On the 28th September 2007, at twelve o’ clock midday, we left Heathrow Airport for Malaysia. After a twelve hour flight, allowing for the time difference, we arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at seven twenty in the morning local time and disembarked at seven thirty. As we walked off the air bridge, there were two pipers from the Malaysian Army waiting to greet us and to pipe us through the terminal. As we moved off, two more joined from the wings and then another two and finally, two more. They piped us all the way to the monorail terminal It brought the International Terminal to a standstill, with some people looking bemused, others waving and clapping and generally applauding us, - what a surprise, what a welcome!
After taking photographs of this welcome we took the monorail to the main terminal and were greeted by four pipers from the Tank Regiment. Again people stopped and applauded
After a journey of just over an hour, with our police motor cycle escort and medical vehicle clearing the way for us, we arrived in K.L to another brilliant welcome. The hotel had a banner hung above the main entrance welcoming the members of the NMBVA to the hotel and the staff were lined up in the foyer to shake us all by the hand.
After an afternoon briefing by Col Paul Edwards, the Military Attaché, and others, laying out the plans for the next three days, we were free to explore K.L.
Up at 0500hrs the next morning and breakfast at 0530hrs. By 0700hrs our coaches, complete with police and medical escort, were on the way to the National Memorial. What a magnificent place. The main entrance was through a domed, circular colonnade, the ceiling of which was covered in tiles and the badges of all military units that took part in the struggle for Malaysian independence were displayed on the tiles. Almost 50 yards beyond that and surrounded by water and fountains was the memorial itself, a colossal bronze of three figures atop a polished, black granite plinth. We spent over an hour there, still making new friends and taking photographs before heading for the coaches.
By 0900hrs we were back at the hotel and after changing out of civvies and into “uniform”, we were back on the coaches heading for the Medal Presentation Ceremony at the Shangri-La Hotel. We were greeted in the main foyer by young men and young ladies in National costume, who presented each of us with a goodie bag and placed a traditional necklace around our necks.
The Medal Presentation itself took place downstairs in the ballroom. There were somewhere near 400 invited guests and dignitary present and after a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister, we were called, individually up onto the stage to receive our PJMs from him.
After the presentation came a five course meal and while we were eating, we were treated to a cultural display of singing and dancing by members of the Malaysian Armed Forces Reserves.
On leaving the hotel we then went to Cheras Road Cemetery on the outskirts of K.L. with a military section. It was quite a moving experience with some of our party seeing the graves of mates they served with nearly fifty years ago. A wreath was laid by General Sir Garry Johnson whilst a piper played a lament.
The next morning, it was up a 0400hrs, breakfast from 0500hrs (this included “beef bacon” and chicken/turkey sausages) and onto the coaches for the Merdeka Square and the march. It was still dark when we reached our disembarkation point and we now parted company with our wives, partners and carers. They were being taken to the VIP seating area, just a short way away from the Royal Box.
After what seemed like hours, with the march organisers organising and re-organising the 24,000 marchers, the bands struck up and we were off. This is the part that is the most difficult to describe. Trying to put into words the feelings of the day is almost impossible. There we were, in our blazers, berets, gloves and medals, soaked through with sweat from a blazing sun (and it was still before 0900hrs), marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, bands playing, with thousands of people lining the street cheering and clapping and waving their Malaysian flags and as each contingent approached the king, the P.A. system announced who they were. As we marched past we heard blasting out “And now the veterans from the United Kingdom”. (Eyeees right, miss, over). Someone later on said that we were also called the Freedom Fighters, but I must admit I didn’t hear that.
Just a little farther on, with eyes still right, there were our wives, waving their flags and cheering… US! What a feeling. No amount of money could buy the experience.
When we had finished our march, we rejoined the rest of our party back in the VIP stand to watch the thousands of marchers still to come. More bands, more floats, more dancers and a fly past by the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
When the march had finished, we made our way down to the road level to take group photographs. As we were doing this, members of the public were asking to have their photographs taken with us, fathers placing their children with us and snapping, then telling their wives to stand in the group and snapping again and then handing their camera over to a friend while they stood with us and had their photograph taken. People, both young and old were shaking our hands and thanking us, it was overwhelming and became embarrassing after a while.
By 1100hrs it was all over and the roads had been reopened. The coaches took us back to the hotel for a couple of hours and then we were off to the British High Commissioners’ Residence to meet Prince Andrew. A pleasant afternoon was spent in the garden, munching on salmon sandwiches, (with the crusts removed) and listening to the pipers in the bandstand. The highlight of the time spent there was the visit of Prince Andrew, although I must admit that seventy percent of us didn’t manage to see him. He stayed in the house and never ventured into the garden. In the blink of an eye he was one his way again.
The next morning, the party that were going to Penang left at 0900hrs and after a few hours on the road we arrived at a little village called Batu Gajah. The cemetery there, often referred to as “Gods Little Acre” contains the graves of service personnel, police, and planters who lost their lives during the Malay Emergency. A small remembrance service was held at the memorial and Ron Blain laid a wreath as the immortal words “Age shall not weary them,………” were spoken, after which a bugler played the last post and then reveille.
(It’s interesting to note that the gravestones throughout the peninsular were made from local sandstone and because this is relatively soft, many of the stones are beginning to weather away, - some quite badly. A programme of replacement has begun and all new gravestones are being made from much harder, polished granite)
Back on the coach and our next stop was lunch at the Royal Ipoh Club. It was like stepping back into Edwardian rural England.
There was one final photo call to be had. A television crew had been with us since we took off at Heathrow and now they wanted the closing shots for the programme they were making. We all stood on the stage, which was surrounded with exotic flowers and foliage, with bunting hanging from the ceiling and all of us waving Malaysian flags and shouting “Merdeka, MERDEKA, MERDEKA.!!”
After eating our lunch we took our drinks out onto the lawn and sat looking over a huge pedang where, the day before, Ipoh had held its own Merdeka celebration but normally, one could watch a genteel game of cricket or in the off-season, a chukka or two of polo. Ant that was that – the formalities all over. Well, not quite.
It was then back onto the coach and off on our last leg of the journey to Penang.
We crossed the Penang Bridge, the longest in Asia (and already a second bridge is in the planning stage) and arrived at our hotel in Tanjong Bungga at about 1720 hrs. In the foyer was a large notice board facing the entrance, with the crest of the NMBVA in the centre and the names of all in the party around it. Another superb welcome and a great way to start our ten days holiday.