The military life is not meant for everyone. A typical day for them starts with a morning parade at 6.45 a.m. and later followed by other intense physical training sessions set by the instructor in charge.
They go on missions and risk their lives for the nation, and most of the time, the people don’t even know who they are. As if the physical exhaustion is not enough, often, they have to sacrifice quality time with the family.
It’s a tough world for these folks.
was lucky enough to be given the chance to have a chat with one of them at Sungai Udang Camp in Melaka to understand his journey in the military, the experience he gained and what it's like to being a real-life military sniper.
The Tough Guy
Meet Lieutenant Colonel Razak Akob. He is currently the Executive Officer of the 21st Commando Regiment of the Malaysian Army.
As we are dealing with matters of secrecy, we are not allowed to publish any pictures from the interview. If that is not obvious enough, it is serious business we are talking about here.
He certainly has that strict aura. The fact that he speaks with a powerful command adds to that personality too. However, had you asked him back then during his teenage years on what he aspires to be, he would simply answer you with a dull, “I don’t know”.
“I wasn’t academically excellent. In fact, I was a naughty boy,” he told us.
After sitting for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), his brother, who was in the army, instructed him to apply to join the force too.
“I was clueless. I mean, I knew what a soldier was. But to me, a soldier is a soldier. I didn’t even know that we have the Malaysian Army, Royal Malaysian Air Force, and Royal Malaysian Navy.”
The title ‘Officer’ sparked quite an interest in him to pursue the application, as it does sound rather grand. And so, he did.
(Note: back then, an SPM cert is sufficient for one to be an officer. These days, one is required to have a degree to be qualified to apply for the post!)
He was then called for a selection in Ipoh, Perak.
“I went bald for that,” he laughed. It was well worth it in the end, of course, for he got in.
He started his training as a cadet in Ulu Tiram, Johor in the year 1998. And that was the beginning of his remarkable journey.
The Military Lifestyle
“Once you join the military, there is nothing else other than completing the tour according to the contract, or you run away from it,” he explained.
Lt. Col. Razak proved that he is not the latter. He believes in finishing what he started and doing his best while at it.
“The training in the military is very tough, especially as civilians. You’re suddenly going through a totally different routine than normal.”
Lt. Col. Razak stepped up to the next level when he took on the basic commando course – the extremely grueling course one has to pass to be part of Grup Gerak Khas (GGK), the Malaysian Army’s Special Forces Regiment.
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“Grup Gerak Khas is not a core. It is a group with expertise.”
“So, where do the Gerak Khas members come from? Well, they have to be a soldier in the Malaysian Army and they’d have to volunteer to be a part of it,” he added.
If it were up to him, he wouldn’t have volunteered for the basic commando course.
“The cadet training was bad enough,” he said with a chuckle, adding that he knew the course was going to be awfully tough. However, it was not his choice to make though.
“My commandant at that time had instructed that there need to be 15 of us cadets go for it. Only three raised their hands to volunteer.”
With that, it was all up to the luck of the draw when the instructor decided to call them by name.
And he was one of the chosen ones.
“I just thought ‘Mati lah aku
’. But like I said, when I have to do something even if it’s against my will, I will do it.”
He prepared himself mentally by thinking of the worst possible happenings. But that wasn’t enough.
“It was worse than the worst that I could think of,” revealed the Pahang-born of his experience during the basic commando course.
With activities designed to physically and mentally drain its participants to torturing punishments such as whipping, land prison, and water prison, this course was no joke.
“If you ask me how hard it is, well, I could tell you that it is hard to death.”
And if that wasn't enough, he also had to deal with his mother's disapproval. How did he convince her in the end?
“Didn’t say a word about it. Don’t tell. Kill the subject,” he firmly said.
Thankfully, all went well for the lad.
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He noted that through this course, he has learnt to truly appreciate food and sleep. He has since become very strict about not wasting food.
“The struggles and hardships I went through taught me to really appreciate food. We, Malaysians, are very lucky to be able to get food easily. We must not take it for granted.”
As for the dozing off, the limited hours they could sleep during the course made it so sacred.
“I told myself that after the course, I want to sleep for a whole month and not wake up.”
Despite the struggles, it was also during this torturous period that he gained one of the most memorable moments in his life.
During the sea phase of the course, the participants were seated on the sand and given a card. The instruction was simple: To write your father’s name and your address.
“Some of us couldn’t even remember the house address. That was how intense the course is. It washed our brains clean,” said Lt. Col. Razak.
The card was actually an invitation for their family to the passing out ceremony.
Out of approximately 200 personnel who took part in the basic commando course that year, only 67 of them passed.
“The passing out ceremony with our family around – now that’s the sweetest memory. There was no reaction apart from tears.
“They were standing in front of us but they couldn’t tell us apart with our camouflage face paint on, torn and worn out uniforms and scarred bodies. It is a time when the mother doesn’t recognise her own son. It is the son who will go to her,” he elaborated.
Becoming A Sniper
Upon passing the basic commando course in 1999, he was actively getting involved in many other courses.
“I don’t like to just stay in the camp. I like to explore other things,” he said.
While there are those who are not too keen to go for such demanding courses, Lt. Col. Razak realised that it is better for him to experience as much as he can while he is still young.
The first specialised course he went for was the basic sniper course in 2001. Before that, he had gone for the Young Officer courses, undertaking tactical courses and achieving his free fall badge.
“Well, the sniper course wasn’t too bad but it really tests one’s skills,” stated the 41-year-old.
There are seven training sessions with three tests (each test brings a set of three tests of its own) of which they have to pass every single one of them to successfully complete the course.
The elements involved include shooting, map-reading, stalking, panorama view, goods to observe, range estimation and urban operations.
“A marksman is a sharpshooter but not necessarily a sniper. A sniper, on the other hand, must be a marksman. There are many in the GGK who are great shooters but they are not snipers,” he clarified.
While it is a given that snipers are to be able to shoot accurately, there is no compromising the ability to read maps and stalk.
“It was a two-month course with lots of events and classes. We were at this plantation, that plantation. We cooked by ourselves and bathed in the river. It’s training after training. Even the written test is held just about anywhere, anytime. We never knew if we passed or failed any of the tests we were given,” he disclosed.
Long story short, for that particular course, out of the 22 personnel who took part, only Second Lieutenant Razak Akob managed to pass. Yes, it is THAT tough.
In 2002, he attended the sniper instructor course.
“The previous year, I was the hiding sniper. This time around, I was the one observing the sniper. It’s like, sniper and anti-sniper.”
You could say that he experienced the best of both worlds.
“It is not easy to look through the binoculars for five minutes and having to think on how to find them,” he added.
He passed yet again.
A Reflection Of The Past
During the basic sniper course, in the first training session of stalking – the act of getting close to your target without their knowledge – he was able to get within the 70-meter range without being spotted by the instructor.
“I didn’t intend to get that close but I couldn’t see the instructor. The next thing I knew I was already pretty close to him. I could even hear what he is saying,” he recalled.
Looking back at how he managed to get the job done, Lt. Col. Razak believes that it was the hardships that he endured during the basic commando course that made him stronger and more skillful than ever. His survival instincts were also polished.
“We react accordingly to survive in the harsh conditions. Today, you eat rice because we are not in a war-torn country. But if it happens, you will do the unthinkable, things you didn’t know you could do,” said the father-of-one.
“During the basic commando course, I was an expert in finding food – or rather, stealing food. I was never a thief throughout my life. But due to the responsibility I had as an officer towards my men in my syndicate, I felt the need to find food. I knew the instructor had food. So, we stole it. If we were caught, we would fail the course. It is that simple,” he revealed.
“If possible, I wouldn’t want to do it. In my right mind, I wouldn’t do it. But I did it then. We figured out how to get to the instructor. We waited for the right timing when the tide is high to go underwater to be able to appear underneath his hammock and get the food,” he further explained.
It was from that event that he came to the conclusion that he has the natural talent in stalking.
Living the sniper life
Our understanding of a sniper is a sharpshooter equipped with a powerful rifle who has insane aim. We call ourselves snipers when we were playing video games such as ‘Counter Strike’ or ‘Call Of Duty’.
Lt. Col Razak said being a sniper is more than just being good at aiming.
“A sniper is an individual who masters the art of the elements. A sniper is wise, demonstrates high initiatives, patient and possesses the spirit to survive.
“A sniper will live his life like one – from his sight, hearing, way of thinking; he would apply his abilities in his daily life. A sniper is able to make the right decision within a short span of time.”
And it’s not easy being an excellent sniper.
“It’s not necessarily someone who is good in shooting – that can be trained. But snipers must be intelligent. It could even be one who is intelligent in telling a lie.”
“You need to be able to master the map, be an expert in stalking because that determines whether you will get caught or not, and be friends with the elements of Mother Nature.
“Befriend with what you have in your surrounding. This is hard to explain because there are 1,001 conditions you could face. It is how you suit yourself with the environment. When you can do so, you can live anywhere in any type of conditions.”
We had to ask him: being a sniper in real life is completely different than portrayed in a movie, so which movie got the role of the sniper right?
Lt. Col. Razak smiled at the question, and promptly answered: “‘Enemy At The Gates’. It depicts the role of a sniper during a war.”
Man On A Mission
In case you’re wondering, yes, snipers are trained to kill.
In preparing for a mission, Lt. Col. Razak holds firm to the concept of putting aside one’s personal matters.
“It is all mission based, mission-oriented. Kill when you are asked to kill.”
Recounting one of his most memorable experiences, he had just been promoted to the rank of a ‘Captain’ when he got involved in Operation Jelai back in 2003 – one he described as “a real challenge that brought with it a great experience”.
The commandos worked together with members of the 165 Malaysian Intelligence Battalion (MIB) and PERHILITAN. There were 22 groups for this task with each group consisting of two commandos, four intelligence officers and 3 PERHILITAN personnel.
They were headed for Taman Negara, one of the oldest rainforests in the world with a total area of 4,343 km2. Some went in from Terengganu; others made their way in through Kelantan. For Lt. Col. Razak, it was ‘balik kampung
“My group went in through my kampung
, Jerantut, Pahang. The thing is I’ve never set foot at Taman Negara as a civilian even though it is only 15km away from my house.”
Well, when he finally did, he came with a mission: to look for illegal hunters from Thailand.
“We went by boat from Kuala Tahan. At times, we had to carry the boat. It took us 10 hours to reach,” he informed us.
“My patrolling area was 20 km in the jungle. This is pure jungle we speak of. In the middle of it, we had to cross the Titiwangsa Range. It was very high.”
Each of the military personnel carried their own backpack.
“Our bag was so heavy as it was filled with a 14-day ration. And bear in mind that we’re walking in the jungle, not the tarred road,” said Lt. Col. Razak.
“The PERHILITAN guys led the way. They are so good. Never ever look down on them. They really know their way in the jungle. They carried big bags too but it’s far lighter than ours. They bring only what they truly need,” he added.
On average, his group was able to cover roughly 2km per day. On rare occasions, they managed to cover 3km.
“On the map, 2km looks so insignificant,” he exclaimed.
After several days of walking, they reached the foothill of one of the mountains. The journey from then on was taxing, to say the least.
“We managed to cover only 1km per day,” he recollected.
If you’re ever going for such an expedition, take it from Lt. Col. Razak; do not sleep at the mountaintop. They did so and they learnt their lesson.
“Up there at night, it gets very, very cold. The wind is very strong. It rains heavily. It’s dangerous. During this operation, some were unlucky to have trees fall on them.”
On the ninth day of the operation, Lt. Col. Razak spotted a monitor lizard trap, an indicator that their target was within the area.
From then on, it was the military personnel that took the lead. Their moves became more tactical.
“What do they hunt? Every animal possible. Some were also there to look for agarwood. Our concern was the Sumatran rhinoceros hunters because they are armed.”
As they continued their quest, they stumbled upon the base set up by the illegal hunters.
“It was a wide base in the deep jungle.”
There were six of them at the site.
“I was stunned, thinking ‘What should I do, what should I do?’. But before I could do anything, Sergeant Lim, an experienced intelligence officer in the group who also happens to know how to speak in Thai, had already leaped over and yelled at them not to move. It was as if this was just a police sentry game,” he said.
The illegal hunters who came from Northern Thailand did not retaliate. They knew what was at stake. They could be shot dead at any time.
The six men then had their hands tied.
“I asked Sgt. Lim to ask how many of them there are.”
Apparently, there were 10, he said. The other four were out setting up more traps. The group waited. In the end, they managed to catch them all. There was no fight back from any of the illegal hunters.
By then, it was already in the afternoon and the rain had started to pour.
As the weather conditions improved, the next set of obstacles was how to get them all down.
“How were we going to sleep there? It’s too risky. We might get beheaded and left there in the woods.”
The group tried to get in touch with the headquarters located in Jerantut but it was to no avail.
“After some thoughts, we negotiated with the Thais and asked them from which entry point they came in,” he said.
They had another 5km to cover to make it out. Lt. Col. Razak mentioned that it would take them at least two days to complete the journey.
“Since there were nine of us and 10 of them, I made them carry our bags. The only exception was for the oldest in their group who looked like he was about 60 years of age. With the heavy load of our bags and their hands tied together in chain form, it would be difficult for them to make an escape.”
They decided to get to where the illegal hunters made their entry.
“We asked them to take us there. And they did. But they were walking like it’s nobody’s business. They were so fast on their feet. We even had to ask them to slow down a little. They were going up and down the slope, in and out of the river without being able to use their hands but yet they were very quick.”
“It took us only one day!”
They made it to the entry point by 9 p.m. The group found themselves at the side of Tasik Kenyir in Terengganu – not an ideal place to spend the night.
“We tried calling the HQ over and over until we finally got them at midnight. We gave them our grid. But it turns out, they couldn’t come to get us that night because there was no boat in the wee hours,” he told us.
The situation was certainly not going in their favour.
At 3am, however, came a boat. It sure is odd for it to appear out of nowhere. Apparently, the boat was from Kuala Berang Maritime. The staff had heard the radio conversation earlier and came to lend a hand.
“The maritime folks couldn’t take us out of the area because they’re not the military.”
However, the group was brought to a brightly lit jetty.
“We tied the ten of them to the pillars and took turns to sleep till the next morning. We cooked too and even fed the Thais because they couldn’t feed themselves.”
The next day, more MIB officers and the police came.
“They took only the hunters with them though. We had another four days to spend there.”
But after all was said and done, the news that came out in the military bulletin credited the MIB folks for the success.
To that, Lt. Col. Razak has this to say: “It’s alright. That’s the nature of our work. We are always there but not to be seen or to be heard.”
When asked whether he had ever come across ghosts during his missions (yes, we just had to ask), he wittily answered, “We are the ghost.”
A Piece Of Advice
In life, Lt. Col. Razak holds on to the saying, ‘Hidup berakal, mati berhantu
’, which essentially refers to the spirit of survival.
“It is how I react in desperate times. Never lose hope and continue to do what it takes to survive.”
To those out there, this is Lt. Col. Razak’s advice: “Explore as many things as you can. Explore them to know your value. Having a hobby is very important because it lets you know your character, interest, and direction.”
Learning of his artistic trait helped him in his path to being a sniper.
“I am not a sportsman, not an academician – I am artistic. Being a sniper is an art.”