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AS geopolitics change rapidly, Malaysia faces new security and defence challenges such as the increasing importance of maritime concerns, great power rivalry between China and the United States and the emergence of non-traditional threats.

We will have to conceive a future force to meet those challenges.

The change of government in May last year has provided Malaysia with a rare opportunity to revisit some old assumptions and make new ones to move forward.

One of the earliest major decisions that will have huge long-term impact by Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu was to commit the new government to present a Defence White Paper to chart the future.

One of the things I have learned at the Defence Ministry is that one has to think of the long term, as decisions made today will still have consequences in the future, beyond the annual budget cycle and the five-yearly Malaysia Plan time frame.

For instance, some not-very-useful weapon systems or ships bought at the whims of a general or minister, sometimes at the prodding of some defence traders trying to enrich themselves, may still be in use decades down the road even if they may not be the most suitable ones.

Likewise, how the Armed Forces is currently structured has a lot to do with legacies that happened a while ago. Understanding the history helps us to see things in a better perspective.

Defending Malaysia is very much about safeguarding three important waters — the Straits of Malacca, South China Sea and the Sulu Sea — and two land masses — the peninsula and Borneo regions of Sabah and Sarawak.

Admittedly, due to counter-insurgency during the Cold War, previously most attention was given to the peninsula, with significant focus on jungle warfare.

Historically, the Malays are a maritime people from around the Nusantara, or the Malay Archipelago, where people and goods move freely in the region. During the Malacca Sultanate, the most important military position was the Laksamana (admiral). Most state capitals in Malaysia are situated at the river mouth or sea front.

An amusing tweet from Twitter personality Sir Zayn (@bingregory) reads: “America has the Homeland, Germans the Fatherland, Russia the Motherland. Only the Malays have ‘Waterland’. #tanahair”. The term “tanah air” clearly demonstrates our inherently maritime conceptualisation of nationhood and the notion of inseparability of both our land and waters.

The borders of contemporary independent Malaysia and Indonesia were actually decided by the British and Dutch in 1824. Within the sea borders defined and controlled by colonial masters, and after the 1874 Pangkor Engagement, the fragmented Malay states essentially turned towards agriculture and plantation for the consumption of colonial metropolitans.

The war against the Malayan Communist Party was mostly jungle guerrilla warfare which shaped the structure of the Malaysian Armed Forces in a number of ways, such as army-dominant and excellent in tropical jungle warfare.

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Last Update: 23/12/2021