In its first Defense White Paper, published in 2019, Malaysia proclaimed itself to be a “maritime nation with continental roots.” Indeed, the nation has a unique geography: peninsular Malaysia is connected to the larger Eurasian continent via the Isthmus of Kra, while East Malaysia consists of two states – Sabah and Sarawak – located far off on the island of Borneo, together with Brunei and Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Malaysia has long coastlines, large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and continental shelves in the South China Sea and Sulu Sea, and partly controls the strategic choke-points of the Strait of Malacca and the Straits of Johor. This country’s immersion in the maritime domain appears to concur with geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman’s dictum, “Geography does not argue. It simply is.”
But does geography really determine a nation’s identity, either as a continental or maritime nation? Arguably, there is another important variable that actually shapes a nation’s identity apart from geographical features and that is the strategic character of the population: that is, do Malaysians see themselves as a maritime people?
To answer this critical question, we have to look at both Malaysian strategic culture and the nation’s strategic history. The latter is easier to answer. For centuries, some of the people residing in peninsular Malaysia and Borneo Island have been seafarers. Adventurous Malay and Bornean seafarers have sailed throughout what is now the Indonesian archipelago, and ventured to distant Pacific Islands, including Australia and New Zealand. They have also voyaged through the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Madagascar.
The famous Malacca Sultanate built its power and wealth in the fifteenth century through maritime trade and control of important sea lanes, including parts of the Strait of Malacca, then as now a vital maritime choke-point and connective point for the East-West maritime trading route. Unfortunately, the Malacca Sultanate met its demise following an invasion by the Portuguese from the sea in the early sixteenth century. The strategic history of Malaysia points to a long historical record of using the maritime domain as a vital means of building political and economic power, while the seas have seen movements of people and the projection of military power by Malay states.
“Strategic culture” is a concept fostered in the 1970s and 1980s by a group of international relations scholars that were unsatisfied with strategic theories on the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union. Jack Snyder was one of the earliest scholars to argue for the use of strategic culture to interpret Soviet nuclear strategic thinking in his RAND report, “The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations,” published in 1977. Ken Booth continued the discourse by arguing that how the enemy perceives the world offer differs from one’s own perceptions. In his 1979 book “Strategy and Ethnocentrism,” Booth argued that while trying to understand a foe’s behavior, one’s strategic thinking may be clouded by your own emotional bias and perception of the enemy.
Two years later, Colin S. Gray published a seminal article that added further explanations about strategic culture as an important aspect of trying to understand how strategy is shaped and executed. Gray defined strategic culture as a suite of “socially constructed and transmitted assumptions, habits of mind, traditions, and preferred methods of operation.” Gray also argued that strategic culture can be reshaped with new experiences, coded and translated into nation-building policies. For example, Japan was once a martial nation that led a conquest during World War II but after the war, reshaped its strategic culture to that of a pacifist nation that denounced the use of military power.
Of course, Snyder, Gray, and Booth were not the first strategic thinkers to think about the concept of strategic culture. Preceding them, for example, the Byzantine military treatise “Strategikon,” published in the sixth century and attributed to Emperor Maurice, has an entire chapter describing the character, nature, and ways of warfare of the peripheral tribes that surrounded the Byzantine’s empire, as well as suggesting ways of dealing with them.
Strategic culture is perhaps the key variable in deciding whether Malaysia is a maritime nation today. While there are no in-depth studies of Malaysia’s strategic culture, the nation’s recent strategic posture, as well as the observable character of its population, suggest that it is not.
So why does Malaysia persist in calling itself a maritime nation, albeit with “continental roots”? There are plausible strategic reasons for it do so. Malaysia has large economic resources in its maritime zones: most of its oil and gas reserves are located offshore in Malaysia’s territorial waters and EEZs. The fishing industry is also important for Malaysia, contributing an average of 12 percent of Malaysia’s GDP for the past five years. Malaysia’s export of crude oil, palm oil, other commodities, and manufactured products, also utilize maritime transportation.
Malaysia’s contemporary strategic risks also reside in the maritime domain. Peninsular Malaysia is separated from East Malaysia by the South China Sea, and maintaining control of the sea and air corridors between these two land masses is vitally important, both in peace and war. Malaysia also has overlapping claims in the South China Sea and Spratly Islands with other states, including China, precipitating the strategic importance of maintaining a strong naval presence in the area.
But although it is tenuously linked to the Eurasian continent via the narrow land connection of the Kra Isthmus, Malaysia still thinks and behaves strategically like a continental nation. Until the nation attunes its strategic culture to the maritime realm, it is highly unlikely that it will become a true maritime nation anytime soon.
Long-term policies and political will are needed to create a coherent strategy for shaping Malaysia’s strategic culture to better fit the maritime context in which it finds itself. For example, schoolchildren should be taught Malaysia’s maritime history, and the education system should promote nautical skills such as rowing, sailing, and open water swimming. The government should also inculcate interest in future careers within the maritime ecosystem, such as ship-building, maritime engineering, navigation, port and harbor management, and maritime insurance.
The Malaysian government should also re-allocate and prioritize resources to build maritime and naval capabilities in order to safeguard Malaysia’s maritime interests. Until Malaysia’s strategic culture reorients itself to the importance of the maritime domain, it will be difficult to sustain Malaysia’s vision of itself a “maritime nation with continental roots.” To reflect the importance of strategic culture, Spkyman’s dictum could be restated, “Geography does not argue. But strategic culture has a big say.”