The Sea Is Neutral

Chief Petty Officer (Marine Technician Propulsion) Pang Yen Guan RMN (Rtd) N/803003

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it myself – Winston Churchill.

I am delighted to be asked if I could pen a piece of my time in the Navy; it gives me an opportunity to do a Churchill.

‘Where do I begin
To tell the story
Of how great a love can be
The sweet love story
That is older than the sea…’

Andy Williams comes to mind. There’s no beginning and no ending, only patches of faded memory. Anything that I can recall may not be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. I will give it a shot, as soon as I remember where I misplaced my reading glasses, for the umpteenth time.

Yea, so it all began in the morning of February 1, a very long time ago in the last century. Not that the date is significant that I answered His Majesty’s calling, it was the third day of Chinese New Year and merrymaking was still feverish. The thirteen of us from the length and breadth of the Peninsular enlisted to make a career in the navy met at Johor Bahru railway station under the dysfunctional tower clock. To our dismay, it wasn’t a ‘popeye’ in square collar to greet us, but a hairy-legged Petty Officer in white schoolboy-shorts uniform. Huddled like cattle onto a military truck, we were unceremoniously ferried to KD Malaya, the RMN fleet command HQ then stationed in Singapore.

KD MALAYA Woodlands, Singapore.

Looking in awe at the expanse of the naval base parade ground, we took in a sea of whites marching in precise formation to the drum cadence of military band. A sense of pride sank in and we knew festive celebrations had to take second place to service to the nation.

The whole shebang in KD Malaya must have been a shocker to freshies out from school. Beatle-mania was at its height and trading in for a 2x4 haircut was heart wrenching, to say the least. We were thumb-and-finger printed and henceforth identified only by a four-digit number (6-digits came later), much like the misfits entering His Majesty’s Prison Service for the first time. We are now called “Recruit number so-and-so”. The loss of our individuality was disappointing, as we thought we would be addressed as Captain So-and-So once we joined the great mariner mob.

Basic training was dreadful with endless marching and foot drills to synchronize with the piercing command of the GI (gunnery instructor) whose thunderous voice seemed to reverberate over the parade ground for hours on end. Leatherneck of the GI Joe fame couldn’t have done better. “Squad! Double… MARCH!” You get the gist, and we got the enlightenment of boot camps. No one escapes the baptism of fire as sprogs. Courage is fear holding on a minute longer, there is no exception in the navy.

KD MALAYA Parade Ground.

Many in my batch were fortunate to have re-categorized from EM (electrical mechanic) to Artapp (Artificer Apprentice) slated for training in UK naval establishments in autumn. The move, ostensibly a British goodwill gesture, was in admission of the Empire crumbling under pressure from post-war independence movements, forcing the Colonial Office to pull military forces out east of the Suez Canal. Union Jacks began fluttering the final of ‘Last Posts’ across Great Britain’s former colonies in Asia.

But it wasn’t to be. We continued having earfuls of colors and sunset of the Union Jack, and ‘God save the Queen’ in the very home of the Royal Navy’s parade ground for the next several years.

Fast forward our tutorial journeys in UK, the land of splitting hairs to a thousandth of an inch, in HMS Fisgard, HMS Caledonia, HMS Rapid, HMS Sultan and HMS Royal Arthur, and thence to the wire-guided missile boat KD Gempita, a semi-permanent floating fixture at MBJ (Malaysian Base Jetty in Woodlands). That basically sums up the training of a ‘spanner wanker’ – dysphemism for Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy. To this I am eternally grateful to the King.

HMS RAPID assists HMS CALEDONIA in sea training of engine room artificers.
KD PERKASA, a sister ship to KD GEMPITA.
Leadership course in HMS ROYAL ARTHUR.

Payback time was to serve His Majesty’s ships and shore establishments: Fast Patrol Boat Gempita, Frigate Hang Tuah (ex-HMS Loch Insh), Patrol Craft Sri Sabah, FTS (Fleet Technical Service) maintenance unit, and oversaw construction of Tunda 1 (renamed KTD Penyu), RMN’s first tugboat in Kuching where I met the girl of my life - or so I thought.


I have had good times and not-so-good ones in sea service. Patrolling the coastlines from Kuching to Tawau is reminiscent of cruising ‘Billion Ringgit Whale’, less Paris Hilton. In between towing Vietnamese refugees to international waters, the ETDs for sea patrol invariably depended on the CO finishing his golf game ashore, while the main engines stood-by idling. Bad was my misfortune sharing space with a superior running a ship’s engineering department as an autocracy, often to the detriment of combat readiness. Orwellian ‘Napoleon’ always trumps ‘Snowball’ when sparks led to occasional fireworks.

Memorable times in the Navy we had aplenty. One was while underway for another port call and another green, our PC received distress signal a 40-footer riverine Landing Craft Assault (LCA) was fast taking in water from a dislodged stern gland. Upon boarding the LCA, the engine room was already waist deep in water. The portable diesel pump transferred from my ship was hopelessly inadequate to cope with the massive flooding. Doubling up the capacity by improvising an electric pump was plan B, but the fittings and fasteners at the time of transition to SI system got the better of us. Everything was now ‘SNAFU’. Sailors never die, they dive away. With CO’s permission and an armed shark-sentry on deck, I took a deep breath before plunging into the choppy sea in an attempt to plug the leak from outboard, but to no avail. The LCA unfortunately had to be towed and scuttled in shallow waters off the Sarawak River mouth and away from maritime passageway. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the CO I was a certified “ships’ diver”. Maybe he knew, but both of us were not telling. Lesson learned: smoking and diving in Damage Control mode is the ‘drink and drive’ of highway motoring.

As the curtains drew on my intake and those thereabouts, many of us were already promoted to Chief Petty Officer; some surpassed the ‘bar’ to Master Chief, with a belly to attest. A handful was commissioned with epaulettes sitting proud on shoulders. My moment never came; I did not make it to Admiral. My Veteran Card cannot erase that I discharged from service as an LK. As navy ranks took on an army flavor after my ROD, I think LK is Lt Kol – two ranks to becoming First Admiral.

Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way...

CPO MTP Pang Y G, Harry N/803003.

25 Jul 18