On February 21, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad paid his first official visit to the defense ministry headquarters since he reassumed the premiership after a shock election victory in general elections last May. Among the priority areas he was briefed on was the release of a new defense white paper which has been mulled by the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government since last year. While the initiative would no doubt be a landmark development for Malaysian defense policy if realized, there continue to be some uncertainties around some aspects of its wider significance.
As I have noted before here and elsewhere, the unprecedented ouster of the Barisan National (BN) government last May under Najib Razak and the coming to power of the new PH government had raised questions about how Malaysia would approach a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, including in the defense realm as well.
Though it is still early days, one of the initial pledges made by the new PH government was the formulation and release of the country’s first-ever comprehensive defense white paper. The initiative, which first publicly surfaced in August last year, has been framed both in terms of the need to strategically lay out the country’s defense priorities over the next few years as well as to educate the wider population about the range of security challenges Malaysia faces as part of what Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong been calling a “whole of government” and “whole of society” approach.
If this is indeed realized, it would constitute a significant development for Malaysia’s defense policy in general and for the new PH government in particular. With respect to the former, while previous governments have released documents on specific defense policy issues and there have been discussions about a more comprehensive document, this would effectively constitute the first formally issued and tabled defense white paper of its kind for the country. If properly executed, it would be an important step in the long-recognized need to both clearly articulate a strategic defense vision as well as to educate the public about security issues.
Beyond that, for the PH government more specifically, it would be a tangible demonstration of its commitment to transparency in terms of how it governs. Additionally, it would also help begin to clarify the new government’s approach to defense issues. As I have noted previously, this would be useful given that there has been no shortage of uncertainty over its position on matters ranging from defense procurement to alignments with major powers to the South China Sea disputes, where Malaysia is a claimant state.
That said, thus far, specifics still remain unclear given that this is still a work in progress. In terms of timing, while this has been floated since last year and interagency meetings have already gotten underway, there is still no firm deadline for when it will be issued, with the latest public statement from Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu suggesting that it would be tabled in parliament in the second half of this year. General content areas have been said to include specific security challenges, capability requirements, budgeting, and welfare, but how exactly those will play out given the long list of agencies consulted remains to be seen. And with respect to distribution, while there has been some reference to how information will be shared with the public, we have not gotten the details as to how that process of publicization would occur.
Furthermore, it bears emphasizing that there are limits to what a defense white paper can do for Malaysia. The articulation of defense thinking in such documents is only one aspect of broader defense policy – which rests not just on what a government says, but how it actually acts with respect to a range of areas including budget allocations, alignments, and threat prioritization. There will also naturally be question marks over how representative the document will be of Malaysia’s future strategic outlook given that this is a new government that is still finding its feet amid concerns that the next election could see the return of the old guard.
How exactly all of this plays out will become clearer if and when we get closer to the defense white paper’s actual release expected in the coming months. But of the many ongoing issues within Malaysia defense policy, this significant development will be among the ones to watch through the rest of 2019 and beyond.