Thomas Daniel was quoted in Malay Mail, 15 February 2023

by Keertan Ayamany

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 — Malaysia must not deprioritise funding for the Defence Ministry (MinDef) as threats to national security were present and growing, according to an armed forces veteran and two analysts.

The rapid advancement of military technology would exacerbate consequences to the country’s defensive capabilities and Malaysia’s ability to join in both international and regional defence agreements if MinDef’s budget were cut, they cautioned.

“There are various elements to national security: external and internal defence, socio-political stability, economic integrity and more,” said former Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Brig-Gen (Rtd) Datuk Abdullah Mohamed.

“The key word in all these aspects is ‘deterrence’… deterrence made possible by a well-equipped and effective military, and an adequate budget is essential to this,” he added.

Last month, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan announced that his ministry was anticipating reduced allocations in Budget 2023 due to lower projected national revenue from falling oil prices.

Chief among Abdullah’s concerns was that a smaller MinDef budget would also be detrimental to Malaysia’s economic interests in the long-term as it would not be able to effectively defend its economic zones from encroachment.

He pointed out China’s numerous incursions into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone — where Malaysia’s major sources of hydrocarbons and fisheries lie — including reports of China Coastguard (CCG) vessels maintaining constant presence over areas with oil and gas fields.

Abdullah begged the question: “Are we able to chase their ships away if we need to?”.

According to Nik Mohamed Rashid Nik Zurin, senior analyst at corporate advisory firm Vriens & Partners, the China menace would only get more complicated with time, making it imperative to consider an immediate threat.

“China didn’t always have naval bases in the Spratly Islands to sustain its maritime operations into our EEZ in the South China Sea.

“Now, they also have two aircraft carriers built on the Kuznetsov design with a third indigenous design to be commissioned in the coming years, and all of this in a relatively short span of 10 to 15 years,” said Nik Rashid, a former special officer to a previous deputy defence minister.

Last year, the Philippines expressed its concern over reports and satellite imagery of Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands where new land formations were sighted, while the US outrightly claimed that China was building man-made islands and turning them into military bases.

According to Reuters, China, however, has maintained that these claims are “unfounded”.

To note, the Spratly Islands are a group of islands located some 400km off the coast of Borneo, that have overlapping claims involving Malaysia, China, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Aside from territorial disputes, Nik Rashid also said that there are continually evolving threats in cyberspace, targeting both critical infrastructure — such as the recent leaks from government databases — as well as public opinion.

Already underequipped for the task

Thomas Daniel, senior fellow in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, said that low allocations, mismanagement and neglect has “systematically hollowed out” Malaysia’s navy and air force.

“They just aren’t being given the tools they need to do the job they’re asked to do,” he stressed.

Malaysia reportedly has the lowest ratio of defence spending to gross national product (GNP) in South-east Asia.

Furthermore, in July 2018, the defence minister at the time, Datuk Seri Mohamad Sabu, revealed that only four out of the 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM fighter jets in Malaysia’s arsenal were airworthy.

Just last year, another defence procurement scandal broke out involving six littoral combat ships (LCS), in which none has been completed 11 years after the government awarded the RM9.13 billion contract to Boustead Naval Shipyard Sdn Bhd that has mostly been paid out.

Thomas said that the result of not having adequate military assets was that Malaysia is at risk of contributing far less towards military alliances such as the Five Power Defence Agreements — between Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK.

He said that the militaries of the UK, Australia and Singapore currently far outstripped that of Malaysia and New Zealand.

“This limits the kind of joint exercises we can do, such as complex combat related exercises using air and naval assets,” he added.

Gut check necessary

Both Thomas and Nik Rashid said that part of the problem was an apparent sense of defeatism among policymakers that Malaysia would not be able to fend off aggression from larger powers.

“I would push back on the notion by pointing out that it is always easier to defend a space than it is to attack it,” said Nik Rashid.

“China has to move its men, ships, planes, and many thousands of tonnes of supplies in the form of food, fuel, and munitions by sea and air to islands many hundreds of miles away that also took many years to artificially construct and maintain against the harsh elements.

“Their logistical and supply chain problems are several orders of magnitude more difficult than ours, while we are operating in home territory that we know better, defending our very right to exist as a sovereign state,” he added.

This article was first published in Malay Mail, 15 February 2023

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