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A Vietnam maritime police handout showing a Chinese boat (left) allegedly ramming into a Vietnamese vessel in contested waters near China’s deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea recently. Much has been written about China-United States rivalry in asserting ‘soft power’ in the Asia-Pacific region. AFP pic

THE mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 and incursion of Sabah waters by rogue terrorists have something in common — in both cases, we were caught off-guard.

Domestically, our leaders were preoccupied with the political jeopardy of post-13th General Election, largely because of the deprivation of a two-third majority in Parliament. As a result, incumbent leaders faced serious constraints in matters pertaining to crafting new policies, as well as with its implementation.

The answer lies in “the pivot”, a buzzword that dominates the international relations fraternity. It denotes the geopolitical fulcrum that holds the key to leadership and control of a particular regional, and territorial of influence through strategic foreign policy moves.

The term gained currency from an op-ed penned by former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton in late 2011. She wrote about the renewal of intent in US foreign policy to be the major player in the Pacific Rim.

Much has been written about China-US rivalry in asserting “soft power” in the Asia-Pacific region generally, and Southeast Asia primarily. The most glaring example is through the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Despite China not being a party in the TPPA, she is still regarded by many analysts to be the “elephant in the room” as part of US containment strategy against China’s growing dominance in the region.

In Vietnam, locals vented their anger on the streets after state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation deployed an oil rig in a patch of disputed territory, 241km from Vietnam’s coast near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries.

The recent visit of President Barack Obama to the Philippines, meanwhile, was greeted by protests because of plans to re-establish a US naval base there.

Notwithstanding the relative economic prosperity of Asean countries, the region is undergoing some tumultuous changes — the national election in Indonesia and the impasse of Thailand’s domestic politics are just two examples.

Where is Malaysia in these scuffles? Are we just a spectator? Can our foreign policy keep us safe and insulated from regional conflict? Will Malaysia receive an unintended impact as described in the Malay proverb Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah (when two elephants fight, the mousedeer in between is trampled to death)?

This is not conjecture.

In his book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert D. Kaplan posited Malaysia as one of the main theatres that have important bearing on the future outcome of this battle of Pacific pivot.

Malaysia, being a small country sandwiched between China and the US, needs to find the panacea that could guarantee her the “three S” — safety, security and sovereignty.

Recent racial and religious tensions that were amplified in the mass media have rekindled debate on some of the most sensitive issues pertaining to the nationhood of our country. Such debate warrants us to revert to the basis of the founding of this nation: the constitution.

The most fundamental element within our Federal Constitution that made it possible for us to be a nation-state is the guarantee of safety for all races that have been legally accepted before the law to be citizens of this country, as stipulated in Article 5.

Despite the dark patch of May 13, 1969, Malaysia is free of civil, racial and religious wars that have coloured the history of some of the most advanced nations on earth. They had to undergo tumultuous struggle against their own people, race and religion.

Their historians have no qualms about terming such events “revolutions” and accepted them as part of the formative process in the journey towards nationhood that warrants a great deal of sacrifices.

Unfortunately, religion became the sacrificial lamb for the sake of creating a more just, stable and secular future — novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) — a motto that appears on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the US and printed on its dollar bill, the currency of international trade and commerce.

Though Malaysians never experienced such “revolution”, our experience in nation-building is nothing but “revolutionary”.

There has never been a majority-Muslim nation post-Ottoman empire that has governed three major races and dozens of religious affiliations, in which all of the races and religious affiliations do not share the same historical experience and destinies, as successfully as Malaysia.

This is a real manifestation of the success of what former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad called the spirit of kongsi or muafakat — Malay concepts roughly translated into English as “benevolent sharing and cooperation” — a spirit that is evident in all strata of Malaysian society.

But, now, such notion is being challenged by some tectonic changes in world politics. The rise of political liberalism, which preaches equality instead of equity and secular human rights in lieu of religious virtues and duties, has engulfed not only the poorer states in the Middle East and Africa but also developed Western countries.

It is an open secret that the drive for political liberalism comes not so much from the political ingenuity of the masses alone but is socially engineered via “coloured revolutions”, through systematic training, funding and empowerment of grassroots civil society movements assisted by foreign organisations that have geostrategic interests within our region.

They would capitalise on governments’ mistakes and inefficiencies to galvanise mass political movement that demands reform that is beyond the norm of local value and belief systems, challenging every facet of the non-written constitution that was faithfully agreed and respected by our forefathers before.

Such activities are directly challenging the very notion of safety in our journey of nation-building, as the movement could snowball into a political movement that will rip our nation apart. By design, it will pit two confronting and equally powerful groups of people in the form of “new order of ketuanan rakyat” against the “ancient regime” of Malaysian politics.

Security exists primarily because of threat. The 21st century security issues are not restricted to classical notions of espionage or territorial breach. The advent of modern network society and fast pace of “creative destruction” economy have widened the scope of espionage, where the stealing of state secrets is no longer exclusively in the domain of politics but also trade and commerce.

John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Jeremy Scahil’s Dirty Wars portray how security matters today are one convoluted subject that challenges the very basis of statecraft — everyone lives on the periphery of the system, except the superpowers.

Malaysia, being a neighbour to the second-most militarised state on earth after Israel, has everything to worry about the waning influence of the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) Declaration.

The increased presence of China and US through economic and military channels should serve as a stark reminder that uncertainties and stability that Zopfan has offered is expiring faster than expected.

Last but not least, the sovereignty of our nation depends on our government’s ability to maintain control at the very least of its borders: air, land and sea. Any illegal incursions and trespassing into our territory is tantamount to an act of aggression.

We must re-establish new strategies for our 3S. The old formulas have served their purpose and made us what we are today.

If Turkey is repositioning itself as a regional power in the Mediterranean through its strategik derinlik (strategic depth) framework, then Malaysia, which straddles along one of the most important geopolitical choke-points in the world — the Straits of Malacca — surely requires something that would have the same effect.

In the cause of erecting a formidable defence against unforeseen geopolitical impacts, our government must assess our risk appetite and how far we are willing to go to buy more “concession” of time and space that cannot necessarily be translated into opportunities.

In traditional folklore, the pelanduk is lauded as a small yet smart creature that brought about the establishment of one of the greatest Muslim empires in this region — the sultanate of Malacca.

Perhaps the present and future leadership of our country could emulate the feat of that brave and cunning pelanduk, albeit the challenge is far greater in this new “great game” of the 21st century.

The writer is a consultant fellow at Putra Business School and a graduate student in Islamic Thought and Civilisation at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation Malaysia

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