I knew Major Zaidi as an unassuming young officer in Butterworth. I used to see him pop into the bar at the officers' mess to tapau chilled canned drinks on his way between places. Prior my event with the then Major Fajim Juffa, pilots not from my generation, more so the post-communism era fighter jocks, would not give me a second glance save to ascertain if I was worth being ragged, and upon perceiving my grey hair, would quickly move quietly on with their business. With the sight of the squadron insignia of a helicopter pilot on my flying suit sleeve, the fighter boys deemed me beneath worthiness of a conversation.
I therefore do not know enough about Major Zaidi to say anything enlightening about the unwarranted glare of the public eye his court martial has garnered. I cannot fathom what brought matters this far dragged out into the distance. It should not have happened, not to a fellow officer. And no longer being in service, I should not know. It is always a sad event when an officer, especially one whose rank would make him an Executive Officer of the squadron, a potential squadron commander and eligible for the rank of Leftenant Colonel in his youth when we chopper boys past our prime are trying to assassinate each other for that same rank, is faced with a court martial.
A court martial is a sign of shit having hit the fan. Either what was a minor offense was not met with admission of guilt on the part of the accused and he elected to prove a point via a court martial, or the offense was of such gravity that no summary dealing via trial by subordinate commander is allowed, so that sweeping the dust under the carpet cannot happen.
I am horrified to see that everyone on fb and the alternative media portals have resounded in such an obscene baying over how it is a crime to tell the truth in Malaysia because it will make you a victim of a corrupt government. If you really want to call a spade a spade, then what earth-shaking, ground-breaking or life-altering "truth" is it that Major Zaidi brought to the table that had not already been known and debated to death other than for getting a Division 1 military officer to flog this indelible ink dead horse? The self-righteous alternative media portray Major Zaidi as the hero that the country needs, and that we should all stand by him. In clichéd cyber trending, fb profile pictures now have been changed to bear the banner that reads Je Suis Major Zaidi. Yet, every rebuttal I have placed in alternative media to straighten the lopsided picture frames has not been published. Not that it matters to me, but it is telling about their selective treatment of how some truths are more truthful than others.
However, this is not about Major Zaidi. It is about ignoring the relevant items which would nullify the governmental-injustice-poster-boy aura that has been conjured to legitimise what in fact is little more than a red herring. It concerns the politicising of a court martial, which does not fall under the normal rules that civilians assume to understand. The vitriol splashed upon the pages of the alternative news portals has little to do with concern over injustice. Rather, it is the manifestation of a mass hysterical fist-shaking at the military establishment which is perceived, but not verified in any way, as being an extension of a government we feel, for whatever reason we breed and fester, as ill-deserving of the mandate to rule, corrupt to the core and impervious to whatever criticism we hurl at it.
The rules as of 31 years ago when I signed up for service were made clear, that under no circumstance could I organise a press conference. Were I standing at a terrorist attack site while shopping and accosted by the paparazzi for comment, I would be liable to be charged for contravening Armed Forces Council Instructions for not clearing with MINDEF PR before opening my opinionated mouth, though I believe circumstantially nobody in the armed forces would do it. But the rule still stands, even if I weren't prosecuted.
Now this is altogether several shades different from organising a press conference to air one's convictions over a perceived miscarriage of justice. This takes knowing full well what the rules say. It takes a subsequent electing to disregard those rules, for whatever reason. It also means either taking cognisance that there will be repercussions and being ready for those consequences, or worse, presuming that such consequences will die a natural death before their reverberations are audible.
A soldier cannot have an amnesiac lapse towards the principle of service before self. The military will not tolerate it any more than it will tolerate insubordination. Courts martial of the past dealing with insubordination have always ended with the accused losing his wager. The gravity of such an offense only gains mass as its committal tracks up the ranks, seeing that from commissioning as a Second Leftenant, officers must observe and enforce military law. Breaches of said law voids a soldier of whatever traits and qualities that made him a soldier in the first place. What may those be? First and foremost, it is the surrender of personal liberties. Following these will come the pledge of allegiance to King and Country, reticence and securing the nation's secrets in conjunction with her interests. This is a soldier's life. He is subject to civil law, but over and above that, not subsequently or consequently, military law. Transgressing military law never makes a hero out of an offender.
The court martial was never about the truth that Major Zaidi intended to spill. Besides the fact that many voters already reported the same, two other service personnel from Butterworth base also made police reports in conjunction with the adulterated indelible ink, but they were not charged with any offense. Therefore the court was about transgressing rules wilfully.
Consider this: a fighter pilot with all the right tactical qualifications is assigned the task of taking out a vital point, let's say, a power plant tucked away in the hills. It is to be conducted by night and with night vision goggles. At tea time, this fighter jock has an epiphany that so strikes his conscience that he decides to get dressed in full ceremonial regalia adorned with all his gallantry medals and collar decorations and calls a press conference to report that an underhand plot is afoot to destabilise another state. Would any of this constitute a national warrior? Many, many more deeds of courage go unsung actually.
A court martial is quite different from a civil sitting. Forgive me for using "we" by force of habit, but we do not have the luxury of being so large in number that the President of the Court and the accused are unacquainted from Adam. Indeed, we are intertwined. This can be useful, in that we know the character of the man whose fate we are presiding over. There is something rather special about soldiers. We know each other's worst secrets. We consider some of those amongst us as individuals we wouldn't trust the sanctity of our granny's knickers with. Yet because he is a soldier, we would brawl in the streets to protect or avenge him. We will have his back. And sometimes, we draw the line. Because much as we do not want the worst to befall one of us, there is something much larger we are duty bound to preserve. That in this instance, is the fitness of an officer to continue to keep his commission in service to His Majesty.
I will likely never know what could have led to all this. After all, the truth is the first casualty of war. None of us know if Major Zaidi in fact did meet with his Commanding Officer and was advised on other means of dealing with his grievances as an officer. He may have been trivialised and could not accept that his passions did not warrant the pursuit he deemed them fit for. None of us have found his courage questionable. However, our virtually scantily understood lives in the officer's corps in lame attempt at living as a organisation that should be beyond reproach amidst all the other injuries it has had to suffer thus far has been further tormented by the very people and parties who have publicly claimed to be defending a man of integrity while glossing over the fact that his integrity is not in question. Attention has been diverted from the fact that while we are a part of you, we must also stand apart from you as we serve an interest that will almost always be in conflict with our own, but we have not the liberty to take our grievances to the street.
Let the truth be told, that the military justice system is fair. It places no stock in fanfare or dramatics. If a senior officer is facing a court martial for striking a junior officer for instance, his sentiments or his temperament at the time of the incident, or provocation on the part of the junior officer does not alter the fact that an offence has been committed. The question of "guilt" then is strictly over whether he committed the offense or not, full stop, where striking (ill treatment of) a junior officer is an offence under the Armed Forces Act 1972.
Furthermore, in case it has eluded all and sundry, a soldier should be vigilant towards anyone, individual or group, who would so manipulate his grievances to drive him to choose against his fellow soldiers. This very method of picking on the already agonised in defeat to convince him that he is a victim of a corrupt and repressive government was used on us in the infancy of this nation for recruitment in a war that lasted 40-odd years in our jungles and terrorism in our streets and villages. Really, if anyone were interested in Major Zaidi's welfare and future, they would help him move on rather than reinforce his frustrations into irreversible bitterness. He deserves a fresh start or else he risks turning out like the many petulant others who have not got their way, left with little but an oversized axe to grind.
Therefore, without a foundation of good service in His Majesty's Armed Forces, public comments on this court martial which ignore the surrender of an individual's liberties when signing up to serve King and country, do little more than reflect ignorance over the uncompromising intricacies of military conduct. They do not enlighten anyone on military justice, nor serve the future interests of Major Zaidi.
I say with regret and with honesty, that I am not Major Zaidi. And neither are many amongst you.