The Armed Forces as the Catalyst for a Rejuvenated Malaysia

Executive Summary

In January, I was invited by the Commandant, Brigadier-General Dato’ Nizam Haji Jaafar, and the Head of Academics, Major-General (Retired) Dato’ Rahim Yusuff, of the National Resilience College (NRC) to speak about National Power in Malaysia’s context. The basic framing of my lecture is that national power needs to be applied towards a specific aspiration in order to be effectively utilized.

To this end, I outlined that this aspiration should be to reset our country, leading to a Rejuvenated Malaysia. COVID-19 has thrown out all our prior assumptions out of the window, and in a way has given us a unique opportunity to reconsider the way we run our country. A Rejuvenated Malaysia seeks to be a country of a shared identity, that practices a genuine democracy and federalism, has an economy for all, a more comprehensive security mindset, and a clear understanding of where we are in the world, both geographically and in spirit.

The Armed Forces, as one of the many instruments of national power, must play an important role in catalyzing this rejuvenation. Doing so will require the Malaysian Armed Forces implement the three-pillar defence strategy outlined in the first Defence White Paper. The MAF must evolve into a modern force capable of carrying out concentric deterrence with the understanding that Malaysia is a Maritime Nation with Continental Roots, work together with other agencies in the spirit of comprehensive defence, and build credible partnerships in order to facilitate Malaysia’s aspirations in becoming a bridging linchpin between the Great Powers.


I am honoured to be given this opportunity to speak to you at Maktab Ketahanan Nasional (National Resilience College, NRC). I spoke to the first NRC Cohort in October 2019, of which the Commandant was part of, and eventually emerged as the best Course Member. The Commandant and Dato’ Rahim asked me to speak on “national power”. The title I give to this lecture is “The Armed Forces as the Catalyst for a Rejuvenated Malaysia”. 

At the start of 2021, it is not wrong to say that globally and domestically we live in the worst time in decades. But at the same time, we also see great potential for a reset that will bring peace, prosperity and well-being for the decades to come. The Armed Forces is one of the tools in the toolbox of Malaysia’s statecraft, or national power.

For Malaysia, an aspiring middle power, the challenge of exercising this power will be even more difficult, as our margins of error will be much smaller compared to that of the Great Powers. Yet, if we organise ourselves strategically, Malaysia could punch above our weight in this changing tide of world affairs.  

Before I proceed, let me say a few things about Maktab Ketahanan Nasional. This course is designed to help you to become “strategic thinkers of statesmen quality.” Up until this point, much of your careers have been centered around answering important tactical and operational questions.

So, allow me to congratulate all of you on a distinguished military career so far. And allow me to wish you good luck too, because wherever you are going after this, you belong to an exclusive small group who will have a much bigger role than before, and your daily decisions may impact the nation, one way or the other.

Before it was formed, Maktab Ketahanan Nasional featured prominently in my many discussions with former Chief of Defence Force General Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin. Our hope is that one day Maktab Ketahanan Nasional is not just for senior military leaders but will have among its course members senior civil servants at Timbalan Ketua Setiausaha level, particularly Ministry of Defence’s senior civilian officials, as well as political and private sector leaders. At some point, foreign military participants should also be included. 

The College, which is part of PUSPAHANAS, is strategically located in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of the federal government. It is quite visible to many that Putrajaya needs to develop a “whole-of-government” approach towards governing.

Over the years, the system has somehow allowed too many silos to grow across the Government. Malaysia needs a sense of shared purpose and agreed common missions. We urgently need to inculcate in the collective consciousness of this nation an understanding of the idea of resilience or ketahanan.

Resilience is more holistic than the narrower definition of ‘defence’ or ‘security’. Resilience is about whether we, as a nation, have what it takes to protect our society and our people from all forms of challenges and threats. Threats can come in any form. Just a year ago, very few would have seen it coming that an unseen coronavirus would simultaneously upend the way the world lives and throw many assumptions that we took for granted for decades into the dustbins of history. It is not just “whole-of-government” that we would pursue, we need to develop a “whole-of-society” consciousness, too.

The idea of having civilians to be course members of National Resilience College is also to help at least some of the civilian leadership to see the strategic thinking of the Armed Forces. At the same time, the Armed Forces must always caution itself that it doesn’t operate in vacuum, it is not a distinctively separate unit but a very integral part of the Government and society.

Further, the Armed Forces need to develop “jointness” – the services training to fight wars and maintain peace together – in a much deeper manner than we have ever done. Therefore, I hope to see Maktab Ketahanan Nasional thrive and churning out many more military and civilian leaders to propel the nation forward.

Envisaging a Rejuvenated Malaysia

I understand Hans Morgenthau’s work has formed the basis of much of National Resilience College’s understanding about national power. At the heart of it, national power is about mobilizing the people and all available resources at hand in a country towards a national goal. But what is the end state? Where would we like to see Malaysia in 10- or 20-years’ time?

For Malaysia to move forward, we need to have a new framing of our idea of our nationhood and her place in the wider world. Let’s envisage a rejuvenated Malaysia that covers 5 major key priorities.

First, we need a shared identity.

We must move away from divisive rhetoric and embrace a shared identity with a common destiny. At the end of all these crises, we should realise that much as we may be culturally different, we may have a different religious background, but we are all Malaysians. The spirit of #KitaJagaKita has to be ingrained in our minds so that we see ourselves walking towards a common destiny as Malaysians.

Second, building our democracy and a genuine federalism.

We must accept that we have differences. Malaysia has been a 50:50 democracy, if you look at the election since 2008. Malaysians would be better off if our institutions are adapted to suit Malaysia’s new normal of having coalition governments formed by parties of similar strength. The one-party state is not viable anymore.

What is important is for us to build a better political system, a parliamentary system that will manage differences and accommodate each other. Politicians should see each other not as enemies but as respected opponents. And to see each other as partners in building a better nation. We must forget about this winner-takes-all mentality. Only with accommodation, can we build a thriving democracy.

We also need to give states, particularly Sabah and Sarawak, a lot more recognition, roles and responsibility to accommodate regional differences while harnessing the strengths of the different parts of the nation.

Third, building an economy for all.

We must think of the Malaysian economy as one that would work for everyone. We do not want to be in the situation where we’re hiring unskilled foreign labour and we have hundreds of thousands of Malaysians working overseas as cheap labour. We must build the virtuous cycle of higher pay, higher quality, higher technology and higher productivity. Only if we can build a virtuous cycle, will we have dynamic growth for our economy. And everyone will be served by the economy and not the select few. The Defence sector can be an important economic and technological catalyst as well as a great training ground for excellent human capital at all levels of competencies.

Fourth, we need a new security mindset.

We need the armed forces, the police, the prison authorities, urban planners, and health authorities to think about securing the nation together. What Covid-19 taught us was that working in silos would not help. We are only as strong as the weakest link among us. If prisoners are not well taken care of, we will have a Covid-19 outbreak in prisons. If we do not secure and handle foreign labour dormitories well, we will have an outbreak there. And that extends to policing, national security, and the armed forces. We need to think of our security with a new mindset.

Fifth, Malaysia’s place in the world.

We should see ourselves as a nation coming together to face the world. We should see Malaysia as the middle power. And we should see Malaysia as an economy that shines in the region, that grows dynamically and that helps everyone in the society to live up to their potential.

In the interest of time for this particular lecture, I will focus on the ideas of forging a new security mindset and thinking about Malaysia’s place in the world. The Defence White Paper is thus far the only government document that provides clarity on these questions.  What does Malaysia aspire to be, or what is the End goal. According to the White Paper, Malaysia is an aspiring middle power that has historically been a bridging linchpin between great powers in the region. Think about the critical roles played by the Melaka Sultanate and Srivijaya.[1]

The world is now at a crossroads and we are at the geographical centre of great power competition. If we play our game well, Malaysia is well-positioned to be the linchpin between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, what the United States and her allies are now calling “Indo-Pacific”. Of course, if we don’t do well, we will become the proverbial mouse deer stampeded by the fighting elephants. Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah.

Again, with references to the Melaka Sultanate, Malaysia should see herself as a maritime nation with continental roots, connected to continental Asia and features prominently in Nusantara or the Malay Archipelago, with territorial waters forming parts of the Straits of Malacca, the world’s busiest trade route, and South China Sea, the currently most contentious water in the world. 

How History Shapes Our Paths and Institutions

At this juncture, I would like to detour slightly to look at how history shapes our paths and institutions before we embark on our journey to re-imagine the future.

Before the 2018 general election, whenever I was asked if there would be a military coup should the then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak lose, I would answer confidently that “there would not be military coups in Malaysia as the MAF consists of professional soldiers”. More importantly, the security set-up is such that the police deal with domestic politics far more than the Armed Forces. 

Malaysia’s security arrangement is unique in many ways when compared to our regional neighbours, as a result of historic events, particularly those of the Emergency of 1948 until 1960. The British chose to expand the police force massively with a very significant proportion of Malayan officers to deal with the Communist’s challenge in 1948 while the military was constituted by battalions of the Royal Malay Regiment, the Federation Regiment, and various Commonwealth Regiments.

If you think about ASEAN states and its immediate South Asian or North Asian neighbours, only Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei did not have the military as the dominant force in their societies at any point of their histories. The Malaysian police, which is centrally commanded, has always been about equal size as the Armed Forces. In these nations, the State was not constituted by the revolutionary armies after the Second World War. In many ways, Malaysia’s security system was only fully “Malaysianised” after the end of Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement and the withdrawal of British forces beyond the east of the Suez Canal in 1971.Coincidentally or perhaps as a consequence to this, the Tun Razak Hussein Government pursued a more neutral and less pro-Western non-aligned foreign policy outlook.

The Malaysian security establishment was very much pre-occupied by counter-insurgency war until the Hatyai Peace Accord in December 1989. My first Military Advisor Brigadier General Abd Rahman Ab. Wahab, who is one of your Course Members, shared with me many stories of the Armed Forces’ gallant fights against the Communists during the Second Emergency. 

One of the consequences of this experience however was that the focus on jungle warfare necessarily constrained the development of other branches of the Army compared to the Infantry. In a classified report by the RAND Corporation in 1964, Riley Sunderland wrote:

“One may surmise that the Malay battalions of 1955 were armed less elaborately because of the difficulty of training mortar crews, antitank crews, maintenance specialists, and ordnance units at a pace commensurate with the fourfold expansion of the Malay Regiment and during a campaign in which there was less need for them than for hardy riflemen and machine gunners who were at home in the jungle.”

1989 was not only the end of guerrilla war by the Malayan Communist Party but also the fall of Berlin Wall which signalled the beginning of the end of the Soviet bloc. The 1990s and the 2000s saw the United States being the sole global hegemon. Domestically, the Malaysian Armed Forces developed the full range of conventional capabilities beyond the requirements of jungle warfare. Even so, the echoes of the infantry-centric doctrine of the Cold War remain.

The modern Malaysian Army is overwhelmingly composed of infantry battalions, with considerably less quantities of equivalent supporting formations. In terms of foreign policy, Malaysia emerged as a global voice for the Third World/the South and the Muslim nations during this period. 

Let us be honest. Malaysia as a nation somehow slacks off in the relatively good years. As there were no threats, we sold off our urban military airport, bases and camps for property development; we grew the size of the government and the Armed Forces, but we also erected more silos. Our defence industry is acting more like agents than innovators. The list goes on.  The United States and Europe were weakened by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 while China has grown much stronger economically and militarily, and also more assertive.  As China is Malaysia’s near neighbour and largest trading partner, as well as competing claimant in South China Sea, we have an intricate global challenge at our doorstep. Covid-19 and the fallout from the Donald Trump Presidency has forced everyone to rethink and reset.


For Malaysia to move forward to position ourselves as a maritime nation with continental roots, playing the crucial linchpin role in the geographically critical Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, and for the Armed Forces to play a catalytic role to rejuvenate Malaysia, we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions. For instance:

  1. If we are serious about the notion of maritime nation, do we need to strengthen our Navy and Air Force?
  2. Within the Army, is infantry everything? Or do we need to build up engineers and other supporting arms?
  3. How about cybersecurity and cyber defence? How about CBRNe? How about preparing for other kinds of asymmetric warfare? 
  4. Are we committed to increasing jointness across the board beyond the Joint Force Headquarters?
  5. What is the role of women in the Armed Forces?
  6. What sort of roles do State Governments have in shaping Reserve Forces?
  7. How do we ensure that civilians in the Ministry of Defence genuinely understand defence issues? How do we ensure that everyone who is responsible for security and defence in the Government have a shared understanding of what threats we are facing? 
  8. How do we get everyone in the Government including the Finance and Economic Ministries to understand defence procurement? How do we ensure that there is no corruption while the defence industry becomes a catalyst for scientific and technological innovations?
  9. And can we see the Armed Forces as having a role in addressing critical climate change issues?

Fortunately, the Defence White Paper has some ideas to offer. The strategy to reaching this goal of rejuvenating Malaysia’s Defence has three pillars:

  1. Concentric Deterrence
  2. Comprehensive Defence
  3. Credible Partnerships

These pillars in effect are key elements of Malaysia’s national power that need to be enhanced in order to meet new challenges and opportunities.

For the issue of Concentric Deterrence:

We need to think through the idea of Two Theatres, East and West, and the layers of Core, Extended, Forward. Here, we have to make considerations for Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, while also keeping an eye on the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, and the Sulu Sea. We also need to ask some hard questions about our Force Structure. Currently, the Army has about 80,000 personnel, the Navy has about 18,000 personnel, and the Air Force has about 15,000 personnel. We may have to admit that we are tilted more towards the Army, yet our new challenges emerge from the sea, the air and the cyber space.  There is an imbalance of resources against priorities and missions.

Furthermore, the Army itself needs to rethink the make-up of its divisions and brigades. We need to think about how well-supported the infantry and armor are. On this, we need to examine the ratio of combat battalions to combat support battalions.

Most of the combat support arms are grouped at division rather than brigade level. This means that any given infantry battalion will be relatively unsupported in terms of artillery, air defence, cyber, and combat engineering capabilities. And most of these capabilities are concentrated in the Peninsula, not in Medan Timur.

By comparison, in the US, a brigade combat team is required to have at least one engineering and one artillery battalion. In Russia, there can be up to three artillery battalions per brigade / regiment. Compare that to Malaysia’s ratio, which can be limited to a single battalion of artillery and a squadron of engineers at division level.

Infantry and armor alone cannot win battles, especially against near peer adversaries that sport combined-arms battalions. Supporting arms are just as important as frontline arms. What used to work in the Emergencies will no longer work in our current situation.

When we go up one echelon, we see that jointness can be improved. There are currently 5 separate 3-star echelons:

  1. Army – Medan Barat and Timur
  2. Navy – Armada Barat and Timur
  3. Air Force – Markas Pemerintahan Operasi Udara (MPOU), divided into two Wilayah Udara.

At some point, these five different 3-star echelons also need to be folded into a single command structure per Theatre. Consider a system of Joint Combatant Command, which is already in practice in the US and China. One suggestion in this regard would be to expand the Joint Forces Headquarters from a secretariat of different, often unrelated operations to an operational command responsible for entire theatres. The nature of exercises must also change to reflect the need of coordination between different services across multiple domains.

The Joint capability plan is important to make this a success. It will become a commitment by the Government to ensure consistent funding is given. Malaysian Armed Forces must ensure that the relevant capability requirements are set based on mission priorities.

At some point, we also need to rethink how we run the reserve system. Currently, we have Wataniah and other Sukarela formations, but they are underutilized. The majority of our reserve component is composed of Wataniah regiments that are meant to augment active-duty frontline forces, but their training and equipment do not necessarily reflect this. Perhaps what is needed is less general duty reservists and more specialized and skilled reservists? Rejimen Pakar in Wataniah compose a very small portion of the overall total.

Reserve forces need to be seen as an equally important component, especially if we can only maintain a small professional active-duty component. In prolonged conflict, their mobilization will be crucial to support the regular forces.In emergencies, they can be called up to fulfil immediate manpower requirements and shortages.

If the reservists are trained heavily for emergencies, perhaps the State Governments can be roped in to build a mutually beneficial relationship. To be effective, the reservists need to be trained and equipped to near active-duty standards, like the US National Guard and US Reserve Component.

Under the pillar of Comprehensive Defence:

The Malaysian Armed Forces should not be the only component in national security and defence. The Armed Forces is an integral component of government action regardless of war or peace. But the whole-of-government and society approach is still not strong.

For instance, there are three different strategic documents:

  1. The Defence White Paper
  2. Security and Public Order Policy by the Home Ministry
  3. Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia by the Foreign Affairs Ministry

Only one of them lays out clear grand strategy and connects resources and policy to goals. The other two are less about strategy and more about a statement of responsibilities. At some point, we have to start bridging this gap and reconcile these documents.

When I was Deputy Defence Minister, I often told my staff that not only do we need a “whole-of-government” approach, we actually need a “whole-of-MINDEF” approach and perhaps a stronger and more cohesive security cluster in the Government. We need to rethink the way we run the civil service.

The general civil service we copy from India has its advantages. But with more and more specific and sophisticated problems and issues that we encounter, we can’t rely on someone who for all his life deals with palm oil policy to suddenly know how to run the Ministry of Defence competently.

In the Westminster system, the Ministers are generalists but it doesn’t mean that the civil servants have to be generalists as well. While we may not be able to form a mini-Pentagon with Defence having its dedicated closed service defence civilians, we must at least try to build a cohort of security and defence specialists to be moved around among the security-related ministries.

I hope Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam and the Government think seriously about this. The current government created a security cluster led by a senior Minister who happens to be the Defence Minister.  Hopefully this extends to the civil service so that we could create a cohort of civilians who genuinely understand defence and security issues. 

On the issue of Credible Partnerships:

Diplomacy is an essential part of Malaysia’s international activism that has allowed us to punch above our weight on many regional security issues. For example:

  1. Efforts to broker peace in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines.
  2. Malacca Straits Patrol with Indonesia and Singapore.
  3. Trilateral Cooperative Agreement with Philippines and Indonesia.

The Malaysian Armed Forces plays a huge role in this regard as well, being a critical element of defence diplomacy and participation in many international security operations. For example:

  1. United Nations Peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Timor Leste, and Lebanon.
  2. Disaster relief missions in Indonesia.
  3. The field hospital in Cox’s Bazar to assist the Rohingya refugees. 
  4. Various joint exercises with other regional partners.

Managing relationships with the Great Powers will be important in the many years to come. The United States and China are still likely to engage in a lot of friction with each other. Both sides view each other as adversaries and frame their interactions as competition. This is a risk that we have to learn to manage, as open confrontation between the two will put us at most risk.

Malaysia has a role to play in helping them smoothen out that friction. At some point, we need to have institutions that help to foster understanding of both the US and China for this purpose. Malaysia, particularly the Armed Forces, should aspire to do more in this respect. In conclusion, Malaysia’s elements of national power need to be applied towards a single goal. To become a middle power and a maritime nation with continental roots, we need to think carefully about how we conduct concentric deterrence, comprehensive defence, and establish credible partnerships. We live in the worst of times and the best of times. For Malaysia to be rejuvenated, the Malaysian Armed Forces with its full potential unleashed, could be the catalyst.

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