It was Australia’s biggest single engagement with Asia.
At one point in the 1970s there were thousands of Australians in Penang, but few here now know why they came in the first place, and what the handful of remaining Australians from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are still doing here.
There are currently around 130 Australian service personnel stationed at the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) base in Butterworth. This base was officially opened in October 1941 as a Royal (British) Air Force (RAF) base – part of a belated attempt to defend Malaya from the Japanese during World War II.
The base then played an important role during the post-war Emergency period. RAF aircraft flew the jungle fort route from Butterworth to Kroh and Grik to help quell communist insurgents, and broadcast surrender terms to them. From the 1950s onwards, RAAF forces and forces from New Zealand became actively involved, and even as the Emergency waned, the perceived threat of a Communist resurgence elsewhere in South-East Asia prompted the British government to hand over the base at Butterworth to the RAAF on free loan in 1955.
From then onwards the work of patrolling and guarding the New Villages (designed to isolate rural residents from being influenced by the guerrillas), was largely undertaken by Australian troops. In addition, an Australian Airfield Construction Squadron was deployed that year to refurbish the facilities and prepare the base for jet operations. By May 1958 the runway, taxiways and fighter and bomber hardstands were all ready for operational use.
When the RAAF formally took control of the base at Butterworth on June 30, 1958 it became their first permanent major air base outside Australia. It also cemented a period of prosperity and vibrancy for Butterworth, as the RAAF personnel would come out to shop and spend at local businesses on their payday every fortnight. The troops affected the local community in many social and cultural ways When the RAAF formally took control of the base at Butterworth on June 30, 1958 it became their first permanent major air base outside Australia. It also cemented a period of prosperity and vibrancy for Butterworth, as the RAAF personnel would come out to shop and spend at local businesses on their payday every fortnight. The troops affected the local community in many social and cultural ways too: in 1958 their Theatre Club performed an Agatha Christie play; and in 1959, a wedding was reported between one of the service personnel and Penangite Miss Chong.
Guiding the jets.
The RAAF “adopted” a village called Bagan Belat, a few miles from their base, and in 1959 raised funds to repair a Malay widow’s dilapidated house. At Christmas the same year, airmen distributed gifts to 173 children of fishermen in the village; the residents of the adopted village in turn invited 20 RAAF airmen and their wives to a Hari Raya tea party in 1960.
But perhaps the broadest impact came with the launching of Radio RAAF Butterworth, which went on air for the first time on July 31, 1960. “This is Radio R double A FB!” was a well-known radio jingle to Penangites growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, who would look forward especially to Saturday nights when their song dedications might be played live on air. The announcers were all amateurs – mostly family members of the Australian servicemen – and the presentation could be amateurish, but the music repertoire was always bang up to date and exposed Penangites to international music and culture.
Life in Paradise
There were in fact two Australian communities in Penang: the one in Butterworth and another on the island in Tanjung Bungah; Australian-style houses were built for families here, and the service personnel commuted to Butterworth by ferry every day. It was in Tanjung Bungah that the first dedicated school for 600 children of RAAF personnel was opened in 1962 at Jalan Azyze at Hillside, on what had been a rubber plantation. Previously, children had been educated at leased buildings on Jalan Residensi, but with the burgeoning growth of the community, a purpose-built building had become essential.
The school was expanded several times, and in 1977 had reached a high point of 1,100 students and 50 teachers. It was unique – the only school for Australian children outside Australia, and the only international RAAF school in existence. And because RAAF personnel moved on every two to three years, the school suffered a regular 1005 turnover of its student body. The school would also enter pupils into local sporting competitions, and occasionally this resulted in young Australians winning national competitions.
Also in 1962, the RAAF Club was founded at 10, Jalan Tanjong Tokong, on premises that had previously served the British army. It provided 72 rooms available for accommodation for newly arrived families awaiting housing, and recreational, sporting and general meeting facilities. It housed a health centre, staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week; the chaplain’s office; a post office; shops including a milk bar, hairdresser, barber, dressmaker, gift shop and travel agent; a pay telephone; and a library. The main auditorium was used almost daily for events such as films, conferences, dances, dinners, parties and theatre group productions. Rooms were available for hobby groups such as macrame, handicrafts, weight watchers and keep-fit classes. Of course there were also bars, a restaurant and a wide range of facilities for sports such as badminton, tennis, basketball, boxing, volleyball, table tennis, darts and carpet bowls.
Butterworth Air Base.
Meanwhile at the base in Butterworth, people would congregate at the swimming pool, squash courts and the golf club. Butterworth also housed the main RAAF hospital, which local residents also had access to, and which at one point was delivering as many as 150 babies per year.
Unsurprisingly, personnel who came for their two- to three-year postings loved their time in Penang, and just about everyone wanted to be posted here. It was a job of course, but then when you went home at the end of the day it was like being on holiday. People didn’t want to leave, and in 1965 an unusually high 805 of servicemen at the base were married, because so many had got married just so they could take their fiancées or girlfriends with them to Penang.
Their standard of living was remarkably luxurious compared to back home. As one serviceman remarked of his stay in the 1960s: “I was 25 and a Flying Officer and we were put up in the Eastern and Oriental Hotel waiting for a married quarter, and then we were given a married quarter on the island, a huge two-storey place with about five or six bedrooms. Then of course we then went out and hired a cook and an amah.” Whether it was the exotic foreign location, the climate, the people, the different cultures or the shared sense of experience, everyone posted in Penang went home with great memories.
Call of Duty
In the 1960s the Butterworth base provided aircraft and maintenance personnel in support of deployments in Thailand, along with medical and transport support facilities during the Vietnam War. The RAAF No. 2 Squadron, based at Butterworth since 1958, joined the other Australian forces on active duty in Vietnam from 1967. But the base became especially crucial between 1963 and 1966 for both defensive and offensive operations during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation that stemmed from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.
After the end of the Confrontation, the British government announced plans for the withdrawal of its forces from the east of Suez. In line with an earlier Anglo-Malayan agreement, ownership of the Butterworth base was transferred to the Malaysian government in 1970, but the RAAF was immediately given joint control over the base as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), in which Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia agreed that in the event of any form of external armed attack or threat against Malaysia or Singapore they would consult each other about the response.
In 1971 the Headquarters of the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) was formed at Butterworth with Australia providing its Commander. IADS assumed operational responsibility for the air defence of Malaysia and Singapore. It was intended to be a transitional arrangement, but was re-designated in 2001 as Headquarters Integrated "Area" Defence System. It now has personnel from all three branches of the armed services, and still co-ordinates the annual five-power naval and air exercises. The FPDA is the longest standing multilateral security arrangement in South-East Asia today.
Radio RAAF Butterworth.
The base reached its peak strength during the late 1970s, with 1,200 personnel, 3,500 dependents and 1,000 Malay, Indian and Chinese employees, but the Australian contingent was reduced considerably after June 30, 1988, when the airfield was handed over to the RMAF and renamed RMAF Station Butterworth. The school was closed, with remaining pupils sent to Uplands and St Christopher’s international schools, and the buildings at Hillside became the RMAF training facility and administration centre. The RAAF Club was also closed, and a new, much smaller RAAF Centre was established to cater for the reduced number of families. The former RAAF Club building was knocked down and today’s Precinct 10 shopping mall was built in its place.
With the number of Australians at a fraction of its previous level, there are few signs that Penang once welcomed those thousands of RAAF airmen and their families, with the exception of one of their favourite old haunts, the Hong Kong Bar on Lebuh Chulia. This bar proudly exhibits its past, with framed pictures of RAAF personnel and their families, and other RAAF plaques and mementos on the walls.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Forgotten History of RAAF Butterworth Base, Malaysia. August 26, 2015. www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/overnights/theforgotten-history-of-raaf-butterworth-basemalaysia/7725114.
Australian High Commission Malaysia. “History of the Australia-Malaysia Defence Relationship.” Accessed December 19, 2016. Relationship.pdf Mok, Opalyn. “How the Royal Australian Air Force Transformed Butterworth Through Music.” Malay Mail Online. May 23, 2015. www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/how-the-royal-australian-air-force-transformed-butterworth-through-music “New Radio Station.” The Singapore Free Press. August 2, 1960.
Office of Air Force History. “Air Base Butterworth, Malaysia.” Oral History Program. Accessed December 21, 2016. http://airpower.airforce.gov.au/UploadedFiles/General/Snippet_9_LoRes.pdf
RAAF School Penang. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.raafschoolpenang.com. Various articles. The Straits Times. August 13, 1958, November 28, 1959, August 4, 1959, December 16, 1959, March 16, 1960, May 9, 1962, April 20, 1967, August 8, 1971.
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.