NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.

Our government recently announced that it has decided to set aside RM6 billion for the purchase of six offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) for the Royal Malaysian Navy. These OPVs are to be produced by Boustead Naval Shipyard, Malaysia’s only naval shipyard company.

This comes up to roughly RM1 billion for each boat with all its trimmings: guns, radars, missiles and what have you. It is a princely sum to be sure, but security is without doubt an important national concern. This fact should not be underestimated. However, it also does not mean that we can discard transparency and due diligence, two characteristics that are rarely associated with the arms industry.

I would like to raise some questions about this project, due in no small part to the chequered history of defence deals concluded by our government in recent times. Firstly, let us talk about need. From what I gather, these OPVs should more appropriately be called Second Generation Patrol Vessels, or SGPVs. The name is also a misnomer for it belies the fact that they are corvette-type warships rather than “patrol boats.”

Put in this context, it would appear that the price of the SGPVs is pretty much in the region proposed. However, this gives us no reason to understand why they are necessary in the first place. Ostensibly, our country’s peacetime maritime threats are usually manifested as illegal fishing (recent reports estimate an unconfirmed loss of RM1 billion annually), piracy and theft of natural resources such as oil and gas, and, of course, the pervasive attempts by illegal immigrants to find their way onto our shores.

If these are indeed the purported threats, then it sounds to me like we need more patrolling rather than warships, unless there is an imminent threat of war with our neighbouring countries that we are unaware of.

Still, I must qualify my stand. In making the above assertion, I am speaking not as a defence analyst but instead from the point of view of a foreign policy neoliberal (though far from Wilsonian). It is my suggestion, therefore, that in this era of social, cultural and economic globalisation and interdependence, an all-out war, especially one pitting us against our neighbours, would simply be quite unlikely.

Political reasons alone no longer shape international relations, especially in this day and age. Social, economic and even domestic political ramifications would in effect prevent the advent of conventional warfare.

Secondly, the turnkey vendor for the project, Boustead Naval Shipyards, is being awarded the project through direct negotiation. Even if the argument is made for the case of our local defence industry, I believe the Malaysian public would be greatly reassured if they knew the government had at least held an international tender and considered various options before deciding to award it to a local company.

Lest we forget, Boustead Naval Shipyards is the restructured and rebranded Penang Shipping Company Industries, a company which had to be bailed out half a decade ago after its failure to deliver on a shipment of OPVs. While there is no reason to believe that Boustead is likely to repeat its predecessor’s failures, I would like to assert the necessity for greater public scrutiny, given what has happened in the past.

Finally, the main point of my argument is the need for democratic governance and oversight on defence procurement. Government apologists suggest that defence matters are too complex for the layman, and go so far as to suggest that the matter is beyond even Parliament’s comprehension.

That, I am sorry to say, is the same kind of patronising excuse used by dictators to justify authoritarian rule.

A parliamentary select committee to oversee defence procurements will not consist of laymen but selected MPs. If there are selected members of the House who are deemed competent enough to fill the various posts in the Cabinet, and indeed also the role of Minister of Defence (or should this post now be held by an un-elected General?) then it makes no sense at all to say that such matters are beyond the purview of the august House. To suggest otherwise would be an ignominious affront to the very notion of our statehood.

The essence of my concern is the matter of democratic principle. When a substantial amount of state funds are used, there needs to be transparency and accountability. Malaysians want to know whether we really do need these boats, whether other options have been considered, and whether due process has been adhered to in formulating a decision.

Discourse on the issue should therefore be framed around these arguments. To debate the minor points would be, to paraphrase an old expression, missing the ocean for the ships.