PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s defence spending, which will see a projected decline of 40% from 2019-2021, trails behind many South-East Asian countries, and security experts feel that the government should consider increasing the defence budget.
This follows the proposal to set the country’s military spending to at least 1% of the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).
Veterans groups, however, are saying that while the 1% allocation is a good start, this could be slowly increased over the years to ensure a balance in development in the current economic climate.
Security analyst Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, said Malaysia’s defence spending would see a sharp decrease, from US$3.87bil (RM16.14bil) in 2019 to US$3.4bil (RM14.18bil) in 2021.
“In terms of percentage of defence spending compared to GDP, Malaysia is behind the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore respectively.
“In terms of absolute spending, Malaysia trails behind the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, ” he said.
On Monday, Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said after tabling the Defence White Paper (DWP), his ministry had been applying for an annual allocation of at least 1% of the GDP. This, he said, was to ensure the future needs and expenses of the ministry were sufficiently met.
Mohamad had also said that the ministry would be seeking more budget allocation under the 12th and 13th Malaysia Plans.
Last year, Malaysia’s GDP stood at US$354.35bil (RM1.48 trillion).
Stressing that he is not for uncontrolled defence spending, Abuza pointed out that if Malaysia’s defence spending continued to decline, it would have a long-term impact on the country.
“I do not support defence spending at the expense of other matters such as education, economic growth and infrastructure. That said, Malaysian defence spending is getting critically low.
“If you think about the cost of certain platforms, then the decline of spending will have long-term implications, ” he said.
Most of the allocation would go to the army, but Malaysia has no land-based threat, Abuza said.
“The country’s threats are maritime. The White Paper also does not identify land grabs or claims to the maritime occupation of Malaysian waters at James Shoal.
“The Armed Forces does not adequately resource its navy as the bulk of the resources goes to the army, ” he said.
More maritime resources should be allocated, according to Abuza, especially in Sabah, where they serve as an important counterterrorism role.
“Foreign fighters infiltrate the Philippines via Sabah, while Filipino terrorist groups, like the Abu Sayyaf, are still able to engage in
kidnap-for-ransom operations in both the maritime domain, while also trying to stage operations in Sabah, ” said the professor who specialises in South-East Asian Security issues.Meanwhile, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia senior analyst Shahriman Lockman urged the government to stick to the 6% of the national budget figure allocation.
“It is going to be just enough, assuming that there are no cost significant overruns in major defence projects. We are actually under-spending on defence. This needn’t be a question of either or between defence and other priorities, ” he said.
“The government cannot afford to choose as it needs to fulfil all its responsibilities including on education, infrastructure development as well as defence
“Many of the older ships and aircraft are no longer economical to operate. The older equipment will always be more expensive to operate in the long run.
“We need to be thinking of life-cycle costs, not just the acquisition costs, ” he added.
Former Armed Forces chief Tan Sri Mohamed Hashim Mohd Ali said the proposal of at least 1% of GDP was a good start.
“Considering the current economic environment, as a start for a 10-year programme, it should be the right start, ” he said.
He said the next step, of course, was to figure out how to go on about the DWP.
“I think they need to sit down and find the right approach on the details, ” he said.
He added that as a developing country, Malaysia’s development and national security must “go hand in hand”.
“If you want security, you must also have development, ” he said.
Retired navy commodore and Royal Malaysian Navy veterans association president Senator Mohd Imran Abd Hamid said that normally, the allocation for defence stood at about 3% of GDP.
“If the DWP is implemented properly and following all the procedures, God willing, it would develop the local defence industry, ” he said.
The DWP, which is being developed as the new arm of the national defence policy, was developed with the cooperation of academicians, defence industry players, veterans, former Malaysian Armed Forces chiefs and civil society organisations.
It also outlines a vision to defend Malaysia as a safe, sovereign and prosperous country and to position the country as a maritime nation with a continental lineage apart from maximising the country’s potential as a gateway, linking the Asia-Pacific region with the Indian Ocean.