Over the past 40 years Malaysia has been able to solve most regional security issues through diplomacy. The country has also been able to maintain a balance between competing China and the US through a pseudo-non-alignment where it has cooperated with each superpower when its interests are best suited.
Putra Jaya’s bilateral relations with its immediate neighbors have been relatively good as well over the past two decades. The ASEAN philosophy of non-interference has suited Malaysia well. However, this era of relative international peace has lured successive governments into a sense of complacency about defense matters, with rampant corruption and the Royal Malaysian Air Force in particular allowed to run down substantially.
The country’s defense planners are now writing a first-ever White Paper on Malaysia’s real needs, to be presented later this year in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament.
Operational expenditure over the last decade has been substantially cut to the point where parts of the armed forces have struggle to operate and maintain equipment. The army is bloated with 90,000 personnel, presumably to provide employment to ethnic Malays and to muster votes in strategic constituencies during election time.
To get the defense forces to where they really need to be will require a very honest analysis. With limited funding, competing priorities will have to be weighed against each other and hard decisions made. Currently in preparation within the Ministry of Defense (MINDEF), the paper is being developed in consultation with civil servants, military personnel, think tanks, academics, industry representatives, and NGOs.
There are three basic question the defense white paper must answer. Where is Malaysia now? Where do the defense forces need to go? And how are the defense forces to be transformed to get there?
Where Malaysia is now concerns potential threats and the nation’s readiness and capabilities to handle them.
Malaysia is divided into two parts and separated by 600 to 1,200 km of sea -- the South China Sea, where Chinese military presence has increased dramatically over the past few years. It is a region with bilateral and multi-lateral territorial claims exist by China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. As well as a theatre of superpower rivalry between China and the United States.
Thus, the South China Sea presents a number of maritime challenges. The first is protecting the 200-nauticasl mile exclusive economic zone which crosses China’s proclaimed Nine-Dash Line. Malaysia’s EEZ needs to be protected from encroachment 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 kidnappings for ransom by Abu Sayyaf Islamists, and an incursion of ‘loyalists’ of the defunct Sultanate of Sulu.
The Strait of Malacca is also strategically important. This almost 1,000 km long strait is a major international shipping route. Although piracy and sea robberies are in decline, there is a major international naval presence there. Consequently, there is always potential for some type of incident.
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 Singapore threatening firm action against Malaysia for further ‘intrusions.”
Another potential threat would be either a catastrophic natural disaster such as an earthquake in Sumatra, or violent political upheaval in a neighboring country that would bring refugees flocking to Malaysia.
Terrorism 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 six 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 Islamic State in Syria and southern Philippines leaves Malaysia as a potential location to regroup for future attacks.
Perhaps one of the biggest threats 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, the Eastern Sabah border is a major route for illegal immigrants. Late last year five Sarawakians were kidnapped for ransom on Malaysian territory by rogue Indonesian soldiers. Regular wildlife poaching occurs across the borders from Kalimantan. Illegal immigrants from Myanmar cross over 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 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. 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) more than 10,000 cyber-security attacks hit individuals and corporations in 2018, up 35 percent annually. State-sponsored cyber attacks have been well documented and are a real possibility.
Where do the defense forces need to go?
There are no major geopolitical threats. In terms of growing Chinese influence, these issues must be dealt with in the civil and economic arenas. China’s growing influence is not a military matter. China is not using military strategy to further its interests. Chinese strategy is about infrastructure, finance, technology transfer, and trade. They are the tools of Chinese influence. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has quickly shown that he intends to hold Chinese influence on a tighter leash than his predecessor did.
How are the defense forces going to be transformed?
The Royal 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.
Perhaps, other than a role in border security, and special operations to counter acts of terrorism and incursions of unwanted forces, the army’s major role would be in disaster relief, if and when the need arises. This would include a disaster plan should there be a natural disaster in a neighboring country.
The army is also primarily ethnic 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 once brought it greatness.
The focus of the Royal Malaysian Navy must be on the South China Sea, where its presence has to not only be effective but seen. The 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 12 Scan Eagle UAVs are not a replacement for badly needed AWAC aircraft. This surveillance capability is also needed in the Sulu Sea where border defense 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.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force has been plagued with many problems. Combat aircraft sourced from both Russia and the US are not compatible, dramatically increasing the costs of aircraft servicing. Reportedly only 8 F/A 18 and 10 SU-30 MKMS aircraft are serviceable. The air force has no maritime capability and no air base in Sabah.
Does Malaysia really need modern sophisticated fighter aircraft at its disposal? The country has very limited funds for defense spending and only really needs light ground support aircraft. 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 reorganized into a single organization.
It is 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, which is suspected of acting as an arm of the Chinese government in spycraft.
Malaysia needs to enhance its security cooperation with its neighbors. 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 defense position. For example, Singapore’s air defense umbrella could extend into Malaysia for mutual benefit – something 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 lightly-arm, light armored vehicle, electronics, UAV, and small boat building.
Getting it right won’t be easy for MINDEF after so many years of neglect. However, a realistic white paper that can make some hard decisions would serve the defense forces well and make them more relevant to the threats. 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, which has scandalized the nation for decades.
Malaysia’s diplomacy as its first line of defense will be even more important as the aura of ASEAN is in decline. As 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 are the top challenges the White Paper on Defense must engage. This will be much more important than providing a list of big-ticket items to buy.
Murray Hunter is a longtime development consultant in Southeast Asia. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.