly.
It took place on Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, at a location where intelligence reports indicated that two groups of communist soldiers will meet to discuss joining forces against the authorities.
Ordered to disrupt the meeting, Abdul Kalam (nicknamed Smokey, due to this chain-smoking habit) takes three volunteers with him to lay mines in the area.
“Due to the hilly terrain of the ambush site, it was unwise to send in a large group as it will be easily detected. In the end, it was just me, Sgt Ibrahim, Encik Rosli and Encik Riduan,” he tells Sunday Star in an exclusive interview recently.
Going in under the cover of night, the squad travels in a van from Kuala Kubu Baru in Selangor to Fraser’s Hill. They arrive at about 10pm and, just like in a spy story, each member of the unit jumps out while the van is still moving, landing in four locations some 3km from each other.
“It is important to walk separately to the ambush site so that we remain invisible to the enemy.
“We hike down to the site, reaching it at about 7am and place 10 claymore mines around the area.
“Each of us then takes positions in different spots to ensure our ambush is ‘super tight’. I’m lying face down in the bushes closest to the kill zone while each of my squad mates is in a different place to block the enemy’s escape,” he explains.
After 19 hours of surviving only on biscuits and water from a nearby river, the unit spots the enemy arriving at 9pm; there are at least 20 of them.
“The communists recce the area and one man is standing right in front of me. I can see him, but he can’t see me, as I am wearing infra-red goggles.
“When most of them have entered our kill zone, I detonate the mines sending the enemy running in confusion, and we take the opportunity to open fire. I am actually knocked back by the mines’ backblast, but I shake off the cobwebs and reach for my M-16 (assault rifle).
“When I stand up, one of the enemy soldiers rushes forward, his rifle aimed at me. In that split second, I have to rely on pure instinct and I fire some 17 rounds at the soldier, but I’m not sure that I hit him until I see a trail of blood. Then I realise the soldier has run up the hill and I can hear him screaming in pain,” Abdul Kalam recalls.
Unsure of how many enemy soldiers have been killed, the unit remains in place for a few hours, ready for any push back.
“After a few hours, our backup arrives and a senior officer (Abdul Kalam remembers him only as ‘Tuan Kenny’) shouts, ‘Smokey, are your OK?’”
“Of course I cannot answer right away as there might still be enemies lurking nearby. Finally, after a further hour passes, I’m confident enough to withdraw slowly, followed by the rest of my unit,” he says.
Abdul Kalam reports to Tuan Kenny that some enemy soldiers have been killed, but he is unsure exactly how many.
“As per procedure in an operation, we are taken to Rawang (Selangor), where we are de-briefed by the army’s commando unit.
“I tell the OC (officer in charge) only four of us were involved in the operation, but he doesn’t believe me, saying, ‘You SB, jangan tipu (You SB, don’t lie)’,” Abdul Kalam laughs as he relates the incident.
When he and his unit return to the ambush site, accompanied by the army Ranger’s regiment, at 6am the next day, they discover the bodies of five communist soldiers.
Fulfilling a vow
The Fraser’s Hill operation is the most memorable for Abdul Kalam because it allowed him to fulfil a vow to avenge a comrade killed five years earlier.
Abdul Kalam is on patrol duty in Kuala Lipis, Pahang, in 1980 when he and his six-man squad are confronted by communist soldiers.
“One of my unit’s personnel – a corporal – is hit in the chest. After the enemy retreats, I hold the corporal in my arms and he asks me to massage his leg. As I massage him, I discover the bullet has gone clean through, destroying his spine,” he says.
Abdul Kalam’s voice begins to shake as he describes how the corporal asks him to get a piece of paper with his bank account details on it to his wife.
“He died while holding the paper.
“I escorted the body back to his home. I am part of the group that carries the body into the house. “When we go in, the corporal’s two-year-old son says, ‘Ibu, ayah mana, kawan ayah dah datang (mother, where is father, his friend has come)’.
“I put down the body and tell the boy, ‘Ini bapak kau, pakcik akan balas balik (this is your father, I will avenge him)’,” Abdul Kalam says in between uncontrollable sobs.
After a few minutes to steady himself, Abdul Kalam says, in 1980, he lost a comrade to the communists, but in 1985, he got five of them.
Abdul Kalam was on the F-Team from 1980 until 1996, and he spent a lot of that time undercover, which was one of the most important aspects of the war against the communist. He posed as a villager and even as a communist operative to gather valuable intelligence.
His first F-Team mission was going undercover as a communist with the objective of convincing a communist leader known as Ah Cho to surrender.
“I, along with nine others, went to Gua Cadu in Kelantan. Our unit, with all of us dressed in communist uniforms, met up with Ah Cho’s group and talked about surrendering over two or three nights. We were successful and managed to convince them to surrender,” he recalls.
Undercover missions can last anywhere from a few weeks up to a year, depending on the operation’s complexities. And in all that time, the operative has to remain focused and discreet.
“The most challenging thing is keeping information close to your chest because the tendency to contact your loved ones is always there.
“However, you must always remember that the priority is the mission and that information is on a need to know basis,” he explains.
Even Abdul Kalam’s wife of 36 years only came to know about his roles and job scope with the F-Team last year, when the file was declassified.
“We must always remember that in terms of information, officers and personnel are pieces of the puzzle.
“Only our superiors know the whole story,” he says.
“On the F-Team, the brotherhood is strong so that when any one of us goes undercover, the others will help with family matters.
“In fact, my wife gave birth when I was conducting the ambush on Fraser’s Hill, but I only knew of it after the mission was concluded,” he says.
He’s glad that the F-Team has finally been declassified so that its members can get the recognition they deserve.
“Prior to the de-classification, our sacrifices for the country were a national secret. Not even our family members knew.
“Now at least the team is getting its due recognition,” he says.
Soldier turns spy
The F-Team also recruited former communist soldiers. One of them is a man who is now 81 years old; he wants to be known only as Chong, he says at our recent interview.
“I was in the communist squad for 10 years, since I was 13 years old, as I followed a friend – I didn’t know what to do so I thought it would be good to join this armed militia,” he says about how he came to join the CPM.
Chong rose in the CPM ranks, becoming the bodyguard of a squad leader in Grik, Perak.
“It reached a point where I didn’t know what is the purpose of the struggle. So one day, when some of us were offered the chance to leave the squad and flee overseas, I took it,” he says.
Chong says he went as far as Cambodia and even worked there doing odd jobs to make ends meet, but soon realised that Malaysia is the only home for him.
“I went to Thailand and surrendered to the authorities there. They then handed me over to (SAC Datuk) Leong Chee Woh in 1965 and he recruited me into the F-Team because of my knowledge of the communists,” he says.
For the first time in his life, Chong felt that he was contributing to his homeland.
“I brought to the F-Team inside information on how the communists operated and how best to track them in the jungle,” he says, adding that his more than 20 years with the F-Team took him to operations all over the peninsula and even as far as Sarawak.
“Joining the F-Team was the best decision I ever made in turning my life around,” says Chong.
Finding love undercover
While many policemen working during the communist emergency have chilling tales of encounters and sometimes bloody confrontations, one of them was lucky enough to find the love of his life.
F-Team member Sub Insp (Rtd) S. Sredaran, 59, is deep in undercover in the jungle working as a labourer at the Edensor Estate in Mentakab, Pahang, in 1985 when fate strikes.
“I went to the estate looking for a job and the supervisor gave me a job and a place to stay in his house with his family.
“It was there that I found myself attracted to his daughter, Minahchi,” he says.
But romance has to take a back seat because just a week into his mission, he is approached by two uniformed communists, part of a group of five, he tells Sunday Star when met recently.
It is his first ever contact with any communists and he admits to being shocked at first: “I had trained for this, but still, it was difficult to believe it was actually happening.”
After questioning him about why he’s in the area, the two communists left; quickly borrowing a motorcycle, Sredaran makes his way out of the estate to inform headquarters that he has made contact.
Three days later the communists return, gives him money and asks him to buy food for them: “I pretended to be afraid at first that the authorities would find out,” says Sredaran.
“The five communists are part of the 15th Armoured Work Force. In the 11 months that I’m undercover on the estate, they would meet me 11 times to ask for assistance to buy food,” he says, adding that the food was probably being stored in hidden locations scattered throughout the nearby jungle.
The soldiers return for what will be the last time on May 7, 1986, and this time asks Sredaran to include pork in the list. And this time, the headquarters instructs the undercover operative to stall them, as an operation to capture them has been planned.
“So we stalled and, in the mean time, managed to get the family out of the house to ensure their safety,” he says, explaining that, to avoid suspicion at the break in the routine, he informs the communists that the family is away.
So only Sredaran and his supervisor are in the house when the strike team slips in at midnight on May 10 and sets up in a room in the house used to store fertiliser.
“The enemy combatants arrive at around 8am and the two women in the group go into the kitchen to cook the pork meat while another woman stands guard outside the kitchen.
“The two men sit in the hall with us and we’re all watching television,” he says, adding that the news was going on when the team strikes.
The communists go for their weapons and the team is forced to shoot them.
“The women in the kitchen hear the noise and come out and are also shot dead. The other woman manages to escape.
“It was only after the raid that the supervisor and his family found out that I was a policeman,” Sredaran says, adding that he left the estate, but was determined to return and marry Minahchi.
When he returns to his own family and informs them that he has fallen in love and wants to marry, his brothers are shocked.
“They had no idea that I was doing this type of undercover work.
“I told my mother that I had met a nice girl while on duty and that I wanted to marry her and my mother said go ahead,” he says, adding that he later introduced Minachi to his family and all the arrangements were made.
Laughing, he says he never thought that he would meet the love of his life while on a dangerous mission, but fate had other plans.
Sredaran and Minahchi, 47, have two children, a 28-year-old son and a 26 year-old daughter.
“Although my wife roughly knew what type of job I had been doing, I never told my children about it until they read about it when it was declassified last year.
“They were shocked.
They still tell me until today that I don’t look like a policeman,” he says.
Sredaran retired on March 3 with the hope that the sacrifices made by the F-Team will be recognised.
Just 50 men to combat CPM