"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," said Najib Tun Razak on 3rd May 2002 at The Heritage Foundation.
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.
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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.
Raja Petra Kamarudin