Home- Stories -Exclusive | Malaysia’s Military Modernisation: A Reset Under the New Government?

Exclusive | Malaysia’s Military Modernisation: A Reset Under the New Government?

: Mar 25, 2019 - : 1:14 pm

Exclusive Guest Column | By Shang-su Wu


As the predecessor’s several iconic projects, such as high-speed railway, have been storiesponed or altered due to the financial concerns, the incumbent administration in Kuala Lumpur would not neglect expensive military procurements either.

Compared to major infrastructure with considerable popularity, military acquisition would matter less to the public support as well as following elections, under a still peaceful situation in the region. A major reset of military modernisation is not first time to Malaysia; back to the late 1970s, the tightening situation in the Indochina with the danger of the Communist invasion made Kuala expand its arsenal in an unprecedented scale, such as the deal of 88 A-4 attack aircraft. However, the sudden economic recession in 1985 significantly disrupted those projects.

Again, the financial crisis in 1997 / 1998 also storiesponed the Malaysian armed forces’ pace of modernisation, such as the delayed introduction of main battle tank (MBT).

By the same token, Kuala Lumpur currently would not be ambitious in military modernisation as itself a decade ago, but it is unlikely to completely freeze all further procurements. Obviously, Malaysia’s security circumstances have not been dramatically changed: the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, especially the massive Chinese military presence, continue; the piracy in the adjacent waters has not been fully solved; internal security concerns, whether more fighters returning from the collapsing Islamic State (IS) or the instability in the southern Philippines. Those challenges indicate the needs for Kuala Lumpur to develop certain military capabilities, such as maritime surveillance and transport between its eastern and western territories.

Aside from purchasing brand new equipment with advanced technology, several alternatives for Kuala Lumpur may suggest possible characteristics of its military modernisation during the current downturn. Despite probably shorter lifespan, upgrading existing assets, usually cheaper than purchasing brand new ones, would retain existing capability. Furthermore, most upgrades are locally conducted which benefits the domestic economy and creates employment.

Since many assets in the Malaysian service, such as C-130 transporter aircraft, are popular in the global domain, various options of upgrades for them are available. Given that upgrading is infeasible or the definite necessities for expanding certain capabilities, in contrast to pursuit of latest technology, to acquire relatively simple models or used equipment plus flexible payment could lower the financial burden.

In addition, Malaysia’s strategic location between the Pacific and Indian Oceans may attract some powers, either China or the Quad, to provide excessive assets or new items at “friendship prices” or with soft loan.


(Shang-su Wu is a research fellow on the Military Studies Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.)

(The final part of this article will appear on March 27, 2019. Watch this space)  

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