The Prime Minister recently said that lessons of the Sulu intrusion must be identified. That is only half the battle won. It should also be learnt.
When the Sulu militants began landing at Kampung Tanduo in the Lahad Datu district of Sabah, both the military intelligence and police’s Special Branch knew exactly their numbers, type of weapons, how many more they were expecting, whose house they rendezvoused at and their intention of coming to Sabah. Within hours, elements of the General Operations Force plus the army’s 5th Brigade were deployed to effect a cordon around the area, with combat elements from the Navy, Marine Police and the Maritime Enforcement Agency taking stations offshore. More military conventional and non-conventional forces plus naval assets were already enroute in the ensuing initial hours. Within the first 24-hours, I am in the opinion that we had an overwhelming force to combat the militants. As a former serving officer of His Majesty’s Armed Forces of managerial level, I would have quickly acted in accordance to the Principles of War and the Principles of Crisis Management.
The first Principle of War is the Selection of Aim and its Maintenance. This is the Master Principle that must be established at the commencement of hostilities and followed through and through, and everything else should fall in place. However, we see the pussy-footing of this issue in Putrajaya, in particular the Ministry of Home Affairs, in making decisions. What we saw instead was the downplaying of the seriousness of the matter by the Minister himself. How can we forget his “old men with rusty rifles” response to his appreciation of the enemy’s physical condition, forgetting the fact that these men had been involved in insurgency warfare against their own government, beheading priests and nuns and fellow Muslims, burning churches etc for the past half a century.
This was the same reaction from Admiral Sir Tom Phillips while sailing on board one of the Royal Navy’s most-modern battleships, the HMS Prince of Wales, off the east coast of Malaya. “The Japs can’t see us very well because they have slant eyes,” was his remark when Japanese bombers approached his ships.
In short, never underestimate your enemy, and never take your eyes off them. Margaret Thatcher followed this principle upon being informed of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland islands. Within the first 48 hours, she mustered the largest modern British armada to repel the invasion.
This is because the seventh Principle of Management is You Have 48-Hours. The first 48-hours is the crunch time. If you are not ahead of the crisis within this time, you will be run over by the crisis. What we saw was more negotiations being done by the police as instructed by their superiors. We see that the enemy have already established their aim in accordance with the first Principle of War, yet we were not acting in response to that aim. While the Minister of Home Affairs was seen making ad hoc comments in between plating trees on the issue, still downplaying the crisis, the Minister of Defence was not yet roped into the whole thing to assist in resolving the crisis. This is against the Ninth Principle of War which is Cooperation – to incorporate teamwork, sharing burden of dangers, risks, and opportunities. This gave time for the enemy to maintain their aim of coming to Sabah, and they dug in, with no intention of leaving.
There was no communication between the authorities and members of the public, a clear failure in crisis communication. Rules five of the Principles of Crisis Management clearly states that there are three key messages to be delivered within the first 48 hours of the crisis, and they are:
You need to back this up with action, but after the first skirmish that saw the demise of the first two policemen from the VAT69, there was no follow up. This was not in accordance with the third principle of war which is Offensive Action. This is the practical way to seek to gain advantage, to sustain the momentum and seize the advantage. This never happened. We lost the fifth principle of war: Surprise.
Instead, there was absolute silence, and misleading statements issued such as the attack on the police party at Kampung Simunul near Semporna that caused a huge loss of life. Gunfire could be heard from nearby islands, and in this age of digital wireless communications, word spreads faster than before the last shot was fired that night. Instead, the official communiqué said it was a drug raid and was not related to the events in Kampung Tanduo. Mind you, although Kampung Tanduo is in the district of Lahad Datu it is much closer to the district of Semporna, gateway to the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, home to the tourist-packed islands of Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and Sipadan. When this event finally hits the fan, and villagers took it upon themselves to dispatch of one of the militants themselves, did the authorities finally admitted what had happen.
Such silence only fuelled rumours, as stated in the sixth principle of Crisis Management: Beware of the Court of Public Opinion. The Opposition rumour-mill was quick with this, and the government was slow to react, relying on the service of contracted and non-contracted bloggers to do the public relations, while the Ministry of Communications was also slow in its response and did nothing to explain to the masses about the cession agreement so on and so forth, just a response made in passing by the Minister during an ad hoc interview. I often wonder if it was done in such a manner for self-promotion or that Radio Televisyen Malaysia, as an arm of the Ministry of Communications, did not have the time nor resources to come up with fillers to educate the general public on the crux of the issue in Lahad Datu.
In the end, the public wanted action. And finally, the Minister of Defence was roped in. He went back to KL to brief the Prime Minister on what needs to be done. Subsequently, the Prime Minister ordered the police and military to work together and do the necessary to end this. Only now we see a more structured concentration of force and economy of effort by the joint-military-police action against the militants. And finally, press conferences are handled by senior police and military officers who give hard, no-nonsense facts, rather than by politicians who are more familiar with sugar-coating facts.
And as the tenth principle of Crisis Management states: Every Crisis Is An Opportunity. Smart leaders would know that in the midst of a crisis, there is an opportunity to be seized. The government has announced an increase in the defence budget to support the formation of the East Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). However, the decision to place this command under the Chief Minister of Sabah instead of the National Security Council could be erroneous.
Trust me, there will be more trouble. If there is a lesson to be learnt from all this, it is to leave defence and security matters in the hands of the professionals. Not politicians.