Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia's National Security: Rhetoric and Substance

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Malaysia's National Security: Rhetoric and Substance

Article excerpt


Security is an ambiguous concept. It has different meanings for different people, including decision-makers who formulate national policies. (1) Thus, the question "What is national security?" opens the floodgates of contending opinions. Generally speaking, national security refers to a package of values that are deemed worthy of protection. But disagreement arises as to what values should be included in this package and how they are to be prioritized in a socio-political entity. Who decides? How is the underlying conflict in value articulation involving the state, its government and those governed reconciled under conditions of scarcity? These questions are critical to any analysis on national security.

Conceptual Clarification and Limitations

Subsequent analysis would benefit by reducing the ambiguity surrounding the concept of security. According to Arnold Wolfers, security is the "absence of threats to acquired values". (2) What are these values? Generally, it can be surmised that there are certain values that virtually every country pursues. These relate to the survival of a state's inhabitants, the survival of a state itself as a sovereign and territorial entity, economic welfare, the preservation of its socio-political institutions, ideology and culture, and national unity. (3) This package can be referred to as the "core values" of a state, values that a state would make ultimate sacrifices to preserve. (4) In addition, states pursue middle-range goals such as prestige, international influence, developmental status, uninterrupted trade and access to foreign markets and raw materials, as well as long-term goals such as alternative world orders. (5) Some caveats are in order however. First, these are hot mutually exclusive categories. For instance, an obsession with development and prestige has become the immediate objective of many Third World states. Second, conditions of scarcity and political expedience may result in certain values being subordinated and even sacrificed at the expense of others. For example, the defence of the homeland may necessitate the loss of numerous lives or the imposition of restrictions on individual freedoms. Finally, all values have normative connotations to them and are hence subject to contestation.

It is equally important to enquire as to who decides on the package of values to be secured. Although the notion of sovereignty resides in the people of a state, in reality, it rests with the government.6 As the source of political authority, the government defines security, and this definition generally encompasses the broader spectrum of values held dear by the majority; otherwise, the government would lose its legitimacy.

The above analysis on national security is unashamedly cast in the realist framework, revealing at the same time its conceptual limitations. The fact remains that nobody really knows what values are articulated by a state, how these are prioritized, and what strategies are adopted to preserve them. Therefore, analysts rely heavily on the generalizations provided by political realism to construct the national security profile of a country. The state is treated as a unitary actor, and it is assumed that its government would act rationally to minimize if hot eliminate altogether threats emanating from other actors in a state-dominated international system. In other words, the focus is on a state's vulnerabilities in relation to its external environment. In this context, national security would emphasize, among others, threats emanating from political intimidation and blackmail, military attack, foreign sponsored espionage and subversion, regional instability and warfare, disruption to trade and supply routes, trade protectionism, and radical transformation in the regional balances of power. (7)

Notwithstanding its explanatory power, the realist paradigm does not provide a coherent explanation with regard to national security. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.