Serving in the armed forces requires dedication, a sense of service and the willingness to make sacrifices.
That is perhaps why Tuan Mohamad Sabu (better known as Mat Sabu) is the right person to head the Ministry of Defence (MinDef) in the New Malaysia. One of the most colourful political figures around, Tuan Mat Sabu has undergone many tribulations associated with being part of the Opposition during the former regime, including two stints of detention without trial. Yet despite it all, he never once wavered from his principles and has kept on fighting the good fight. Now entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing Malaysia’s defence, Tuan Mat Sabu speaks with International Business Review on his plans and aspirations.
Tuan Mat Sabu has no illusions about the challenges he faces in the role of Malaysia’s Defence Minister. Not only is he responsible for safeguarding the nation’s territorial sovereignty, he has to do so while faced with a number of challenges. Chief of these are to reassert integrity in MinDef, to achieve results with a lower budget, and to carefully navigate the delicate waters of the South China Sea situation.
Addressing the first challenge, he explains, is “to ensure minimum leakages and full policy compliance in line with our vision for a New Malaysia”. At the same time, the precarious financial situation the country finds itself in, what with the RM1 trillion in debt and obligations, means that a new Defence White Paper is being drawn up to identify the nation’s main defence priorities.
The South China Sea will of course be one of these priority areas. Speaking on this, the MinDef Minister noted that, “We must be cautious in how we deal with the two Great Powers, the US and China, as well as continuously maintaining good relations with our ASEAN neighbours who also have interests of their own in the region.”
Another issue of national concern which Tuan Mat Sabu needs to deal with is the porous East Coast of Sabah, which has been the target of incursions by militants and pirates from the Philippines. The most infamous incident came about in 2013 when hostile forces infiltrated the Lahad Datu district, and this led to the establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE).
Tuan Mat Sabu was pleased to reveal that not only have the defences in ESSZONE been strengthened, they will also soon be upgraded with the deployment of two new MD530G Light Attack Helicopters. These, the Minister noted, “will enhance the Malaysian Armed Forces’ firepower and reconnaissance-strike capabilities.”
Military hardware aside, Tuan Mat Sabu is also cognisant that the security of ESSZONE is also dependent on close cooperation with our neighbours. This is reflected in the Trilateral Country Agreement, which sees Malaysia patrolling the Sulu Sea with Indonesia and the Philippines. According to the Minister, “Our cooperation in this matter has built trust and interoperability between our forces, which in turn have increased our effectiveness in preventing further security incidents in this area.”
While Tuan Mat Sabu has a lot on his plate, one matter he managed to settle is the withdrawal of Malaysian soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Their deployment to the Middle East, in a non-UN sanctioned mission, by the previous administration was a particularly controversial point, especially since Malaysia’s foreign policy has always been based on non-alignment and non-interference.
Having addressed this deviation from normal policy, Tuan Mat Sabu also reiterated Malaysia’s commitment to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, as per our National Defence Policy. At present, Malaysian forces are involved in such missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, South Sudan, Darfur and Abyei in Sudan, and the Western Sahara. In addition, as Tuan Mat Sabu revealed, Malaysia also has a battalion on stand-by to assist in any UN peacekeeping mission if needed.
Expressing our intention to play a part in ensuring peace and security in the world while maintaining our stance of neutrality, the MinDef Minister firmly stated, “If the UN decides to send additional peace-keeping missions to Yemen and Myanmar, Malaysia will be sure to be among the first to participate in such missions. I would like to emphasise here that Malaysia will only do so through UN-approved Peace Keeping Organisations, and will not entertain requests from foreign powers to involve ourselves with their domestic afffairs.”
As aforementioned, one of Tuan Mat Sabu’s main priorities is to strengthen the integrity of MinDef. This is mainly the result of several incidents regarding the procurement of defence assets, most notoriously that of two Scorpene submarines from France.
While asserting that the purchase of the submarines were needed in line with the Forward Defence Strategy of the National Defence Policy, the Minister stated that several steps have to be taken when it comes to defence procurement. These include our ability to maintain the equipment over the course of its lifespan and ensuring that we get the best return for the money spent.
Moving forward, priority will be given to military assets in the air and maritime category, in particular patrol boats. At the same time, he assured that the purchase of heavy artillery will also be given top consideration.
Aside from purchasing assets from foreign suppliers, Tuan Mat Sabu is also looking to bolster the capabilities of the Malaysian defence industry. As he told IBR, “We are mindful of the need to cultivate local industries to reduce our dependence on foreign arms and equipment. Furthermore, growth in this sector will create new jobs and breach new technological frontiers.”
As such, he revealed that MinDef’s Bahagian Industri Pertahanan (BIP – Defence Industry Division) is auditing local defence companies to gauge their capabilities and readiness to move to the next level. BIP Is also drafting a Defence, Enforcement & Security Blueprint which will identify areas of growth as well as put in place the proper ecosystem to support industry players. At the same time, the Ministry is also seeking to register these companies with the NATO Commercial & Government entity, so that they are eligible to be purchased by NATO members.