Webinar on “A New Security Mindset for Malaysia in the 2020s”

In this webinar, Mr Liew Chin Tong examined Malaysia’s current security mindset and offered ideas on what a new framework for the sector should encompass.


Monday, 17 January 2022 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Mr Liew Chin Tong to deliver a webinar titled “A New Security Mindset for Malaysia in the 2020s”. Mr Liew is a writer, politician, and the former Deputy Defence Minister of Malaysia. He was a Member of Malaysia’s Lower House (Dewan Rakyat) from 2008 to 2018 and a Member of the Upper House (Dewan Negara) from 2018 to 2021. He is the National Political Education Director of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Mr Liew Chin Tong began his presentation by sharing the history and background of Malaysia’s current security mindset. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Liew began his presentation by sharing the history of Malaysia’s security mindset. It had its early beginnings in 1948, and in this period, the strength of the armed forces and the police force was equal. However, the centrally commanded Malaysian Police played a more critical political role than the Armed Forces. In particular, the police force played a highly political role during the Emergency from 1969 to 1971. Thus, in comparison to many countries in the region, the political role of the Armed Forces is relatively limited.

 However, within the Armed Forces, the Army has traditionally been the largest and most dominant service. Over time, the Malaysian Armed forces have developed a full range of conventional capabilities beyond the requirements of jungle warfare. That said, there is a lack of jointness between the Army Forces, the Police, and the Navy. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not form an integral part of planning for the security sector. This is in spite of the increasing number of external threats to the country.

Mr Liew then offered ten points necessary for a new security mindset in the 2020s. These ten points include: a grand strategy, new solidarity among littoral states; Malaysia’s increasing awareness of itself as a maritime nation; increased appreciation of non-traditional security threats; the adoption of a whole-government-approach; democratic and parliamentary oversight of the security sector; increasing devolution of appropriate tasks to state governments; comprehensive reforms of the Police sector; the policy “A Kinder State for a Safer Nation”; and leveraging on the security sector as an economic catalyst. These core ideas were previously espoused in the first-ever Defence White Paper, which was presented to Parliament in December 2019.

For the first point, Mr Liew proposes a grand strategy approach that sees Malaysia as an inspiring middle power and its linchpin role between global partners. This strategy hinges on the belief that Malaysia’s future is tied to its ability to actively navigate around powers like the United States and China actively. The second point centres on the South China Sea, which Mr Liew believes will continue to be a site for great power competitions. A new mindset should see Malaysia providing the platform to advance solidarity and reduce friction as well as coordinate a response to the aforementioned competitions. The third point proposes that Malaysia should evolve from its emphasis on jungle warfare and instead redirect its focus to a joint military plan with an emphasis on the navy as well as a better budget for the coast guard. For the fourth point, Mr Liew recommends that security agencies in Malaysia should organise an all-rounded approach to face non-traditional security threats. These threats include disease-related ones, such as a pandemic, and cyber-attacks.

The fifth point suggests a total revamp of the National Security Council where the security ministers should meet at least weekly with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who he suggests should be included in the process. The new Council should consist of a robust security cluster where the core of its manpower should be specialised and dedicated to matters related to defence. As regards the sixth point, Mr Liew proposed democratic and parliamentary oversight of the sector. The new security sector should last beyond the rotation of administrations, and security agencies who are key players, like the Armed Forces and the Police, should be politically neutral.

Mr Liew suggests that the state governments should have more leverage vis-à-vis the federal government for the seventh point. For example, states and local authorities should be entrusted with powers to fund and manage traffic police. Sabah and Sarawak should also have more security powers and responsibilities. Mr Liew suggests that the new security mindset involves police reforms for the eighth point. These reforms would include dealing with corruption within the Police, custodial deaths, and constructing new police headquarters with better facilities.

The ninth point, titled “A kinder nation for a safer nation”, is based on the recent COVID lessons. Mr Liew highlighted how Malaysia should encompass refugees, foreigners, and prisoners in its security policies. There is a need to change from its current xenophobic approach towards refugees and foreigners to being an opinion leader in the region. For the last point, Mr Liew suggests that the security sector be seen as an economic catalyst. As part of the whole-of-government approach, the Ministries of Finance and Economics need to be part of the long-term discussion for defence procurement beyond the 5-year plan. This also would mean addressing past excesses in defence procurement and a need to stop any more vendor-driven projects.

In the question-and-answer session, participants raised questions regarding ASEAN’s security positions, opinions related to the US-China rivalry, and challenges that would impede the reforms suggested by the speaker. The webinar attracted 90 participants from Singapore and abroad.

Mr Liew Chin Tong interacting with moderator Dr Francis Hutchinson, Senior Fellow at ISEAS, during the Q&A segment. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)