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.
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 operations also need protection.
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 decline through 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 Malaysia for further ‘intrusions”.
Another potential threat to Malaysian sovereignty would be either a catastrophic natural disaster such as an earthquake in Sumatra, or violent political upheaval in a neighbouring country that would bring refugees flocking to Malaysia.
Terrorism within Malaysia by non-state actors is a highly probable threat. In 2013 more than 200 militants invaded the Lahad Datu District in Eastern Sabah from Simunul Island in the Southern Philippines. Claiming to be forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, the militants held out against Malaysian Security Forces for around 6 weeks. After a number of skirmishes, ambushes and attacks 45 militants were killed along with 10 Malaysian security personnel and 6 civilians.
Malaysian police have arrested more than 80 people suspected of being linked to ISIS over the last 12 months. More than 30 Malaysians have been identified in Philippine military attacks on ISIS strongholds in the Southern Philippines. Visa free entry for citizens of many Arab nations increases the difficulty of screening for potential terrorist entry into the country. A weakened ISIS in Syria and Southern Philippines leaves Malaysia as a potential location to regroup and use as a base for future attacks.
Perhaps one of the biggest threats to Malaysia is something the upcoming white paper may have little to say about. This is border security. Porous borders in Northern Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah are a major problem.
Besides the Lahad Datu incursion mentioned previously, the Eastern Sabah border is a major route for illegal immigrants to enter Malaysia. Late last year 5 Sarawakians were kidnapped for ransom on Malaysian territory by rogue Indonesian soldiers. Regular wildlife poaching occurs across the borders from Kalimantan into East Malaysia. Illegal immigrants from Myanmar cross over into Malaysia through the Malaysian-Thai Border. A number of border transit camps were found on both sides of the border with mass graves showing both the vast extent and brutality of this people trafficking. Villages in Northern Kelantan bordering Narathiwat, in Southern Thailand act as a safe haven for militants operating in Southern Thailand and as a staging point to bring arms into Malaysia.
Finally, cyber security is a major threat to Malaysia. Critical systems within both the public and private sector are at threat from information theft or sabotage. According to the Malaysian Computer Emergency Response Team (MyCert) there were more than 10,000 cyber-security attacks on individuals and corporations across Malaysia in 2018, up 35% on the year before. State sponsored cyber attacks have been well documented and are a real possibility.
Where do the defence forces need to go?
There are no major geo-political strategic threats to Malaysia at this time. In terms of growing Chinese influence within Malaysia, these issues must be dealt with in the civil and economic arenas. China’s growing influence within Malaysia is not a military matter. China is not using military strategy to further its interests in the region. Chinese strategy is about infrastructure, finance, technology transfer, and trade. They are the tools of Chinese influence. Dr. Mahathir has quickly showed that he intends to hold Chinese influence on a tighter leash than his predecessor Najib Razak did.
The only threat of a mass invasion into Malaysia is from a major natural disaster or violent political upheaval occurring within a neighbouring country.
Most threats facing Malaysia come under four areas; the waters surrounding Malaysia, the land borders, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.
How are the defence forces going to be transformed to get there?
The Malaysian Army grew out of British tradition and the conflicts it excelled in before and after independence, namely The Malayan emergency, communist insurgency in Sarawak, and the Indonesian confrontation. As mentioned, the army is bloated with 90,000 personnel and needs to be trimmed and restructured to suit the non-traditional security threats facing Malaysia.
Perhaps, other than a role in border security, and special operations to counter acts of terrorism and incursions of unwanted forces, the major future role for the army would be in disaster relief, should and when the need arises. This would include a disaster plan should there be a natural disaster in a neighbouring country.
The Malaysian army is also primarily Malay and badly needs to be Malaysianized. In addition, the army needs to be depoliticized, so it can return to the codes and traditions that brought it professionalism.
The focus of the Royal Malaysian Navy must be on the South China Sea. This is where its presence has to not only be effective, but also seen. The Royal Malaysian Navy must also be able to see. This capability has to be dramatically expanded.
The South China Sea needs a mix of assets. The current Beechcraft surveillance aircraft and gift of 12 Scan Eagle UAVs are not a replacement for badly needed AWAC aircraft, which are needed to watch Malaysia’s EEZ and border regions.
This surveillance capability is also needed in the Sulu Sea where border defence still relies upon human surveillance stationed on remote outer islands. Surveillance needs to be coordinated with the Malaysian Coastguard, fisheries, Customs, and Marine Police units. Smaller agile and rapid response craft are needed to cover the vast expanse of these seas.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force has been plagued with many problems. Firstly, combat aircraft sourced from both Russia and the US are not compatible. This increases dramatically the costs of aircraft servicing. It is reported that there are only 8 F/A 18 and 10 SU-30 MKMS aircraft serviceable. The air force has no maritime capability and no air base in Sabah.
The question here is whether Malaysia really needs modern sophisticated fighter aircraft at its disposal? The country has very limited funds for defence spending which might be spent better somewhere else. Malaysia only really needs light ground support aircraft. Dr. Mahathir might be right in his hesitancy for Malaysia to go out and buy new fighters.
Border security is of critical importance and most of Malaysia’s security emergencies of late have come from this area. Immigration, Customs, Border police, and the Anti-Smuggling Unit (UPP) need to be coordinated to stop unnecessary duplication. These departments should perhaps be re-organized into a single organization.
Cyber security will be critical. Its too early to gauge how the new National Cyber Security Agency (NCSA) will fare against electronic espionage particularly when companies like Maxis and U Mobile are working closely with Huawei.
Malaysia needs to enhance its security cooperation with its neighbours. Malaysian and Thai Armies have cooperated well along the Malaysian-Thai border for years. Malaysian and Singapore Special Branch units of their respective police forces cooperate very closely. Cooperation can enhance Malaysia’s defence position. For example, Singapore’s air defence umbrella could extend into Malaysia for mutual benefit. However, this would be completely unlikely in the current atmosphere of bilateral relations, but would be mutually beneficial.
The local arms industry, which currently is not much more than local companies acting as agents for foreign manufacturers would improve self-reliance and save the government money. Malaysia has competence in light arm, light armoured vehicle, electronics, UAV, and small boat building.
Getting it right won’t be easy for MINDEF after so many years of neglect by the government on defence. However, a down to the ground, realistic white paper that can make some hard decisions would serve the defence forces well and make them more relevant to the threats facing Malaysia today. New Zealand made these hard decisions more than a decade ago and is better off for it.
The white paper will provide a framework that will help eliminate further corruption in the asset procurement process that has scandalized the nation for decades.
Malaysia’s diplomacy as its first line of defence will be even more important as ever as the aura of ASEAN is in decline. As we have seen with the Thai-Cambodian skirmishes over the Preah Vihear Temple, ASEAN is no insurance policy against intra-ASEAN aggression.
Maintaining a watching presence in the South China Sea, improving border security, protecting economic assets, countering terrorism, and cyber warfare within Malaysia are the top challenges the Malaysian White Paper on Defence must engage. This will be much more important than providing a list of big-ticket items to buy.
An abridged version was published in the Asia Sentinel
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