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What should be in Malaysia’s coming white paper on defence

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 21 June 2019


Malaysia's first ever white paper on defence is scheduled to be presented to parliament later this year. Currently in preparation within the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the paper is being developed in consultation with civil servants, military personnel, think tanks, academics, industry representatives, and NGOs.

The Defence white paper is intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the nation's security outlook, identifying threat areas, examining capabilities, and laying down a long-term development plan according to identified defence needs. In addition, acquisition and budgeting plans will be detailed so transparency can be brought into the equipment acquisition process, where there have been numerous cases of corruption and rorts.

Over the last 40 years Malaysia has been able to solve most regional security issues through diplomacy. Malaysia has also been able to successfully maintain a balance between a competing China and the US in the region through a pseudo-non-alignment where it has cooperated with each superpower when its interests are best suited. Malaysia's bilateral relations with its immediate neighbours have been relatively good over the last two decades. The ASEAN philosophy of non-interference in the internal matters of another ASEAN member have suited Malaysia well.

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However, this era of relative international peace had lured successive Malaysian Governments into a sense of complacency about defence matters, where in particular the Royal Malaysian Air Force has been allowed to run down substantially. Operational expenditure over the last decade has been substantially cut to the point where parts of the armed forces have been struggling to operate and maintain equipment well. The army has been bloated with personnel presumably for providing employment to Malays and mustering votes in strategic constituencies during election time.

To get the Malaysian defence forces to where they really need to be will require a very honest analysis. With limited funding, competing priorities will have to be weighed up against each other and hard decisions made. MINDEF must resist the temptation to produce a document 'for all' with unrealistic objectives like happened so many times before with the Multimedia Corridor, Biotechnology initiatives and education blueprints. This would be a disservice to the nation.

There are three basic question the defence white paper must answer. Where is Malaysia now? Where do the defence forces need to go? And, how are the defence forces going to be transformed to get there?

Where Malaysia is now concerns potential threats and the nation's readiness and capabilities to handle them.

Malaysia territory is divided into two parts and separated by 600 to 1,200 Kms of sea. Its in the South China Sea where Chinese military presence has dramatically increased over the last few years. The South China Sea is also a region with bilateral and multi-lateral territorial claims exist by China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The South China Sea is also a theatre of superpower rivalry between China and the United States.

Thus, the South China Sea presents a number of maritime challenges to Malaysia. The first is protecting the EEZ where some crosses China's proclaimed Nine-Dash Line. Malaysia's EEZ needs to be protected from encroachments by Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Chinese fishing vessels. Oil drilling operationsalso need protection.

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In the adjoining Sulu Sea, the Eastern Sabah border with the Southern Philippines is a major transit route for illegal immigrants. There have been regular incursions by Abu Sayyaf for the purpose of kidnapping people for ransom, and an incursion of 'loyalists' of the defunct Sultanate of Sulu who landed on shore to make a claim of sovereignty.

The Straits of Malacca is also strategically important. This almost 1,000 km long body of water between Malaysia and Indonesia is a major international shipping route. Although piracy and sea robberies are in declinethrough the straits, there is a major international naval presence there. Consequently, there is always potential for some type of incident to occur within Malaysian sovereign territory.

The Malaysia-Singapore maritime border adjacent to Singapore's Tuas Port is a point of contention. Singapore has reclaimed land close to the border line, and both Johor Port and Tuas Port boundaries are in disagreement. This led to a show of naval presence where Singapore stated it would take firm action against Malaysiafor further 'intrusions".

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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