This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Maritime security in Malaysia’s national language

Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia. The word “maritime security” normally used in Bahasa Malaysia is “keselamatan maritim.Maritim directly translates as maritime but keselamatan carries the meaning of both “security” and “safety.” Hence, the idea of security in the maritime context has a broad meaning consisting of both the commercial and military aspects of Malaysia’s sea power, e.g. both safety from natural hazards as well as from the use or threat of organized violence and force.

In Bahasa Malaysia, another word often used to explain a general sense of safety is “keamanan”, a word that simply means peacefulness or tranquillity, but is also translated into English as “security.” However, keamanan maritim is rarely used in Malaysia. In addition, “pertahanan” (defense) is another form of security reflection. Pertahanan maritim is used to denote the more military aspects of security at sea and defended against competing states.

Malaysia’s official definition for and usage of maritime security

Thus far, there is no official definition of maritime security has been formulated by Malaysian authorities. The term “security” generally refers to being safe and free from danger or threat. Hence, anything that threatens Malaysia in the maritime domain can be included as an interest to the country. The responsibility to protect the maritime domain falls to various ministries and their policies. Therefore, maritime security in Malaysia has a broad but all-encompassing usage such that it may span all government portfolios depending on how the stakeholder securitizes and interprets a particular maritime issue. The process of protecting any particular interest relies on how each given ministry or government agency perceives the vulnerability of that interest and the risk if that vulnerability is not managed. The risk mitigation or consequence management of any issue can be classified under maritime security in the country. In other words, maritime security is used in a sense that is flexible enough to encompass any issue related to maritime interests.

Malaysia’s key documents for defining and understanding maritime security

There are no explicit key documents to explain the definition of maritime security. However, there are several policy documents worth referencing to understand Malaysia’s understanding of maritime security. First is the National Security Policy (Dasar Keselamatan Negara or DKN).[1] The DKN lists 66 items under “Issues, Challenges and Threats to National Security.” Several of these are rooted in maritime security. Examples include overlapping claims, trans-border crimes, illegal immigrants, and resource management. Second is Malaysia’s first Defence White Paper (DWP), which was published in 2019.[2] The DWP is a government document about the country’s strategic direction and defense planning. It presents a vision to advance Malaysia’s current interests and future aspirations as a “maritime nation,” exploring the nation’s unique role as a bridging linchpin between the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.[3] The DWP also explains the functions of both the navy and coast guard. The third is the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Act[4], which authorizes the constabulary roles of Malaysia’s coast guard. [5] Fourth is the 15 to 5 Transformation Program, which discusses the roles of the RMN and its asset development program; this document indirectly helps to explain Malaysia’s maritime operations.[6] Fifth is the Maritime Defence Strategy (Strategi Pertahanan Maritim) that was shaped in 2009 to respond to the evolving geostrategic challenges to Malaysia at sea. [7] Lastly, the Maritime Security Act (Akta Keselamatan Maritim) is a working draft bill from 2011 which seeks to promulgate and codify all issues pertaining to maritime security in Malaysia. It discusses approximately 11 actions that are considered as threats based on the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the safety of maritime navigation.[8]

Elements of Malaysia’s approach to maritime security. Environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence?

Almost all aspects of sea power and protection of maritime interests can be considered elements of maritime security in Malaysia. Conceptually, it can be divided into commercial and military aspects. Hence it can cover traditional threats such as naval operations, deterrence, territorial disputes, and overlapping claims, and it can cover non-traditional issues such as oil spills, mariner safety, fisheries management, marine environmental protection, and management of other resources. There are no fixed elements or defined sequences. Rather, maritime security is measured based on the threats that are posed to the maritime environment in the country during a specific period of time. Nevertheless, anything that incurs cost and causes loss to the government in terms of revenue in the maritime realm is considered as elements of maritime security. Furthermore, issues that can create a negative image with the international community is also included as it can impact investment to the country.

Evolution in Malaysia’s usage of the term maritime security

Malaysia has broad but all-encompassing usage of maritime security. The national usage of maritime security evolves based on the interests of Malaysia during specific periods or events. For instance, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) was established after the Lahad Datu standoff – it was a joint effort of the MAF, RMP, and MMEA. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Task Force (NTF) was established to respond to illegal entry to the country – the NTF is a combination of 19 agencies. But it still evolves around the element of sea power and protection of maritime interests of Malaysia.

Additional context for Malaysia

How Malaysia divides its maritime zones provides useful context to understand its approach to maritime security. Each maritime zone relates to the roles of its related agencies and their tasks – dividing zones can be interpreted as conforming to the general consensus part of the definition of maritime security. In essence, the constabulary function and the military function are separated between the civil authority and the navy. Whilst the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is responsible for safeguarding the national interests and sovereignty at sea and for representing the military function, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) is tasked with performing constabulary functions for ensuring the safety and security of the Malaysian Maritime Zone (MMZ)[9] with a view to protecting maritime and other national interests in this zone.[10] However, the RMN does have some authority and is regularly called upon to assist the civil authority in carrying out its functions. During war, the function of the MMEA falls under the control of the Armed Forces, and both the RMN and MMEA aim to safeguard and protect the national sovereignty of the country. During other times, the functions of the MMEA are to enforce law and order under any federal law conducted within the MMZ.[11] Many federal laws are associated with the MMEA Act (MMEAA) 2004 Act 633.[12] The Act applies to the inland water right up to 200 nautical miles, but this control may at certain times overlap with the function of the Royal Marine Police (RMP), the actor responsible for safeguarding the landward side of the baseline by which the breadth of the territorial sea of Malaysia is measured.[13] Hence, a compromise was made where the RMP was made responsible for controlling the river, island, and ports and given juridical right up to 12 nautical miles. This compromise suggests consensus between the MMEA and RMP – the former safeguards the territorial water and EEZ, and the latter focuses on protecting the internal waters.

[1] National Security Council, (2017). Dasar Keselamatan Negara 2021 – 2025.

[2] Ministry of Defence. (2019). Defence White Paper: A Secure, Sovereign and Prosperous Malaysia.

[3] Ibid. Pg. 11.

[4] Agensi Penguatkuasaan Maritim Malaysia 2004, (2006). Undang-undang Malaysia Akta 633.

[5] Ibid.

[6]Royal Malaysian Navy. (2018). 15 to 5 Transformation Programme.  

[7] Kementerian Pertahanan Malaysia. (2009). Strategi Pertahanan Maritim,

[8] United Nations. (1992). Convention for the suppression of unlawful acts against the safety of maritime navigation.

[9] The “Malaysian Maritime Zone” refers to the internal waters, territorial sea, continental shelf, exclusive economic zone, and Malaysian fisheries waters and includes the air space over the Zone. “Territorial sea” refers to the territorial waters of Malaysia as determined in accordance with the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance, No. 7 1969 [P.U.(A)307a/1969]. The “continental shelf” refers to the continental shelf of Malaysia as defined under section 2 of the Continental Shelf Act 1966 [Act 83]. “Internal waters” are any areas of the sea that are on the landward side of the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea of Malaysia is measured. “Malaysian fisheries waters” are defined under section 2 of the Fisheries Act 1985 [Act 317]. The “exclusive economic zone” of Malaysia is determined in accordance with the Exclusive Economic Zone Act 1984 [Act 311]. Agensi Penguatkuasaan Maritim Malaysia 2004, (2006). Undang-undang Malaysia Akta 633. Pg. 6.

[10] Ibid. Pg. 5.

[11] Ibid. Pg. 9.

[12]Fisheries Act 1985, Immigration Act 1959/63, Anti Trafficking in Person and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, National Registration Act 1959, Passport Act 1966, Customs Act 1967, Penal Code Act 574, Criminal Procedure Code Act 593, Police Act 1967, Forestry Act 1984, Akta Lembaga Perkayuan Industri, Poisons Act 1952, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Merchant Ship Ordinance 1952, Petroleum Safety Measures Act 1984, Akta Dius Api Persekutuan 1953, Malaysian Palm Oil Board Act 1998, EEZ Act 1984, Continental Shelf Act 1966, Control of Supplies Act 1961, Akta Kawal Selia Padi Beras 1994, Firearms Act 1960, The Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act 1958, Wildlife Act 1972, Dangerous Drug Act 1952, Drug Dependents Act 1983, National Land Code Act 1965, Protected Areas and Protected Places Act 1959, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Anti Money-Laundering Act 2001, National Heritage Act 2005.

[13] Ibid. Pg. 6.

About Tharishini Krishnan

Dr. Tharishini Krishnan is a senior lecturer at the Department of Strategic Studies and a Centre of Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) research fellow at the National Defence University of Malaysia.