There seems to be a growing tide of commemoration of the involvement of Australian forces in the conflict which became known as Indonesian Confrontation. This is right and proper, because although Vietnam got all the headlines – and still does, the other shooting war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s was a natural outgrowth of Australia’s foreign policy of ‘forward defence’ in the terms in which it had been developed. In notable contrast to the Vietnam War, the British Commonwealth forces engaged in preventing Indonesia from destroying the Federation of Malaysia in its infancy not only won the fighting but managed to establish the atmosphere of confidence in which the issues which gave rise to the conflict could be resolved amicably and permanently – although the Malaysia is still contesting militarily claims on the state of Sabah by a group from the Philippines Solo region as recently as this year.
However, as there are many claims already floating around about the contributions of various elements to the outcome of Confrontation it would be appropriate, without regard to the interests or claims of any service, formation or association, to get the history right. I will attempt to do that in this short article.
With the debacle of the British defeat in Malaysia and Singapore in 1941-42 very fresh in mind, post-war strategic planners in Australia sought a bigger role in defence planning for the region. This they achieved and in 1948 the first of the post-war acronym-heavy treaty organisations was established -ANZAM. While it was designed for the protection of Singapore and Malaysia from external (read ‘communist’) aggression, the British regarded internal security is a matter for them alone. This stance changed as the battle against the insurgent Malay Races Liberation Army, better known as ‘Communist Terrorists’ or CTs, spiralled seemingly out of control in what became known as the Malayan Emergency. The British were soon asking for Australian military support, which even the Menzies government was reluctant to provide, not being entirely sure that the CTs were not a legitimate liberation movement of the kind which Australia had backed in neighbouring Indonesia against the Dutch. The most it would do was to assign a squadron of bombers and some air transport.
At the same time Australia was seeking military alliances which would bolster its policy of ‘forward defence’, which involved keeping Australian forces deployed in Southeast Asia with its allies to stop any enemy there, rather than find him on our doorstep as had happened in 1942. A strategic treaty with the United States was gained in 1951 with ANZUS and in 1954 Australia became a signatory to the South East Asian Treaty Organisation – SEATO. ANZUS did not require a standing commitment of forces but SEATO did, as it did of the British and New Zealand co-signatories. The neat solution adopted was to create a standing force based in Malaya and Singapore which could be used to respond to calls for firepower from SEATO, and this was called the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR). Despite its reluctance to become involved in the internal security struggle in Malaya, Australia’s agreement to the FESR led to exactly that – back to the future! The RAAF was dropping bombs on the jungle, the army was back patrolling through it, and the navy was back sweating in hot steel boxes while preventing infiltration from the sea and bombarding CT positions on request.
Across the Straits of Malacca the Indonesian national government, which had been formed after the Dutch had withdrawn in 1949, was dealing with a number of racial and religious insurrections and was quite happy to see the Commonwealth keeping communism out as well. The Republic of Indonesia had been instrumental in setting up of the non-aligned movement of newly emergent nation states and was pleased when the British gave independence to the new nation of Malaya, declared in August 1957, and decided to become a non-aligned member. There is no doubt that the Indonesians wished the British out of the region, nor that the British would have obliged had there not been a few more colonial hangovers to be resolved. These included the defence of Malaya and Singapore, the relationship between the two former colonies, and the future of the British dependencies on the north western coast of the island of Borneo, known to the Indonesians as Kalimantan – Sarawak, Sabah and the Sultanate of Brunei.
Seemingly a simple matter, there were ethnic and religious issues standing in the way of a quick solution. With the exception of Brunei, the majority of the population of British North Borneo were neither Malay nor Muslim. Singapore had a considerable Chinese ethnic majority, who were not Muslims either, and whose participation in Malaya threatened to undermine a thin Malay ethnic supremacy. These were difficult issues, but the British worked hard to persuade the members of the unlikely alliance they were now proposing – a superstate called Malaysia – that it would be in their own and common interests to accede. While the Malays were in favour – more non-Chinese would keep the Malay power base in control of the Federation – there was a great deal of reluctance from the other parties, especially from Singapore which joined without enthusiasm, and Brunei which declined to join at all. As for the defence issue, Britain promised to continue to guarantee the security of a new nation, in conjunction with its fellow Commonwealth members.
Indonesia initially expressed itself as being comfortable with what was being proposed but by late 1962 fears that the British were planning to ’encircle’ Indonesia and misgivings about what the Malaysians might gain from the deal led to a declaration, in January 1963, that Indonesia would ’confront’ Malaysia. While it was not clear what this term implied it certainly did not mean acceptance of the proposal, although that had gained United Nations approval. An uprising in Brunei in December 1962 against incorporation of the Sultanate in Malaysia could not be unequivocally traced to Indonesian interference, but it was evident that the Indonesians were training dissident groups to contest the establishment of the new nation.
The Australian government looked with unease at the deterioration of the situation in Southeast Asia, where events in Vietnam – a ‘protocol state’ under the SEATO treaty – were escalating and where it now faced the prospect of armed conflict between a fellow member of the Commonwealth (Malaysia), for whose defence Australia had accepted some responsibility, and an important neighbour nation (Indonesia) vital to Australia’s future role in the region. In 1962 Australia sent a training team of army experts to Vietnam and accepted modifications to the terms of the FESR Directive allowing its forces to prevent ‘infiltration by sea of Communist agents or armed bands’. On Australia Day 1963 RAN ships in the FESR were ordered to patrol the waters off North Borneo. Confrontation with Indonesia had begun.
When the Federation of Malaysia was proclaimed in July 1963, Indonesia’s President Sukarno vowed at huge public rally in Jakarta to ‘Crush Malaysia!’ In September, when the new federation became fact, his forces commenced cross-border raids into Sarawak and Sabah. At this point the Malaysian Armed Forces were not in a position to respond effectively, and the British organised the strategic and tactical arrangements for preventing Indonesian incursions there and across the straits separating the two countries. Military command was effectively exercised by the Commander-in-Chief Far East in Singapore. While the Malaysians and Singaporeans were training their battalions, and the RAN officers commanding the new Malaysian Navy were bringing new and effective vessels into service, the British boosted their own forces in the region and called upon their Commonwealth partners to do the same. The Australian government was hesitant: diplomatically it had much to lose by becoming militarily involved against Indonesian forces, and it was pinning its hopes on a peace mission led by the United States Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, in early 1964. Whilst stalling for time, the Australians did agree in January 1964 to their infantry battalion in Malaya being deployed to the Malaysia-Thai border region to release a Malaysian regiment for service in Borneo.
By April 1964 it was clear that the Kennedy mission had failed to stop the Indonesian assaults on Malaysia and the Australian government committed its Ton Class minesweepers to the FESR as inshore patrol vessels to bolster the destroyers and frigates already on station. Following the sweepers came the first deployment of HMAS Sydney as a troop carrier, when in June she took the 7th Field Squadron to Sabah for engineering support, ammunition to Singapore, and RAAF helicopters, weaponry and the Army’s 111th light anti-aircraft battery to Penang. More troops (including an infantry battalion and an SAS squadron), aircraft, ships and other units were to follow, and the Government introduced conscription for the Army – originally intended for service in Malaysia, rather than Vietnam.
From that point on Australian forces were fully committed and engaged in Malaysia. There was not a great deal of air activity from the Indonesians, and their attempts at airborne infiltration turned into disasters, but the border region in Sarawak and Sabah was the scene of often bloody incidents, and the narrow straits between the two countries provided the Indonesians with ample opportunity to infiltrate armed groups or saboteurs into Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Stopping them took the combined efforts of the navies of Britain, Australia, Malaysia, with some support from New Zealand. In the end it was the preponderance of British sea power which dictated the course of the fighting. While the Indonesians could rattle a very impressive military sabre lavishly provided by the Soviet Union, they never tried to deploy their heavy cruiser, missile patrol boats, submarines, marines and missile-armed bombers and fighters in a way that would provoke a battle with Britain and its Commonwealth partners. There is considerable evidence that Indonesian service commanders-in-chief were less enthusiastic about crushing Malaysia and was their President, and it was his removal resulting from an anti-communist coup in September 1965 which brought the fighting to an end. In August 1966 the two countries signed an accord ending the hostilities, which had markedly slackened in pace as General Suharto tightened his grip on power in the wake of the coup. Fortunately, the loss of life on both sides in Confrontation was remarkably small, but Australians did die there and their sacrifice deserves to be recalled and honoured.
So, that was Indonesian Confrontation. Although internal tensions within the Malaysian Federation had led to the secession of Singapore in August 1965, the Singaporeans had continued to battle with the Malaysians against Indonesian attempts at infiltration, and continued to support the basing of British Commonwealth forces and facilities on the island. Their resolve to resist sapped the Indonesian belief that the Federation would soon collapse. President Sukarno’s fears about British ‘encirclement’ proved equally shaky, as the ink had barely dried on the accord before the British began their planned withdrawal from ‘east of Suez’. Today, over 49 years since our government committed Australian forces to Confrontation, the Federation of Malaysia is secure and prosperous, Indonesia has become one of the most important nations in the world, and not just to Australia, and Singapore is a leading world economy. The three countries still have their spats and differences, but the region has enjoyed a remarkable period of peace, growth and prosperity.
I believe that any Australian veteran who served in this theatre of operations from 1964 to 1966 and since – FESR was not dissolved until 1971 and was replaced by other defence arrangements – can rightly feel pride that their service made a contribution to this outstanding result, although this has only belatedly been recognised by the Australian and Malaysian governments, and is almost unknown in the Australian population at large. It was a huge achievement wrought without fuss and is a record that should be publicly and prominently celebrated, if only as a counterpoint to the continuous noisy claims for public attention from its competitor veteran group.
(Ian Pfennigwerth is a Far East Strategic Reserve and Confrontation veteran)
Contact Ian Pfennigwerth about this article.