Last week, Malaysia’s new defense minister was in Brunei for a scheduled introductory visit. The interaction, the first high-level engagement of its kind between the two sides in 2019, put the focus on the Malaysia-Brunei defense relationship and the broader state of bilateral ties more generally that both sides are attempting to strengthen in the new year.
As I have noted before in these pages, Malaysia and Brunei, two fellow Southeast Asian states with long historic and cultural links, have a contemporary bilateral relationship that dates back to 1984 when Brunei got its independence from Britain. Both states share a land border and have attempted to forge greater cooperation over the years in spite of some differences over boundaries and borders, including on the defense side, which includes various aspects such as visits and exchanges, training, as well as exercises.
That has continued on over the past year despite some important domestic developments on both sides which have affected their defense policies as well. These include the shock election victory by Malaysia’s opposition Pakatan Harapan government last May which saw former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s return to the premiership, and some domestic reshuffling of key political and defense-related positions in Brunei in 2018 as well.
Last week, the state of the defense aspect of the relationship in 2019 was in the headlines again with the visit of Malaysia’s defense minister to Brunei. Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu (popularly known as “Mat Sabu”) was on his scheduled first trip to Brunei since he took up his current position after elections last May.
His visit, which lasted from January 22 to January 24, saw a range of interactions including meetings and trips to military facilities and cultural landmarks. With respect to meetings, it included several Brunei officials including the second defense minister and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also holds the defense minister portfolio in Brunei.
According to Brunei’s defense ministry (MINDEF), the meeting between the two ministers saw them reiterating their commitment to strengthening defense collaboration through various bilateral and multilateral platforms. There was also a reference to existing links between the defense and military institutions of the two countries, including in terms of regional and global operations such as monitoring missions in the southern Philippines and involvement in UN forces in Lebanon.
Apart from those meetings, Mat Sabu also visited a number of other defense facilities, including the RBAF Museum and the RBAF Defense Academy where he interacted with Malaysian officers participating in a command and staff course. He also paid a visit to the mosque and toured various key cultural places as well.