One of the most decorated soldiers in Malaysian military history,Kanang anak Langkau played a pivotal role in fighting communism
In a movie released earlier this year about the heroic feats of Temenggong Datuk Kanang anak Langkau, there is a scene that sums up the fierce passion of this celebrated war hero: injured and outnumbered in an unforgiving jungle terrain, Kanang refuses to admit defeat, rallying his men by calling out, “Agi idup, agi ngelaban!”, an Iban war cry that translates to “Still alive, still fighting”.
The movie, titled Kanang anak Langkau: The Iban Warrior, is based on actual events that occurred during Kanang’s military service on Malaysian soil. For his bravery in fighting against communist insurgents, Kanang, a Regimental Sergeant Major of the 8th Rangers of the Malaysian Army, was awarded the prestigious Star of the Commander of Valour and Grand Knight of Valour medals. He is the only known awardee of both medals.
The grandson of an Iban tribe headsman, Kanang grew up in Julau near Sarawak on the island of Borneo. As a child, he learned critical tracking skills for hunting in the jungle, how to read plants and animal noises, identify smells and other skills that would later help him as a tracker when he joined the military. Around 1962, he enlisted with the Sarawak Rangers, a British military unit originally formed by the first ruler of Sarawak, Sir James Brooke, which was later renamed the Royal Ranger Regiment and became part of the Malaysian Army.
He attended the Jungle Warfare School in Johor and also received training from Gurkha soldiers in Singapore. Kanang served during the Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian Confrontration, rebellion movements in the 1960s that opposed the formation of the Malaysian Federation. (Both rebellions were eventually squashed. Brunei refused to join the Federation, and Indonesia signed a peace agreement in 1966, recognising the formation of Malaysia.)
Kanang’s most decorated military deeds were in fighting communist insurgents in Perak. In an armed operation in Fort Legap, Ipoh in Perak on 1 June 1979, Kanang’s unit pursued a small group of guerillas from the Communist Party of Malaya. Two rangers died in the firefight, but Kanang’s unit also took down five enemies that day. The guerillas would later avenge this by launching their own attack on 8 February 1980, in Tanah Hitam, Ipoh. A young private of the 25th Battalion of the Royal Malay Regiment stationed was killed.
In response, Operation Dragnet was launched. Kanang’s platoon, led by First Lieutenant Johnson anak Meling, was deployed to hunt down the communists that attacked the 25th Battalion. As lead tracker, Kanang would be the first point of contact in the line of battle, alongside platoon colleague Corporal Nasir Nordin. For nearly two weeks, they followed the guerillas’ trails, finding abandoned campsites and avoiding booby traps in the jungle, searching for what they thought was a group of about a dozen insurgents.
Then, on the evening of 19 February 1980, Kanang and Nasir found key items belonging to the insurgents that led them to believe their targets were in close range. They did not realise they had walked right into enemy territory. A wire cord that they picked up turned out to be a guerilla sentry’s distress call. Within moments of picking up the cord, Kanang and his platoon found themselves surrounded by more than 20 insurgents.
The exact sequence of events during the ensuing firefight is unclear; reports and verbal accounts detailing what happened cannot be properly verified, but the facts that appear consistent is that Nasir was hit first by enemy fire. Rather than abandoning his colleague, Kanang attempted to rescue him, despite bullets raining on them from all directions. Kanang was shot three times as a result, but did not retreat. He rallied the rest of the troops by repeatedly calling out the war cry made famous by the legendary Iban warrior, Rentap.
His fierce determination may well have won them the fight. The insurgents withdrew from the battle. The platoon sustained five injured men, but no fatalities. What became of the insurgents is unknown, but Operation Dragnet was called to a halt shortly after the firefight. By 1989, the Peace Agreement of Hat Yai, signed by the Malayan Communist Party, ended the official presence of communism in Malaysia.
Kanang survived the battle and was rushed to Ipoh Hospital, where he fought to stay alive. His injuries forced him out of action for one year. Later, he continued serving in the military until 1983, retiring as First Warrant Officer after 21 years of service. In 2011, his contribution to fighting for peace in Malaysia was again acknowledged by Sarawak, when he received an award that carried the honorific title of ‘Datuk’ from the then head of state, Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng,
Kanang passed away on 2 January 2013 at the age of 68. He is survived by his wife Datin Brawang Chunggat and six children. His legacy of valour and sacrifice is one that Malaysians should never forget.