“NOTHING good comes out of war and conflict,” mutters a former classmate when talk about the Palestinian plight in the Middle East suddenly arises during our reunion dinner. Everyone at the table falls silent, contemplating his comment.
“While I’m inclined to agree with your general statement, there is a particular incident in the history of our nation where your thought is proven wrong,” another friend, a known sports enthusiast, interjects out of the blue. Bewildered, the rest of us shoot icy stares at him, wondering what he could possibly mean.
Humoured by our perplexed expressions, he takes us back to July 31, 1960, the historic date when the-then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, officially declared an end to our nation’s 12-year battle with the communist terrorists. Malaya’s success in quelling the Chin Peng-led threat had caught the attention of the world, especially those at the United Nations (UN).
At around this time, a new conflict was simmering on the other side of the globe. It began when the former Belgian colony of Congo gained independence on June 30, 1960. Capitalising on the minimal preparations made on many issues pertinent to the transition of power, Belgian commander Lieutenant General Emile Janssens refused to accept local officers into the army. This resulted in a series of disorders and mutinies that caused the situation to quickly deteriorate in a downward spiral, beginning from the first week of July 1960.
Concerned about the safety of its jittery citizens still in Congo, the Belgian government decided to intervene by sending troops to Katanga and establishing a secession in the mineral and resource-rich province to protect the valuable foreign-owned mining interests. After some small skirmishes, the Belgian troops managed to gain control of Katanga’s capital, Elisabethville, on July 10, 1960.
The presence of the Belgian troops was illegal under international law as their presence was never requested by the Congolese officials. Just two days later, the President and the Prime Minister of Congo requested for assistance from the UN.
On July 13, 1960 the UN Secretary General at that time, Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold, addressed the UN Security Council in a night meeting where Resolution 143 was speedily adopted with a vote of eight in favour and none against. The United States and Soviet Union voted in favour while three countries abstained.
The resolution called upon the Belgian government to withdraw its troops from the Congo territory and authorised the UN Secretary General to facilitate the withdrawal of Belgian troops, maintain law and order and help to establish and legitimise the post-colonial government.
In order to achieve these aims, the UN Security Council mandated the establishment of a peacekeeping coalition called the UN Force in the Congo (ONUC). Given Malaya’s vast experience in peacefully implementing the concept of winning the hearts and minds of its people over the communist terrorist ideologies, the Malayan security forces were among those selected to help maintain Congo’s territorial integrity, particularly through the removal of the foreign mercenaries supporting the independence of Katanga.
On Aug 4, 1960 Tunku offered a force of 120 men in a telegram to Hammarskjold. Ceding to the UN Secretary-General’s request for more men, Tunku agreed to increase the force size to 450 men in another telegram to New York on Aug 24 that same year. Further negotiations ensued and the force level was eventually settled at 613, comprising men from two of the finest units in Malaya’s Federation Army.
he Malayan Special Force (MSF) to Congo comprised 42 officers and 571 men from various ranks from the Royal Malay Regiment’s 4th Battalion and ‘C’ Squadron from the 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment.
“So what good did the Congo conflict do for Malaya?” two former librarians at our school’s Stuart Library ask in unison, interjecting the narration with impatience. Putting up his right hand in a bid to pacify the duo, our friend bides his time, gulping down half a glass of ice lemon tea before resuming his tale.
As our men in uniform were making their way to the African continent, something interesting took place back home in Malaya. Aware of our young nation’s limited financial resources, Tunku appealed to ordinary Malayans to embark on fund raising efforts in support of the MSF’s peacekeeping effort in Congo.
NURSES ANSWER TUNKU’S CALL
Among those who answered Tunku’s clarion call were Perak nurses from the Ipoh General Hospital and the Ulu Kinta Central Mental Hospital in Tanjung Rambutan. They stepped forward to form what was to become our nation’s first women’s football team. This unusual effort received Tunku’s blessings. As the President of the Football Association of Malaya at that time, Tunku lauded the move as it went a long way in helping to promote the sport among women in the country.
Continues my friend: “Although our peacekeepers completed their tour of duty in Congo by July 1963, by that time the women’s football movement had already taken root in our country.” While the other states like Penang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan quickly jumped on the bandwagon, Perak remained solidly at the forefront of the cause when it established Malaya’s first state level women’s football association with Kamsiah Ibrahim taking on the role of first president.
Under Kamsiah’s guidance and widespread press coverage, the Perak women’s football team started gaining prominence in the eyes of the public. On many occasions, the gate collection from the women’s football competition in aid of the Congo peacekeepers and other charities far surpassed those of their male counterparts.
WOMEN’S FOOTBALL TAKES ROOT
Two years after its establishment, the Perak women’s football team participated in an annual state level competition to vie for the Straits Times’ Challenge Trophy. The championship lasted for three years before running out of funds and had to be discontinued.
In 1965, Kamsiah moved to Kuala Lumpur and her post was taken over by her deputy, Teoh Chye Hin (later Datin). Teoh hit the ground running by rectifying the weaknesses in the system and putting in place plans to shore up the association’s coffers. She was aware that the team didn’t have any fixed income like membership fees and depended on donations from the public.
Beginning from 1967, the Perak team, together with those from Penang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan took part in the Singapore Sports Festival. Joining the Malaysians in the annual tourney were teams from the host country, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Four years later, the festival’s organisers ran into financial difficulties and were forced to permanently end their activities.
Teoh, however, remained unperturbed in face of these obstacles. She steeled her resolve and encouraged the team to remain steadfast in their pursuit of success. The team members continued to take part in many competitions held for charitable causes. Although their actions did little to improve the balance sheets, they held dear to their Nightingale Pledge to help others in need.
Over time, as more and more of the initial members from the nursing fraternity left the team after getting married or were transferred, the gaping void was quickly filled by students and factoryworkers living around Ipoh and Kampar.
COMMITMENT FROM NEW FACES
Unlike their predecessors who were left to their own devices and only trained when competitions were around the corner, these new players, whose ages ranged from between 17 and 20, began improving by leaps and bounds when coaches Chong Chee Fai and M. Nadarajan were hired.
In March 1975, women’s football in Malaysia received a shot in the arm when a national level association was established with Tunku’s wife, Tun Sharifah Rodziah as its first President and Teoh taking on the role of Secretary General. Among the member states in this new entity were Perak, Penang, Negri Sembilan and Melaka.
Soon after its formation, the Malaysian women’s football team participated in the first Asian Women’s Football Championship (later renamed AFC Women’s Asian Cup) organised by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Hong Kong from Aug 25 to Sept 3, 1975. Participating members in that inaugural competition were New Zealand, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. New Zealand emerged champions when it overcame Thailand in the final, winning 3-1.
Our women was vastly inexperienced compared to their opponents but thanks to their determination and diligence, they fared better than expected and pleasantly surprised themselves in the process. The Malaysian team managed to earn a respectable fourth placing after losing to Australia in the third place play-off.
Despite the loss, the Malaysian team captain, Fazillah Mohd Noor, was selected by the AFC organisers to become part of a specially selected Asian All Stars team that toured several European countries in September 1977.
At the beginning, Fazillah was surprised by the call up. The Perak right winger never expected such a great honour to represent Asia as she only practiced during her free time while maintaining her fulltime job at the Ipoh City Council.
SEEKING FRESH TALENT
Encouraged by the team’s success in Hong Kong, Teoh set in motion plans in 1976 to organise a special football competition for secondary schoolgirls in Perak. While handing over her contribution, which was a silver challenge trophy, Teoh expressed hope that the competition could help identify gifted players and set them on the path to successful careers in football.
By the late 1970s, football associations in other states also started organising similar competitions to inject fresh blood into their respective state teams. These efforts started bearing fruit in the early 1980s when the Malaysian women’s football team became a force to be reckoned with in Asia. Their best ever result in an international competition was third place in the 1983 AFC Women’s Asian Cup tournament held in Bangkok, Thailand.
“Not much has been heard about our women’s football team after that success,” our friend concludes before adding that there has been some talk that the Football Association of Malaysia is planning to set up a women’s football league.
The rest of the evening sees our conversation drift back to our country’s peacekeeping involvement after the Congo Crisis. On Jan 1, 1965, Malaysia was selected to serve as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. That decision, a first for a Southeast Asian country, was made in recognition of Malaysia’s credibility in helping to promote world peace and security.
PEACEKEEPING THE WORLD OVER
The next four decades saw the MSF taking part in five other UNsanctioned international coalitions in Namibia (February 1989 — April 1990), Cambodia (March 1993 to November 1995), Somalia (July 1993 — February 1995), Bosnia and Herzegovina (December 1993 — June 1998) and East Timor (September 1999 — February 2000).
These missions gave the MSF personnel vast experience when it came to dealing with international conflicts. In order to tap on this invaluable knowledge, a decision was made in January 1996 to set up a Malaysian Peacekeeping Training Centre (renamed Malaysian Peacekeeping Centre (MPC) on June 28, 2013) to prepare selected personnel for future international operations.
Located in Segenting Camp in Port Dickson, the MPC currently implements various UN-sanctioned programmes to bring out the best in Malaysian armed forces personnel and put our country at the forefront of promoting peace in this world.
After bidding my friends farewell and promising to get together again at the same venue in a year’s time, I depart while making a mental note of our conversation. The story about how our women’s football team came into existence is definitely worth telling more than once.