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The Royal Australian Air Force

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Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was easy to tell the Royal Australian Air Force personnel (RAAF) from the tourists in Penang. The RAAF officers had a ‘uniform’ even when they were off-duty.

“We wore tailored shorts, collared shirts and knee-length socks. Everyone had a moustache. It was expected that we’d dress more formally than casual,” recalls RAAF Air Vice-Marshal Bill Henman, who was posted to Butterworth for two years in 1984. He was 23 years old then, at the start of his RAAF career.

At that time, there was still a huge presence of RAAF personnel at the air base in Teluk Air Tawar, Butterworth. The Australian air force had been stationed in Butterworth since the 1950s, and formally took over the air base from the British in 1958, after Malaya’s independence. It was used in the fight against the communist insurgency in the 1950s and during the confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s.

The base was formally transferred to the Malaysian government in 1970 but two RAAF fighter squadrons remained in Butterworth until 1988. After that, the RAAF’s presence was very much scaled down. They are still present at the RMAF base today under a five-country military defence pact.

Older Butterworth residents will remember the Australian community. Their heyday was in the 1970s when the number of RAAF personnel and their families grew to almost 5000 people. Some lived at the base, which had its own hospital, school, shops, sporting and yachting clubs and other recreational facilities. The air base employed locals, up to 1,000 at its peak.

 

Part of the community

The Australian airmen and their families were well-liked by the local community, and there were shops and services that catered to them. Housing estates near the RAAF base, such as Robina Park, were occupied mainly by the Australians.

On weekends, young servicemen like Henman would take the ferry to George Town, where the clubs and bars were.

“We’d take the trishaw and go to Chulia Street and Campbell Street. Hong Kong Bar was a popular watering hole,” recalls Henman, who came back for his second permanent stint in Butterworth in July 2014 as Commander of the operations here.

The connection and affection that the RAAF alumni and their families have for their Penang posting are documented in their Facebook page, RAAF Butterworth Base. Amid the posts of nostalgic photographs and recollections are several requests for recipes of Malaysian food that veteran RAAF airmen miss.

 

Radio R double A FB

Penangites will readily agree that their fondest collective memory of the RAAF is the radio station that ran from 1960 to 1988. “This is Radio R double A FB!” was the call sign – that’s Radio RAAF Butterworth for the uninitiated. The ‘Party Time’ programme every Saturday night introduced Penang teens to the latest hits of the era.

The radio station was run entirely by volunteers from RAAF and their families, and they played different genres of music and kept the Australians updated on news from home.

Today, there are only about 150 RAAF personnel and their families at the Butterworth base and in Penang.

Flight Lieutenant James Grigson, 29, spent two years of his early childhood in Penang when his father was posted here in the 1990s. He is now back as Aide-de-Camp to Henman, continuing a deep tradition of military collaboration between Malaysia and Australia.

But times have changed, and the dress code of tailored shorts and knee-length socks is no more.

Kenny Loh
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