The changing regional balance of forces, however, has had a dramatic effect upon Malaysia; much of the unfolding present Cold War drama and subsequent political instability has been played-out, almost silently to avoid unnecessary publicity, within the corridors of power in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahathir Mohamad resigns
In mid-February long-time Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad resigned after a four- decade reign of political dominance over the strategic Asian country. For the 94-year-old outspoken political leader the time had finally arrived for his departure from the limelight. Amid the 'political chaos in Kuala Lumpur', Mahathir was then appointed interim Prime Minister by the King until a suitable replacement was found to take office. (1) Behind the scenes, months of speculation had seriously affected the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, which was slowly falling apart due to rising political differences. Mahathir was actually quoted in an official media release toward the end of his tenure as being concerned that 'politics, politicians and political parties are too engrossed that they forget that their country is facing an economic and health crisis'. (2)
While few explanations for the longer-term decline of Malaysia as a regional economic powerhouse have been provided, the country would appear to have been caught between the tense diplomatic rivalries of the US and China. The country has a large Chinese ethnic minority which now forms part of a rising social group with their own aspirations, which are beginning to leave their mark on Malaysian politics. Whereas previous immigrants from China were largely excluded from open participation in the Malaysian political system, those born in the country have become more conspicuous in decision-making positions in recent times. Those linked into the business-world also regard their future as inextricably linked to the country of their ancestors.
Influence, within the corridors of power in Kuala Lumpur, would appear to have been brought to bear, with two significant developments.
A political successor to Mahathir was soon found with the King appointing Muhyiddin Yassin as PM, and the next session of parliament was postponed for the forthcoming two months delaying plans within the former ruling coalition for a no-confidence vote to take place. The appointment of Muhyiddin was noted was having 'capped a week of political turmoil'. (3)
Australian base in Malaysia
The political stability of Malaysia has far-reaching implications for Australia which has relied upon Malaysia for decades as an important part of US-led military planning for regional operations. Australian diplomatic involvement with Malaysia has a long history, revealing close links with Britain and the shadowy hands of the Commonwealth. The origins of the main security system in the country, for example, remain modelled on the British Special Branch Police, with strong emphasis upon controlling dissent. The recent political unrest, therefore, is likely to be the mere tip of a much bigger iceberg of widespread grievances in a society already divided upon racial and ethnic lines.
The Butterworth Air Base, in the northern part of the country, was officially handed over to Australia from Britain in 1957; Canberra was subsequently faced with a wide-scale guerrilla insurrection led by the Malaysian Communist Party, backed by China. The base itself was a relic of the Second World War, used by allies to repel the Japanese; soon after the end of the war, the main adversary changed to become the Chinese-backed guerrillas. The insurrection was noted in Defence Department disclosures as being 'identical in type, if not in scale, to conflicts being fought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia'. (4)
Australian reactionaries fostered anti-Communism
Australian military training manuals from the period reveal an emphasis upon classic Cold War anti-communist positions and 'revolutionary warfare' which also found their place inside the Australian political landscape. This was also the period of the political ascendency of the National Civic Council (NCC), a private, business-based intelligence agency in Melbourne, which provided an almost endless stream of questionable assessments about the so-called 'threat from the north … which would threaten Australia'. (5) NCC leader, B.A. Santamaria, stated during studies of the organisation, that, from 1954 'he set out to build contacts with those whom I regard as authentic anti-communists in South-east Asian countries'. (6)
The NCC rose to prominence during the period of the Malayan insurgency; it was a classic Cold War-body which regarded China as seeking to establish a Soviet-style system across the Asia-Pacific region. Despite its questionable autonomy, the NCC organisation was, however, well-connected to traditional class and state power through established political parties in Canberra and other provincial capital cities. Its virulent anti-communist position was not only confined to the Australian Liberal, Country and National Parties where it found wide-spread common-bonds of interest, but also the Labor Party which it successfully split using Catholic front-type organisations at the height of the Cold War. The move effectively condemned the ALP from taking office and forming a government until 1972, when Whitlam swept away the right-wing baggage, which never forgave him.
The NCC also possessed considerable influence in the Australian military and far-right.
In the mid-1990s, Santamaria acknowledged Ted Serong, an Australian counter-insurgency specialist who early in his military career designed programs for use with ADF soldiers in Malaya before rising to become a key figure within US intelligence, was 'a life-long friend'. (7) Serong, after completing his formal military career and returning to Australia, used the NCC for introductions 'to a series of people and groups needing advice on security-related matters, both within Australia and in the surrounding region'. (8) During the 1977-93 period Serong was subsequently based in Perth where he spent part of his time working 'as a security consultant to the West Australian government'. (9)
Serong was also an important figure-head for the far-right, with links to the Australian League of Rights, World Anti-Communist League and the para-military AUSI Freedom Scouts, modelled upon white supremacist organisations in Southern Africa. (10)
Butterworth upgraded to serve US regional focus
(Above: During the so-called "Malayan Emergency" British and Australia troops were deployed to crush the Communist Party of Malaya and its guerrilla army. Here, a representative of British civilisation holds the severed trophy heads of Malayan guerrillas.)
While the attempted insurrection in Malaysia was eventually defeated and a stable pro-western government established in Kuala Lumpur, fifty years is not a long time for US-led military planners and their shadowy supporters to alter their chosen method of operation. Once military plans have been formulated, their minds are set; there would appear no need to change.
Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel based at the Butterworth Air Base, for example, still carry live rounds of ammunition and conduct patrols for 'communist guerrillas’ which they consider still spy on them 'from jungles nearby'. (11) There is no evidence, however, any shots have been fired in many decades.
The fact the Butterworth military facilities still have an official ADF presence is evidence itself of their continued importance for troop rotations into the wider region. The landing strips, likewise, have been used for P-3 Orion spy planes and regional operations in recent years. (12)
In 2018 the Australian government announced an upgrade to the Butterworth facilities to enable their use with incoming F-35 fighter planes. (13) The new planes are planned to be 'the spine of our air combat capability', also making use of the recently announced upgraded Tindal Air Base in northern Australia. (14) Defence Department media releases also refer to the combined total of 72 F-35 planes as possessing 'core capability' in what has been regarded as 'our theatre' for military operations. (15)
The military planning for the F-35 planes rested upon earlier US-led initiatives which took place during the Obama presidential period; a number of high-level diplomatic world tours included official visits to Malaysia where 'Obama has emphasised the idea the US government is committed to helping its allies in the face of external threats'. (16) A large number of US military facilities were subsequently re-opened, decades after the US either abandoned them or had been evicted. The US military bases, however, were re-established largely as joint facilities, hosted by governments regarded as allies. (17)
Recent political upheaval in Malaysia has the potential to reveal just how tenuous the US regional diplomacy has become, particularly when viewed in light of developments in the Philippines and South Korea where ruling administrations have not been renowned for automatically supporting US initiatives in recent years.
The fact the Butterworth Air Base also rests on the same arc as US-led intelligence facilities at Pine Gap, with Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam in Micronesia, has revealed the continued importance of Australia as a southern regional hub for 'US interests' and its reliance upon wider support in the region for military operations elsewhere.
Both Diego Garcia and Guam have been upgraded in recent years to become important hubs for military operations to coincide with US-led planning to expand the Pacific into the Indo-Pacific region. (18) The Butterworth Air Base would appear, therefore, to form an important component part of the US-led regional military planning.
It is not particularly difficult to envisage the likely scenario, where Australia will be drawn into regional hostilities from military bases nominally under control from Canberra.
When Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne, recently stated the Enhanced Air Co-operation Initiative was an 'air co-operation initiative (which) would help increase the ability of Australia and the US to deploy into the region where and when they are required to do so', for example, we should be on our guard. (19)
With military planning such as this afoot: We need an independent foreign policy!
1. Mahathir Mohamad appointed, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2020.
2. Mahathir, Mothership, 26 February 2020.
3. Malaysian PM stalls for time, Australian, 5 March 2020.
4. Malaya vets campaign on 'war service', Australian, 28 February 2020.
5. Obituary, Relentless crusader of the right, Bob Santamaria, Australian, 26 February 1998.
6. Benign spymaster built a global network, The Age (Melbourne), 3 March 1998.
7. Ted Serong, The Life of an Australian Counter-Insurgency expert, Anne Blair, (Melbourne, 2002), page 12.
8. Ibid., page 176.
9. Ibid., page 183, and, Footnote 15, page 223.
10. Ibid., page 186, page 183, page 189.
11. Australian, op.cit., 28 February 2020.
14. Upgrade a boon for security in the region, Australian, 21 February 2020.
15. A gap to close in next generation defence, Avalon 2019 Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019, and, ibid.
16. US sign defence deal in Asia, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 2 May 2014.
17. US eyes return to south-east Asian bases, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 29 June 2012.
18. US intensifies military presence in the Indo-Pacific, The Global Times (Beijing), 24 July 2018.
19. More US Marines than ever head for Darwin, Australian, 23 March 2018.