Malaysia’s Military: Getting Out of Its Own Tracks

“Not fit for purpose” seems the conclusion of a recent essay on Malaysia’s armed forces from the Kuala Lumpur-based think-tank Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS). It comes in the run-up to the October publication of a defense review suggesting a radical rethink is needed of the relative importance of the army, navy and air force. This would inevitably impact their budgets and have political implications.

The key suggestion is that the army is too large while the navy and air force lack the equipment needed to face the issues confronting a nation with a long and divided coastline, much of which lies along the Melaka Strait, a key international waterway. Some 600 to 1,200 kilometers of sea separate the peninsula from Sarawak and Sabah.

The analysis also suggests that too much has been spent on failed attempts to develop local procurement and on a few high-profile and high-priced acquisitions. (These can be assumed to include two Scorpene submarines from France which have been at the center of a kickback scandal dating to the time when Najib was Defense Minister involving his associate Abdul Razak Baginda and the murder by Najib’s security of Baginda’s pregnant Mongolian girlfriend, a party girl and translator who demanded her share of the payoff.)

The submarines, which can’t be deployed in waters around the Malaysian peninsula because they are too shallow, are also just one episode among many in which overpriced and often substandard weaponry was purchased to create kickbacks to the leaders of the United Malays National Organization and top military leaders. Procurement has long been a scandal in Malaysia. Democratic Action Party Leader Lim Kit Siang complained in 2007, for instance, that the defense ministry had paid US50 million each for the exact same Russian Sukhoi jet fighters bought by Vietnam at US$25 million each and India bought for US$40 million each. Given the price differential over the India purchase, he said, US$180 million had entered someone else’s pocket.

Maintenance is a major problem. Mohammad Sabu, named by Prime Minister Mahathir as the defense minister in the new administration, revealed in parliament that of 28 Russian-made fighter jets in the Malaysian Air Force, only four are operational. Eighteen have been grounded because the air force cannot adequately maintain them.

The paper hints at these shortcomings, saying “We need to carefully and rationally consider the acquisition of assets and capabilities that we can afford to operate, in effective numbers, if ever deployed. Investing in a limited number of flashy assets that look good on paper and in parades, or to ostensibly improve bilateral relations, is a practice that we simply cannot afford any longer.”

The army has nearly 90,000 soldiers on active duty, and also a large reserve force. This compares with figures for more populous western countries who also have overseas commitments – Britain with 85,000, France 110,000 and Germany 62,000.

The Malaysian Army cannot even be accurately described as a national army given that its composition is almost entirely Malay – although last year it did acquire its first Chinese commander, to head its 1st Infantry Division.

A large army has its origins in combating Communist guerrillas until the 1970s, and konfrontasi with Indonesia in the mid-1960s. For sure, Malaysia’s land borders still have potential problems. The unrest of the Malays in the three southern Thailand provinces comprising the old Sultanate of Patani, is one. Manila’s absurd claim to Sabah is another. The relations of Sarawak and Sabah to KL, and also to Indonesia and Brunei are others. Yet these are all currently quite remote, and part of the overstuffing of the armed forces is to provide employment for ethnic Malays.

Today’s top issues are maritime: For protection of Malaysia’s island and seabed rights in the South China Sea, which come within China’s nine-dash line; the protection of fisheries against a variety of neighbors including Thailand, Vietnam and China with their much bigger fishing fleets; cooperation with Indonesia not only in suppressing piracy but ensuring the Melaka Strait remains an open waterway and not a pace of contention between much larger states – namely China, the US and India.

As the ISIS article suggests, Malaysia through the state-owned energy company Petronas has very extensive knowledge and experience of the nation’s seas but a navy of commensurate with that, and the seas’ economic importance, does not exist.

Diplomacy may be the first line of defense for a relatively small country like Malaysia. But belief in one’s diplomatic skills easily becomes delusion. The article does not say so but endless talk within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea may be just that.

Red lines and military trip-wires are also essential if a nation is to be taken seriously when confronted with those who talk diplomacy but use raw power to pursue nationalist agendas. In that spirit, it will be interesting to see if military cooperation with neighbors such as Indonesia and Vietnam is seen as playing a role in Malaysia’s defense policy and purchases.