Two issues have dominated the run-up to Malaysia’s general election on May 9: Corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib Razak linked to a financial scandal around the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, as well as the soaring cost of living and growing inequality.
But Malaysia’s political stability and economic growth depend largely on the security situation. And while Malaysia appears stable, the situation is more tenuous than it seems.
Najib’s government is trying to take credit for controlling the nation’s security. Questions about security tend to be a low concern for the electorate; perhaps because the country is so stable, and the security forces, while not immune from politicization, are still able to perform their core responsibilities with competence.
What can the government legitimately take credit for? And where is it more vulnerable to opposition attacks?
There are five security issues (apart from the South China Sea dispute) where there have been some tenuous successes, but that could pose significant challenges to Malaysia:
The IS threat
Since 2013, Malaysian police have arrested over 390 terror suspects, most of them tied to the extremist group Islamic State (IS). In 2017 alone, Malaysian police arrested 105 suspected militants, and foiled three separate attacks.
There is no doubt that Malaysian authorities have been far more proactive in dealing with IS than they were with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 2000s.
There has been far greater cooperation with regional security services, and Malaysia has established close working relations with Turkey, which has returned many attempted IS fighters and family members.
What Malaysian authorities would like to focus on is the fact there has only been one IS terror attack in Malaysia, an amateurish grenade attack on a bar in June 2016, and that no one has been killed.
While Indonesians have comprised the majority of a Bahasa language IS company in Syria and Iraq, Khatibah Nusantara, there have been more Malaysians on a per capita basis. Several Malaysians were in key leadership positions. And there have been at least nine Malaysian suicide bombers.
IS recruitment should alarm Malaysian authorities. Unlike Indonesia, where recruitment is still a gradual process based on personal interaction – largely through JI’s madrassas and mosque network – recruitment in Malaysia has been on-line, and rapid. Most importantly, it has cut across the socio-economic spectrum and given women key roles.
Several Malaysians in Syria remain key recruiters, including Wan Mohd Aquil Wan Zainal Abidin (also known as Akel Zainal) and Mohd Rafi Udin, who appeared alongside an Indonesian and a Filipino in a June 2016 IS execution video.
Unlike JI, which never targeted Malaysia, IS has repeatedly called for attacks, procured explosives and been in active stages of planning. Cells have come quite close in a number of cases, including one suicide bomber arrested just days before his planned attack.
More recent arrests have demonstrated a willingness by IS cells to engage in lower tech attacks on houses of worship, as well as abductions of security forces and politicians.
The real concern is that a successful mass-casualty IS attack in Malaysia would be more consequential than a similar attack in Indonesia, which has far greater social resiliency.
Malaysia’s success in dealing with IS domestically has been undermined by the devolving security situation in the Philippines, where pro-Islamic State militants held Marawi city for five months in 2017, and continue to spread Philippine security forces thin.
Several Malaysian militants were actively involved, even featured in centrally produced IS videos. Since the fall of Marawi, Malaysian militants have been identified as leading pro-IS cells, including Amin Baco and Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, and may be playing an important bridge amongst the various pro-IS groups in the southern Philippines.
Mindanao remains key to IS militants in Southeast Asia because it is the only place where Islamic State can actually control physical space from which they can train, plan and execute attacks. You can’t be a province of the caliphate without territory.
Which is why militants have focused so much on securing the key transit and logistic routes to and from Indonesia and the Philippines through Malaysia’s Sabah state. Malaysian security forces have poured additional resources into the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), including new patrol craft, and they routinely arrest militants.
In February 2018, Malaysian police got into a gunfight and killed three suspected Filipino militants in a palm oil plantation in eastern Sabah. That month police arrested 10 people, including seven Filipinos and three Malaysians, in Sabah, setting up a cell to move people into the southern Philippines.
Malaysia established trilateral maritime patrols with Indonesia and the Philippines in April 2017, following a spate of maritime kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf. Between March 2016 and December 2017, some 15 Malaysian nationals were abducted, while Indonesian sailors were taken from several Malaysian-owned vessels.
While those patrols have had a net positive impact, they need to be further routinized, and a common fusion center needs to be established. Coordinated aerial patrols must also be continued. These are costly, but essential to maintaining regional security and economic prosperity.
Malaysia is going to have to double down in its investment in the peace process between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been in purgatory, since a counter-terrorist operation went awry in January 2015.
Malaysia played a key role in brokering the peace, but expended little political capital when the peace process stalled in the Philippine Congress. While the Philippine government’s renewed claim to Sabah will anger Malaysia, it must continue to play a leading role in the peace process; without that, the MILF will have no incentive to police its territory, disarm, or prevent splintering of its fighters to pro-IS groups.
While the Malaysian government has facilitated the peace process between militants in southern Thailand and the government in Bangkok, those talks have yielded little. Nonetheless, violence has declined in the provinces dominated by ethnic Malays.
Security forces from both countries pledge cooperation, but mistrust lingers. Thai officials believe that Malaysia remains a very permissive environment for the militants to fund raise and plan attacks from. Malaysian police broke up a cell that was importing small arms from southern Thailand.
Of great concern to Malaysia is that, recently, a 10-person IS cell in Johor was led by a Thai national. While Thai authorities downplay the potential radicalization of militants, Malaysian security forces are concerned about the potential because the conflict in Thailand’s Deep South is now in its 14th year and stalemated.
Most militants and southern Thais eschew the transnational ideology of IS, but there is concern about the radicalization of the younger generation.
The Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing of its Muslim Rohingya population led to the exodus of over 700,000 civilians; there are now over one million Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in Bangladesh, with little hope of being repatriated safely or with legal protections.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib pledged humanitarian support to the Bangladeshi government and dispatched a mission led by the Ministry of Defense. But this is simply a drop in the bucket.
This is the start of an intractable conflict that will likely have consequences for Malaysia.
Already, Malaysian security forces have arrested two IS militants trying to travel to Bangladesh to join the armed conflict. Rohingya militants (ARSA) are likely trying to organize and fundraise from amongst the estimated 150,000 Rohingya migrants in Malaysia. Malaysian security forces are legitimately concerned about the radicalization of the Rohingya diaspora.
In addition, illegal immigration of Rohingya is picking up again. This month, Malaysian security forces intercepted a vessel carrying 56 people. This will continue to tax Malaysian security forces. But it also puts them under the spotlight as Malaysian officials have previously been implicated in human trafficking.
Assassinations of foreigners on Malaysian soil
The assassination of a Palestinian Hamas member outside of the Malaysian capital on April 21, allegedly by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, will have a peripheral role in the election.
The Islamist party PAS is trying to make an issue of it.
Yet the killing is the second high-profile international assassination in Malaysian soil since February 2017, when the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un was allegedly killed at a Kuala Lumpur airport by two women wielding VX nerve agent.
The trial of the women, an Indonesian and Vietnamese, who are accused of being recruited by North Korean agents to execute Kim Jong Nam, goes on and will likely put Malaysia in an awkward spot.
The two assassinations raise questions as to why Malaysia remains such a permissive environment. Malaysia today is a far cry from the 1990s when members of an Algerian terrorist organization used Malaysia as a safe haven; or the Tamil Tigers’ top money man and arms purchaser lived there fairly openly; or where al-Qaeda was able to fund the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, or plan both the attack on the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks.
While Malaysian officials may be outraged that foreign services are able to violate their sovereignty and conduct assassinations on their territory, they remain too blasé about operations that do not directly target Malaysia.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.