|Major Zaidi Ahmad, RMAF|
Ever since Major Zaidi Ahmad’s media appearance and subsequent court martial, there has been a flood of opinion and accusations levelled at the military and the concepts of fair play within the armed forces. The court martial has been subject to much scrutiny as if viewing the movie A Few Good Men has provided everyone with an understanding of military jurisprudence.*
The myth that now follows Major Zaidi has turned out to loom larger than the man, hasn’t it?
The offenses he is accused of are: holding a press conference without clearance from Mindef PR, and the release of security-classified documents regarding his posting out of RMAF Butterworth. Please also note that servicemen are advised to be prudent about appearing in public in uniform: we must never use the uniform to draw attention from the public, or to serve our personal interests. Tolerances are made for shuttling between work and home, a detour to make a withdrawal from an ATM, but not, for example, to seek priority in a queue or at Happy Hours down at the tavern.
The rules are not as dogmatic as all that, for discretion and departures are allowed. Organising a press conference in No 2 Dress Bush Jacket, therefore, is narcissistically questionable.
Servicemen live by orders published in binding regulations known as the Armed Forces Council Instructions or AFCI periodically replicated and placed on boards for all to read and adhere to.
As a senior officer claiming more than 20 years of service, it is impossible that Major Zaidi did not know of these rules. Charge sheets in the armed forces do not entertain the plea of ignorance. Charges end with the words, “…contravening Section….of the Armed Forces Act 1972 which he knows or should have known….”
From the date of training as officer cadets, we are subject to military law: upon commissioning as officers, we live by that law, uphold and enforce it. Soldiers are also subject to civil law but above that, not subsequently, is military law.
Contravening military law cannot a national hero make. The repercussions of a premeditated offence are known to any officer pondering it.
It is never good news when a court martial convenes. It means an offender has refused admission of guilt in the Subordinate Commander’s trial and intends to prove a point, often in futility, via court martial; or the offence is of such gravity that a Subordinate Commander’s trial is disallowed so that a settlement to sweep matters under the carpet cannot be arrived at.
By and large, military justice is fair. At no time do sentiment, dramatics or provocation factor into deliberation. “Guilty” in a court martial has nothing to do with the accused’s conscience: it is to determine if an offence was committed. Full stop.
Courts martial do not bask in the luxury of separation, where the accused and the President of the Court are unacquainted until the trial itself. We are intertwined. We know each other’s worst secrets and we keep them. We might not trust the sanctity of our granny’s knickers with some amongs[t] us, yet we would brawl in the streets to protect or avenge him. We do not have to like him to defend him.
Sometimes, even as soldiers, we have to part ways. There is something much larger we are duty bound to preserve: in this instance, whether an officer is deemed fit to continue serving His Majesty.
Many netizens have overlooked the fact that soldiers are a community through a surrender of personal liberties: this oversight causing the military to be the whipping boy for a government seen as unsavoury but seemingly impervious to the disdain hurled at it.
The charges preferred against Major Zaidi have nothing to do with “telling the truth”.
Two other service personnel from RMAF Butterworth made police reports in conjunction with the adulterated indelible ink but were not charged alongside with him.
If it is the truth that matters, it is simply that an officer reneged, and would have it politicised, rather than uphold military law by a simple admission of guilt.
Were I still serving in the air force and I happened to be at the scene of a militant suicide bombing, and journalists accosted me for comment, lending a viewpoint would land me in a crock full, because I would have spoken without Mindef PR’s green light. Perhaps nobody would bay for my blood, but the rule stands.
This is several steps shy and radically different from organising a press conference on my own initiative, in full formal uniform, to air my grievances over a perceived miscarriage of justice.
A soldier cannot afford an amnesiac attitude towards the principle of service before self. The military will not tolerate it, any more than it will tolerate insubordination.
I fear this time the unknowing public has been played by a knowing serviceman. We have chosen only to glamourise the fact that Major Zaidi’s courage in telling the truth has turned out to be a crime. Others would have him garlanded as the hero this country needs. Some have changed their profile pictures to banners that read “Je Suis Major Zaidi”.
I will likely never know what led an officer with an otherwise bright future into this quagmire. None of us know if Major Zaidi in fact did meet with his Base Commander and was advised to deal with his grievances by chinning up, what with him being the squadron commander and all.
Either way, the officer corps, as an organisation that should be beyond reproach, has had to suffer, further maligned by people who publicly claim to be defending a man of integrity.
We who take up the profession of arms are a part of you, yet we must stand apart from you: 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.
A soldier should be vigilant towards anyone who would so manipulate his grievances as to drive him to choose against his fellow soldiers. This very method 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.
If anyone were interested in Major Zaidi’s welfare and future, they would help him move on or, like many petulant others, be left with little but an oversized axe to grind.
Public debate on this court martial, which ignores 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 regret to say, I am not Major Zaidi. In fact, neither is anyone else.* No reference here to the fact that the trial went forward even though the president of the court-martial appears to have made disparaging remarks about Major Zaidi. One assumes that this will be adjudicated in the civilian courts if not corrected on internal Ministry of Defense review. [Footnote added.]