Mohamad Sabu shifts gear from popular rally speaker to Malaysia's Defence Minister

Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu was sworn in as a Cabinet minister on May 21 after the Pakatan Harapan alliance was voted into power in Malaysia's general election last month.
Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu was sworn in as a Cabinet minister on May 21 after the Pakatan Harapan alliance was voted into power in Malaysia's general election last month. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu is barely two weeks into his post, but deftly answered questions on Saturday (June 2) on a range of issues put to him by reporters, including the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, militarisation of South China Sea and how to tackle past ministry project scandals.

He was responding to questions at a media interview on the sidelines of the 17th Shangri-La Dialogue security conference.

 

This is a huge role change for one of Malaysia's biggest crowd pullers at opposition rallies, with his witty take on major issues.

Today, he says, he is grappling fast with the security and defence matters that his ministry deals with.

Mr Mohamad, 63, was sworn in as a Cabinet minister on May 21 after the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance was voted into power in Malaysia's general election last month.

He is in Singapore to attend for the first time the 17th Shangri-La Dialogue security conference, where he met his regional and international counterparts.

"This is my opportunity to quickly build up relations. By chance, there is this conference that brings together the defence ministers just over a week after I became defence minister," he told reporters on Saturday.

Asked how he is adjusting to his new role, he said: "After 40 years talking at political rallies, as a critic of the government, including on military issues, now that I am given this responsibility, it is a heavy responsibility."

Mr Mohamad met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday on the sidelines of the dialogue, and they reaffirmed the bilateral close relations and extensive cooperation.

They also discussed continuing defence cooperation between both countries.

Mr Mohamad will also call on Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.

Asked about the state of bilateral ties with Singapore, Mr Mohamad said: "We have good relations. We have joint exercises and joint operations. Our military ties are at a high level."

He said he was surprised at being recognised in Singapore, including by people who rushed to shake his hand and take pictures when he went for Friday prayers at Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam.

"In Singapore I didn't expect this, but they actually follow political developments in Malaysia," he said.

The questions at the interview were mostly about major regional issues that are also drawing attention at the dialogue.

Occasionally referring to the pages of notes in front of him, he answered them in Malay or English - depending on the language the question was asked in.

On the June 12 summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Mr Mohamad said: "Malaysia is fully supportive of any commitment towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."

But he added: "The problem is why only Korea? Why only Iran? Why not America, China, Russia, India, Pakistan?

"So that is monopoly. We hope that denuclearisation must be (for) all."

Asked about tensions in the South China Sea, he said Malaysia wants to keep it "a zone of neutrality" and does not wish to see a clash there between the big powers.

The Ministry of Defence that Mr Mohamad has taken over has quite regularly been under public scrutiny over the decades over its alleged financial scandals, including over the purchase of Scorpene submarines, the delivery of patrol boats and, just before the May general election, alleged land leases.

The minister said that rather than listening to "hearsay", his ministry will form a special committee to probe the alleged scandals.

The new PH government has been accused by former officials of the Barisan Nasional government, including former prime minister Najib Razak, of playing politics when it shows up dirty linen in various ministries allegedly left behind by the ousted administration.

At the end of the media interview, the ministry showed that some things may have changed from the previous administration, as an aide to Mr Mohamad gave reporters the minister's name card that contained his direct phone line and e-mail address.

A reporter asked Mr Mohamad for his mobile number and he asked her to take it down, saying it is the same number that he has been using for years.