Asia Inc Dec 94

INTERVIEW: Najib tun Razak, Malaysian Defense Minister

dec 1994

The Defense Never Rests

Arms dealers began salivating when Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak announced last year that his country's acquisition of 18 Russian MiG-29 fighter jets was only the beginning of a decade-long program to upgrade the country's armed forces. Since then, Malaysia has purchased eight American FA-18s and is now looking to buy an offshore patrol-vessel fleet.With its high economic growth, Malaysia can afford to spend more on defense. And Najib, in his current post, is uniquely positioned to have a lasting impact on the region. The 41 -year-old son of the late Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak is also a rising star in Malaysian politics. During a recent visit to Singapore he talked with Asia, Inc.'s Salil Tripathi about regional security issues and related business opportunities:

Our defense needs in the 1990s are different from in the past. Malaysia has moved from countering domestic insurgency to planning to combat external threats. I find the current debate about a regional arms race surprising. Why is it that during the 1960s and 1970s we didn't hear about an arms race in Sou theast Asia?

Malaysia is not spending that much on defense ($ 1.5 billion is budgeted for 1994). We have a legitimate need to replace our aging equipment, most of which is outdated. It is unwise to keep using it. Take combat aircraft. They are necessary for security reasons, and we cannot fly aircraft that are structurally unsound. Furthermore, it is uneconomical to use aging vehicles; spare parts are hard to find. You must remember that Malaysia was the last country in the region to acquire modern combat aircraft. Others had them first, but we didn't make any noise about it.

There is no reason for alarm in the region. Are Asian countries buying weapons of mass destruction? No. Are they buying weapons capable of strategic offensives? No. The increased expenditure is defensive. That's what all of us are doing. We should look at the direction of the increased expenditure, not just the amount.

I have heard of the so-called Thai naval buildup. But Malaysia is not concerned. Our countries have excellent bilateral and multilateral ties. We should not look at the strength of each country in the region purely in military terms.

ASEAN is a shining example of regional cooperation. No member country is likely to jeopardize that bond. That does not mean that the ASEAN Regional Forum is a military alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The forum had its first meeting in July, and it went well. We must give it a chance to evolve without being overly optimistic or pessimistic. ASEAN should move ahead with self-confidence and have multilateral talks on security issues.

A start has been made in the Spratlys dispute, which has been referred to as the next political flash point. But we have to change this Cold War mind-set. We should look at the region as an opportunity. I know China has not forsaken its territorial claims of sovereignty, but Beijing has become more pragmatic and flexible. It has alluded to joint development -- a positive sign.

As for the U.S., it has an important role to play in the region. But not in the Cold War way. Post-Subic Bay, there is no need for a permanent U.S. military base. Rather, ASEAN countries need access to U.S. technology and investment.

Perceptions of who is an enemy and who is a friend have changed since the end of the Cold War. In the new climate there will be new opportunities -- in business, as well as in the sharing and transfer of technology.