This week, Malaysia’s new army chief paid his first visit to Singapore in his current capacity. While the trip was a routine development, it nonetheless highlighted some of the ongoing activity in the defense relationship between the two neighboring Southeast Asian states in spite of ongoing challenges and wider developments in their domestic and foreign policy.
As I have observed previously 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, as well as broader minilateral and multilateral arrangements as well.
That general dynamic has continued on over the past few years, with some disputes re-emerging on the security side as both countries manage domestic political changes. Malaysia’s government under returning Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is looking to shape its foreign policy following a shock election win in May 2018 and Singapore is preparing for a gradual transition away from current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
This week, the defense aspect of the bilateral relationship was in the headlines with the visit of Malaysia’s army chief to Singapore. The Chief of Army of the Malaysian Armed Forces Ahmad Hasbullah Mohammad Nawawi made the trip to Singapore that kicked off on Thursday. It was the first visit to the country since he was appointed to his new position in September 2018, after his predecessor Zulkiple Kassim retired.
Hasbullah’s visit, which is set to last from August 1 to August 5, consisted of several official interactions. In terms of meetings, he met with a range of top Singapore officials, including Chief of Defense Force Melvyn Ong, Chief of Army Goh Si Hou, and Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen. During the meeting with Ng, Singapore’s defense ministry (MINDEF) said that both sides reaffirmed the importance of positive army-to-army ties and also discussed collaboration in areas of common interest such as counterterrorism.
Beyond those meetings, Hasbullah’s trip consisted of other defense-related activities as well. For instance, per MINDEF, he visited the 2nd People’s Defence Force – which is mainly responsible for homeland security and counterterrorism – where he viewed a static display of Army assets and embarked on a familiarization ride on the Peacekeeper Protected Response Vehicle. He also visited ST Engineering, which is an integrated engineering group that has played an important role in Singapore’s defense including through collaboration with the Singapore Armed Forces.