The Defence White Paper tabled in Parliament recently is the Defence Ministry’s exercise in public diplomacy.
For the first time in 60 years, the ministry opens itself to public scrutiny.
This is not an easy task as there has to be a fine line between keeping the public informed and ensuring confidentiality on matters of security.
Those born after 1960 may wonder what purpose our soldiers serve when there are no wars to be fought.
Many do not realise that the peace and stability that we enjoy today is because our men in green, white and blue are protecting our territorial waters, air space and land boundaries twenty-four-seven.
The tabling of the Defence White Paper by the defence minister is in tandem with the new administration’s aspiration to be transparent and accountable to the public.
Defence is no longer the confines of generals and top policymakers.
In defining the direction and priorities to keep Malaysia safe, the public and stakeholders are now engaged.
The Defence White Paper is a comprehensive, well-written and forward-looking document.
It is a national blueprint that aligns defence policy with the government’s security and foreign policy that takes into consideration the upholding of Malaysia’s national interests.
This means admitting that a successful defence policy can only be achieved with the participation of other stakeholders, particularly the police force and the Foreign Ministry.
As a public document, it is informative and provides an understanding of the role of the Malaysian armed forces in keeping our national boundaries safe.
It reminds the public of Malaysia’s delicate geographical position that can invite potential big power rivalry, neighbourhood political disruptions and other forms of threats from religious extremism and terrorism to maritime piracy, cyber threats and kidnap for ransom.
The public is assured that despite uncertainties and insecurity, Malaysia’s defence policy, just as its foreign policy, is to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and those outside the region.
It seeks cooperation rather than confrontation, and in the process, pursues bilateral and multilateral defence engagements with many countries.
As a country that professes neutrality in its foreign policy, Malaysia has defence cooperation not only with its traditional partners like Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but also with the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, India and Pakistan.
The Defence White Paper talks about building the future force to better address the unpredictable security conditions and prepare for contingency situations — from armed intervention to disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and supporting world peace through the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations.
The future force intends to incorporate the latest technology that is mainly automated and autonomous rather than relying heavily on manpower.
It calls for the strengthening of the armed forces’ defence intelligence and modernising its surveillance and communications systems, the introduction of fifth-generation fighters and stand-off weapons, tactical transport helicopters, light combat aircraft, fast interceptor boats and warships.
This would mean replacing obsolete and ageing assets with more sophisticated ones in line with the Industrial Revolution 4.0, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.
The aspiration is to acquire them within the next 10 years and subject to constant review, and is said to be achievable if the government provides a minimum of 6.5 per cent of its annual budget beginning 2021 to 2030.
An interesting aspect of the Defence White Paper is its emphasis on supporting the local defence industry.
Asean member states spend some US$30 billion annually on its defence requirements and a well-developed Malaysian defence industry can provide vast opportunities to tap into the Asean market.
Since defence acquisitions are costly, a vibrant local defence industry can supply some of the military needs that help reduce foreign purchases and the outflow of the ringgit.
The call for more women participation in the armed forces, more representation from the different ethnic groups, volunteers among university and college students and those from the private sector will make the Malaysian armed forces more inclusive.
The call is intended to make the public more security-conscious and instil awareness that participation is the backbone of national resilience.
The Defence Ministry can do more by engaging the youth in defence awareness.
The compulsory national service training that was suspended should be revived.
The making of TV dramas such as Leftenan Zana that attracted more than 25 million viewers and the movie, Paskal, provide a positive perception of Malaysian armed forces and should be encouraged.
The selling of an alternative to the poppy flower to the public can instil comradery in our soldiers.
At the international stage, our public image can be enhanced by a wider participation in the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations.
Today, there are only 800 Malaysian peacekeepers overseas and the number should rightly be increased to 8,000.
The beauty of the Defence White Paper is that it is forward-looking and does not apportion blame or look back at past mistakes.
The fact that there is no mention of non-submerging submarines, missing assets, dodgy land swaps and ridiculous instant noodles procurement prices is a reflection of the new defence outlook.
This is one commendable White Paper that the public would benefit from reading.
The writer is Malaysia’s former ambassador to Fiji and the Netherlands, and permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times