Fair Winds and Following Seas

The American author John C Maxwell once said that a leader is one who knows the way, shows the way and goes the way. It describes the leadership style of the outgoing Director-General of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Admiral (Maritime) Dato’ Mohd Zubil bin Mat Som who will go through mandatory retirement this Sunday.

Born in Lenggong, Perak (or London as he calls it, as it is close to Greece or Grik) on 19 March 1963, becoming the Director-General of Malaysia’s premier frontline agency that is safeguarding Malaysia’s maritime sovereignty as well as enforcing Malaysia’s laws and regulations in its maritime zones was never a dream of his, nor was it in his bucket list.

Commissioned into the Royal Malaysian Navy in 1981 and first served as a gunnery officer on board a 32-meter patrol craft. Both he and his wife endured a lot of hardship being in the Malaysian military family of the 1980s, when pay was small and bringing up children meant that a trip to the KFC required months of saving up and involved creative budgeting. He credited his wife’s patience and quiet character that had allowed him to go through tough moments with a peaceful mind.

I took a photo with him during his farewell lunch on his last day in the office. “Put up this photo and write about the hard life we faced back then,” he said.

Well, Sir, that was about our lives then, when we earned RM750 a month living in places where house rents can cost RM800. The challenge is in the now. So, I shall focus more on how you faced those challenges while you were at the helm of the MMEA.

After 24 years and nine months in the navy, he was called up for another form of selfless national service: to help form the MMEA. That was in 2006. He had to leave the service he loved to help form an organise a new maritime organisation that operated (and still operates) mostly hand-me-down ships that were around even BEFORE he joined the navy!

He was posted to the two maritime areas that had the most numbers of breaches of maritime laws: the Southern Region as its Deputy Director (Operations) based in Johor, and Sabah and Labuan as the region’s Maritime Director. It was in Johor when he was given the Excellent Services Award by the MMEA for leading several operations against piracy, cigarettes smuggling, trafficking of migrants and encroachments by foreign fishing vessels.

Dato’ Zubil was a no-nonsense leader. He did have his lighter moments and cracked jokes once in a while, but even then you could sense the stern tone in his voice. He did not mince his words and will fire away at those deemed responsible at point blank when he’s unhappy, especially in the current case of delays in the production and delivery of the MMEA’s three badly-needed offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to counter especially the China Coast Guard (CCG) menace in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Just to remind us all that while China has built tens of its coast guard cutters that have been cruising in our waters, the MMEA only has four vessels that are classified as true OPVs that can maintain station for almost a month to challenge the presence of CCG cutters. Two are thirty years old presents from the Japan Coast Guard, while the other two are vintage RMN OPVs that are a year short of being 40 years old!

The MMEA is also understaffed. It is still short of 700 personnel out of the 4,000 approved posts! This proves challenging for the MMEA as it is no longer facing traditional maritime crimes.

In the past, we dealt with ‘traditional’ criminal threats. But now there are smuggling of cigarettes and immigrants, which are linked to money laundering,” he said to reporters after his farewell parade.

As a leader, he made sure he understood the various tasks of each of MMEA’s departments. Each department was like an extension of his arms for him to achieve the objectives of the organisation as a whole. The 16th anniversary of the MMEA occurred during the pandemic, and a virtual celebration was planned. He wanted the public to be able to learn more about the MMEA while staying at home and visit its assets with just a few clicks of the button. This task was handed out to the Corporate Communications Unit, and Dato’ Zubil would sit next to the graphic designers, be with the production team, learning about their concept look-and-feel, and giving inputs. He allowed his men and women to develop their creativity without interfering.

He also insisted on finding out the risks the MMEA’s rescue swimmers face when performing rescues. He underwent a training and then got on board a helicopter to perform winching onto and off from a fast moving patrol craft, not static winching. It was a risky operation, but “Danger” seemed to be Dato’ Zubil’s middle name.

Last year, a political columnist took a swipe at the MMEA for “wasting taxpayers money” on a very much needed maritime exercise. What the writer did not understand was that the exercise gave the MMEA an opportunity to enhance interoperability between surface and air assets, as well as giving commanding officers and navigation officers the opportunity to hone as well as refresh their skills and knowledge. The writer had used the exercise to hit out at the then-Home Affairs minister for being the cause of the wastage.

Upon reading the article, Dato’ Zubil turned on a dime and summoned me who was about 50 meters away.

Kau tulis dan balun dia ni sikit. Dah lah tak faham tugas kita, dia nak pesongkan pandangan pembaca pula (write something to whack this writer back. He doesn’t understand anything about our job, and he has the cheek to skew the views of his readers),” he instructed me. There I was on the forecastle of the OPV KM Arau typing away on my mobile phone while helicopters and planes were buzzing overhead.

And as a leader, Dato’ Zubil made sure that the MMEA would get the best and be left with a competent leadership. He left his two protégés: Vice-Admiral (Maritime) Datuk Saiful Lizan bin Ibrahim, and Vice-Admiral (Maritime) Hamid bin Haji Mohd Amin. They are the MMEA’s Deputy Directors-General of Logistics and Operations respectively.

Dato’ Zubil was given an emotional send-off at the MMEA Headquarters yesterday. We lined up to shake hands with him and to bid him farewell. When it came to my turn, he hugged me and said, “Boss, thank you for all your help. Keep assisting the MMEA.”

Then he held my shoulder and we posed for the cameraman.

As his vehicle moved, he wound down his window and told everyone, “Remember! Always be the best. And the best never rest.”

Fair winds and following seas, Dato’. And thank you for your leadership, your trust and thank you for your friendship. Enjoy your last day in the service at home as it is a Saturday.

And happy 60th birthday tomorrow. May you enjoy many more birthdays in the company of your family. And as instructed, below is a photo of us.