On January 25, Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that Malaysia would look to equip its naval base close to the South China Sea with an air defense system.
Hishammuddin made the announcement during a visit to the base, known as the RMN Kota Kinabalu, as part of a three-day working trip to the country’s east to examine its military preparedness. He said that the base required an advanced air defense system to ensure its protection.
The need to enhance the base’s defenses is understandable. The RMN Kota Kinabalu is the only base with the facilities to host the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN’s) two prized Scorpene-class submarines. Malaysia’s naval capabilities have also been increasingly stretched. The country, which is surrounded by strategic sea lanes and is heavily dependent on seaborne trade, faces a range of challenges to secure its interests, as Hishammuddin himself pointed out, including the South China Sea disputes, the Islamic State and the security situation in Sabah.
While he was predictably silent on the specifics of those challenges, close observers know what they are. The 2013 invasion of Sabah by Filipino militants – known as the Lahad Datu incident – followed by a series of 2014 kidnappings involving Chinese nationals there, have revealed Malaysia’s vulnerability in the east. Meanwhile, rising incursions from China into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea have exposed the country’s naval limitations. The threat of the Islamic state also looms large. Having any of these threats disrupt Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship year would be a disaster, particularly as it prepares to usher in the ASEAN Community with great fanfare.
While the move is clearly part of a broader effort to harden the country’s defenses against these threats, Hishammuddin was coy on specifics. He said more – including which systems might be used – would be forthcoming later. But when exactly is still not clear. That matters because it would determine where it fits within Malaysia’s spending plans over the next few years. Other issues also remain unresolved, including how much of a priority this is relative to other much-needed military upgrades which have previously been put off for various reasons.
More broadly, a key lingering question for Malaysia when such announcements are made – as it often is these days – will be whether it is able to actually follow through on it in the current political and economic environment. Hishammuddin himself said the kind of equipment to be purchased would be subject to the economy and political situation. Both of those are factors have made military modernization a challenge in Malaysia in recent years under Prime Minister Najib Razak.
At present, neither of those looks particularly good. Politically, growing dissatisfaction with the government, combined with a deep suspicion about corruption in military purchases, often makes justifying new equipment challenging. The two Scorpene submarines the base holds were themselves previously the subject of a scandal harking back to when Najib was defense minister. Economically, falling oil prices, a weakening currency, and devastating floods made Najib announce a much trimmer, revised budget earlier this month than the one he unveiled last October. Penny-pinching times may make new defense plans less palatable.
Of course, the government may be able to find ways (and room) to get systems that it truly needs. The little of Najib’s initial 2015 budget that was devoted to defense last year, for instance, still included plans to secure Malaysia’s east, including additional army battalions, upgrading runways, and sea basing. Hishammuddin announced more specifics on some of these measures during his trip as well. At the RMN Kota Kinabalu base, he also inspected the ongoing construction of three workshops for the maintenance of submarine equipment and storage, judging it to be 12 percent complete and according to schedule. Perhaps he will be back unveiling an actual advanced air defense system further down the line.