Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (right) gestures to Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu (centre) to cut the latter’s birthday cake just after the National Security Council meeting in Putrajaya last Monday. With them are (from left) Armed Forces chief Gen Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, Federal police Special Branch director Datuk Mohamed Farid Abu Hassan, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. (Pic courtesy of Defence Ministry)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will strongly advocate defence diplomacy with China, which is emerging as a superpower in the Asia-Pacific region.

Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said Malaysia, at the same time, would enhance its cordial ties with the United States and its Asean neighbours.

Malaysia’s move is seen to smooth out the highly volatile situation in the South China Sea, which is a major shipping route connecting the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

“Defence diplomacy is pertinent in tactfully handling disputes of overlapping claims on islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea.

“We will continue communicating regularly with China and the US by advocating defence diplomacy,” he said in conjunction with his 65th birthday last Monday.

Malaysia regularly holds defence exercises with the US and member nations of the Five-Power Defence Arrangement involving Singapore, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The New Straits Times understands that Chinese warships have been frequently patrolling the disputed territories in the Spratlys, including James Shoal and Luconia Shoal off Bintulu, Sarawak under its ‘Nine Dash Line’ claim.

Chinese warships are also believed to be making occasional port-calls in Port Klang.

Mohamad said despite the trade war between the US and China, Malaysia’s gross domestic product continued to grow from 4.5 per cent to 4.7 per cent.

He said the 2020 Budget did not even reach RM300 billion and was far lower than the previous year’s budget.

“The US and China are striving hard to resolve the trade conflict as it has a great impact on the economies of other nations, especially the smaller ones in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The spill-offs from the trade war between the two giant countries will affect Malaysia, which has strong relations with the US and China, the top two trading countries with Malaysia,” said Mohamad.

He reminded how China had emerged over the decades from being seen as a nation with bicycles, to becoming the world’s top economy.

Likewise, Vietnam too is another fast-emerging nation, from the times of its people fleeing their country to Pulau Bidong (off Terengganu).

“I remember 20 years ago, there were hardly any flights at Ho Chi Minh airport.

“Today, the airport is busy as a bee. That is how developed it has evolved,” he said.

Mohamad hoped Malaysia would rise as an Asian tiger, despite the fact that a ‘tooth’ had broken.

On the 2020 budget allocation for defence, Mohamad said although the amount was not satisfactory, it was still a 12 per cent increase from RM13.9 billion to RM15.58 billion.

He said although the defence development budget was reduced by RM0.5 billion, the management budget had increased by 21 per cent to RM2.23 billion.

Mohamad said his ministry received the fifth largest allocation with RM15.6 billion.

He said of the total amount, RM5.7 billion was for the Army, RM2.5 billion for the Royal Malaysian Air Force, RM2 billion for the Royal Malaysian Navy and RM1.4 billion for the Joint Force.

Mohamad said, despite the challenging economic situation, the welfare of soldiers and veterans was always a priority.

Under the 2020 Budget, Pingat Jasa Malaysia recipients (who served during the two Emergency periods, the Confrontation with Indonesia and the communist insurgency era) and Defence Ministry staff of Grade 56 and below were allocated a special RM500 payment each.

Also, RM150 million has been allocated to repair dilapidated homes of armed forces personnel, as compared with RM50 million in the previous budget.

Separately, Mohamad said once the Defence White Paper was approved after tabling in Parliament on Dec 2, the ministry wanted to stop the “blame game” syndrome.

“We often blame others when a project fails. We should all be accountable as a team to ensure this does not happen.

“Any success is our success. Likewise, any failure is our failure, altogether,” he said.

Mohamad cited the Armed Forces Superannuation Fund (LTAT) which announced a shocking annual dividend of just two per cent, as an example.

“We will work from this (low) two per cent dividend to improve payment for the following year.

“All of LTAT’s board members and us will be responsible for this. From next year, we cannot use the blame game anymore.

“The Pakatan Harapan government will ensure that there is proper monitoring of projects being developed under the 12th and 13th Malaysia Plans,” he said.

He added that the prime minister constantly reminded him that the Defence White Paper would be the basis to forge the country forward.

“Dr Mahathir often spoke about the need to prop up national defence, not to prepare for war, but to improve security and safeguard our sovereignty.

“He often mentioned up-to-date modern warfare technologies concerning cyber defence, aerospace, drones and radars,” he said.

Mohamad said drones were increasingly in demand in other sectors like agriculture, timber, fisheries, landscape, mapping, disaster management and the like.