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Malaysia’s Unready Armed Forces
Political interference and corruption are undermining combat readiness
By: B A Hamzah
Once the pride of the British Commonwealth countries, the Malaysian military is today the region’s weakest. It is riddled with corruption, poor planning, and interference by political leaders in procurement, no longer a potent force even in managing low-level intensity conflict at a time when tensions in the South China Sea are higher than they have been since the days of the Vietnam War.
A 2019 White Paper on Defense – nearly four years ago – called for more funds and punch as well as an overhaul of the procurement system to allow professionals to decide on what weapon systems they need. Instead, PM Anwar Ibrahim’s proposal to increase the defense budget by 10 percent to fund procurement will be delayed because of budgetary considerations related to the flagging economy, expected by the World Bank to grow at a mediocre 3.9 percent in 2023, down from an earlier estimate of 4.3 percent in April.
The immediate impact is on the Malaysian Armed Forces’ combat readiness, which depends on state-of-the-art technology, training, and morale. Without adequate funding, all three will be affected, in turn undermining the country’s planned strategic deterrence capability. On the chopping block are proposals to purchase 18 light combat aircraft from South Korea, two much needed maritime patrol aircraft from Italy, and three combat surveillance drones from Türkiye. Their absence will make the strategic deterrence mere lip-service.
During the royal address to Parliament in July 2018, the defense minister revealed that only four of Malaysia’s 28 Russian jet fighters could fly. The 42-year-old MiG-29N – two of which crashed in 1998 and 2005, respectively –was decommissioned in 2017 owing to high maintenance costs of RM262 million a year. The Russian jets were bought via an offset program in which palm oil was bartered for fighter jets. In 2003, Malaysia purchased 18 Flankers, introduced in 1985, from Russia for US$900 million (RM3.67 billion), also involving palm oil trade. The offset deal with Russia led to the country’s first space program, with Malaysia’s first astronaut to the International Space Station in 2007. By contrast, Singapore has purchased at least 12 F35B stealth jets from the US, with 100-mile over-the-horizon shoot-down capability. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is flying the J-20 twin-jet all-weather stealth fighter aircraft developed by the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Both would reduce Malaysia’s aging jets to scrap metal in seconds.
In 2006, Malaysia acquired the Jernas system from the UK, including nine missile launchers (later increased to 15), three radars, Rapier Mk2 missiles, training, and support. According to a reliable source, this purchase was made against the recommendation of the RMAF which wanted a more versatile anti-aircraft system from Russia and France.
Admiral Reza Sany, the previous Navy Chief, before retiring earlier this year, openly complained of “dismal annual defense expenditure,” taking the government to task for the Navy’s dismal budget.
My own research supports Reza’s assertions. The are many security problems in the Malaysian sea, air space above it, and in cyberspace which demand effective deterrence and enforcement. Piracy, armed robbery, illegal fishing by foreign countries, pollution and safety at sea, and unauthorized military activities are among the major security issues facing the country. A weak Navy and the poorly equipped Air Force and the Maritime Enforcement Agency have encouraged illegal activities at sea including the occasional harassments of economic activities by foreign elements.
The recent sighting of a foreign submarine off Pulau Perak in the Strait of Malacca shows the gap in intelligence and enforcement capabilities that should not be taken lightly by the Government. Tensions arising from the US-Sino rivalry in the South China Sea, for example, will put more pressure on the security forces who will be hard pressed to respond to any contingency.
Due to low and erratic allocations, the RMN is saddled with old ships, with 58 percent of ships in service much older than the Royal Thai Navy’s HTMS Sukhothai, which sank on December 18, 2022. That includes, according to one source, the Kasturi-class Corvette that entered service in 1984 and the Laksamana Corvette class built in the early 1980s, the Perdana-class gunboat and the Handalan and Jerung class commissioned in the 1970s – at least 40 years ago. The KD Sri Perlis and KD SRI Johor gunboats commissioned in the late 1960s – even older – are still in service.
Compared with our immediate neighbors, the military budget is paltry and pathetic. As a percentage of GDP, the armed forces budget has never exceeded 1.5 percent in the past 20 years. The only time it exceeded 4 percent was in 1981.
By contrast, Singapore has averaged spending of 6 percent of its GDP for the military over the past two decades. Its armed forces are projected to receive US$13 billion in 2023; US$13.8 billion in 2024; US$14.4 billion in 2025; US$15.1 billion in 2026 and US$15.8 billion in 2027.
Although as a percentage of GDP, Indonesia's expenditure is lower than Malaysia’s in 2021, it has averaged expanding at 11.52 percent since 2002. It spent US$8.3 billion on its military in 2021, more than three times what Malaysia spent for the same year. A new 2023 study shows that Indonesia’s military budget for 2022 was 9.1 percent of its budget, and Singapore’s expenditure was 11.9 percent of its budget. In comparison, the MAF budget has hovered around US$3.8 billion, under 1 percent of GDP with minimal annual increases over the last decade.
It is perplexing that Singapore and Indonesia are splashing on offensive military hardware compared with Malaysia. Offensive military hardware is usually acquired for defense against external threats. Rarely are these assets used for domestic purposes. Do their policy planners anticipate serious external military threats that their Malaysian counterparts have missed? We live in the same neighborhood, which means the countries face identical external threats!
What could make the soldiers happy is to peg the cost to the economy, which would give Mindef more money when the economy is stronger and vice versa. Fixing expenditure to the size of the economy would ensure long-term planning certainty.
Admiral Reza also called on the government to increase the annual allocation for defense to 1.5 percent of GDP. The MAF needs more funds to improve its fighting capacity to deal with external threats. Malaysia must start spending at a minimum 4 percent of GDP for defense immediately for the next decade or longer to attain a minimum deterrence capability beyond dealing with the current low-level intensity threats on land, sea, air, and cyberspace.
Despite the limitation of its strategic deterrence capability, the military is expected to keep the nation safe from threats undermining the national interests. The challenge as a fighting force to undertake its missions in an increasingly hostile maritime and air space environments and the fluid cyber space can be very daunting if they are not given funds for state-of-art tools to do their job. The MAF are also required to help with national disasters and sporadic flooding due to extreme weather gyrations brought about by climate change.
Admiral Reza made no mention of the scandalous fate of the littoral combat ships (LCS) which have not been delivered although the government has paid billions for them. During investigations into the scandal, it was revealed by Admiral Aziz Jaafar, a former Chief of the Navy, that he personally wrote letters complaining over the delay and cost overruns. Aziz’s observations and advice from other military professionals have been ignored. The scandal is a case in point where allocated funds have been hijacked.
The military likely had no idea they were being used by politicians and their cronies to purchase equipment, especially those that do not meet their technical and operational specifications. Whether some of these officers were also greased along the way by the politicians is something else. It is strange that no one in the military learned the lessons of the Scorpene submarine scandal that preceded the CLS debacle by a decade. Malaysia bought two Scorpene-class submarines from France in 2002 when Najib Razak was defense minister and later PM. A two-ringgit Malaysian company owned by a Najib’s crony received a €114 million “commission” for the purchase. The rest is history.
(See related story: Deep and Dirty: Malaysia’s Submarine Scandal)
I urge PM Anwar Ibrahim to not only peg a minimum of 4 percent of GDP annually to buy offensive military hardware to defend and protect our national interests but also to pay close attention to the plight of some 400,000 veterans who have been fighting for their pensions and other benefits to be regularized. They have put their lives on the line for the defense of this nation. The way the government treats them has a direct impact on the morale of serving soldiers and officers.
The PM must also ensure full transparency in military procurement devoid of political interference and cut out the use of middlemen in acquisitions. It is also incumbent on the politicians to listen to and trust the professionals in their choice of weapons systems and other assets. Had the politicians listened, the scandals involving the fighter jets, the Jernas anti-missile system, the Scorpenes, and the LCS, to name just a few, would have been avoided.
Ignoring the military can be perilous to political stability.
B A Hamzah is a professor at the National Defence University of Malaysia