PETALING JAYA: When K Thanabalasingam was appointed chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) in 1967, he scored a couple of firsts.
He was not only the youngest ever chief at 31, the British-trained naval officer was also the first Malaysian to helm the post.
Incidentally, his retirement, too, was a first as no head of service has ever left the armed forces at the age of 40.
What is interesting is that the Kuala Lumpur-born former Victoria Institution student was not the first name that was considered by Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was the prime minister when he decided to Malaysianise the navy's top post which was then headed by an Australian.
The Tunku first asked senior army officer Brig Gen Mohd Sany Abdul Ghaffar to take the job.
"But Sany represented the old Malaysia that I miss now. He was honest and admitted that he had very little knowledge in naval matters and told Tunku that a senior naval officer was the best person.
"It was then that my name apparently cropped up, presumably recommended by my superiors," the 85-year-old Thana, as he is fondly known, told FMT in an interview in conjunction with Malaysian Navy Day today.
Recalling the day when the signal on his promotion arrived, Thana said he was annoyed with the signals officer of the brigade as he thought he was playing a practical joke on him. He had had no inkling of the promotion, as no one had told him anything.
At that time, he had been commanding the naval base in Tawau, Sabah, with the rank of lieutenant commander for only four months.
"I told (the officer) that his joke had gone too far and that I would deal with him when I see him in the officers' mess.
"I got a shock when I saw a huge welcoming party at the mess. Then I began to realise it was true. I thought to myself, 'Good heavens, how am I going to run the navy? All the immediate officers at the headquarters below me will be senior Britons and Australians'.
"No one in the right frame of mind would have imagined that a 31-year-old was going to head the navy. The funny thing is that I was never consulted nor asked if I could do the job," he said.
One of his main tasks after taking over was to move the RMN headquarters in Singapore to Malaysia and that required much thought and planning.
The Tunku had told him he wanted the base to be in Port Klang but Thana had some reservations because of the location and availability of land.
"I met Tun Abdul Razak, who was then defence minister, to persuade him to consider Lumut. It was not congested and we had plenty of land. But he told me Tunku was adamant about having it in Port Klang.
"Then I happened to meet Tunku privately at a function and tried to convince him but he did not yield. It was at this time that May 13 occurred and the project had to be delayed. An emergency was declared and Tun Razak took over as the director of operations of the National Operations Council," he said.
"Soon after he became Prime Minister in 1970, Razak called up Thana and told him he could go ahead with the move to Lumut, assuring him that he had informed the then Economic Planning Unit (EPU) head, Thong Yaw Hong, about it.
"He had told Thong that I would be contacting him. And the next morning, Thong called me up and asked what would be the budget.
"I must say Tun Razak's brilliance helped when he put this project under the EPU, thereby taking it out of the tight defence budget.
"He also approved my request for assistance from the then West German government for the development of the naval base project.
"We chose the West German model because they had rebuilt their bases after being flattened into a rubble during World War II. So, their experience was vital," he said.
Thana also designed the current RMN ensign which has the Malaysian flag at the left corner on a white background with the two keris criss-crossed at the right corner above an anchor.
He did away with the British ensign which had the St George's cross on it in early 1968. "I did not want anything religious on the ensign."
Another of Thana's major achievements was initiating the extension of Malaysia's territorial waters from three nautical miles to 12, soon after confrontation with Indonesia ended.
While May 13 may have helped him with his Lumut plans, it was responsible indirectly in curtailing his career and made him "retire" prematurely at the young age of 40.
Razak died in London on Jan 14, 1976, and Hussein Onn took over as prime minister.
"Coincidentally, the course of my career took a different trajectory after this," he recalled.
Hussein offered him the post of an ambassador after his "retirement" but Thana declined because he felt that it was not a new career, adding that it was a short posting of only three years.
With that, he left the service and became a civilian at 40.
He said that apart from the ambassador's post, the government did not offer him any other position in quasi-government bodies or government-linked companies.
"Most of my army counterparts were offered directorships or chairmanships in big institutions while the Armed Forces Fund Board was headed by retired army generals. I was excluded," he said.
Talking about the "good old days," Thana said he could not recognise the Malaysia of the past in the present, where all races had respect for each other.
"There were no quotas whatsoever, everybody lived together, dined together and partied together.
"We worked hard and played hard, enjoying ourselves to the hilt. I even once dated a young Malay lady who happened to be the daughter of a ministry secretary-general then," he recalled.
Thana said besides racial policies and practices, corruption has also destroyed the nation as it has become nearly endemic.
Due to corruption and the economic situation of the country, he said, the armed forces' continual development has been neglected.
"You need to continue developing and replacing old ships and aircraft to maintain the capabilities of the armed forces," he said.
Thana, a bachelor, is writing a book on his life in the Malaysian navy, which he hopes to finish by the end of the year.