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Making Sense of Malaysia’s Maritime Security

Both the bureaucratic dissonance and the political dismissiveness towards maritime security could perhaps be addressed by a national security strategy wargaming exercise. Such an exercise would take cues from President Eisenhower’s Project Solarium which produced NSC 162/2, a national security document outlining America’s national strategy to counter the Soviet Union.

On the 17th of August 2020, Malaysians returned from their lunch breaks with the news that an agent from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) had fatally shot a Vietnamese fisherman during an altercation at sea 81 nautical miles from Tok Bali, Pasir Puteh, Kelantan. The ill-fated Vietnamese fisherman belonged to a crew of 19 Vietnamese fishermen spread across two unmarked fishing boats that had illegally scooped some two million ringgit (approximately USD 500 thousand) in fishing haul in that area.

As the MMEA boat approached to board and inspect the two fishing boats, an altercation ensued. Allegedly, the Vietnamese fishermen had thrown a diesel Molotov cocktail towards the MMEA boat in order to avoid being boarded, damaging it in the process. MMEA agents returned fire with small arms, firing warning shots in the air to dissuade the fishermen. According to the Director-General of the MMEA, a stray bullet had impacted one of the ships, and that a fragment from this impact fatally wounded one of the Vietnamese fishermen.

This episode of conflict in Malaysia’s Maritime Zone (MMZ) comes after a series of incidents at sea that outline just how precarious the situation is within that 200 nautical mile zone. Earlier in February this year, a continued Chinese Coast Guard presence off the coast of East Malaysia escalated into a three way standoff. Tensions persisted well into April-May of this year. Such incursions by the PLAN and the CCG are in fact a common recurrence. The Auditor-General of Malaysia’s office notes that between 2016 to 2019, 89 such intrusions occurred near Beting Patinggi Ali, off the coast of Sarawak. These examples clearly illustrate the challenges that Malaysia faced in the maritime domain, both in the traditional and non-traditional senses. 

Not helping the issue further is the fact that the same report notes that 34.6% of ships operating in the MMZ have endured some kind of damage that has negatively affected their operability. It adds that 11.6% of the ships operated by MMEA, the Marine Police, and the Department of Fisheries have not only endured damage but also have not been provided adequate funding for repairs and maintenance. 

64.3% of remote sensor sites, which are important for detecting intrusions at the edge of the MMZ, have endured some kind of damage. 44.4% of those remote sensor sites could not be replaced because they were obsolete and were no longer being marketed. 

Yet, this poor track record on the hard power elements of maritime security is seemingly at odds with the soft power efforts by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The recent note verbale to the UN very clearly rejects the People’s Republic of China’s “claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction,” in the relevant parts of the nine-dash-line within Malaysia’s MMZ. 

The Auditor-General’s report concludes that these problems are evidence of a suboptimal arrangement of maritime security management, in particular due to a lack of inter-agency coordination and intelligence sharing. Perhaps the most obvious explanation for such a coordination failure lies in the lack of a national security strategy that outlines Malaysia’s maritime goals and the needed means and methods for their safeguarding. 

As long as this lack of strategy persists, then coordination failures will continue to hamper the overall effectiveness of the Malaysian government in handling maritime security issues. By extension, logistical problems in keeping adequate tonnage at sea will also continue. 

Towards a National Maritime Security Strategy

The most telling evidence of a lack of a common national maritime security strategy lies ironically in the fact that there are three distinct policy documents that are ostensibly responsible for maritime security affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) released the New Foreign Policy Framework earlier last year, as did the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) with the Public Order and Security Policy or Dasar Keselamatan dan Ketenteraman Awam – DKKA. The Ministry of Defence (MinDef) on the other hand only released the Defence White Paper last December. 

Of the three, only the DWP devotes significant discussion and analysis to the issue of maritime security, as well as the needed resources and measures to adequately execute strategy in support of maritime goals. The DWP also notes the need to work with both MOHA and MOFA on several cross-cutting issues. By contrast, neither the New Foreign Policy Framework nor DKKA share the DWP’s framing of Malaysia as a “maritime nation with continental roots”, nor do they devote any substantive space for analysis of maritime problems. 

As a matter of fact, the New Foreign Policy Framework is more a summary of previous actions and a statement of intention to continue pursuing them, with little details on how to better integrate those actions in a concerted effort with the Armed Forces and other security agencies. The DKKA perhaps provides the least insight of them all; it proposes six generic thrusts, with anywhere between two to seven “strategies” for each thrust. Those “strategies” are more generic proposals of action items rather than a careful consideration of resource needs and methods of execution. 

If any strategy is to be effectively developed, it must necessarily be a whole-of-government approach, incorporating multiple agencies and their capabilities into a single concerted effort to achieve a common goal. For this, they should use the National Security Council (NSC) as more than just a secretariat for ad hoc emergency situations meetings. After all, the Auditor-General’s report itself notes that the NSC is responsible for coordinating the actions of each ministry and agency under the maritime security space. 

Beyond merely reconciling the disparate policy documents of these three ministries, first and foremost there must be a genuine consensus at the political level of the importance of keeping maritime security affairs in good order. Few enough politicians in Malaysia have taken to the framing that Malaysia is a maritime nation. Until such a recognition is commonplace in Malaysian political discourse, it will be difficult to give due attention and resources to maritime security problems. 

But how should Malaysia’s security establishment go about producing this new strategy?

Both the bureaucratic dissonance and the political dismissiveness towards maritime security could perhaps be addressed by a national security strategy wargaming exercise. Such an exercise would take cues from President Eisenhower’s Project Solarium which produced NSC 162/2, a national security document outlining America’s national strategy to counter the Soviet Union. 

NSC 162/2 was produced with the consensus of not only the US Armed Forces, but also the Treasury Department, the State Department, leading nuclear and energy experts of the time, and various academicians; in essence, not only was it a whole-of-government approach, it was also a whole-of-society approach. Four teams were formed, mixing experts and officials from each of these organizations together in order to study four distinct conflict possibilities. The result of Project Solarium was a strategy that emphasized that America could not defeat the Soviet Union by force of arms alone; rather, a strong economy was needed, not only to sustain the needed military expenditures, but also to provide strength to free institutions that gave the Western world strength and resilience. History has proven this instinct to be correct.  

Replicating the exercise in spirit, but adjusted for Malaysian considerations, would be one step in the right direction towards a balanced national security strategy that sees hard and soft power elements combined and mutually reinforcing each other. It would focus the efforts of these disparate elements into one concerted effort to achieve a common goal, which is to secure the maritime space against intrusion. 

A Ladder of Escalation

One of the more practical results of such an exercise would also be the development of a ladder of escalation, another concept similarly born out of Cold War studies on nuclear warfare escalation. An escalation ladder is a useful exercise because it helps policy planners to play out all possible and relevant scenarios, thus enabling them to guess with reasonable accuracy how other actors would act, and by extension, how we should act given their reactions. 

Under such an exercise, a system of threat tiers would also be developed in order to categorize incidents, and thereby, the proportionate responses. Lower-tier security threats, such as non-state actors involved in trafficking and smuggling, should be under the purview of the MMEA, Marine Police, Customs, and Immigration. The Department of Fisheries on the other hand should handle all illegal and unregulated fishing incidents. At most, law enforcement agencies should only have to handle intrusions conducted by foreign coast guard and law enforcement vessels. The Navy on the other hand should focus on higher-tier threats, such as foreign militaries and paramilitary groups. 

Legally speaking, such a separation of responsibilities is already determined by various laws and standard operating procedures, as noted in the Auditor-General’s report. However, in practice it doesn’t always work out that way. As it currently stands, the Navy has been at the forefront of responding to many of the recent intrusions, including those of the Chinese Coast Guard. 

This situation is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, by law, the Navy does not have any powers of enforcement, so when it is impressed into its secondary role to support the MMEA and other civilian agencies, it lacks the power to follow up and conduct due process. While the security area provisions of the NSC Act of 2016 could mitigate this problem, it could also generate undue alarm and panic, as well as severely restrict movement for legal commercial vessels. 

Secondly, the primary responsibility of the Navy is to respond to military-tier threats and to conduct military operations. While supporting law enforcement is a stated secondary role, care should be taken to not stretch an already thinly spread Navy into missions that it should not spend too much bandwidth and resources on.

Thirdly, and pursuant to the previous point, while the Navy should respond to PLAN incursions, it should not be the first to respond to a CCG incursion, as it may be seen as a disproportionate and escalatory reaction; indeed, responding in this way may give China sufficient reason to support CCG intrusions with PLAN vessels. 

These issues highlight again the need for a clear ladder of escalation that demarcates areas of responsibilities and the appropriate responses under a unified chain of command. Such an exercise will help to reduce overlapping areas of responsibility and focus each organization on the relevant task in support of a common mission. It would provide a much needed sense of structure and pro-activity to Malaysia’s maritime security management. 


Ultimately however, maritime security management in Malaysia needs to start by changing at the top. Without strategic clarity that properly contextualizes the roles and responsibilities of each agency and ministry, it is unlikely that many of the sundry logistical problems will remain unresolved. After all, one of the many difficulties in keeping the MMEA’s ships maintained and in good order is the fact that it operates seven different hull types for offshore patrol vessels, 10 different hull types for patrol vessels, and seven more different fast interceptor hulls. While there is an argument to be made in favor of more commonality to facilitate logistics and defense industry retooling, ultimately such an effort can only come with a commitment of funds and political effort that correctly recognizes the importance of maritime security and enforcement. 

To that end, having a proper national maritime security strategy that clearly defines Malaysia’s maritime priorities as well as the means to safeguard them will be important. Such an exercise will help to achieve political and strategic-level consensus, which will hopefully cascade into a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach. On a practical level, such an exercise should also provide a clear ladder of escalation that demarcates the responsibilities of each agency clearly against respective threat tiers. 

Embarking on this journey will be a difficult one for Malaysia, but nonetheless necessary. Project Solarium makes for an interesting case study for replication. At some point, the ongoing quest for domestic political dominance must give way to the important business of keeping the country’s maritime spaces safe for all. After all, national security is an important public good that facilitates economic activity. In these times of uncertainty, Malaysia cannot afford to allow its maritime spaces be contested, especially when they are historically and economically important spaces.

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