This week, Malaysia’s armed forces chief made his introductory visit to Singapore. The interaction cast light on the ongoing military collaboration underway between the two Southeast Asian neighbors despite the lingering challenges in the bilateral relationship amid wider domestic and regional changes at play.
As I have noted before in these pages, though Malaysia and Singapore have had a rather prickly relationship in the past and challenges do arise at times, their militaries still interact regularly through various bilateral exchanges and exercises such as Exercise Malapura and Exercise Semangat Bersatu as well as under multilateral arrangements, from the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), which also consists of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, to Eyes-in-the-Sky combined air patrols to enhance maritime security in the Straits of Malacca.
That has continued on into 2018 amid some wider domestic and regional changes. A shock May election in Malaysia returned Mahathir Mohamad back to the premiership, while Singapore’s holding of the annually rotating ASEAN chairmanship this year adds to what the country has on its plate in the foreign policy realm, including on security issues.
This week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in the spotlight again with the visit of the Malaysian Chief of Armed Forces (MAF) General Zulkifli Zainal Abidin. Zulkifli had assumed the position in June following a tenure as army chief, replacing his predecessor, who had been due for retirement.
Zulkifli’s introductory visit to Singapore lasted from October 2 to October 3, and it came during a busy week for this aspect of the bilateral relationship. Several other Malaysian defense officials were also in Singapore, in part due to the holding of the 2018 Southeast Asia Counterterrorism Symposium that Singapore had earlier been highlighting as part of its ASEAN chairmanship.
Zulkifli’s trip included various interactions, including meetings with Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen and Chief of Defense Force Melvyn Ong. According to Singapore’s defense ministry (MINDEF), during the meeting between Ng and Zulkifli, both sides assessed the current state of ties and discussed ways it could be strengthened to contend with shared regional security challenges.
Other than that, Zulkifli also visited Singapore defense and defense-related facilities, notably Changi Naval Base, the Changi Command and Control Center, the Island Defense Task Force at Clementi Camp, and ST Engineering. He also observed the opening ceremony of exercise Bersama Lima.