A Tale To Tell & Remember

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Thursday, 11 April 2019

Leaving MINDEF... part 3 - Yellow Flood

Teddy at the Manek Urai train station in the aftermath of the Yellow Flood of 2014
I still remember that afternoon break of which I spend lying down under the table reading a book at the office while most of my colleagues were on holidays. The thing that came to mind was a reason to continue living amid the unfortunate life of being broke and tons of workload. The date was 25th December 2014 and it was the school holiday term. Most people were taking long breaks with family members and loved one and since I’m single, I was among the few that were working. I figured the best option for me then was just to come to the office and busy myself with work and readings at least I would myself in a good reason not to jump off any buildings for being so broke and a loser. At least, being at the office would provide me with opportunities to have lunch with fellow colleagues around the Keramat or Ampang that were also working. Needless to say, MINDEF was my second home.

My uncle and USAID at Kampung Ladang Mengkebang during the walking brief
Even Prime Minister Najib was taking a break playing golf in Hawaii with President Obama that week. Everybody was in a high mood of Christmas celebration and with the government fiscal year closed, most of the head of departments were taking their breaks too before the start of the new year. It was raining heavily outside my office window in MINDEF and I can tell that my heart was raining too if not flooding already. The next day, news started to come in with serious development that some parts of the country, especially at the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, was experiencing heavy flood. It wasn’t an alarm to everyone I guess since its most common for the east coast area to experience flood every year, especially during the monsoon season in December.

MINDEF and USAID team at Sek. Keb. Manek Urai Lama
A few days later the nation was shocked to see the severity of the flood that happened especially at Gua Musang and Manek Urai within the Kuala Krai district. I still remember newspapers and social media begin to filling in news on the disaster mitigation and evacuation effort by government agencies and how helpless the situation was at particular area. At Manek Urai, the military failed to reach the internally displaced persons (IDPs) affected by the flood which were sheltered at the Sekolah Kebangsaan Manek Urai Lama. The front page of major papers that week showed how hopeless the situation was when the military helicopters hovered over the school building trying to send food supplies while the water levels were reaching the third floor of the school building that now turned into an island. The military couldn’t get to them either through an aircraft or boats. Everybody in the country starts panicking and criticisms were thrown to the leadership of the country for the slow response in handling the disaster.  To be fair to the government at that time, nobody was expecting such a disaster since the committee for disaster management headed by the state's National Security Council (NSC) usually happens to handle the flood situation fairly well in the past. But this time, even the designated committee members themselves were affected by the floods experienced throughout the state and the disaster management structure couldn't even be reactivated as it should. Everybody was caught off-guard and this tragedy was known as the Yellow Flood of 2014.

Kuala Krai Town in the aftermath of the flood
My direct involvement with the disaster doesn’t come immediately, but in the aftermath of the flood when I was asked by my superior, En. Shakib to bring the representatives from the USAID and Office of the Defense Cooperation from the US Embassy to carry out an assessment of the disaster. We have to come out with a situation report for an informed decision and recommendations on what roles and assistance should the USAID play if necessary to assist the Malaysian government in mitigating the disaster. We also need to put out suggestion for the government to prevent a similar incident from happening in the future. I guess the American government was under pressure to extend their assistance to Malaysia since China in the previous week had carried out large event at Wisma Perwira, MINDEF attended by PM Najib himself receiving tents and generators from the Chinese government intended for the flood victims in Kelantan.

We went to Kota Bharu via commercial plane and were received by the 8th Brigade Army unit that brought us straight to Sungai Durian Wataniah Camp in Kuala Krai. We were briefed then by the Camp Commandant on the current effort by the Army to finish up the temporary shelter at the camp to house locals that were affected by the disaster. My uncle joined me during the visit as well as he was heading the civil effort to rebuild the affected villages through local political funds. We were so eager to go to Manek Urai, but my uncle suggested us to assess the situation around Kampung Ladang Mengkebang first since that village was badly affected by the flood and most of the civil assistance by the NGOs went to Manek Urai instead since local press gave Manek Urai the most attention.

Kampung Ladang Mengkebang in the aftermath of the flood
It took us around 20 minutes to reach the village and along the way, we saw the muddy water line mark which was by then had already subsided. The water mark reached up almost 20 meters over the leaves of old palm trees. We immediately realized the severity of the flood that happened and can only imagine the panic feel strucked upon the villagers on the night of 26th December 2014 when they received alarmed that the flood was coming. At Kampung Ladang Mengkebang, we saw the impact the flood had on the houses when most of it was shifted up to 50 or 100 meters from the original location. Most of the peoples living here were planters and farmers and the location of the village was just beside the Kelantan river. Looking back in retrospect on the severity of the flood effect, luckily no casualties were recorded there since all villagers managed to run away before their houses were swept away by the muddy flood currents.

Assessing the situation at Kampung Ladang Mengkebang
From Kampung Ladang Mengkebang, we traveled the village road on military vehicles along the Kelantan river to assess the flood effect and we saw most of the houses in Guchil were either damaged or destroyed except for a few that were built high on a hill and on stilts a few meters above ground. After finished assessing the area, we were brought to the District Office of Kuala Krai to be briefed by the District Officer (DO) himself on the situation and also visited the Army tactical HQ that was set up near the federal building in Kuala Krai town. From our conversation with the DO, we were notified that the government agencies were completely paralyzed on the night of 26th December 2014 during the flood and with the failure of electricity and telephone line, its a miracle no casualties were recorded despite loud cries and shouts for help heard from all around during the night. The hospital continues to carry out emergency services relying solely on generators amid the isolation from road access due to the flood and even helicopters couldn't land on the hospital compound since there was no helipad built there. Everybody tried to do their small part in ensuring normalcy, and kudos must be given to Director of the Kuala Krai hospital for his quick thinking, calmness and apt disaster management. The DO told us that the town council lack clean water to clean the town market and streets in the aftermath of the disaster since they were still relying on the water supplies from the only reservoir built by the British before the war for the whole of Kuala Krai district despite modern population build up after so many years.

What was left of a once stood house at Kampung Ladang Mengkebang

After the briefing session with the DO, we went straight to the town of Manek Urai. Upon arriving at the bridge of Sungai Lebir, we saw the area had turned almost similar to battlegrounds with debris strewn everywhere and dust flying all around. It was the ground zero of the 2014 Yellow Flood incident and the place was badly affected by the muddy flood water from Gua Musang traversing through the Lebir river at Manek Urai. Most of the wooden houses were hit by the flood heavy current and were shifted from the original location up to 50 or 100 meters distance. The ground area around Sek. Keb. Manek Urai Lama was sort of natural valley and lower in height compared to the train station area. This had somehow invited the muddy water to flow in from the overflow of the Lebir river and filled the areas with debris and mud. The whole place had turned into a very dusty place since the rain had stopped a few days before we arrived. I took the liberty to walk around the Manek Urai Lama area up to the train station with the USAID personnel and I can still remember seeing family and kids living in tents that were provided by the AHA Centre and the NSC. The Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) did play a crucial part during the first week of the disaster by installing a military field hospital in giving medical assistance to the affected local population. I was told that almost 20 peoples of Manek Urai gave birth at the field hospital in the first two weeks of its operation. The MAF also installed the clean water system called JERNIH from SYABAS and Puncak Niaga Sdn. Bhd. which was imperative in the aftermath of the flood to avoid dysentery and cholera from breaking among the affected public.

The picture was taken from Sek. Keb. Manek Urai Lama
Victim's tent provided by AHA Center
I asked one woman around the age of late 20s why she chooses to stay in a tent outside the ground of her destroyed rented house when she can live in a better condition temporarily at the IDPs shelter provided by the NSC? While holding the rubber tapper knife, she explained to me that she still had to work on a daily basis despite the trial of life or else she won’t have any money to take care of her kids. Her kid was sleeping in the tent at that time as I was having that conversation. The answer struck me like lightning and I feel very sorry to seeing such a deplorable state of my own race which woke me up to the fact that most of the Malays living in the area were still hardcore poor and had to rely on rubber trees to make ends meet. That conversation remained imprinted on my memory to this day. In 2013, while living in Mindanao, I saw a much worst scenario befallen to the people of the Philippines, but what makes the difference in 2014 was seeing my own people underwent through such trials in life.

Makeshift tents built by the villagers for temporary shelter
There were actually two Manek Urai in Kuala Krai which were Manek Urai Lama and Manek Urai Baru. When we had a discussion with the older group of locals, we were notified that a similar incident of a major flood did happen in the 1970s at Manek Urai Lama. After that incident, the government back then decided to develop a new residential area called Manek Urai Baru to accommodate the victims and to avoid recurrences for the government to pay re compensation. Locals at that time took the government offer and moved to Manek Urai Baru area, but maintain their old houses for rentals to the new incoming settlers. The location of the train station at Manek Urai Lama which was built by the British in the early 1900s remained as the only mode of transportation for the locals until government built a better road infrastructure connecting Manek Urai to the outside world in the 1980s. The train station maintained Manek Urai Lama as an attractive place for newcomers to settling in. However, in 2014, both of Manek Urai Baru and Lama were again affected by the flood.

The USAID team and MINDEF at MAF's field hospital at Manek Urai Baru
There were few recommendations made by the USAID team and me myself through my findings which I later sent to NSC for recommendations. Some of the recommendations were: 1) for the old Manek Urai Lama to be designated by law decree as a plantation area and no houses should be allowed to built or operate except the school since the cost for school relocation is high. The area around the Sek. Keb. Manek Urai Lama was low in nature and have a high risk to be flooded again in the future; 2) for houses to be built on stilts at least 8 meters above ground at Manek Urai area or Kuala Krai district; 3) for a new evacuation area complete with helipad to be identified and built (best is on a hill behind the Manek Urai train station) should there be similar incidents in the future for public evacuation center. Sek. Keb. Manek Urai Lama is no longer suitable to be designated as an evacuation center during a flood, and; 4) for the government to build an elevated road similar to a causeway for dual use purposes spanning horizontally over the Manek Urai Lama area to the new proposed evacuation center for emergency use by the public during disaster. I don't know if the NSC had ever taken the recommendation made by us since I didn't revisit Manek Urai and never follow up with them after the findings were shared. I do understand that among other problems encountered by local council at Manek Urai was the problem of squatters on government land and when affected by floods, they went to the government for compensation. I guess the political pressure was high on government for not assisting. 

Lojing land masses in June 2015 from an aerial view.

A few months later in July 2015, when we carry out the Cope Taufan exercise between RMAF and US Air Force over the Gua Musang district area, I took a few pictures of Lojing and Gua Musang land masses from the KC135 aircraft. The forest was badly damaged from human exploitation and the river looks brownish in colour. I assume it was the effect of illegal and uncontrolled logging activities. I can safely sum up that this was the major reason why the upstream of the Kelantan rivers could not accommodate heavy rainfalls in December 2014 that lead to the Yellow Flood disaster. The Kelantan state government should introduce a moratorium on logging activities at least for 10 years minimum since it had a bad impact on the environment and risking a new major flood during monsoon season. I wonder if the state government ever take an effort to control logging activities at the southern state area. A few months later when I went back to Gua Musang, I toured the area with my cousins near the Galas river, and I find that most governments' houses were also destroyed by the heavy floods and people were still living in makeshift tents.

Lojing land masses in June 2015
Severe effects of the logging activities in Kelantan from the air in 2015
To be continued...

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Leaving MINDEF - MH370.. part 2

Me in front of the Parliament of Australia at Capital Hill, Canberra during one of our bilateral meeting with Australia on MH370.

It was the 8th March 2014, and I was basking in the morning calm of the village with my young cousins in Machang, Kelantan. The day before, I had just returned from a long overseas posting in the Philippines and I spent my time updating myself on the current domestic developments and making up for lost time when I turned on the TV to see what was going on in Malaysia. The news that was being broadcasted on that fateful morning was on the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines – MH370 aircraft over the South China Sea. That was exactly four years ago.

The news gave me surreal feeling since being a Malaysian, as long as I can remember, I've never witnessed such an incident happening in Malaysia. Plus Malaysian Airlines is the carrier which I frequently used when travelling overseas. But I assured myself that the authorities would eventually find the aircraft in the nick of time or any survivors from the plane. At the same time I truly felt sorry for the passengers involved, and never could I have anticipated that the incident would have a major impact on my life.

Days pass by with no indication that the authorities would find the plane or even have a clue of the exact location of where the plane might have crashed. Then there was an interesting development that the plane had made an air turn back to the Straits of Malacca and eventually headed to the Andaman Sea based on military radar readings. The development seemed to be getting strange since there was no communication between the aircraft and control tower, plus the timing of the air turn was right after the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) released the control of the plane to the Cambodian air traffic controller. When I returned back to MINDEF a few days later, I was put in charge of the international desk of which my scope of work included countries such as the United States, South Asia, Middle East and Africa's. This was the starting point of my involvement in the search effort. Being the desk officer for US bilateral affairs, I arranged for meetings between MINDEF and our American counterparts through the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

My superior at the time was Mr. Shakib Ahmad Shakir (currently the Deputy Secretary General for the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia). He had tasked me to form a task force that was under the purview of the High Level Committee (HLC) for the organized search operation. My committee would be known as the Assets Deployment Committee. The committee has been formed as part of a larger committee headed by the DCA Malaysia - HLC. MINDEF’s task was to oversee and manage the involvement of all defence assets in contributing to comb the vast sea for the search operation. We were also responsible to report and update the HLC on current search mission at the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.

We started to convene an emergency meeting at the Royal Chulan Hotel, KL to find solutions of what type of assets should we send to the Southern Indian Ocean. Beforehand, the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) had deployed all types of sea and air assets to find the plane in the South China Sea and later the Straits of Malacca and Andaman Sea. I believe the South China Sea mission end after Prime Minister Najib announced that MH370 ended at the Southern Indian Ocean  (SIO) on March 24, 2014.

It was such a hectic period and no one had an iota of a clue of what should be done and what expertise should we seek or type of assets to be sent. Not to mention the right search probable area for us to start with. The sea and air assets were scrambled for the surface search based on the last military radar track at the Andaman Sea and Pulau Perak. During the onset of the emergency meeting, we as a committee received visits from experts from the United States (US) to advise on the possibilities for the sub-sea search. The person was Mr. Mike Kutzleb from Phoenix International and he was the CEO of the company and came at the highest recommendation of the US Government based in Kuala Lumpur. But on the first month of the search operation, we were very confident that we would find the plane through sea surface observation from the air or navy vessel and we didn’t pay much attention to his proposal. Plus the sub-sea search is purely commercial and very expansive and it must be borne by the Malaysian government. We didn’t commit anything to Phoenix. 

During the first two months of the search effort from March to April, we were still very optimistic to find the wreckage by pin pointing the signal from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and the Black Box through picking up pinging signal and the Australia team deployed the towed side scan sonar known as Bluefin-21 borrowed from the US Navy at the probable area near the 7th Arc of where the plane might have crashed.

Datuk Azharuddin the DG of DCA and me at the Malaysian High Commissioner house in Canberra after a long bilateral meeting with Australia.

I don't want to go through the technicalities or the mechanics of our search effort as everyone can refer to various write ups that have been put up on the internet (the best is the ATSB report). My intention is to share the human side of the search team be it from Australia or Malaysia and my personal experience for the privileged of being involved directly with the search effort. 

My first professional experience handling bilateral matters came through working with the Australian team from the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau (ATSB) on the search effort for MH370. The search director at that time was Mr. Peter Foley. He was also the same man that the Australia government sent on board of the Australian Defence Vessel - Ocean Shield at the 7th Arc on the first month of the search period trying to locate the pinging sound from the black box by deploying the Bluefin-21 from the vessel.

From left, Mr. Jeya (Deftech), Mr. Peter Foley from ATSB, me, Mr. Hisham Rosle (MINDEF) and Mr. Athir (Deftech) during one of our discussion on search effort in Kuala Lumpur. We were the backbone of the sub-sea work from Malaysia in the first year of the search effort for MH370. Mr. Razali was not in the picture.

Through my observation coming to the second month of the search effort, Malaysian team still had no clue of the whereabouts of the missing plane or even fully understood the mechanics of why the plane ended at the Southern Indian Ocean. We relied totally on the foreign expertise of which the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB), Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) UK, Boeing and the Inmarsat team. There wasn't even an effort by the Malaysian team to come out with our own analysis of the data be it from the Inmarsat satellite or the Boeing engine performance which lead to the conclusion that the flight ended at the Southern Indian Ocean. The media conferences given were just to assure the public and to pacify the anxiety of the watching world. Through my observation, if it was not for the Prime Minister's personal composure and calmness in handling the crisis, I don't think anybody would know what exactly going on moreover dare to conclude that the aircraft ended at the Southern Indian Ocean. He seemed to be very well connected even among the aviation experts from UK and the US. Even as we were still deliberating on the matter at the Royal Chulan Hotel, we relied heavily on the CNN and BBC news on the search effort carried out by Ocean Shield Australia.

I was very sad and taken aback by our lack of interest to be part of the analytical team at the time in terms of data inferences of which expertise from Malaysia should be part of the foreign team or maybe as an intellectual referee of the analysis concluded by AAIB, NTSB, Inmarsat and Boeing that the flight ended at the Southern Indian Ocean.

Somebody from Malaysia even unnecessarily invited the Chinese government to be part of the sub-sea search effort which I personally think was very unwise. The involvement of the Chinese government in the sub-sea search operation makes things difficult to coordinate.
Mr. Rodzi from DCA, me and First Admiral Hanafiah from RMN taking a break in front of the Goodearth Hotel in Perth after one of our knowledge sharing session with the technical members of ATSB, Fugro and Phoenix International at University of Notre Dame Fremantle, Perth.
Even though the invitation for the Chinese government to participate in the search operation was made out of respect due to the largest of Chinese nationality within the 9M-MRO that were lost, the presence of the Chinese assets at Fremantle port created discomfort within the search team that I worked with since the data sharing is not in sync with what the team truly needed. The Chinese team even demanded that the team from Fugro and Go Phoenix share the sonar sea bed data before we can get any bathymetric data from them of which the request was not helping the objective of why they were there at the first place. 

In retrospect, in the first two months of the surface search period, the Malaysian team were still grasping in the dark of trying to guess the exact location the debris might have floated. We deployed defence assets from the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) to the Straits of Malacca and Andaman Sea in the effort to locate or find any debris of which might have come out from the MH370. It was a very trying period for everybody especially the RMN and Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) boys since the entire search efforts were conducted through eye observation. There was a major possibility that debris would be obscure by high waves when you tried to observe from the air. Plus the weather was very adverse. The RMN team had to stay at sea longer than they should on board of the combat vessel that were inappropriate for Search and Rescue (SAR) missions while the RMAF were operating the C130 Hercules aircraft which was uneconomical and also inappropriate for maritime domain awareness mission. Nevertheless the team tried their best despite all their shortcomings.

In 2015, I tried to fight for some remuneration to be paid to the RMN boys as a token of appreciation for their involvement in the surface operation after a year the first search phase ended (March - May 2014). The amount was not high as the suggestion was RM400 for each personnel involved. The suggested figure was still small compared to the plights and challenges these boys had to face at sea looking for MH370 going through adverse weather conditions. I drafted a long letter with an attached paper-work which I discussed beforehand with the RMN officer and we submitted the proposal to the Public Service Department (PSD). At first they seemed keen to give approval for certain amount of payments to be made as a token of appreciation to all the personnel involved, but through the end the PSD lost interest and the effort went fizzled on its own despite calling me twice to brief them at PSD headquarter to justify the suggestion. I even provided them with long list of complete names of our RMN personnel that were involved with the surface search for further consideration. I truly felt bitter and disjointed on how actually PSD carry the effort without taking a serious consideration on the welfare of our boys carrying out the mission a year before under very difficult circumstances. I'm never a big fan of the PSD, but their act on the matter was sick to me.

Me standing beside the ProSAS system during one of my visit to Fremantle Port, Perth during Go Phoenix resupply and replenishment before it returns to search site at SIO.

In early May, we started considering options for Malaysia to send appropriate sub-sea search capabilities to the Southern Indian Ocean. My good friend at that time who works with Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) by the name of Mr. Martin Sebastian was the first person who explained the right need for Malaysia to carry out bathymetric studies before we deployed any sonar equipment above a research vessel. He explained to the committee the need for Malaysia to deploy a mother ship with Side Scan System, Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) and Remote Underwater Vehicle (RoV). It was the first professional advice from an individual about a serious sub-sea work coming since we lost MH370. From that motion, we seek the advice of local expertise from PETRONAS, SapuraKencana and DEFTECH on what type of equipment and vessel should Malaysia send to search area. I befriended Mr. Razali Ahmad, a senior engineer from PETRONAS. He was the focal man who advises us and endorse for Malaysia to agree with the proposal from Phoenix International to deploy ProSAS - synthetic aperture sonar to the search area. Phoenix came through DEFTECH Sdn Bhd and was the first company that came to our committee on the first month of the search effort - though we were very ignorant back then. Mr. Razali expertise on the matter was very crucial for us to double check the authenticity of the proposal put forward by Phoenix considering his vast knowledge on PETRONAS sub-sea work for more than 30 years. The proposal put forward by Phoenix was purely commercial and came at the high price considering the need to send a mother ship to support the deployment of the sub-sea system to operate. Taking into consideration the adverse weather condition at the 7th Arc of which the sea state level could reach above 5, Mr. Razali suggested for Phoenix to operate ProSAS on board of Go Phoenix vessel which has a long deck platform that can endure rough sea state condition (notice the coincidence of the similar name Phoenix). The proposal was welcomed by the Australian government since ProSAS was the best system to date and Malaysia had spearhead for a coordinated search work with the best of equipment and assets.
From left, Mr. Jeya (Deftech), Datuk Amril (CEO of DEFTECH), Mr. Peter Foley, me standing and Mr. Hisham listening to Mr. Peter explanation on the status of the search operation over the underwater map and the areas of concentration for ProSAS system. Excellent chap Peter was!
During this stressful and pressing time for the committee to send assets quick to the Southern Indian Ocean and with the international pressure breathing down our neck, there was one occasion I witnessed a colleague of mine Mr. Hisham Rosle berated with strong words the DEFTECH Chief Financial Officer during one of our emergency meeting at the Royal Chulan Hotel. DEFTECH was trying to negotiate a selfish terms for the company to make profits instead of focusing sending Go Phoenix and ProSAS as soon as possible to the 7th Arc. Mr. Hisham was trying to bring senses to DEFTECH and make them realize of their national duty during this incident instead of making profits. DEFTECH came through the fold through their connection with Raytheon that previously establish a communication with Phoenix. It was an eye opener for me being a junior officer inside a business negotiation and the incident reminds me of our role as government officer in straddling between the opportunistic nature of a corporate interest amid the need to manage national crisis.

Coming into May and June 2014 was the most challenging period for us. This was the month of Ramadhan where we were fasting at day time and need to perform the prayers at night. I spent the week with my colleague reading report papers and proposals from Phoenix International and various international companies for the sub-sea search. Apart from Phoenix, we also received proposal from John Lethbridge to send an iXBlue system but the cost were way much higher. I consulted Mr. Peter and Mr. Razali about the proposal since the iXBlue has a French connection. We had to decline the proposal due to limited funds and we saw no viable plan to send John Lethbridge for one cycle of work at the price of three cycle of work for Go Phoenix. I believed this incident left a bitter feeling to the French and could be the reason why the French authorities were making things difficult for Malaysia to retrieve the flaperon that was found at La Reunion (region of France) which was withheld through the French court seizure for the court investigation even though the international investigation team had already been formed under ICAO. I also wants to recall back the effort made by MINDEF to request financial assistance from the French government for MH370 search effort that were ignored a number of times despite Malaysia was one of the largest French military assets customer in the region with Scorpene, EC725, A400M Airbus and the prospect for Rafale business deal still open since Malaysia need to replace the ageing MiGs29N. Still the French DA came to us with the John Lethbridge business proposal of which we need to pay and I had to decline.

This was completely different from the treatment and assistance that we received from the United States. The US government was generous enough to lend us the towed side scan sonar - Bluefin-21 for free in the first month of search mission to be put on board of Ocean Shield. Even though ProSAS came through Phoenix, a business entity, but the usage of its system must still acquire the approval of the US Navy prior to it's operation which we easily managed to get. This incident had also opened up my eyes in terms of putting priority on geo-strategic cooperation with foreign partners. I also want to put on record that the US Poseidon plane were also deployed during the search mission at the South China Sea, Straits of Malacca and Andaman sea alongside Japanese MDA assets that were first based in Subang and later Perth. These are our foreign friends that came to us when we were in need of help.

I even had to go through numerous idiotic proposals from local entrepreneurs that request for MINDEF to fund them to send vessel with bomoh/ shamans on board to pray at the sea in order for the devils to release MH370 from their clutch. I kid you not! Most of the time I had to put up a straight face whenever I had to face these ignorant/ opportunistic peoples in order for me to say no to their face since they came with a “higher recommendation”.

During one of our deliberation on the issue of sub-sea work at Double Tree by Hilton Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. Notice Mr. Razali wearing glasses was seating at 1.00 o'clock with black sleeveless shirt. His experience and vast knowledge on sub-sea work was very crucial for all of us.

We convened most of the committee’s meeting in the afternoon trying to get decisions for us to deploy appropriate assets and in the late evening, I had to finish up minutes of the meeting to be presented to my Secretary General and Minister to update him on the progress of our effort. We had to work very fast and during this stressful time, I learned a great deal of things on the sub-sea search and offshore work through Mr. Razali. Most of the time, I broke my fast with a mineral water at the office and missed my tarawikh prayers. My first meal usually came at 10.00pm after I finished writing reports. It was a very challenging period for us and only the strong mind can endure such test. I would do the secretariat work for the committee and my close colleague Mr. Hisham Rosle will check the reports and briefs notes just because his English was far superior then me.

The sub-sea search was a very serious matter in terms of the financial implication for MINDEF and it provides the best method and prospect for Malaysia to find the plane. The Australian team at that time formed the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) which was based in Canberra. JACC was also responsible for the coordination of the involvement of world's assets for surface search which were based at Perth at that time considering the nearest location of Perth and Fremantle port to the 7th arc. Our committee started been invited to attend meetings in Canberra and Perth for the coordination work with JACC. The head of the JACC at that time was Mr. Angus Houston, former Air Chief Marshall of Australia (later he was replaced by Mrs. Judith Zielke). He was previously stationed in Butterworth, Penang as the Commander of the HQIADS in the 1980s which makes our relation easy with him since he understand Malaysia through and through. He was truly a gentleman. During one of my visit to ATSB office in Canberra, I had the opportunity to chat with him on the search effort. He was based at ATSB office in Canberra for the MH370 effort and later he was appointed as the special envoy for Australia to Ukraine on the issue of MH17 incident. I once saw him going back from work just taking a public bus with an umbrella in hand and a scarf around the neck. He was an embodiment of a living example of a great man.

Capt. Mior from DCA Malaysia, First Admiral Hanafiah from RMN and me at the ATSB Office in Canberra during one of our bilateral negotiation with the Australian counterpart.

The opportunity to visit and work with the ATSB team in Canberra gave me new insights on how professional were the Australian team in carrying out the task in hand. I learned a great deal watching Mr. Peter Foley chairing his meeting and negotiate terms with us since it was a joint effort and the allotment of responsibilities given for the two countries that need to be carved out clearly in a letter of arrangement and for it to be documented. Later on we became close friend as we always exchanged emel and thought on the search effort. I was the unofficial conduit of information for him to convey any message to the committee in terms of the need for JACC to prolong ProSAS at the 7th Arc or anything that the Malaysian government should consider in contributing for the search mission of which most of the thought I conveyed to the HLC chaired by the DCA director general.

Mr. Razali at that time suggested for ProSAS to use the Go Phoenix vessel as we were tightly bound by the stringent labour law of Australia if we choose Fremantle port as a point of replenishment for the vessel. Plus the Go Phoenix provides a long platform for the crew to endure a harsh sea condition that could endure the vicious sea state 5 and above. I also had the opportunity to visit Go Phoenix when it make berth at Fremantle port and meeting the crew and Hydrospheric members (team that operate the ProSAS and its system). I was very confident at that time with ProSAS, and the prospect for us to find the debris field was high since the aperture system used provides the best image compared to any other sonar on earth (provided we are looking at the right place). However my colleague Mr. Hisham Rosle remains skeptic about the possibility for us finding the plane and it proved that I lost the bet to him after two years the mission passed by to no avail.

Me, Datuk Ismail Bakar the then Secretary General for Ministry of Transport and Mr. Hisham Rosle during one of the trilateral meeting between Malaysia - Australia - China on MH370 at Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur. Fate has it that Datuk Ismail was our former immediate boss at MINDEF before he was promoted to the Sec Gen post.

At this time, I developed a very close friendship with Mr. Razali. He continues to teach me on the sub-sea work and systems that were used by the oil companies to detect an oil field underwater. I could even brief YB Dato’ Seri Liow Tiong Lai the Minister of Transport on the right capabilities for sub-sea effort at the HLC meeting attended by my Undersecretary at that time, Dr. Jeffry. Needless to say he was very impressed. There was even an unofficial request by ATSB (initiated by Mr. Peter of course) for me to be attached with the MH370 team in Canberra since I've been very helpful with the search effort thus far. However my new immediate boss which replaced Dr. Jeffry by the time the request was made thinks the division I worked with in MINDEF would lose a desk officer if I leave for Canberra. It was a lost opportunity that I still regret today. Let me share a bit about my friend Mr. Razali Ahmad. He was a very family oriented man. He was a loving husband and a dotted father. His wife was from the state of Sarawak and Mr. Razali always shares to me about her. A fantastic character and very deeply experienced person in sub-sea work and oil exploration. He was attached with Shell before joining PETRONAS. To speak about too little good thing about him would do no justice to his true character. Mr. Razali did request and promised me to be the spokesperson to ask for a hand in marriage on my behalf of any woman that I would like to wed one day. It is a promise that I still holds to this day. Needless to say we remain close till now.

Apart from Mr. Razali, I also developed a close friendship with the CEO of Phoenix International at that time Mr. Mike Kutzleb. He was very professional and always took time to brief me in detail about the progress of the search effort himself once every cycle of work ends since I was the financial officer for MINDEF for the verification proses of work by Phoenix in order for us to pay them through DEFTECH. PETRONAS donated a sum of RM67 million for the first phase of the sub-sea search effort and later on the second phase it was financed directly by the Government of Malaysia through the Ministry of Finance.

Mr. Jim (Phoenix), me and Mr. Mike the CEO of Phoenix International during LIMA 2015. We developed a strong trust with each other after six cycle of work for ProSAS at SIO.

Through my close friendship with Mr. Mike, I managed to negotiate for at least four seats for Malaysian to be on board of the Go Phoenix during its operation at the 7th Arc to find the wreckage. We opened up the opportunity to RMN, but the reply that we got was "if we send personnel on board of the vessel, then only the person involved will get the experienced and knowledge know-how instead of the organisation". I was truly pissed with the written reply that I received, but I choose not to push the thing further. Later through our discussion with the Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, YB Dato Sri Jailani Johari, with his support we managed to get two RTM reporters to be on board of the Go Phoenix for at least one cycle of search (one month). They carry out extensive documentary work on the search operation at the SIO. To date only Mr. Awaluddin Abd Ghani and Mr. Abdul Halim Mohd were the ONLY MALAYSIAN that involved directly with the search mission at the 7th Arc. These two brave souls deserved to be given a medal for their bravery to be part of the search team on Go Phoenix considering the vicious and challenging sea they had to endure aboard the Go Phoenix alongside the ship’s crew and the Hydrospheric team. Needless to say I did volunteered myself to be with them during that particular cycle of work, but of course my superior again was very reluctant to relieve me from my desk work. Another lost opportunity of which I deeply regret. We also did tried to send KD Mutiara a RMN’s bathymetry-hydrographic ship to the 7th Arc to support Go Phoenix and Fugro team, but when the vessel reach the Java sea, it experienced a technical problem and were deemed not fit to survive the harsh sea condition at the Southern Indian Ocean. After a short repair at Tanjong Periok, the vessel was ordered to return back to Lumut for further inspection.

After a year passed by, the funds that were provided by PETRONAS were depleted. We were very disappointed since we expect that the debris field would be found within the first two months of the Go Phoenix deployment. I wouldn’t say the inference and the calculation made by the Australian team was incorrect, but since we are looking at a very big probabilities (technical and human factor), the area that needs to covered remains big. I still remember when Mr. Peter told me at one evening during a coffee break in Fremantle, until we found debris from the aircraft floated perhaps on the shore of Madagascar, then we can be certain that the plane ended at the Southern Indian Ocean and the analysis made were strong. Or else we would be looking at an area based entirely on the analysis of the Inmarsat data, the Boeing engine performance and jet-fuel maximum capabilities without other physical evidence. True enough, a year later the flaperon from the 9M-MRO were found drifted at the La Reunion Island as expected by Mr. Peter and the Australian Geoscience team. It came as expected and was not as surprise news to us.

The MH370 search mission was the biggest sub-sea operation ever conducted. Public should know that when we lost Air France 447, the area covered by the side scan sonar were small, perhaps only 1% compared to the total area combed by the ATSB team for MH370 at the 7th Arc. Plus the search for Air France 447 were carried out based on trial and error (the towed side scan were deployed in a zig zagging line) since the area of concentration had already been identified by the floating debris and directed by the pinging sound of the black box from the aircraft. Whereas for MH370, we have no clue of the first impact location whereby facing the expiry of the black box pinging signal battery, the ATSB had to plan for a neat design search mission since the deployment of the search assets came at a very high price. The Fugro's vessels and Go Phoenix had to towed their side scan sonar at least 100 nautical mile long before they need to make a U turn to again towed the long line for better coverage and systematic approach of search method. This way was to ensure every areas of sea bed under the 120,000 km sq focus area were scanned and covered before moving into a new concentration area after each cycle of works end.
Me standing beside the ProSAS at Fremantle Port, Perth.

I was given the honour to represent Malaysia to put up a Malaysian flag on the ProSAS system before it was re-launched to the SIO. It was a historic moment for myself.

My involvement with MH370 search effort ended a year later when we completed the funds given by PETRONAS. However the DCA team still asked me to assist them in drafting a Memorandum of Agreement between the Government of Malaysia and the Fugro Company for JACC to continue to deploy ProSAS on board of Fugro vessel. I feel very uncomfortable with this arrangement since the right ownership for this business deal should be with Phoenix International, the first company that were responsible to introduce ProSAS to the world and the first company that came to us when we don't exactly understand what sub-sea search was. But I guess JACC wants to cut the cost and go direct to the Hydrospheric team instead of through Phoenix. Mr. Razali did points out to me that Fugro business was actually saved through this search contract when there was actually no business offer for sub-sea work for offshore companies when the crude oil hit rock bottom in 2015.

I was briefed by Mr. Mike on the final work by ProSAS on board of Go Phoenix during its demobilization at Jurong Port, Singapore.

In retrospect, there were a lot of areas for Malaysia to improve when it comes to managing crisis. I saw it personally how a group of people were trying to take advantage of making money during the duress time. Corruption is still rampant within our fold even amid an emergency time with opportunistic individuals trying to “menangguk di air keruh” (taking advantage over a crisis). I also feel very sad with lackadaisical interest from Malaysia to be part of something important and substantive which was the analytical part of the Inmarsat satellite data, Boeing engine performance and jet-fuel consumptions of 9M-MRO in order to deduct what could happen on the morning of 8th March 2014. We still resort ourselves to doing something easy and mundane which was managing perceptions. Instead of we should be sending professional, mathematicians or aviation experts from Malaysia to study and examine the analysis made previously by the foreign team, but to the end Malaysian remains un-interested. This makes me sad and disappointed. There were even some quarters taking advantages of going overseas (mostly to China and Australia) for nothing as if they were working even though on reality basis they were just going up for a free holidays taking advantage of the whole situation. I can’t imagine how much money the government spend for these group of peoples to take up free holidays, but I’m sure it’s not cheap. There was even one occassion a big group warranted by higher up went to Sydney for so called MH370 "meetings", but upon returning end up ordering me to write up the visit report whereas I was not part of the travelling team. Such unprofessional behavior by them was uncalled for.

Me and Mr. Zul from DCA Malaysia taking a break at one of the Kebab restaurant in Canberra after a long bilateral meeting with Australian counterpart.

I want to put on record of how professional were the Australian team in carrying out their task to find the plane. The plane wasn't even belong to their government, but I guess Australia will always try to look for opportunity to contribute to world's crisis. During the mission, I was also informed that there were only three aviation facilities that were capable to examine the black box and CVR in the world. The centers were located at NTSB in US, AAIB in UK and ATSB in Canberra. No wonder they were very serious to be part of this mission. Australia were also very generous enough to provide a sum of AUD60 million for the search effort. To be part of this fantastic team was a privileged and a gift to me as I learned a great deal of professional conduct in managing crisis especially from Mr. Peter Foley. I showed my gratitude by “paying back” to Australia two years later when I was appointed as the project manager for Op Reunite a bilateral mission between MINDEF Malaysia and MoD Australia, of which I applied everything that I have learned during the year 2014-2015 working with the Australian team.

Me and Mr. Mike in front of the Go Phoenix during its demobilization of ProSAS in Jurong Port, Singapore. Notice the hull front paint that wore off due to the high impact of waves and vicious weather at the SIO.
With demobilization of ProSAS from GO Phoenix marks the end of my official involvement with MH370 search effort.
I met Mr. Peter for the last time at the Prime Minister's Office, Putrajaya during the final meeting for the suspension of the search work in 2016. I know he was crestfallen and very frustrated for not being able to find MH370, but I assured him of all the knowledge that he taught me, I returned it back with the successful OP Reunite mission between Malaysia - Australia that was accomplished in 2016.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Leaving MINDEF.. part 1

I believe fate had destined me to work in MINDEF, Kuala Lumpur from 2010 to 2017. I was before attached with the Ministry of Tourism (MOTOUR) located in PWTC Kuala Lumpur (then) when I got my promotion to a better post. The Public Service Department (PSD) decided that I had to leave MOTOUR for MINDEF in Jalan Semarak. I was very happy to stay in MOTOUR, my relationship with my colleague and superiors were fantastic. My work nature was fun and fulfilling (I handled domestic and international events related to Tourism industry) and I didn't see any sane reason why should I leave MOTOUR for MINDEF. My previous Secretary General in MOTOUR even wrote a commendation letter about me to PSD as to identify me as one of the fast track officer. Not that it matter to me because I was just happy doing my work and wants to contribute to the nation, but just to show how great the recognition given by my superior and I feel truly grateful for it. I love MOTOUR. The staffs and colleague were awesome and one of the most professional individuals that I've met so far then. They are very unique and very embracing towards life, perhaps due to the nature of work there. I learned singing and dancing when I was there. So when there was a call for me to move out, it was truly illogical for me to accept it considering how happy I was at MOTOUR.

With my close friend Shida and staffs in MINDEF's office

I think the one that I owed much when I was a junior officer back then was my immediate boss. His name is Rashidi Hasbullah and he is the current Secretary General of MOTAC today. I was a lousy officer back then, not quite good on how should I carry my work task as a bureaucrats, but he saw the potentials in me and took me under his wing. Sometimes he asked me to stay back up to 9pm at night just so he can coach me on report writings. You know living in Kajang and you need to commute daily to Menara Dato' Onn KL for work was much of a challenge with traffics and all, but I adhere to his instruction and we do always work late to the night. From his coaching, slowly I improved myself. I never saw such a passionate person and workaholic as I've saw in him. But ironic as it goes, he trained me and MINDEF reaped the benefits of it. He was very sad when I told him in 2010 that I will be leaving MOTOUR for MINDEF. But I guess when God decided on your path, nothing can change it and it is for the better.

Me with the P8 Poseidon USAF Kadena Base crew in Subang

What can I summed up from my 7 years posting in MINDEF, KL? I was involved directly with three main mission on the international level of which I'm very proud of, I had hundreds of excellent encounters with great individuals which have build me to who I am this day, attended meetings and briefings representing Malaysia and went through one severe heartbreak. I treasure my time in MINDEF even though the plan was for me to just work there temporarily before going back to MOTOUR, but I guess the love is too real which makes me decided to stay long. I found solace in MINDEF and feel a sense of belonging working there with all the ceremonies and interesting works, maybe because my late grandfather was a soldier himself. 7 years in my type of service is a very long period to stay at one organisation (mostly people would stay maximum up to three years before jumping to other ministry/ agencies), but I guess I love working in MINDEF so much. The environment was fantastic and in terms of welfare, the ministry does took care of their own.

I gave lectures on National Defense Policy to the MCS Cadet in Port Dickson

MINDEF taught me a lot of things, I met fantastic and befriended great friends and individuals of which many of them remain close to me to this days. Its the place where I got a chance to undergo through a real military training with the territorial army (515 Regiment) of which no doubt the best period of my life lies in. I've traveled all over Malaysia visiting military camps and establishment and be part of a social service programs organized by MINDEF/ Malaysian Armed Forces. It was a beautiful loving memories. Most of the military personnel that I've met are great peoples, kind and dedicated in their work. I've learned a great deal observing how military carry out their daily task without question. I love working with them and I believe the respects that I got from them were mutual. I will share later on my experience handling bilateral matters between the militaries of the world.

Me standing in the middle and the MINDEF team on the day PM Najib officiate the Kluang Mini Prison under the NBOS Prog in 2012
My first year task in MINDEF was handling the National Blue Ocean Strategy (NBOS) project within the military camps all over Malaysia. We built a few mini prison camp for the pre-parole inmates. Usually inmates that were sent there will serve maximum up to two years incarceration due to petty crimes. Inmates will do menial work daily in maintaining the camp such as cutting the grass. This is the period which taught humility in me. I think of all the four main camps at that time (2011-2012) which housed the mini prison, two of the official functions involved the Prime Minister of which I was the project manager in Kluang and Gemas. It was a great opportunity, I drafted the PM's speech and coordinates involvement with various parties for the events. Apart from that, my tasked was also given to overseer the first year of the mini prison operations. I befriended officers and wardens from the Prison Dept. It was again truly remarkable seeing how wardens handled inmates in front of your eyes. There was one time when I visited the mini prison in Kluang Camp, I had the opportunity to spent time to pray Zohor with the inmates. On another visit, one inmate spoke fluent English with me when I visited the prison, got me thinking temptation to do crimes are just a short breath away in real world. Be that you're down the economic ladder or the high up, everybody is vulnerable. He was imprisoned due to graft. I realized that being incarcerated even for such a short period of time is not easy. That left an indelible mark for me never to take freedom for granted and keep living an honest and straight life.

MINDEF gave me an opportunity to serve oversea too. In 2013 I was given a rare opportunity within the diplomatic service circles to serve in the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao. I saw from close range the true meaning of nationalism concept and how Muslim in Mindanao were discriminated from every angle in their daily life of which after I came back, I'm never will take the stability and prosperity in Malaysia for granted again. It crossed my mind maybe that was the condition we were in 1946 when Dato' Onn Jaafar amassed and unites the Malays for the cause of independence. Living in Mindanao mostly with the NGOs social workers and human rights activist left me in awe of how wonderful special people were doing what they are doing best in life at such a very young age.
Me and the Brunei observers taking photo with the MILF rebel during one of our peace advocacy program
Maybe of all the special people that I've met over there one does stand in towering personality. I befriended with Polina a very energetic and passionate woman from Bishkek and now lives in Moscow that work with one of the NGOs in Mindanao to empower the locals there on their rights amid the conflict between government and the rebels. Polina is a very beautiful woman and has a strong willed character. I still remember on one evening of which we (international observers) were alerted about the arising tension between clans at one place in the heart of Mindanao. Both parties were on the verge of unleashing firepower towards each other and Polina with her team came in between asking both parties to de-escalate the situation and reflect on the effect it will have on the peace process. I saw how she handle the situation from afar, the way she communicate with the locals and clan leaders and I had much respect and awe of her bravery. And it crossed my mind at that moment of time there exist a spectacular character with a very young age working at the backwater of Asia when she truly deserve to be at a better place doing a much higher paid job. But she and her friends decided to work there in Asia with the people that doesn't really affect her directly, but she stayed anyway. I think the way she carried herself professionally in the conflict zones speaks the similar traits in her colleague at the various NGOs there. They were all excellent.

Polina in the middle of the peace advocacy program in the heart of Mindanao

Polina later left Mindanao six month prior to my posting ends there to pursue her Ph.D in Human Rights field at University of Moscow. I later had a chance to bring Polina to Malaysia along with her mother and her son Aiden. We travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bharu enjoying the best food Malaysia can offer. We climbed the footsteps of Batu Caves Temple, went to see mangroves trees at Tanjung Piai and took the river cruise boat in Malacca. It was a great moment indeed. I still writes her emel from time to time asking about Aiden and how shes doing in Moscow today.

The dream team. Polina standing third from the left, beside her in blue uniform was Pengeran Muhaimin a Royal Brunei Police Officer also one of my closest friends (we still keep in touch with each other). The fourth guy from the right was Juan, my close friend from Mexico. I always cooked Malaysian delicacies for him during weekends as he was a very big fan of my spicy cooking. Me standing number two from the right. Picture was taken in Datu Piang, Maguindanao the most challenged area in Mindanao which were always full of conflict/ skirmishes between GPH and the MILF.

Came back from Mindanao, got me with enough funds to buy a house of my own. I would never think with my economic background and middle class family income living in the city some more, I would one day own a house. But as God is the most gracious, my overseas posting allowances managed to give me certain amount of funds to buy a house. I was truly grateful and came to a thinking that God is truly the true provider. At my young age I managed to buy a decent apartment with low financial installment every month after I paid a high sum of deposits and lawyers fees. I reckon if its not because MINDEF gave me such an opportunity, I would remain broke and without a house up to this day.

A day after I landed in KLIA coming back from the Philippines, I found myself in my village in Machang, Kelantan. I was having a great time with my young cousins and I turned the televisyen with every single news that aired about Malaysia Airlines losing a plane in the South China Sea. It was 8 March 2014 and will carve next big interesting chapter of my life in MINDEF.

Me during the official visit to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2015. That green folder containing MoU that was negotiated by me with the Saudi's MoD.

to be continued... 

Faces of Tun Teddy

Faces of Tun Teddy