My father, the Special Branch cop
TALES OF THE DARK DAYS – XII
A former NST reporter confronts the truth about her father and Operation Lallang
By Tracey Chin
I was in the midst of leaving Malaysia for a new life in Hong Kong when Operation Lallang happened: it did not affect my life directly then, but it was a coming-of-age for me as I confronted the truth about my father, his work and his role in it, and the ramifications on our family.
It had come at a time of personal tumult while wrapping up my life in Malaysia and leaving for a new job on a flight previously booked for Oct 28. My father almost missed my departure: we said an odd farewell at the airport, emotions kept in check, so much left unsaid.
While flying to Hong Kong, I found out about the momentous events of the previous day. Looking at the dramatic headlines and front page of The Star, I was filled with foreboding: my father was in the Special Branch and would have been a key player in the planning and execution of the arrests.
At the airport, he had been inscrutable. I realised then where my father had been in the past few days: he had almost missed my departure as he was obviously in the thick of the action.
I was shaken to the core: I saw him as an instrument for the government’s oppression and was not proud of what he had done.
The realisation was devastating: his whole life had been a blank to me, and in the past year or so while he lived with me in Taman Tun Dr Ismail after being transferred to Shah Alam for his final pre-retirement assignment, we had gone about our daily lives without any small talk about work, current affairs, or shared opinions.
My father had spent his entire working life, some 40 years from 1950, in the Special Branch, his career encompassing some of Malaysia’s definitive moments, and a major role in national security and defence.
As a young child, I was not aware of the nature of his work: I knew he worked in the police – a mata mata – and admired the way he looked in uniform.My mother explained his long absences thus: “Your dad has to go into the jungle”. Questions were not encouraged.
That was in the 1960s, when the Emergency was officially over. I had often watched him leave home in fatigues on an army truck. He had guns, long-barrelled rifles and pistols: we children would watch him taking them apart to be meticulously cleaned and oiled before being put back together again.
He had led a peripatetic life, on constant transfer; eventually he had settled the family in Ipoh for our schooling while he served postings in many hotspots: Ayer Kroh, Grik, Sungei Siput, Batu Gajah, and Kuching.
I now know from independent research that my father was part of the intelligence war against the communist guerrillas, going into the jungle as part of small SB parties disguised as communist terrorists to induce the comrades to surrender.
From the time I was about 12, he was away for extended periods. As a 1970s teenager, I was influenced by American pop culture and western liberalism: change and idealism were in the air. I particularly wanted to emulate the two Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down a president. I did not realise then how subversive this idea would have been to my father.In 1981, a few years after leaving school, I joined the NST Business Desk. I had defied him and found my own career path, but he never spoke to me about my work: he never said he was proud of me, though I longed to hear it. He had engendered my love of books, opening up a world of ideas, and established my reading habits.
After six years at the NST, and my personal life in shambles, I moved to Hong Kong, and later to Australia.
My father visited me in Brisbane in 1995 during the time of the Port Arthur shootings (in which a lone gunman shot dead 35 people, including two Malaysian tourists, and wounded 23). He was impressed with the Australian TV news coverage, marvelling at our freedom of expression.
He fell ill in 1999 but in the months before his death, our estrangement deepened: the rift was insurmountable. When he died, the tributes flowed.
His former boss, Tan Sri Yuen Yuet Leng, attended the funeral and was saddened that the police leadership had largely ignored past serving officers on their death.
I was moved to learn more about my enigmatic father.
Trawling the Internet for more information about Operation Lallang, I came across the Human Rights Watch website that detailed the atrocities committed by the Special Branch against detainees.
I was appalled but resolved to find out more.I visited Tan Sri Yuen once: he told me about a father I’d never known, a courageous, committed and dedicated officer who had served his country unstintingly. I finally understood he was bound by the Special Branch code of silence, and the Official Secrets Act and Sedition Act, and could not possibly talk about his work. My mother would not tell me more.
Though I have finally come to terms with the nature of his work, I still struggle to understand his motivation and continually search for answers. Having now spent half my life away from my birth country, I have had regrets: one of which is that I wish I’d tried harder to understand my father and been able rebuild our bond.
I also wished I had not abandoned my idealism so easily. I finally realised that if my father had not paved the way and made the country safe for us, I would never even have had the chance to be idealistic. For that, I am forever grateful.
© Tracey Chin
Clippings: Singapore National Library © Singapore Press Holdings
Tracey Chin was a reporter with the New Straits Times Business Desk from 1981-87. She now lives in Australia.
• Yuen Yuet Leng was district Special Branch officer in Operation Ginger (January 1958-April 1959) which cleared Central Perak into a “white area”, head of Special Branch with the Rajang Security Command in Sarawak in 1969, and chief police office in Perak in the 1970s when villagers demonstrated against a rape and murder allegedly by security forces. He retired in 1984 as Commissioner of Police, Sarawak, and wrote several books. He is regarded by some as an apologist for the ruling government and its policies for recent views expressed on political affairs.