The Defence White Paper 2019 Offers Chances for Reforming Military and Security Thinking in Malaysia

By: Ahmad Syah Ejaz bin Ismail (Former policy officer at MinDef; currently serving at Ministry of Education)


Malaysia’s Defence White Paper could not have come at a better time since various nations such as Australia and New Zealand have also introduced theirs recently in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The United States (US) has also openly outlined its military strategies in the Pacific through the introduction of the National Security Strategy on a yearly basis and the publishing of the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy in 2015, a document that outlines priorities for the US Department of Defense (DoD) in confronting challenges in the South China Sea (SCS) while aiming to balance China’s power as the new superpower in the region. China introduced its own DWP in 2009 to justify its tough stand on the SCS and to define the cross-straits relation with Taiwan in the new century.

Malaysia has continued to play a major role as peace mediator at the regional and international levels ever since its first foreign mission as peacekeeper to the Congo in the 1960s. Active involvement in United Nation Peacekeeping Operation (UNPKO) missions in Bosnia Herzegovina, Somalia, Western Africa, East Timor and lately in Lebanon has been a testament of the UN trust and confidence in MAF’s capability in carrying out such tasks. Extending our role effectively on the UN theatre requires continuous training for our soldiers, especially on force integration and related PKO matters. MinDef, with the assistance of the Japanese government, unveiled the Malaysian Peacekeeping Center (MPC), Port Dickson in 2006 for such a purpose. This vital centre needs to continue being funded and supported by the government to become a centre of excellence on UNPKO within the region. MinDef must continue to work closely with foreign partners such as the Australian and New Zealand Defence Force, the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) to develop modules and carry out relevant workshops, tabletop or field training exercises on extensive topics pertaining to UNPKO or Human Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) at MPC Port Dickson. The MPC must also be available for the ASEAN Secretariat to organize or hold similar training programmes. For a start, the MPC can develop a new module on “Woman and Peacekeeping in Conflict Zone Areas” since Malaysia’s female soldiers are usually welcome by female refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in conflict zones that involves Muslim populations like in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the rest of the Middle East. Such a module can be developed with the assistance of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) which is most adept in this field. Furthermore, Malaysia must continue to welcome the biennial Pacific Partnership exercise with the US Pacific Fleet, and use this opportunity to utilize MPC Port Dickson to train on HADR with various participant nations.

In the 1990s, when the region was experiencing an economic boom and Malaysia was one of the Asian Tigers, we saw an evolution in our understanding of defence and the need for Malaysia to not only serve as a mere client, but also to develop a long-term strategy on defence assets procurement. The DWP must touch on this issue to avoid mistakes in defence procurement and subsequent unnecessary and expensive facility development to accommodate these assets. When we stopped buying military hardware from the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1980s and diversified our assets procurement platforms, several errors were made. For example, our decision to buy American-made M16A1 rifles for our infantryman in the 1960s, and then switching to the Austrian-made Styer AUG in the 1990s and then back again to the M16 platform (M4A1) in 2015 was a testament to how poor decisions can be made when we do not understand and plan our needs well. While the ADF modified their Styer AUG capability to the F88-type Australian-made rifle based on the Styer platform; and the Singapore Armed Forces succeeded in evolving their own small arms from the M16S1 to SAR-21, Malaysia remains end buyers of ready-made weapons and has managed to only make progress only in manufacturing indigenously made cartridges.

The DWP must address this issue. We have ample capability to develop our own weapons through STRIDE and SME Ordnance Sdn. Bhd. for both domestic use and for foreign sales.

The decision to buy defence articles from Russia, eastern European countries and China must be scrutinized with care. As an example, the MiGs29N procurement from Russia was made almost concurrently with the purchase of the F/A-18D Hornets from the US and should serve as a stark reminder on the importance of practicality and durability of defence assets. The MiGs29N’s limited options for upgrading as compared to the multi-role F/A-18D that provides a multitude of options for parts and operational integration with friendly countries. Plus the misleading thinking that we both can save and earn money through Palm Oil barter trade for military assets procurement in the new age should be thoroughly examined from the aspects of long term financial cost for servicing, upgrading, the assets practicality with our military doctrine, suitability for military exercises with friendly partners and comprehensive weaponry integration with the assets bought for MAF usage. This should serve as a good lesson for Malaysia not to easily be tempted into procuring alternative platforms apart from what our defence partners are using. Another good example was when we bought the PT-91M Pendekar Main Battle Tank (MBT) from Poland and later decided to integrate both western and eastern system into our weaponry. One wonders how effective such integration programmes end up being or how far our Army finds the MBT useful in day-to-day operations. The DWP must draw a clear line on this, as we do not want to end up with expensive merchandise that cannot be fully utilized except to look good on the parade grounds. The proven longevity and reliability of the BAE Hawk 108/208 as a trainer and light attack aircraft and the legendary reliability of the S-61-A4/ Nuri should serve as examples of good decisions made on defence articles. There was a recent discussion on the need for Malaysia to phase out the Sikorsky S-61/Nuri helicopters. This is understandable since the assets are almost 40 years old; but should the replacement be made, MinDef must stick to EC725/Airbus variants or similar western platforms for practicality and Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) options in reducing unnecessary spending for replacements, operators/ ground support training, and facilities development. These are the considerations made by developed nations before procuring any assets, and can be observed in the Singapore Air Force experience of the SLEP of the Super Puma, Chinook helicopters, the C-130 Hercules Aircraft, and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) evolution of their 1980s F/A-18A variant Super Hornet to the F/A-18Fs that are still active today. The sharing of similar defence platforms is important in readiness and training exercises with foreign partners and allies under the ambit of the FPDA, bilateral and trilateral exercises or the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) exercises. One could question the MinDef’s decision in 2017 to award a contract to a Chinese company to build the Littoral Mission Ship (LMS) for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) when Boustead Heavy Industries Corporation (BHIC) was fully capable of building the assets completely on its own. Furthermore we should also consider the suitability of the LMS armaments integration programme as and when we decide to equip the vessels with radars, guns, electronic warfare assets, and other weaponry from the west like we usually do with our Navy ships.

The DWP must take this opportunity to clearly spell out that defence procurement should not be mixed up with vested political interests and must be tied to the defence needs of the country in the long run. 

Having friendly countries like Japan and US that have engaged us since the early 1990s on defence exercises and in various military cooperation and joint patrols in the region; such beneficial opportunities cannot be ignored and must to be increased and put to good use. The cooperation with the US government and Japan for that matter can offer us better military options on defence preparedness compared to what the FPDA is offering. Take the issue of the South China Sea (SCS) for example; even though we continue to uphold the principle of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) since it was coined by Tun Abdul Razak in 1971, Malaysia must nevertheless be very assertive and pragmatic in choosing the right partners in advancing our SCS agenda. The decision by China to install offensive weapons at its man-made atolls and their disregard of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict in 2016 on the SCS Arbitration case between China and the Republic of the Philippines, should send a clear signal to Asian countries that if the issues are not resolved peacefully and through diplomacy, military conflicts could result. The warnings given by China to US Navy planes and vessels that conduct freedom of navigation operations through international space and around its man-made islands in the SCS is clearly indicative of China’s tough stance and their intent to turn the SCS airspace into their Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). This could lead to a destabilizing effect of the region’s security. Furthermore, Chinese para-military vessels protected by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and shadowed by People’s Liberation Navy grey hull vessels continue to carry out illegal fishing activities within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and as close as our Sarawak coast at the Luconia Shoals. This should clearly remind of our hard bargain with China, especially its ongoing development of dockyards and airstrips on its man-made islands which are near completion. Taking into account the challenging nature of the current ASEAN Centrality spirit in negotiating terms to formulate a final document for Code of Conduct with China at the SCS, maintaining our active engagement with Australia, Japan and the US government would serve as a deterrent not only to China but also to other countries that have opposing interests with Malaysia. The DWP must be bold in discussing this matter comprehensively and dictate a whole-of-government approach. Simply providing prescriptions to only the MAF and the MMEA would be wholly insufficient if we are to effectively safeguard our interest in the SCS. 

The manner in which we conduct exercises with foreign partners must also be discussed in the DWP. We treasure and appreciate the benefits that we have received from the FPDA thus far, and we are completely aware that most of the MAF professional capability development came from the FPDA. However, we also need to be pragmatic and dynamic in our approach to future military development capability. The fact that Great Britain is increasingly reclusive is a clear reminder that Britain is no longer relevant to the defence foray in the Far East than it once was. Its posture can be witnessed when it is constantly represented by junior cabinet ministers instead of a senior Defence Minister at the invitation of meetings, defence dialogues and official visits. The situation is entirely different with other countries that continue sending senior defence ministers and members of the top echelons of the defence and security establishment to explore new opportunities for military cooperation. Therefore, Malaysia must continue to explore new avenues and opportunities for military capability development. The continuing presence of the US 7th Fleet in this region and their strong interest to engage Malaysia for military exercises and defence cooperation must be welcomed without prejudice. Plus, the US has never been a claimant of any part of our territory or EEZ and has always been respectful and observant of the International Law of the Sea and the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Malaysia should explore and elevate US government as our new strategic partner. The success of various military exercises with the US like the biennial Cope Taufan between our Air Forces, and the Keris Strike and Tiger Strike exercises with the US Army and US Marines in peninsular and Sabah respectively provide the right capability needed for the MAF to keep abreast on war doctrine. The presence of the US Marines during the Tiger Strike exercise in the eastern part of Sabah has created the awareness of an omnipresent military force in a potentially volatile region, has resulted in a decrease in Kidnap for Ransom (KFR) incidents perpetrated by sea pirates, and a decrease frequency of sea gypsies encroaching into our waters from the eastern part of Kalimantan. This type of joint military exercises to portray a projected military presence should be further encouraged through the redevelopment of the Labuan Air Base in order for the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to have the right facilities to host foreign forces, especially the US, Japan and Australia. MAF must consider allowing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) assets from the US, Japan and Australia to use the Labuan Air Base for transit activities, and to host more joint MDA programmes with these countries. Malaysia being an archipelagic state, must continue to carry out bilateral and multilateral programmes for MDA through appropriate capabilities like the P8-Poseidon or the P3-Orion planes from selected foreign partners like the US, Japan and Australia.

There is also an opportunity for Malaysia to actively engage Japan as strategic partner as they reinterpreted Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution to give “more space” for the JSDF to get involved in military activities on foreign soil and defend allies in case of war. Malaysia could for example start a discussion with Japan for military cooperation on joint UNPKO in conflict areas. Malaysia could learn some needed trades on rebuilding programmes and program management which Japan has had a vast experience from their Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) in supporting UNPKO missions. In 2017, Japan generously awarded Malaysia two decommissioned refurbished Offshore Patrol Vessel (KM Pekan and KM Arau) to be used for our MMEA. This underscores the wisdom for the Japanese to become our strategic military partner.

Apart from conventional military matters, the DWP needs to also address non-traditional security challenges. We know that the colonial powers left a legacy of ethnic-related conflicts such as the Southern Thai region, the Rakhine State in Myanmar, Acheh, East Timor and Southern Mindanao. If not properly handled, such conflicts could result in a greater influx of refugees to Malaysia and undermine our security situation. This could result in increases in the illicit trade in contraband, human trafficking, arms trafficking, the threat of terrorism, and both social and security challenges. As such, the Malaysian government, through the DWP, needs to address priorities and provide policy direction, for example on the need for Malaysia to continue engaging the new Bangsamoro Government in Southern Mindanao and the role we could play to ensure security in the Southern Thailand region. The DWP must also come out with clear-cut strategies for a counter-messaging effort on returning fighters from Syria and Iraq and to continue checking on former students of the Islamic madrasah in South Asia and the Middle East. The DWP must clearly lay out what roles should be played by MinDef/MAF and MOHA/Royal Malaysian Police respectively to mitigate task redundancy. The DWP needs also to mandate more intelligence sharing between all Malaysian agencies, and actively promote improved intelligence sharing efforts between its partner countries on counter-terrorism.

The last time MinDef published an official document related to defence and security was in 2009 with the launching of the National Defence Policy (NDP). Nonetheless, the NDP is now irrelevant. Through the DWP, MinDef could reconsider priorities on administrative matters such as the separation of Veteran Affairs from MinDef and for such responsibilities to be put under the Public Service Department (PSD) since it covers pension matters and the welfare of ex-servicemen. This would relieve MinDef of the burden of dealing with non-defence and non-security matters. MinDef could also review the number of Malaysian Defence Attache offices overseas and base such activities on real need with a focus on those countries that have an active military engagement agenda with Malaysia. Countries such as South Africa, Brunei, South Korea, UAE, Italy and Saudi Arabia should not necessarily host any of our DA’ offices since matters arising can still be handled through the Consulate General or the High Commissioner’s Office. As for the CLMV countries, it would suffice for MinDef to utilize our DA’ office in Bangkok since our defence engagement with these countries has always been tepid. MinDef could also re-arrange for a military liaison officer to be permanently posted in Hawaii since the sphere of US military engagement with Malaysia is largely confined to the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) based in Hawaii, and not the Pentagon in Washington DC.

Perhaps, in order to create high public awareness on the DWP, we need to start by encouraging intellectual discourses at the university level, involving Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (UPNM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UiTM) since they currently offer courses on defence and security. Further dialogues and seminars involving local and internationally renowned experts on defence and security should also be encouraged and allowed at government think tanks such as ISIS and MIMA. This will create high awareness and a sense of ownership among Malaysian citizens on defence and security topics and at the same time promote the government effort to introduce the DWP in 2019.

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