Lord Mountbatten and the formation of the Life Saving Society Malaysia

Picture shows Lord Mountbatten with Dato’ Teoh Teik Lee at the official investiture ceremony in 1967.

Memories of Dato’ Teoh Teik Lee, DSPN, AMN, DJN

On the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the Royal Life Saving Society, Mr. Teoh Teik Lee, founding President of the Life Saving Society Malaysia shares his personal recollections of Lord Mountbatten.   Mr. Lee was co-awarded the highest honour of the Royal Life Saving Society, the King Edward VII Cup, in 2001 by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace. 

RLSS is honoured to have the opportunity to share this important piece of its history with our members and thanks Mr.Lee for his generosity in providing it.

Lord Mountbatten was wholly instrumental not only in the formation of the Life Saving Society Malaysia, (LSSM), but also gave his personal time and attention as mentor and counsel nurturing it to maturity.  In fact, Malaysia was only a small part of his Lordship’s mission of promoting life saving throughout the Commonwealth.  I was privileged to be part of this story.

I earned my life saving credentials – Bronze, Award of Merit and Instructor’s Certificate – in 1953 while undergoing a Diploma Course at the Carnegie College of Physical Education, Leeds U.K. On my return home I was appointed Superintendent of Physical Education and later, Head of the Department of Physical Education, Specialist Teachers’ Training Institute in Kuala Lumpur. I introduced Life Saving as a component of the Physical Education curriculum. In order to evaluate students in this discipline I applied for certification as Examiner to RLSS UK. I was duly appointed Examiner and Representative of the RLSS UK.

My one-on-one meeting with Lord Mountbatten was a moment in time. It had such an impact on my life and set me on a remarkable journey of life saving that spanned six decades. Here is the story.

In May 1963, (the actual date I have forgotten), I received a call from the office of the British High Commissioner to Malaysia informing me that Lord Mountbatten wished to meet with me at “Carcosa”, then the residence of the British High Commissioner.  This was incredibly stunning news to me.  Mountbatten, the famed Commander of the Burma Campaign in World War II, Viceroy of India and uncle of the Queen of England!  I did not know what to think as I made my way to ‘Carcosa’.

As I stepped on to the manicured lawn of ‘Carcosa’, there sat Lord Mountbatten dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet with a detachment of his officers standing behind him. To me it was an awesome sight.  This was totally unexpected, and I felt extremely intimidated. However, ever the diplomat, he soon put me at ease.  He invited me to sit in the chair next to him, and began by saying that he knew I was training life savers, but suggested that I was not doing enough and that Malaysia as an independent country should have a national body. When I replied that I had neither the resources nor the means to undertake a project of that magnitude, he explained that it could be done.

He said that I only needed two essentials to start an organization. One, an influential figure; and two, a base of support.  As an example, he mentioned that in the UK the Police, the army and other services were involved in the life saving movement.  In my case he concluded that my Prime Minister could be the Patron of the Malaysian Society.  He continued to lay out the steps towards setting up a life saving organization in Malaysia. We talked for 20 minutes, rather he talked and I listened.  He left me with this challenge, “Mr Teoh, I expect to see the Life Saving Society of Malaysia when I next visit Kuala Lumpur”. It was so surreal.

Three days later I received four letters, one each from Sir Rodney, Admiral of the Far East Fleet; Dato’ Fenner, Inspector General of Police, Malaysia; the General commanding the Armed Forces (I cannot recollect his name) and my Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman; the first three offering their support in the formation of the Life Saving Society of Malaysia.  My Prime Minister wrote that his good friend Lord Mountbatten suggested that Malaysia should have a national life saving organization, and that he would consent to be the Patron of the society! Such was the influence and stature of the man Mountbatten.

Mountbatten followed up weeks later with several letters to me, wishing to know what progress I had made and offering advice as how to get in touch with personalities who could provide resource and finance for setting up the society. In 1964 the Life Saving Society Malaysia was registered and I was elected the founding President.

In 1966 as President of the Life Saving Society, Mountbatten, courtesy of the RLSS UK, sponsored my trip to attend the second Quinquennial Conference of the Commonwealth Council of the RLSS in London.  It was a humbling experience to be among an assembly of special people, whose collective expertise and dedication made the RLSS the leading authority in world life saving.  It was inspirational, and defined for me the spirit of volunteerism.  I attended eight successive Quinquennial Conferences in all.

In the 1966 Quinquennial Conference Mountbatten suggested that it was timely for LSSM to join the Commonwealth Council of the RLSS so it could gainfully participate at the Commonwealth level. To this end he moved that LSSM be made a member of the Commonwealth Council of the RLSS. The following year, with the blessing of the British High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur, Mountbatten arranged an Investiture Ceremony at ‘Carcosa’, where he presented to me the Royal Charter of Membership to the RLSS Commonwealth Council.  My Prime Minister, as Patron of LSSM, was Guest of Honour, and the event was attended by Presidents from member nations of the Commonwealth. It was a proud day for LSSM.

There were a few more occasions where Mountbatten continued to follow the progress of LSSM. In 1972, when HM The Queen visited Malaysia, I had a call from Lord Mountbatten informing me that he was on HMS Britannia in Port Klang and wished to meet with me. However as Royal protocol would not allow him to be in Kuala Lumpur during the visit of the Queen to the city, he suggested I meet him half way in the office of the Minister of Information in Petaling Jaya. In that meeting he persuaded the Minister to give his support to the LSSM by producing a series of life saving programmes.

I was bewildered that Mountbatten, known to be directly and indirectly involved in 72 organisations worldwide, should have such space and time for a small organisation like the LSSM. I was honored and privileged to know, and through him met up close with my Prime Minister, who remained Patron of LSSM until his demise in 1990. Many other wonderful people, including three generations of the British Royal family, whose attributes I admired and tried to emulate were introduced to me by his Lordship.

I hold dear my memories of his Lordship.   The proudest moment of my life was when I was selected to deliver a eulogy to Lord Mountbatten at a dinner of the RLSS Commonwealth Council in the presence of his daughter, Lady Mountbatten, on board HMS Belfast, on the River Thames in 1991.

Note: Lord Mountbatten initiated the series of Quinquennial Conferences, which are pivotal in solidifying the family of life saving nations. They also serve as a platform for further development of life saving techniques and water safety risk management. Many small life saving organizations benefitted from knowledge and expertise emanating from these conferences. Mountbatten played the leading role. However, the monumental task of preparing for these conferences and communicating with the Commonwealth network lay with the sterling effort and sacrifice of the dedicated Secretaries-General of the Society. Among those that come to mind are Capt. Hale, Brigadier Jones, Keith Sach, John Taylor and John Long, whose support and friendship I cherish.

Teoh Teik Lee, 25 April 2016