The National Defense University Of Malaysia

‘Education is the first line of defense’

Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh

Salam Sejahtera

1. Ladies and Gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to address this esteemed gathering on the wonderful occasion of 10th Anniversary of the country’s first and only Defense University, the National Defense University of Malaysia. The theme of this event, that Education is the First Line of Defense, is derived from a well-known saying, first uttered by American President Harry Truman in the aftermath of the Second World War. He was referring to the importance of educating the people of his country in order to build their resilience and power. Education plays a dual role in this process. It contributes directly to nation-building by strengthening the capacities of all, while it also underpins the effectiveness of the armed forces tasked with protecting national security.

2. Education lies at the very heart of development, being both the means to achieve it and one of its most important ends. According to American educationist John Dewey, ‘’education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” Levels of education are closely correlated with development, with female literacy rates a particularly accurate indictor of the achievement of other aspects of human security. These include better health outcomes and higher incomes. This can be seen across the world from the Indian states of Kerala and Himachal Pradesh in the developing world, to Singapore and Scandinavia in the developed world.

3. Education contributes to development by empowering individuals to reach and fulfil their potential, as in Amartya Sen’s conception of Development as Freedom. At the same time, education is instrumental in generating economic growth by boosting productivity and enabling populations to contribute more effectively. This direct relationship makes it imperative for education systems and methods to stay ahead of the game in our competitive and challenging times, something that can only be achieved by being dynamic, progressive and informed. There are currently intense debates in the field of education about what constitutes the most effective approaches given our changing times.

4. Education of the population at large in this way forms part of the intrinsic foundation upon which a nation’s broader well-being rests. These development gains to which education contributes must then in turn be secured by the military or armed forces who are endowed with this duty. The primary objective of the military in both modern and traditional conceptions is to protect society and to defend the rights of the population to live in peace. In the Islamic conception, this includes the freedom to practice one’s faith and way of life or ‘deen’. The armed forces in this way provide the protection on which the human security of the rest of society is based, with their training for this role provided by military education.

5. In order to fulfil their role effectively, the military must combine a sense of duty and honor with physical and military prowess, and multiple intellectual capabilities. These include a grasp of legal, ethical, analytical, strategic, scientific and technical aspects of military affairs, as well as leadership, management and organization.. A combination of these skills and abilities has provided the underpinning for successful military forces from the time of the Romans, who placed a high value on the academic aspects of military preparedness. These included astute strategy and effective leadership, as well as highly developed engineering and manufacturing abilities, all of which were perfected through training. Their military superiority thus rested to a large extent on their relatively advanced education system.

6. The Chinese have also always valued highly the application of the intellect to military challenges. This is exemplified by Sun Tzu’s comprehensive and enduring treatise on the Art of War, available to this day in book-shops around the world. Sun Tzu’s ideals include ‘breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting’. He maintains that ‘the best thing of all is to take the country whole, and not shatter and destroy it’, and ‘to recapture an army entirely, rather than destroy it’. This emphasis on avoiding destruction wherever possible, in line with the principles of just war, presupposes considerable intellectual capacity. The obligation as part of Islamic traditions to respect ethical and legal principles of just war similarly requires a strong intellectual foundation in order to implement effectively in practice.

7. The success of European countries during the colonial period also rested on a highly effective education system. The combination of technological and engineering superiority with high levels of administrative and bureaucratic organization enabled the colonial powers to conquer and rule over many other nations for long periods. The dominance of the US military in the second half of the 20th century has also been based on a combination of advanced intellectual training and strategic thinking with more practical and technical capabilities.

8. Created in 2006 out of the existing Defense Academy, the National Defense University remains the only tertiary level institution dedicated to military education in Malaysia. As with other military training programs, the approach here combines the development of noble character traits with leadership, strategic and analytical abilities, specialized technical and military skills, and physical and sporting prowess. It is also grounded in the legal and ethical traditions of Islam, as reflected in your motto of “Duty, honor, integrity,” and in the attention given to spiritual training alongside the other elements.

9. As this institution now celebrates its 10th anniversary, it is timely to consider the existing and emerging security challenges that the country and region faces, and to consider how our security forces can best prepare to meet them. In doing so, it may be useful to understand more about some of the reforms being implemented in other countries that might be relevant to the Malaysian setting, in relation to military education and education more broadly.

Current security landscape

10. We live in a period characterized by growing instability and tremendous change, accompanied by increasing volatility. Whatever the uncertainties of our times, what will remain constant however is the need for effectively educated armed forces, at national and regional levels and beyond. The growing complexity and unpredictability of the global security environment makes this preparedness both more necessary and more challenging than perhaps ever before. The role of military education, and the unique combination of skills and abilities that it imparts, is thus also more important than ever. In addition, education provides greater exposure, inspiring new insights and understanding among students, along with the development of critical abilities. This contributes to a better grasp of the complexities of some of the issues and settings to which our armed forces are today exposed.

11. Despite these growing uncertainties and emerging new challenges, there are many constants in the security environment faced by Malaysia and its region. The more traditional security challenges of the region are as salient as ever, particularly in relation to the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Tensions continue between members of ASEAN committed to a policy of dialogue and containment, and China, the region’s largest power. International terrorism remains another major concern which is affecting us increasingly directly in this region. While not a ‘traditional’ threat in terms of state to state conflict over territorial control, this issue has by now become a permanent feature of the security environment, albeit one that continually adapts and mutates.

12. Terrorism presents particularly acute security challenges in relation to preparedness, in part due to its highly unpredictable and adaptable nature. These challenges in turn require an approach to military education that trains members of the armed forces to be able to anticipate and respond to the evolving forms of terrorist attack. Such ability rests, among other factors, on better understanding of the social, cultural and political context. This context includes the relative social and cultural advantages of terrorist groups – as the ‘fish swimming in the sea of civilians,’ as Mao put it, as well as their organizational, social media and economic capabilities. This aspect of asymmetrical warfare is nothing new of course, with the importance of ‘hearts and minds’ long recognized, and understanding of this aspect shaped by the experiences of this region during the communist emergencies. There is now a welcome re-emphasis on so-called softer skills such as anthropology and language, both of which were key to military success in the colonial period.

13. What is unprecedented is the role of IT, from the use of social networks by terrorist groups for recruitment and marketing, to the dangers posed by cyber-capabilities of all kinds. The implications of advances in Artificial Intelligence, robotics and 3-D printing have yet to unfold, but are seriously concerning. Cyber-attacks already have the potential to cause devastating impacts across critical infrastructure around the world including to transportation networks, and other infrastructure. These new technology-related threats require significant efforts to be put into cyber defense in response, with regional and global coordination likely to be a crucial element of any effective response in this area.

14. Other new threats also continue to emerge and intensify, including from environmental degradation, with this region unfortunately likely to continue to experience the devastating effects of natural disasters intensified by climate change. Humanitarian disaster relief is now a growing activity for military forces everywhere including here in Malaysia. Although some of the engineering, managerial and technical skills remain the same, the very different objectives of humanitarian actions compared to traditional military operations, necessitates different and specific training. Increasing flows of legal and illegal immigrants create further security concerns, including from human trafficking.

15. These dynamics raise deep questions about how best to prepare for the wide range of actual and potential security threats. They underline the importance of effective and appropriate military education. This requires a forward-looking approach, focused explicitly on the cultivation of innovation, creativity, leadership, strategic and critical abilities. This is challenging even for mature military forces such as in the US and other NATO countries. Many aspects of military education will remain unchanged and focused on character, physical prowess and technical abilities. But as our current era is the first in which access to and the use of information has become more important than explosive power, training and preparation in this area must now become central.

16. Advances in cyber technology highlight the importance of imagining possible future directions of warfare. The example of parapsychology – the concept of passing through walls and solid barriers that seems to come straight out of science fiction – is telling. The development of this technology for a while became part of the Cold War battles between the United States and Soviet Union. It was subsequently abandoned by both, but China have reportedly restarted research in this area,[1] raising the possibility that work in the US and Russia may also have to resume. Notwithstanding the common saying that we are always fighting the last war, the real challenge for effective military education is how best to prepare the armed forces for the next one. This imperative has contributed to a Revolution in Military Affairs in the US in the decades following the end of the Cold War.

The Revolution in Military Affairs and military education

17. In recognition of the need for greater preparedness than ever, the world’s major power has carried out significant reform of its armed forces, and attempted to do the same in relation to its system of military education. This ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ in the US has been driven primarily by the objective of achieving greater agility. This is in order to be able to respond to a security environment that is both more dynamic and more varied than in the past. This has resulted in a major re-organization, from the traditional structure of specialized divisions, to a modular structure aimed at strengthening flexibility and inter-operability. The new operational and preparatory modules combine different elements and capabilities to a far greater extent than previously. This allows the armed forces overall to respond much more effectively to the range of threats they now face. This transformation was required in part because of the growing sophistication of the adversaries confronting the US, but it has also been driven and shaped by the IT and internet revolutions.

18. Reforms to military education have been a key element of this transformation. These have involved a reaffirmation of the importance to the armed forces of academic and intellectual abilities – an acknowledgement that ‘brainware’ is as important as hardware.[2] There is now recognition of the importance of training creative, critical and agile personnel who are adequately prepared for the complex and ambiguous operating environments they will face. This requires the development of outstanding analytical and strategic abilities, as well as innovation, problem-solving and leadership skills. While the other elements of military education remain important, there is a growing emphasis on these more analytic abilities, as well as on the more effective combination or ‘fusion’ of these various skills. As one senior advisor put it, effective military education of this kind can be ‘both a force–enabler and an effects-multiplier’.[3]

19. The processes of reform now underway are based in part on greater understanding about how adults learn. Life-long approaches to learning are being adopted that are more learner-focused and outcome-based than in the past. This involves a return to a more Platonic model of dialogue and discussion, as opposed to more passive teacher student relationships, as is necessary to foster the creative and critical thinking so urgently required. The new tools and technologies of the IT and internet revolution are also being harnessed to serve the goal of more effective military education. Face to face communication remains indispensible however, essential particularly for teaching leadership, ethics, strategy and for team-building.

20. In the face of the evolving set of threats and challenges outlined above, the imperative to develop these skills has become increasingly urgent. There have been some reforms in the US and elsewhere as a result, and existing models are increasingly being questioned. But progress is slow and resistance remains.[4] Although there are strong historical precedents for a greater focus on innovation and creativity in military education, these qualities are also challenging to cultivate in practice. Military education is grounded in hierarchical practices which emphasize deference to authority and uniformity. These may conflict directly with the need to foster innovation, independence, and even iconoclastic approaches. As one influential author put it, military education ‘should be a haven for heretical ideas in a revolutionary period’.[5] At the same time, many core aspects of more traditional approaches have served us well and must be retained. A sense of duty, strong grasp of ethics and legal aspects among others, remain important and are taught effectively in current systems.

21. These tensions encountered in efforts to reform military education reflect similar challenges in education more broadly. There is growing recognition that the current system similarly requires significant reform in order to serve more effectively the needs of our dynamic economic and social context. There is also an inherent tension between the focus of traditional education systems on uniformity and obedience – qualities required in the industrial era in which these systems first evolved – and the need in the current high tech era to develop creative and agile innovators. Some critics of the current education system maintain that creativity should be as important in modern education as literacy and numeracy. But this has yet to be adequately reflected in mainstream education systems, which continue to emphasize rote-learning and the reproduction of lessons delivered by teachers.

22. Ongoing reforms and debates in both military education and in education more broadly hold important lessons for us here in Malaysia. I understand that here at the Defense University a more discursive and problem-solving approach is already in use to ensure effective development of analytical abilities. This should continue to help foster strategic and critical thinking in relation to the existing and emerging threats we face. The academic focus here is particularly developed in relation to the more technical areas of engineering and science, with the recent addition of medicine strengthening capacity further in this direction. While these strengths will remain crucial in the future as technology develops in unpredictable ways, even greater investment in Research and Development would build this capacity further. Strength in technology and science could be further complemented by greater capacity in relation to ‘softer’ areas, including the increasingly important social sciences, as well as culture and the arts, in order to help cultivate a holistic education.

23. The Defense University has come far in its first ten years of operation, training and preparing our armed forces for the security role they play. As it moves forward into its second decade, the university can learn from the experiences of other militaries, consider carefully the dynamic security environment we now confront, nationally, regionally and globally, and ensure our armed forces are well equipped to deal with the challenges of the future.

Ladies and Gentleman,

24. In closing, I want to emphasize again that preparedness is more important than ever given the volatile and dangerous times in which we seem to be living. As Nelson Mandela put it, ‘Education is the most important weapon you can use to change the world’. Let us make sure that the military education delivered here more than adequately prepares its students for their noble task. This is to protect the nation and secure our development as we go forward, and by doing so help to change the world for the better in the face of the increasingly globalized and complex security challenges that we confront.

  1. Coker,C. ‘Future War’ (2014) Polity Press
  2. Kenney, Steven H. “Professional Military Education and the Emerging Revolution in Military Affairs’, Airpower Journal 10. (1996)
  3. Julian Lindley-French
  4. Joan Johnson-Freese
  5. Kenney (ibid.)
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