Stimulating Innovations through Military-Civilian Collaboration

By Associate Professor Ir Dr Yang Soo Siang (Instrumentation & Control Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Universiti Malaysia Sabah)


1.  Defence industry as economic catalyst?

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed extensive shifts in the geopolitical dynamics, and non-traditional threats from non-state actors have become prevalent. Thus, Malaysia’s preparedness in terms of defence is consistently maintained. The key to Malaysia’s growth and prosperity has always been peace and harmonious co-existence with all nations – hence the ambition to strengthen the defence industry is distinctly to ensure security of material supply and socioeconomic gains.

Senator Liew Chin Tong, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister rightly stated in a recent article that a strong defence industry ensures the nation’s self reliance and accentuates benefits to be gained from a strong culture of innovation that can derive from it. The critical need for an innovation-led defence industry is acknowledged since the “ultimate aim is to create decent jobs for Malaysians”. In sum, the statement indicates Malaysia’s primary intent clearly – the securing of sovereignty is for facilitating socioeconomic development.


2.  Spurring innovation through military-civilian integration

Industrialized nations all over the world are in at advanced state of self reliance - their defence industries are strategically developed to levels that are not only compatible with their defence needs but also cultivated as growth drivers to concurrently boost various civilian industries. Innovative activities are positively encouraged through the intensified development of advanced civilian industries with military technologies via military-civil integration.

Malaysia needs to consider such an approach and intensify efforts towards this end. The Government had been taking steps to establish the nation’s own defence industry since the 1970s. However, after nearly 50 years, we are still predominantly reliant on imports and our defence industry is clearly unimpressive. Domestic players have clearly not dominated and thus it is high time for the industry to exploit innovation activities through close military-civilian collaborations.

The fact of the matter is that the industry is not motivated nor is it willing to engage with local centres of innovation. Unsustainable returns seem to be the major concern. The way forward is thus to consider boosting domestic confidence through specific policies that collaborate with existing and established civilian centres of innovation.

Through the development and strict enforcement of win-win collaboration policies, clear objectives can be formulated to focus on growth based on the essential operational requirements of the MAF.


3.  Back to basics

The Malaysia-based defence industry is critically in need of rebranding. It needs to committed towards establishing a firm base of business by reassessing its core strength and capabilities, and by being realistic about its limitations—why focus on developing sophisticated weapon systems when even conventional small arms for our own defence forces’ needs are imported? Another simple example are our combat ration or meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) menus and variety. MREs are significant morale boosters for our soldiers in the field; development of high quality MREs is surely a very basic and essential need for the MAF to develop. But have there been any innovation activities of the product in the last 20 years or so? How about improvements on marketability on the civilian or international export markets? Asian countries, especially Malaysia, is a significant contributor to the international halal market; two-thirds of the global Muslim population reside in the region and halal products, in particular food products, are in great demand all over the world.

The fact is that at the present time, halal compliance is significant beyond the requirements for religious observance – for many consumers worldwide, Malaysian halal certifications is the hallmark of safety and hygiene; halal compliance MREs are marketable all over the world! Even the US provides halal-compliant MREs to its Muslim servicemen; the same goes for humanitarian supplies provided by the UN in conflict or disaster regions. Think global—Malaysia’s halal branding is recognized globally and the relevant industry has continuously maintained its status as a global leader in the halal industry; thus a profitable and sustainable platform to capitalize and synergize with the growth of the relevant sector in the defence industry.

The onus is on the Government to match the essential needs of the MAF to available domestic capabilities; if locally produced essential and basic products such as MREs cannot be improved on or exploited for economic gains outside of its existing clientele (i.e. MAF), why be concerned about investing in advanced aerospace technologies (for example) which primarily rely on foreign expertise and exorbitant financial commitments? Furthermore, is there any immediate need for the local industry to focus on non-native areas of expertise right now? We should no doubt gradually pace the industry towards this end but the urgency is primarily to cater to our immediate strategic needs first; and to accentuate the client-driven culture.

The reality is that all key players in the defence industry, inclusive of the Malaysian Government, need to “go back to basics” - to comprehensively gauge immediate needs and to focus on the security of supply. They should innovate to diversify their base products for a diverse market; the should innovate to avoid reliance on domestic defence sector contracts only. They should innovate for growth. Ambitious projects will need to take a backseat till the foundation of the innovative platform is firmly in place.

In this regard, it is important for the Defence White Paper to identify accurately the most current and basic operational needs of the MAF; as a credible reference to the industry. Domestic-based industry can realistically intensify its focus for sustenance and exposure before expanding towards homegrown development of more sophisticated or advanced technological requirements. Civilian-based industries have taken the lead with this approach (i.e. back to basics – start with the basics, build on existing capabilities) since the 1990s. The Malaysian defence industry will benefit tremendously from adapting to this experience. Hence it makes logical sense to encourage increased military-civilian collaboration – for short cuts and cost effectiveness in accelerating innovative activities in the defence industry.

The implication is that future capabilities of the industry can be developed in stages and in accordance to needs and available financial resources Relevant and basic operational needs of the MAF are the priorities. We must remember that the imminent aim is to ensure the effective defence of our nation’s sovereignty. Eventually, with a strong domestic-based industry, the government can exercise full measures of sovereign control and security of supply while assured of gaining economic benefits which are of advantage to its citizens.


4.  The way forward

A clear policy with a clear set of objectives focused on pacing the growth of the local defence industry will be beneficial to the industry as a whole, and will stimulate innovative activities. By initially intensifying the support to existing domestic-based contractors that are able to manufacture and own native intellectual property rights of essential products/services immediately required for the current MAF’s operational effectiveness to generate sustainable returns, the gradual experience and confidence gained would inherently translate into a firm business base that drives innovation activities.

In summary, by focusing first on essential MAF operational effectiveness and on socioeconomic benefits, the political will to motivate and intensify Malaysian contractors’ strategic position in facing foreign competitions can be clearly projected. With a highly focused and systematic expansion plan for the industry, even foreign competitors will be encouraged to seek genuine collaborative solutions with domestic contractors. As such, the whole industry benefits by engaging in the kind of innovative production and manufacturing that comes with owning and exploiting intellectual properties.


5.  Innovation: the true economic catalyst

All industries benefit from innovation-led growth. Malaysia needs to accentuate the fact that the Malaysian defence industry must have a firm innovation-led base to be relevant and sustainable. It should first focus on the basic needs of the client i.e. the MAF, but diversify to cater to the bigger civilian market; and follow through with continuous military-civilian innovative activities within its realistic technological limits before expansion into advanced products. It should invest, collaborate, share resources & know how, synergize and capitalize on locally established research and innovation centres, and in areas that are deemed profitable and essential to both the civilian and defence sectors – from engineering to food technologies for equipment and supplies, from social science to safety & health studies for personnel well being. The deliverables are significant to the needs of the defence and civilian sectors and most importantly, will be in line with the nation’s aim to boost socioeconomic development while strengthening the defence industry.

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