'He was a natural leader': S'pore professors remember commander of sunken Indonesian submarine

SINGAPORE – The commander of the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala-402 which went missing on Wednesday (April 21) had completed a master’s programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Professors who taught Lieutenant Colonel Heri Oktavian, 42, during his time in Singapore described him as a natural leader and a thorough military man.

Col Oktavian was a postgraduate student of strategic studies at RSIS for the 2014-2015 academic year, along with a few of his peers from the Indonesian armed forces.

Dr Anit Mukherjee, associate professor and deputy head of graduate studies at RSIS, shared how he first met Col Oktavian out on the football field as opposed to the classroom.

Both men participated in a staff and students soccer initiative at the institution, where Dr Mukherjee recalled Col Oktavian was “the heart and soul of his team”.

Col Oktavian attended Dr Mukherjee’s comparative civil-military relations course, where he offered his insights and experience serving in the Indonesian armed forces.

“He was a hardworking and dedicated student who was well-spoken and engaged. Most importantly, he was humble and extremely proud of his service to his country. After he left, he sent us a farewell mail and said he hoped to get in touch with us again one day in a professional capacity,” Dr Mukherjee added.

Dr Bernard Loo, senior fellow and coordinator of the MSc Strategic Studies programme, said it was Col Oktavian’s attire that set up apart from other students in the class.

“No matter their background, students would usually come in relaxed, casual clothes whether it be t-shirts or bermuda shorts, but Heri would always come dressed in a pair of smart slacks and freshly-pressed shirt with leather shoes. Although as faculty members we insisted the students could address us by our first names, he would always call us ‘Sir’ or the Indonesian equivalent of ‘Pak’,” Dr Loo said.

While he was a quiet student in Dr Loo’s analysis of defence and security policy course, Col Oktavian would often approach Dr Loo after class for clarifications and further discussion.

“He wanted to maximise his learning while he was here. He was always so polite and respectful, you could tell that his peers all looked up to him a great deal,” Dr Loo added.

As commander of Nanggala-402, Col Oktavian was part of a crew of 53 men who conducted a torpedo drill exercise last Sunday (April 17). After communication with the submarine was cut off, the Indonesian navy launched a search operation, in which the Republic of Singapore’s submarine rescue vessel MV Swift Rescue also participated.

Like other staff and alumni at RSIS, Dr Mukherjee learnt Col Oktavian was on board the submarine about 24 hours after news broke that Nanggala-402 was missing.

On Sunday (April 25), Indonesian authorities said the submarine was found cracked apart on the seabed in the waters north of Bali and declared all 53 crew on board dead.

Indonesian authorities said the submarine was found cracked apart on the seabed in the waters north of Bali. PHOTO: REUTERS

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“We were hoping against hope that the crew would be saved. His batchmates are still processing the shock and trauma of this loss. It feels like a promising life and career was cut short too soon,” Dr Mukherjee said.

As staff and faculty continue coming to terms with Col Oktavian’s death, Dr Bernard finds comfort in a conversation he recalled having with his former student.

“I asked Heri, ‘Why did you join the Indonesian navy?’, and he said: ‘I fell in love with the navy and with the sea.’ I would like to think that even at the last moment, he died doing what he loved most.”

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