Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 31 March 2017

The French President Francois Hollande was here recently on a charm offensive to persuade Prime Minister Najib Razak to buy their multi-billion defence equipment, namely, the Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale fighter jets. The Rafale is seen as a frontrunner as Malaysia looks to buy up to 18 jets in a deal potentially worth more than RM9 billion. That’s not bad going considering the French had already succeeded in selling their two Scorpene submarines to Malaysia for more than RM7 billion, the biggest single defence purchase by Malaysia to date.

The French have even started advertising their ‘Rafale’ fighter jets in our mainstream newspapers, competing for the attention of Malaysian consumers alongside the bargains offered by ‘Giant’ and ‘Tesco’. British Aerospace is also competing for a slice of Malaysia’s defence pie, trying to flog their ‘Typhoons’ in a RM10 billion deal they hope to clinch with a “Buy 1 – Get 1 free” gambit. The French are desperate to sell their arms because sixty per cent of their exports are made up of arms! They obviously have not heeded the wise words of their litterateur Albert Camus who said, “Peace is the only battle worth waging.”

The key question is whether Malaysia actually needs any of these fabulous toys, considering the cost of fighter jets is spiraling way out of control and such “toys” are so quickly obsolete? Malaysian taxpayers need to be wary of this latest and record breaking arms deal. Let us not forget the scandal over alleged commissions in that Scorpene submarines deal which led to the grisly murder of the Mongolian lass Altantuya. And let us hope that Michele Yeoh’s Legion d’Honneur is the only deserved sweetener in this deal…

RM500m per fighter jet?

According to Bank Negara, Malaysia’s total external debt has risen to RM 909bil in 2016, which is equal to 73.9% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This raises a red flag about whether we can afford such levels of defence spending at all and importantly, is what we are spending allocated wisely on arms priorities considering our debt situation?

Malaysian taxpayers deserve answers to these key questions: Are multi-role combat aircraft our priority at the moment considering the latest state-of-the-art (US) F35s cost at least half a billion ringgit a piece? And if the most advanced US-made fighter jet, the F35 ‘Raptors’ cost more than RM500 million, should these French Rafaels similarly cost more than RM500 million? Can we see some competitive offers from the other arms merchants of the Gripen and the Typhoons?

Our Defence Ministry says it is planning is to replace the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) squadron of Russian MiG-29 combat planes, nearly half of which are grounded. Can we have a report on the relative performances of our MiGs, Sukhois, Hawks and F18s all these years so we can understand why nearly half these MiGs are grounded? Can we also have an audit report on the compatibility of our bizarrely diverse Russian, British, US (and now French?) fighter jets and especially the compatibility of their avionic systems? What lessons do our past purchase choices hold for our future fighter jet procurements?

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has said Malaysia’s defence spending will continue to grow as our armed forces have embarked on a long-term plan to modernise and upgrade their equipment and that a total of RM26 billion had been allocated under the 11th Malaysia Plan for defence, public order and enforcement.

Who are Malaysia’s enemies and what appropriate weaponry do we need?

One would think that this is the first question the Ministry of Defence would ask in the multi-billion decisions to procure armaments. Yet our National Defence Policy has never been properly debated in parliament. One of the rare moments we got to use our F18 fighter bombers and Hawk 208 fighter jets was against those invaders described by the Defence Minister as a “rag-tag army” at Lahad Datu a few years ago.  Wouldn’t armoured cars and tanks and mortars have sufficed in that four square kilometer area of land against that motley crew?

What are our priorities for naval defence?

When the bombardment began at Lahad Datu, it was mentioned that the navy had formed a cordon to prevent the intruders from getting away. It was clear that there never was a cordon to prevent any intruders from getting INTO Sabah all these years. Looking at the geography of the area, our two submarines built by the French DCNS sitting pretty at Sepanggar Bay and our six New Generation Patrol Vessels (costing RM9 billion) were not the most suitable vessels in the circumstances. It brings to mind the question of the appropriate vessels that should be the priority for our navy.

As part of the RM5 billion arms deal signed between Dr Mahathir and Margaret Thatcher in 1989, we procured two corvettes built by the Yarrow shipbuilders costing RM2.2 billion. (NST, 11.11.91) At the time, the Royal Malaysian Navy said they required sixteen offshore patrol vessels but due to financial constraints, the RMN could only afford four or five of these locally-built OPVs. Mindef had budgeted RM85 million per OPV. (NST, 25.11.91) Now, in the light of the latest incident at Lahad Datu, Malaysians will be in a better position to see the appropriate vessels that would be more suitable to secure the Sabah coastline.

Before the Lahad Datu incident, our main “enemies” testing the capacity of our armed forces were the pirates in the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. There were no bigger “enemies” than those seafaring marauders. Are state-of-the-art fighter jets and submarines the appropriate weaponry against pirates? These would likewise be inappropriate if “international terrorists” and suicide bombers choose to target Malaysia.

“Rising tensions in the South China Sea”

We are now told that Malaysia wants to revamp of its aging naval fleet in the face of threats from rising tensions in the South China Sea. Malaysia’s navy aims to replace all 50 vessels in its aging fleet and this will be led by the procurement of four littoral mission ships (LMS) built in collaboration with China. The deal is worth more than RM1 billion.

One would imagine that by its reference to “rising tensions”, the Malaysian Government is referring to China’s claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea. So if China is seen as a possible “enemy”, should China have a hand in the building of these littoral mission ships? It seems a very strange logic in justifying the purchase of these four warships. Or are the ASEAN countries also seen as possible “enemies” since there is an unspoken arms race among the ASEAN countries through the years which merely exhausts the hard-earned resources of our peoples. Indonesia’s total defence spending has jumped around 26 percent, and Thailand’s military government has just approved a $389.05 million submarine deal with China.

The Malaysian Navy is reported to be in the final stages of negotiations with French shipbuilder DCNS to build the larger littoral combat ships (LCS), three new multi-role support ships (MRSS) and two more submarines. Knowing the bill for the two Scorpene submarines was more than RM7 billion, Malaysian taxpayers should be prepared for the worst.

So, exactly how are decisions made in the Ministry of Defence to purchase the submarines, the corvettes, the frigates instead of more patrol boats to guard our coastlines?

With our external debt spiraling towards RM1 trillion, Malaysian taxpayers would do well to question the government’s defence priorities and to call on the government to justify the next multi-billion arms procurements with full transparency. Malaysians need to be reminded that with RM1 billion, we can build at least 1000 rural schools or 100 district hospitals. (Note: We only have just over 1000 Chinese primary schools and just over 500 Tamil schools today!)