My Say: Malaysia’s defence reforms are long overdue

18-Jun-2021 Intellasia | TheedgeMarkets | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Malaysia’s long overdue defence reforms can no longer be put on the backburner. For more than three decades since December 1989, when the government inked a peace treaty with the Communist Party of Malaya, Malaysians have lived in an age of innocence when it comes to the question of external threats facing the country.

In recent years, Malaysia’s neighbourhood has been looking increasingly less benign, with a great power rivalry between the US and China, and Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

On May 31, 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) planes entered the airspace above Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. This has jolted the nation to wake up to new geopolitical challenges.

For nearly a decade, the Chinese Coast Guard has maintained an almost year-round presence near Beting Patinggi Ali (South Luconia Shoals). Thus, in a way, the PLAAF sortie was doing in the air what their Coast Guard colleagues have been doing on the high seas for years enforcing China’s claims in the South China Sea. China claims ownership of the Luconia Shoals, which are located in Malaysia’s EEZ about 80 nautical miles northwest off Borneo.

In less challenging times, Malaysia did attempt to modernise its defence, including building up the air force and navy for conventional warfare beginning in the 1990s. It also attempted to balance the forces between the peninsula and eastern theatres arising from the Lahad Datu incident in 2013, when a group of militants from the Philippines tried to lay claim to the state of Sabah.

Following the incident, there was some talk about the need for “jointness” between the different arms of the Malaysian armed forces. The post-2013 conversations about this did not extend much beyond the previous attempt in 2004, which saw the formation of a joint force headquarters but with a limited scope of responsibilities.

Unfortunately, the defence modernisation programme was distracted by alleged corruption in procurement. Local agents who were more interested in acting for foreign manufacturers had little interest in developing research and development indigenously. In general, the nonchalant peacetime attitude of the ruling elite and the public pervaded over defence matters.

As there has not been strong political will to advance defence reforms, old legacies are dictating the current path. The Malaysian armed forces remain service-centric, with the largest resources and attention given to the army. While acquiring a more multifaceted outlook over the years, the army is still moulded by the experience of jungle warfare it successfully waged against the communists decades ago.

The Cold War legacies guided the army to fortify the peninsula, and in the eastern theatre, to concentrate on guarding the land border with Indonesia. In some instances, the armed forces doubled as a border patrol force to stop undocumented migrants from entering the country.

During the short stint of the Pakatan Harapan government, minister of Defence Mohamad Sabu presented Malaysia’s first Defence White Paper (DWP) to parliament on December 2, 2019, with a mission to reform the defence sector to meet the challenges of the 2020s.

The core idea of the DWP was to define Malaysia as a maritime nation with continental roots. Malaysia is surrounded by the South China Sea arguably the world’s most contentious body of water and the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest sea lane.

A rigorous assessment of defence requirements should follow from a proper grasp of such extant realities. There needs to be an open acceptance that the jungle is unlikely to be the battleground of the future. Capabilities and capacities in multiple domains maritime and air, urban, cyberspace and non-conventional warfare need to be built up rapidly.

When I was deputy defence minister, I often repeated the mantra of the former chief of defence forces Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin that “the army has to swim” in such a new era. Cognisant of the army’s important role, I reassured the army that no nation could fight with just a contingent of special forces, the navy and air force it had to do so in tandem with the army. Hence the role of the army would not be diminished even if defence modernisation focuses on building joint maritime capabilities.

But the other side of the coin is also true: the army cannot fight alone. The single-service-centric culture will have to give way to a genuine commitment to “jointness”.

The Lahad Datu incident compelled the armed forces to expand its command structure in the eastern theatre. There is now a three-star general each for the army and navy with responsibility for East Malaysia. But serious political will is needed to achieve peninsula-eastern theatre parity in terms of troop deployment and capacities.

The irony of Lahad Datu is that the security sector on the eastern Sabah front is jointly managed by the armed forces, police and civil service. Unfortunately, the three entities are constantly mired in bureaucratic turf wars.

Serious defence reforms will need a team of capable defence civilians and a strong defence industry. The civilians in the defence ministry are currently rotated across the ministries; many of them lack expertise and specialist experience in defence.

This will have to change with a cluster of senior civil servants trained in security matters as well as keeping the best civilians at the Ministry of Defence for a longer period. The defence industry will need to shed its “sales agent” tendency and invest in innovation. Again, political will is required to transform the sector.

The DWP places heavy emphasis on building a future force with new capabilities. Currently, the army, navy and air force each have their own long-term capability plans. But there is currently no agreed-upon joint armed forces capability plan. Indeed, the cabinet and parliament have never officially endorsed a plan with long-term funding commitments. Malaysia’s five-year plan is not an adequate and appropriate instrument for defence planning, which usually requires longer strategic horizons. This will have to change, too.

The strategic environment in the 2020s will be markedly different from that of the last three decades. Malaysia’s comprehensive defence reforms, outlined in its first-ever DWP, needs national consensus and political will to be fast-tracked. The age of innocence needs to be replaced by an era of strategic cognisance a cognisance of pressing realities in Malaysia’s neighbourhood.


Category: Malaysia

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