Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Malaysian – Keselamatan

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Malaysian, Security


Relates to security

Keselamatan is a focus word that governs much of the discourse on security in contemporary Malaysia. Derived from the root word selamat, which refers to the condition of being safe and at peace, it implies a situation of tranquility in all areas of life – covering matters as diverse as ethical conduct, social psychology and spirituality as well as politics, economics, culture, and territorial sovereignty. Such an all-encompassing notion of the word selamat is an illustration of the lack of a clear division between the ‘secular’ and the ‘sacred’ in the everyday thinking of Malaysian Muslims.

The concept selamat is, on some occasions, used interchangeably with the word sekuriti. Even so, sekuriti has gained very little ground within the Malay elite’s discourse on politics and national security. Keselamatan’s broader reference, including the concern for moral and spiritual security, may help to explain this. Keselamatan is a potent word in Malay – and one with positive connotations – and its use in the title of the Internal Security Act or ISA (the Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri) helps to give that seemingly Draconian legislation greater authority and acceptability. The use of ‘keselamatan’ helps to legitimize the Act as a preventive measure against the enemies (or musuh) of the state, assisting it to be seen as a crucial element in ensuring social control and fostering a climate of confidence. Still, it should be stressed here that ordinary Malaysians are not impressed with the word ‘keselamatan’ especially when it is used to justify arrests of political activists. Then again, ironically, the opposition to ISA and governmental use of ‘keselamatan’ in much of its discourses in the path towards maintaining order in the country has given more salience to the word in the minds of the public.

Indeed, the word ‘keselamatan’ by government officials has become more prominent in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. On 27 March 2004, the Home Ministry (or Kementerian Dalam Negeri) was decentralized into two separate ministries, one of which is the Kementerian Keselamatan Dalam Negeri (or Ministry of Internal Security). The usage of the word ‘keselamatan’ here is indicative of the importance attached to the term by the Malaysian government, and of the way the term has a generally wider reference than the English ‘security’. The Keselamatan Ministry is tasked with the responsibility for Keselamatan dan Ketenteraman Awam (Public Safety and Security), Antidadah (Antidrug Enforcement), Pemulihan dan Pelaksanaan Hukuman (Reform and Implementation of Laws), Pengurusan Krisis (Crisis Management) and Kawalan Penerbitan dan Teks Al-Quran (Safeguarding Publications and the Quran).[1] Here is an example of the way that keselamatan is used by the Malaysian government as a basis for interfering in not only secular but also religious affairs, particularly in realm of safeguarding the integrity of the sacred texts of Islam.


Although the intended objective of expanding the roles of the Kementerian Keselamatan Dalam Negeri (or Ministry of Internal Security) was to inspire greater confidence and, at the same time, assert greater control over population, this has not gone unchallenged. In an article published in 2006 in the Islamic party’s (PAS) daily online newspaper, Harakah, a former detainee named Saari Sungib (more popularly known as Abu Urwah) argued that UMNO’s rendering of the term keselamatan serves to legitimize its abusive policies and to single out and proscribe opposing elements. Two years later, the Selangor state government declared that Malaysia ought to be free from the ISA.[2] More recently, Azizuddin Ahmad, the Secretary of the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM), mentioned that the ISA has served to discourage people to articulate their rights more than it has helped to ensure peace and harmony in Malaysia.[3] A representative of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat too issued a statement saying that there have been double standards in the use of the ISA.[4] The novelty of these efforts should not be pushed too far. Critiques of the ISA and the state’s notion of keselamatan appeared as far back as the early years of independence, and a notable work on this topic published in 1988 by ALIRAN, a Malaysian Human Rights Group, is entitled ISA dan Keselamatan Negara.[5]



[1] Kementerian Keselamatan Dalam Negeri,, accessed on 24 September 2008.

[2] ‘ISA diguna untuk patahkan semangat tahanan’, Harakah, 23 June 2006, and ‘Dun Selangor lulus usul kritik ISA’, Harakah, 27 May 2008. See also ‘Mungkin Mahathir akan di ISA – Isteri tahanan ISA’, Harakah, 23 June 2008,, accessed on 24 October 2008.

[3] Ioannis Gatsiounis, Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle for Dignity and Direction (Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2008), p. 37.

[4] ‘Penggunaan ISA Secara ‘Double Standard’ Dipersoalkan’, 30 August 2009,, accessed on 1 March 2011.

[5] ALIRAN, ISA dan Keselamatan Negara (Pulau Pinang: ALIRAN, 1988).


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