BMI's Malaysia Defence and Security Report examines the country's strategic position in South East Asia and the wider region. It provides an overview of the challenges facing the country in the context of regional concerns centring on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as potential domestic instability stemming from national elections, which are due to be held by mid-April 2013.
Malaysia's domestic stability could hinge on the government's tolerance for the increasingly well organised and well supported opposition. The early signs are that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak does not plan to repress opposition activities as Malaysian leaders have done in the past, with a large opposition rally in Kuala Lumpur having passed off peacefully in January. However, Najib could come under pressure from within his own party to be less permissive, if the election is looking close. In January opinion polls approval for Najib himself remained relatively high, though his party was less popular, raising the prospect that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition could see its number of seats reduced even if it holds onto power.
Corruption allegations surrounding Najib's role in the procurement of French submarines nearly a decade ago continue to make headlines in Malaysia, but they do not appear to have hit the prime minister's approval ratings too hard. Nonetheless, there could be some very uncomfortable times for Najib and his BN colleagues when a French inquiry into the submarine sale concludes, perhaps later in 2013.
Procurement activity is understandably quiet given the sensitivity about the perceived corruption that surrounds major defence deals, and also due to the emphasis on social spending ahead of the general election. The selection of a new fighter aircraft is expected to move forwards in 2013, after the poll. The defence minister has also set out a requirement for 12 additional Eurocopter EC 725 helicopters to add to the 12 already on order (the first of which arrived in December).
While Malaysia's relations with its neighbours remain cordial, regional diplomacy is under severe strain after arguments with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over how to handle territorial disputes involving member states and China. Malaysia, a claimant to areas of the South China Sea, had been due to join the other claimants - Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam - in Manila in December for talks about how to proceed, in the absence of third parties with no direct stake in the disputes. However, the talks were postponed indefinitely amid political sensitivity to the four member states operating outside the auspices of ASEAN. But in early 2013, the process of normalising relations with China was still at square one, with no timetable for talks about a new code of conduct in sight.
Over the last quarter BMI has revised the following forecasts/views:
- The implications of Malaysia's upcoming election for internal stability are discussed in detail, with everything hinging on how the long-ruling BN responds to the biggest ever opposition challenge to its 55-year rule.
- Splits within ASEAN over the issue of territorial disputes with China are also discussed. Malaysia, despite being a South China Sea claimant, has taken a back seat in the often heated arguments about how to handle these issues. However, the collapse of ASEAN unity is of grave concern to Malaysia, as it is to the other members.
- Malaysia held its first ever military exercise with India in October, underscoring the two countries' strengthening defence ties.
- The procurement of early warning aircraft is expected to be Malaysia's main acquisition target for 2013, with the Saab A340 and the Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye understood to be the main contenders.