When it comes to military relationships, The Australian Defence Forces have a long standing one with the Malaysian military. We are talking more than 70 years of military cooperation beginning with the Japanese invasion in 1941. Even after the liberation of Malaya from the British, the military relationship between the Australians and Malaysians continued to grow thanks to the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).
Today the Royal Malaysia Air Force Base Butterworth (RMAF Butterworth), adjacent to the island of Penang, still has the strong presence of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF). They now support operational activities which include regular deployments of Maritime Patrol Aircraft, rotational deployment of the Rifle Company Butterworth as well as involvement in several multinational exercises.
For the special Penang issue, we took the opportunity to interview an Australian military personnel that is stationed in RMAF Butterworth to talk about his experiences living and working in Penang. As first impressions are concerns, it was kind of daunting to call someone who answers the phone stating his rank and full name. Maybe that is just a military thing, but it does have quite an effect, especially if you grew up with a member of the family who was in the service; the familiar combination of respect and fear for army personnel never really fades. Fortunately, it was a relief to also be greeted by the jovial Australian amiability.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Tilbrook joined the army straight out of school and took the traditional route by enrolling in the Royal Military College in Australia. He has been serving and living the military life for an impressive 22 years. So when it comes to serving and saving lives in the military, the Colonel’s contribution is something to be revered. In the span of 22 years, he has fulfilled various postings around the world. His resume of deployments is an impressive one, spanning several continents including countries like Lebanon, Afghanistan and heroic stint in southern Rwanda. His overseas posting on the other hand, include a stay in Washington and Malaysia.
His latest station brought him to the sunny northern state of Penang. Not his first time in South East Asia, as the Colonel mentioned, “I did a rotation training early in my military career in Butterworth.” Asking about his initial reaction to being stationed in Penang, he commentated that it was an exciting and excellent opportunity for him and also for his family. Now he is halfway through his extension and plans to continue enjoying the rest of his stay before going back to Australia.
Talking a little bit about his work while avoiding entering classified territory, the Colonel explained that the base in Butterworth holds joint exercises to keep soldiers on their feet and train them in different environments. “Soldiers here get the opportunity to expand their expertise in warfare by exchanging knowledge with the Malaysian army. Tactics can be the same but your environment constantly changes.”
Malaysia is very different and we are not just talking about the weather, we are talking geographically as well. “Jungle training is unique to Malaysia. As a soldier, once you can conquer the jungle environment, you can conquer anything,” he further explains.
Outside of work, the Colonel finds the entertainment and social aspect of Penang appealing. He travels extensively too, mostly for work purposes, but he likes to bring his family around to explore other parts of Malaysia and South East Asia when he can. The Tilbrook clan even recently came back from the Perhentian Islands where they relaxed and immersed themselves in the beach life. “We have made trips to other parts of the country, like going down to Ipoh and KL and I plan to bring them to explore places like Vietnam and Cambodia before we head back.”