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Lecture #742 on Asia

May 3, 2002

U.S.-Malaysia Defense Cooperation: A Solid Success Story

By

I considered titling my talk today: "Malaysia-U.S. Defense Cooperation: The Untold Story." The reason is that for many years U.S. and Malaysian forces have cooperated on a wide range of missions with virtually no fanfare or public acknowledgement. And in spite of its success, our bilateral defense relationship seems to be an all too well-kept secret.

So I very much appreciate the chance The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have provided for me to reveal this well-kept secret. I would particularly like to thank Dr. Ed Feulner of Heritage, not only for his kind introduction, but also for his ongoing contributions to enhancing Malaysia-U.S. understanding. I'd like to thank Dr. John Hamre as well, both for the hospitality CSIS is providing today and for his leadership on defense issues. Dr. Hamre may be among the few to whom our bilateral defense cooperation is not in fact a secret.

Before I begin, I'd like to touch briefly on our bilateral relationship as a whole--as a kind of preview to Prime Minister Mahathir's official visit to Washington in two weeks.

Certainly, I am aware that a visit by a head of state to Washington, D.C., is not a rare occurrence, especially these days. So why is this particular visit significant?

Historically, Malaysia has been a steady, reliable friend of the United States. Our multitude of common interests include trade and investment on a sizeable scale and security cooperation across a range of fronts. An equally important point is the common values our two countries share, including a commitment to democracy, religious tolerance, and equality for all our diverse citizens. In times like these--in a time of war--it is these values that bind nations together.

But I would point out that there is still another factor that makes our relationship important. Malaysia--though a small country halfway around the globe--occupies a somewhat unique position. We are an Islamic country. We are stable. We are prosperous. And our Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir, has gained a certain status and sway, not only in the Southeast Asian region, but throughout the Islamic world.

An Unsung Story

I would like to elaborate on this subject later, but--to alleviate any suspense--I will first address the unsung story of our defense cooperation.

Take the recent hit film Black Hawk Down. The scene was Somalia, 1993. And although Hollywood saw it differently--I guess you could say Malaysia's role was left on the cutting room floor--the fact is this: More than 100 Malaysian peacekeeping forces engaged in that fierce fighting to try to rescue the trapped U.S. Army Rangers. Fighting together with the U.S. Rangers, one of our troops made the ultimate sacrifice, along with the 18 U.S. soldiers who died.

Fortunately, our troops do not serve to become stars in Hollywood.

We were indeed gratified, however, when we were honored by the Pentagon for our contributions. And then, in New York this past March, a total of 23 Malaysian peacekeepers were awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal, which is presented by the United Nations to peacekeepers killed in the line of duty.

In fact, since 1960, Malaysia has participated in more than 20 United Nations missions, from East Timor to Kosovo. For Malaysia, peacekeeping operations are an integral part of our foreign policy. Like the United States, we believe that nations--even small ones--have the responsibility to contribute when and wherever possible to a stable world order.

A Special Relationship with the U.S.

Malaysian forces regularly conduct joint training with United States counterparts, and the United States routinely enjoys access to Malaysian airfields and ports. Also, Malaysia provides one of the few bases outside the United States for U.S. military jungle-warfare training. U.S. troops are warmly welcomed in Malaysia and enjoy training there. In particular:

  • There have been more than 75 U.S. military ship visits in the past two and a half years.
  • The United States conducts training exercises with the Royal Malaysian Air Force, flying with and against them in mock battles.
  • U.S. Navy SEALs conduct training in Malaysia twice a year.
  • The U.S. Army does field exercises with the Malaysian army. I might mention here that, for their expertise in jungle warfare, Malaysians are known in the business as "whispering death."
  • Finally, 1,500 Malaysian defense personnel have benefited from the U.S.-sponsored IMET (international military education and training) program.

As you can see, cooperation between our two nations started long before September 11, 2001. But the horrific events of that day galvanized our relationship as never before. Prime Minster Mahathir has been vocal in condemning the attacks, and we have been happy to provide an elevated level of cooperation with the United States on the range of fronts. For example:

  • The United States averages more than 1,000 overflights per year. Since September 11, this number has increased dramatically, and all requests have been approved.
  • The United States has excellent access to Malaysian intelligence.
  • Malaysia occupies a strategic location along the Strait of Malacca and southern South China Sea, and devotes considerable resources to maintaining safe and free shipping lanes for commercial and military vessels. Since September 11, Malaysian forces have been protecting U.S. ships in the Strait.
  • Malaysia has a considerable number of troops and military assets on our islands to thwart the threat of Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Southern Philippines.
  • In addition, Malaysia is actively identifying assets of terrorists and teaching Indonesia and other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries how to freeze assets.

A Regional Leader in the War on Terror

Beyond our bilateral cooperation with the United States, Malaysia has been at the forefront of prosecuting terrorists within our region. The capture in December of Philippine terrorists in Malaysia and the subsequent arrests of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists cells in Malaysia and Singapore have underscored the need for regional coordination, which we are actively advocating.

Some 62 terrorists and militias with global and regional links have been arrested under our Internal Security Act, and more are currently being hunted down.

Malaysia's approach in fighting terrorists and militants is worth mentioning here. In addition to pursuing a military/security solution, we believe that we must win over the hearts and minds of our people by ensuring higher standards of living, eliminating poverty, providing quality education and health services, and creating more jobs. In essence, we must create hope, not despair; a more promising future is the antithesis of a breeding ground for future militants.

At the same time, of course, the proper interpretation of Islam by our people is imperative; that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and is against violence and senseless killing.

As well, we should mention the leadership among Islamic countries of our own Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir.

When you think of Dr. Mahathir, it would be interesting to take a quick survey to see what adjectives come to mind. I would think the responses might include "outspoken," "man of conviction," "tells it like it is." A recent news story referred to him as "habitually straight-talking," and I think that is a fair description. Basically, Dr. Mahathir speaks his mind.

Over the years, some in the United States have misinterpreted some of this straight talk. Let me be clear: Strong friendships can withstand strong words. Malaysia and the United States have been close for decades. Our multi-faceted relationship will have its high and low points, but the core values our nations share endure.

So as I said, the Prime Minister speaks his mind, but he also speaks from the heart. He is a man of principles, and he is consistent in this.

For example, in his widely publicized speech at the World Economic Forum in New York this past February, the Prime Minister explained that Islam is a peaceful religion that has been radicalized--or hijacked--by a few for political or personal gain. He explained that in Malaysia, where the government recognizes Islam as the primary religion, non-Muslims are free to practice their own religions, not only because this is permitted by Islam, but because religious tolerance is an essential component of modern society.

An even more recent example of the character of Prime Minister Mahathir occurred last month in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia was hosting representatives from nearly 57 OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) countries to try to build a consensus for tracking down terrorism. Part of the objective was to take a step to try to delink Islam and terrorism. We want to make it clear that true Islam does not stand for violence and terror. Our own country is testament to this. We also tried to arrive at a definition of terrorism.

The conference convened just at the time that the Middle East situation started to go from bad to worse. And Dr. Mahathir opened the session with an eloquent and courageous speech that suggested that all attacks targeting civilians--whether by September 11 hijackers, Israeli troops, or Palestinian suicide bombers--should be regarded as acts of terrorism.

Suffice it to say that this view was not a majority opinion among the OIC members. But that was, and remains, Dr. Mahathir's position, and as a result, the communiqué that emerged was relatively balanced. And that was a classic example of the posture we've seen, and will continue to see, as Prime Minster Mahathir seeks to exert a moderating influence on even the most inflammatory of issues.

I am sure the Prime Minister will talk more about our common battle to eliminate terrorism during his upcoming visit here to Washington. You might not like to agree with some of the things he says. But if you listen to him and hear all of what he is saying--not just a sound bite from last month or a headline next week, but the full scope of his arguments formed over the course of many years' experience--I think Americans will find a bit of common ground.

In conclusion, the world has changed much since September 11. What is it that Malaysia can offer the world, including the United States, in this new strategic landscape?

  • Malaysia is resolute and steadfast in fighting all forms of terrorism in Malaysia and is committed in supporting the global war against terrorism.
  • Malaysia is a model of an Islamic nation that is moderate, progressive, and tolerant; constant with modernity; and more importantly, a model that has succeeded in a multi-racial, religious, and cultural setting. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Animists live harmoniously together, enjoying the fruits of prosperity and stability. I hope more Americans will experience for themselves this remarkable success story.
  • Malaysia is playing a key leadership role in Southeast Asia to promote peace and stability, as exemplified by our role in supporting the peace process in the southern Philippines and ensuring the territorial integrity of Indonesia.
  • Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir, as the longest serving leader of the region, and increasingly regarded as a world statesman and Muslim leader, is a credible voice of reason, moderation, pragmatism, and progress, which makes him a key world figure in our quest to eliminate terror and to achieve a more prosperous and peaceful world.

So let me close by saying once again, thank you all for giving me the chance to get some of the good news about the U.S.-Malaysia relationship on the record. We are looking forward to the Prime Minister's visit on May 13-15 to continue to enhance both personal and governmental relations with the United States of America.

The Honorable Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak is the Minister of Defense of Malaysia.

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