Michael Tan Yew Lay
E Coy 1958 -1962
(This article is not intended to cover the training that is being carried out in this establishment, but just to cover the experiences and the feelings of the writer. Where mention is made of certain aspects of the training, it is only to highlight them. A question mark may sometimes appear when the writer is uncertain of the date, name or other details.
It was early January 1963, when 4 young men (“Budak Boys” as we were affectionately known then) from the Federation Military College (FMC) left Kuala Lumpur (KL) from the KL International Airport, Sg Besi, for the United Kingdom, to attend a 2 year course as Officer Cadets of Intake 34, of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The 4 were Thomas Mathews, Ramli Mat Isa, Hussein Yusoff and Michael Tan Yew Lay.
Commonly known as RMAS, or RMA Sandhurst, or simply Sandhurst, this institution trains young men to be young officers in the army. After 2 years, all men will be commissioned as 2Lts in their respective Corps or Regiments of the British Army, or to their respective countries, for the overseas cadets. The 2 years training qualify the men to be commissioned as Regular Officers, as opposed to the shorter training of 9 months, offered by the Officer Cadet School (OCS) at Mons, which qualify them to be commissioned as Short Service Officers.
Sandhurst is made up of 3 Colleges – Old, New and Victory, and each College has 4 Companies. Each College carries out its own military training, but will gather as an Academy for Academics, Combined training, Academy sporting activities and parades.
Coldest Winter in the last 35 years
Europe was facing a very cold winter during that period. From late 1962 temperatures were below freezing throughout the whole of Europe and Great Britain. We were greeted by snow and cold winds when we arrived at the airport. Dressed in the warm clothes we had bought at Dyalchands in KL, we bravely followed the staff who had come to receive and bring us to Sandhurst, for our 2-year stay.
Coming from a warm and sunny Malaysia to snow and below freezing point, can be very daunting for these 4 Budak Boys! We were driven in through the Camberley gate, passing the Camberley Staff College, the Obstacle Course, the Wish Stream (a little stream that runs across the grounds, and after which the Academy’s magazine is called), the Library and finally to our respective Colleges, all the while passing through snow covered grounds. All 4 of us had never seen snow before, therefore it was a real novelty (only initially, as the snow was with us till late March or early April).
I remember being herded into the Old College lines, together with other young men, by a burly 6 ft 4 inch Royal Scots Guards Sgt, Sgt John French, to the Coy briefing area. There we were met by a CSM from the Grenadiers, CSM Reggie Page, another burly, mustachioed and seasoned soldier but with a very friendly demeanour. Along the way, I saw the sign “Waterloo Coy”, so I asked Sgt French if we were being assigned/posted to Waterloo Coy, to which he replied, “No Sir, you are in the Sovereign’s Coy.” When he saw the confused looks on the new cadets’ faces, he explained, “Waterloo is the Champion Coy, and so we will now be known as the Sovereign’s Coy.”
We were further briefed on the arrangements for our accommodation, and the programmes for our activities, before being led to our rooms. Other details of the programmes (academics, military and company activities would be briefed separately by other staff and senior cadets).
My Compamy Line
My Company had 15 newbies – 12 British and 3 Overseas Cadets. The 3 from overseas were Eric Assarejan (Ghana), Abdul Azeez (Tunisia) and me. Of the 12 British, I could still remember Orde Wingate (son of the famous, late Maj Gen Orde C Wingate of the WW2 Burma Campaign), Simon Hogge, Richard Rigg, John Searle, Hugo Brewer, Malcolm Howarth (my roommate), John Dimente, Dick Swenson (?), and 4 others whose names escape me (after 50 plus years).
Being juniors, we were allocated rooms in the wing which had its bathrooms and washrooms in the non-heated section. This meant that the area was freezing cold, and with temperatures being below freezing since October 1962 (?), all our toilets were frozen. Can you imagine having to go to the toilets where the seats are freezing cold and no water except ice? How about a shower? Unheard of, in the early days there. It was only later that we could manage our bathroom and toilet arrangements. There was plenty of “dry cleaning” going on for me, but what the heck, we had sufficient practice at RMC when there was water shortage there!
The Cadet Sgt in charge of Juniors (?) took us around to the rooms. Imagine my surprise when after being shown to my room and meeting my roommate, I was also introduced to a gentleman called Dan. “This is Dan, your servant,” said the Cadet Sgt. “He will look after the 2 of you for this term.” My servant?? Never knew such a person was available to us as Officer Cadets. We later found out that for the first term, Dan’s duties were restricted to cleaning our room, looking after our laundry and bedding requirements, and only cleaning of some of our equipment. As Juniors, we had to do every “spit and polish” aspect of our equipment ourselves, in particular for our kit inspections, change parades and the drill parades themselves. The rifles which we had to keep in our rooms were our own responsibility, in terms of cleanliness and safety. (I can remember the times when our Seniors would come charging into our rooms without any warning or notice, and grabbed our rifles. This is especially after we had just returned from outdoor training when we had to take our rifles along. Reason? To inspect them for cleanliness. “To a soldier, your weapon is your life and you have to ensure it is in tip-top condition” were the words always uttered by them. Looking through our barrels, they would check for rust or dirt in them. If dirty or rusty, the punishment would be extra drill, or change parade or shovelling of snow along driveways and passageways – only because of the abundance of snow during our first term.)
Each Coy is looked after by 1 x Coy Comd, 1 x Coy Officer, 1 x CSM, 2 x SSgt/Sgt, 4 x Cpl/LCpl, plus Cadet rank holders – 1 x SUO, 4 x JUOs, 1 x Cadet C/Sgt (Colour Sgt), 1 x Cadet Sgt, 2 x Cadet Cpls. At any one time in Sandhurst, there are 4 intakes – Seniors, Inter Seniors, Inter Juniors and the Juniors, so 1 x JUO is assigned to look after each intake. The Cadet C/Sgt is equivalent to the CQMS of the Coy, whereas the Cadet Sgt and Cadet Cpls are assigned to look after the Juniors.
Briefing by CSM Reggie Page (First Day)
“Good day, gentlemen, welcome to The Sovereign’s Coy. In this Academy, you shall be called ‘Gentlemen’ when you are in a group, and called ‘Sir’, or Mr ‘so & so’ individually. In return, you shall call all non-commissioned personnel ‘Staff’, and all Sgt Majors ‘Sir’. The only difference is, you mean it, and we don’t!!”
He then introduced the staff present that day, and proceeded with the administrative briefing on our dress for the different activities, the manner of conducting ourselves at the various facilities in the Academy and College, and all the nitty gritty of each aspect of discipline, reporting system, and collection system of stores and equipment before going for the activities. The Sgt in charge of the Juniors was Sgt John French. Imagine our surprise when mention was also made about how and where to collect bicycles, when we were required to. Bicycles?? Were we supposed to go for some sight-seeing, as part of our curriculum? (I’ll come to that in another part of this article.
Marching off the Square
The first 3 weeks of life as an Officer Cadet was made up of the spit and polish routine – learning how to polish our boots and walking-out shoes, polish our belt buckles and buttons (with brasso), whiten our canvas belts (with blanco) and iron our uniforms. We had drills, drills, drills, every day, to ensure that we all knew how to march in slow and quick time, with and without rifles, then to salute, again with and without rifles. Initially, it was quite funny to see the way some of my fellow cadets marched and saluted. It was easy for me as I had done my Cert A Parts 1 & 2 at FMC, whereas some of them did not have any prior basic training.
Drill boots must have their normal metal studs in order to achieve the true “Thud! Thud! Thud!” and the crispness of the march. Combine metal studs in the soles of our boots to the slippery icy parade ground, and you would see the disaster and/or comedy of cadets slipping on the ice, played out in front of you. The icy surface was so bad that whenever we had to drill with bayonets, we had to do them on more firm ground, like indoors or ice-cleared grounds. This was decided after our own drill instructors themselves slipped and fell!!
After 3 weeks of drills and basic military and weapons training, we were ready to be tested by our College RSM and our Coy CSM. Only after we had been cleared and passed, could we then “March off the Square” - simply a phase of training of “recruit cadets” who have passed the basic training as a soldier, and be given the opportunity to go out of the Academy compounds, i.e. we were allowed to apply for a pass to go out. This also meant that we were full-fledged Officer Cadets, of Intake 34, of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
(The articles henceforth shall not be in chronological order, but of snippets and particular incidents which I find interesting enough to record and be remembered. Sadly, I have no more photographs of my time there, as they were all lost or spoilt, due to the many transfers and postings, during my service days.
Coy Comd’s Hour
In-built into our time table was a 1-hour programme called the “Coy Comd’s Hour”, which was very frequent in our first 3 weeks of the first term, but less so after that. This was a very casual get-together in our Coy ante room, with our Coy Comd (a Sapper Officer, Maj C A Lansdale) talking to us about social and military protocols. We were served coffee and/or tea, and how we behaved or reacted, or should have behaved or reacted, were used as examples on our proper social behaviours and etiquettes. Many other topics like the “mores” (pronounced ‘moray’ or ‘morez’ by some) of the British were discussed to prepare us when being invited to attend certain social or private functions, and altogether to mould us into “Officers and Gentlemen”.
My Roommate, Malcolm Howarth
Malcolm was the son of a retired Army Col, and came from Watford. I was very glad to have him as my roommate, as he was very friendly and funny, and was about an inch shorter than I was (just for my ego, that’s all!!) He was a playful and cheerful character, so it suited me well as we had to spend so much time together. The part I could not stand about him, though, was his untidiness – he would always start stripping and dropping his clothes while moving around the room, and not clearing them till later. This often affected us when it came to change parades, when we had our clothes and equipment all mixed up. We became close friends throughout our whole stay in Sandhurst.
Despite the cold (we had central heating in all rooms), I still found it too warm and stuffy to sleep, with all windows and doors closed. Having my bed next to the window, I usually had the window partially open, much to the dismay of my roommate. “Don’t you Malaysians know what cold is like?”
Snow! Snow! Snow!
We were often tasked to clear snow within our company lines, either as a routine, or as a punishment. Ramadhan in 1963 was in January (?). Anyway, I remember we were tasked to shovel snow during Ramadhan, and our Tunisian friend, Azeez, came up meekly to our Coy Sgt, to give the excuse that he couldn’t do it as he was fasting!! And the Coy Sgt, not wanting to offend another religion, granted him the excuse!! And remember that in winter, the periods between sunrise and sunset were very short, and the weather was cool, or even cold, so it was not tiring at all!! In FMC, we played our games in the afternoon during Ramadhan, and didn’t bother about being thirsty and looking for water. I was very angry and told the Coy Sgt what we had to do in Malaysia during Ramadhan, and he just laughed it off.
Our early Fieldcraft and Tactics training were carried out in the Academy grounds, in thick snow. We were issued with special boots called “CWW” or “Cold Weather Wear”, or commonly referred to by us cadets as “Cobbly Wobblies” for their awkward size, and the difficulty to move fast in them. But they were excellent, as they kept our feet warm. It was funny to see us moving, wearing thick winter clothing and carrying our haversacks and rifles, plodding through the thick snow. (Now we realize how the Russian and German soldiers must have felt, fighting during winter at Stalingrad or at other campaigns in Europe during the World Wars.) As for us cadets, it was quite funny to see us “taking cover” whenever we were “fired” at by the “enemy”. Why? Because the moment we dived down, we were completely covered by the thick snow, and in this way we had already “taken cover”. No! The instructors did not accept that we had “taken cover”, so we really had to find proper “cover”, like a mound, a haystack (if any), a building, a wall, or such like. Normally after such outdoor training when our rifles could get wet with the snow, we had to be extra careful to dry them well, then to clean the barrels with the “pull-through”, and lightly oil them, to ensure they didn’t rust inside – exactly what the seniors would be looking for when they carried out snap inspections.
Mess Nights or Band Nights
Part of the tradition in the army is to hold mess nights at frequent intervals or when there is a visiting senior officer. Such training was also carried out in the Academy, where each College carried out its own, with or without an officer’s presence, in which case, the SUO of the duty Company acted as the President for the night. There were other nights when a senior officer was present, in which case he became the President, and other nights when even a Regimental Band was also present, which we then refer to it as a Band Night!
On one particular Mess Night, when no senior officer was present, the Duty SUO, the President for the night, stood up and the following events and conversation took place: “Mess, quiet!” (Which is the normal procedure, calling for everyone’s attention.) “Can I call on JUO John Anderson to please say Grace”.
JUO John Anderson, caught unawares (as he was not informed about this duty earlier), just stood up and said “For what we are about to receive, Thank God!” (as in relief!!) and promptly sat down, much to the amusement of all cadets.
Use of Bicycles
Much of the military training was carried out within Sandhurst grounds, at a place called the Barossa Commons. It was not such a close distance that we could just walk, but not so far that we had to have trucks or 3 tonners to ferry us all the time. And so, we had the ever-useful bicycles, big strong and sturdy, and in its BMG (British Metal Green) colour. They were the tall “male” bicycle, the type our roti men use to carry their roti, and with a carrier at the back. We would be told in advance about the collection, and so would be ready with them beside our blocks before briefing and departure.
Do you know that there is such a thing as bicycle drill? I suppose it is akin to the Cavalry horse-mounted drill, or at least to simulate such drills as they are similar in nature when you have to move. It goes like this:
“In Single file, Fall in!” Everyone stands with the bicycle to his right.
“From the left, Number!” Everyone numbers, from left to right.
“Squad will move to the left in file (meaning in twos)”. Every one turns bicycle handles to the left.
“Squad, Prepare to Move!” All mount their bicycles.
“Squad, in File Move!” At this stage, all move two by two towards the direction given by the Instructor.
(Funny incident on our first bicycle outing. At the final command to move, a voice was heard from the back. It was Abd Azeez. “What’s wrong Mr Azeez?” asked the Coy Sgt. “But I don’t know how to ride a bicycle!!!" From that day onwards, Azeez had to hand over his haversack to one of us, whilst he ran to the training area and back!!)
Budak Boys at Sandhurst
In the last 5 years before my time, only Budak Boys from FMC were selected to go to Sandhurst. Notables among them were Cheng Wah (winner of the Commandant’s Baton of Honour for Best Overseas Cadet in 1959), Murad Jaafar and Mohamed Munip (both became Commandants of RMC), Ibrahim Abdullah (Chief Engineer in the Army), and Ismail Omar (Chief of Defence Forces).
Other notables and much talked about for sporting prowess were Mohd Ariff Ali, as the graceful and speedy Left Winger, and Sarjit Singh, as the Flying Sikh Centre Forward, at Field Hockey. Mind you, those days we only played on grass, and they really showed the Brits how to play hockey. Their “fame” had preceded me, so that the moment I came in, I was asked by the Hockey Convenor to go for the selection process. Alas!! I was not as good as they were, but was still accepted to play in the 2nd XI as a Left Half, a position very few players wanted!! Still, that was one way of gaining points towards my future graduation. Oh yes, this was one way for the Academy to assess you in your “Officer Quality”. Other assessments were on Military subjects and Academics, amongst others.
It was such a relief to be able to meet up with my other Budak Boy cadets, who came the previous year. Sarjit Singh, my E Coy mate in FMC, was the first to visit me. Typically, Sarjit, he would appear in his beige overcoat, and stylishly dressed as usual, and sat with me to “guide” and “comfort” me, seeing me in such a depressed, cold and uncomfortable state. Those were precious moments for a homesick guy, in a cold and strange country.
Then there was the case of my Malacca and FMC classmate, Mohd Aros Othman, Sarjit’s intake. One of his “passions”, he told me was horse-back riding, an expensive extra-curricular activity which we were allowed to join. One day, I saw him with a neck collar on! Huh??!! His explanation, in his normal humorous and smiley manner, “Mike, I was trying to make my horse jump across a small fence. The moment we arrived near the fence, it stopped in its tracks, BUT I COULDN’T, and so I flew across the fence to the other side!! Thank God, I was not seriously injured”. (Taken in his stride, or was it to hide the embarrassment?!)
The Gala Balls
In the tradition of Sandhurst, we hold 2 gala balls in a year – the June Ball, and the Winter Ball. The former is after the Passing out Parade for the January or Spring Intake, and the latter for the October or Winter Intake. All stops were pulled out in the preparation for these balls. The parade ground at the New College would be turned into a fairy-tale land of lights and music, under big circus-like canopied tents, fully air-conditioned in June, and centrally heated in winter, ready for all the festivities and dinner. The lobby areas within New College would also be transformed into spaces for other activities and entertainment for the night. The parade ground at Old College, however, would not be disturbed, as that would be the venue for the Sovereign’s Parade, the day of the Balls. It is the tradition for Sandhurst to have cadets parading on Old College parade ground, and the Senior Cadets marching off to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”, between the tall and wide pillars, and through the Old College wide doors. The awe and splendour of the final march past of the Seniors, is to be seen to be believed. What more the feeling of the Seniors on that day!
6 December 1964
That is the day to be remembered for me – my passing out day. Until the actual parade day, we were told not to take things for granted. It was evidenced during our rehearsals a few days before the parade itself. I remember clearly that, on 4 December, a few cadets, including one from my company, were called to the Commandant’s office, and told that they were NOT getting their commission
!! So, they left the college just 2 days short of their commissioning! How sad!!
The weather was fine on that day (very unlike British weather!), and the parade went smoothly. There were many high-ranking officers from the British and other countries’ armed forces and families present. This was followed by visits to our company lines, and then the Commissioning Ball. I felt so proud marching off onto the Old College steps and on to a new life as a commissioned officer of the Malaysian Army Engineer Corps. That was a long 2 years of struggle and joy! It was truly an achievement for me to win the Commandant’s Baton of Honour for the Best Overseas Cadets of Intake 34, 1964.
To me, the overall training truly made me an Officer and a Gentleman, as is the byword for the Academy. We were all raw recruit cadets, but in the course of 2 years, we were moulded into fine gentlemen, knowledgeable in Military Tactics, International, Socio-Economic and Current Affairs, the protocols of Fine Dining and Social Etiquettes, and the ambitions to make our Countries a better world for all mankind. I have had a full and enriched experience, being trained in the world’s finest Military Training Institution, THE ROYAL MILITARY ACADEMY, SANDHURST. I could not have had it any better.
SERVE TO LEAD
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Tan Yew Lay (Retired) Regt/No:200238 left the Royal Engineers on 6th February 1992 after serving the Malaysian Army with pride and dedication for 29 years and 2 months. MACVA is very proud of his service and sacrifices for King and country and wishes him good spirit and good health in this retirement years.
Recorded for MACVA Archives.
Maj Wong Kwai Yinn (Retired)
1 Jul 20