Race and religion at the forefront of state election politics

JON TYSON/UNSPLASH

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in collaboration with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Universiti Sains Malaysia is conducting a hate speech monitoring project for the upcoming 2023 Malaysian state elections.

This press statement provides a preliminary analysis of issues observed in week one of monitoring, 24-30 July.

The monitors processed 18,721 posts during the respective time period and coded the severity of speech, including those amounting to hate speech according to our following classification:

Level one – Disagreement or non-offensive language or content
Level two – Offensive or discriminatory language or content
Level three – Dehumanising or hostile language or content
Level four – Language or content that includes incitement or a call for violence.

CIJ monitors have found that almost 85.08% (15,927 posts) of social media posts were at level one, consisting of general comments and non-offensive disagreements on issues being monitored. The remaining posts are 2,765 posts (14.7%) at level two; 25 posts (0.13%) at level three; and four posts (0.02%) at level four, respectively.

The overall narratives of the posts are still centred on race, religion, gender, and targeting LGBTQ+ people, albeit not at high severity levels of hate speech.

Nonetheless, user-generated comments at level two and above indicate that racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic comments and gender stereotypes continue to be normalised with no obvious counter-messaging from political leaders or the general public.

Racial dichotomy at the forefront

In this period of monitoring, Dr Mahathir Mohamad has emerged as one of the key proponents of inflammatory statements related to race.

Mahathir’s ongoing narrative on challenging the status quo of ethnic minorities in Malaysia and claiming that Malaysia is not a multi-racial country, but rather a Malay country, produced user generated comments which were both critical of Mahathir as well as those concurring with his position.

CIJ executive director, Wathshlah Naidu noted: “These micro aggressions have the intent to create an ‘us versus them’ narrative built on stereotypes and misinformation by those in power and have the potential to marginalise and oppress ‘the other’ based on inherent racial and power hierarchy.

“Malaysian non-Malays had also taken to social media to express how these continuing non-Malay dichotomy and divisive narratives are challenging their sense of belonging and contributing to a polarised nation. A Chinese-Bidayuh Malaysian also shared with us that he continued to receive racist comments when he expressed his thoughts on these divisive narratives online.

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“Thus, we are treading on dangerous ground if we do not demand accountability from those in power as they continue to sow the seeds of hatred, especially amongst the young in Malaysia.”

CIJ monitors also noted that the Memali 1985 incident was also invoked as an attack against Mahathir, and Pas for being in cahoots with Mahathir. Some of these posts called into question the authenticity of Pas’ position.

Religion as another trump card

CIJ monitors also found the re-emergence of the “kafir harbi” narratives, some of which have been propagated by youths urging everyone to vote with the warning of needing to break the kafir harbi takeover if the Muslims are not united.

Religious responses to British rock band The 1975’s same-sex onstage kiss at the Good Vibes Festival escalated. There has been a surge in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment alongside religious responses since The 1975 incident, which was quickly politicised as social media users questioned which political party would best curb the spread of LGBTQ+ visibility in the country.

Hukum hudud (Islamic hudud laws) and the controversial Rang Undang-Undang 355 (RUU355) are also being invoked as a political tool by supporters through user-generated comments as a means of either hitting out against Pas or the DAP.

Gerakan had also taken to TikTok to clarify its past actions of taking the matter of RUU355 to court and further reiterated it has no opposition to the tabling of RUU355 as it was meant to strengthen the Sharia courts, which has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.

It cannot be denied that religion is a way of life and has influenced many Malaysians’ social and political decisions.

Similar to many countries, Malaysia has seen the use of religion to influence how state power is captured, especially through statements from religious authorities and institutions as well as campaigning by key opinion leaders, which ultimately lead to the choice of candidates who would uphold the religious teachings and power.

According to Rozana Isa, executive director of Sisters In Islam, “The real danger of mixing religion and politics is when politicians and their supporters stoke religious sentiments, at the expense of people of other faiths, beliefs and thoughts, through fear-mongering and threats of ‘going to hell’ to garner votes.

“As Malaysians, we are at risk of losing our culture of respect, fairness and tolerance. If these extremist narratives go unchecked it could potentially increase intolerance and bigotry, which would be a threat to peace, development and economic progress.”

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Social chatter around the issue of royalty

CIJ monitors noted a neutral stance on the issue of royalty and none amounting to hate speech.

Posts under royalty mainly focused on Kedah’s Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, alleging that he is either a traitor and that he deserved the action taken against him, or with an overwhelming number of comments from netizens in support of him and his politics in Kedah.

Misogyny and negative gender stereotyping on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity prevails.

Serene Lim from Kryss Network noted that, “Stigmatisation, objectification and hate against women, girls, LGBTQ+ and those who defy gender norms are more pronounced in the run-ups to election and vote.”

The monitoring found most of the LGBTQ+ narratives are centred around The 1975 incident at the Good Vibes Festival. The issue is also politicised to appease the ongoing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment among the public as observed when the communications and digital minister ordered an immediate cancellation.

CIJ monitors observed that most people were critical of the current government and its alleged failure to curb the “LGBTQ+ presence” in Malaysia and called for voters to support Pas-Perikatan Nasional.

It was, however, noted that the protest at Sogo on Saturday, 29 July, with protesters allegedly representing the Ahmadi community and holding placards to show their support of LGBTQ+ people drew very little backlash from netizens, while most claimed that it looked staged.

Toxic masculinity was also observed with the continued use of derogatory terms against politicians – “kunyit”, “darai”, “al-juburi” – with the intent to devalue a person’s capability and achievement, including their opinions and political viewpoint.

Vicious and violent comments were also directed at Jocelyn Chia who continued to draw flak now with her post on the decision of the Malaysian government to cancel the Good Vibes concert following the incident with Matt Healy. User-generated comments escalated to the extent of calling for her to be killed.

Serene adds, “It is urgent that we unpack the impact of influencers and politicians who ride on the hate economy, and target individuals and groups on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation and identity, with complete disregard as to how it will damage our society.”

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Xenophobia against refugees and migrants

There has also been a worrying uptick in hostility against migrant and refugee communities, particularly by TikTok users My Khabar and Ustaz Sophian Mohd Zain. Both have been engaged in coercive doxing via publishing videos of individuals, alongside their public information and last known location, who are allegedly on the Malaysian Immigration Department’s “wanted list”.

Meanwhile, Ustaz Sophian Mohd Zain has produced extensive content where he harasses and verbally abuses the migrant and refugee community who are going about their daily lives. One TikTok video in particular depicts him loudly harassing and intimidating a young child and sharing the video on Tiktok.

It is also of grave concern to see user-generated comments reach levels three and four when it comes to refugees and migrants, with exacerbating calls for the erasure of these communities. The doxing and call for violence is a recurring trend.

Mahi Ramakrishnan of Beyond Borders stresses: “We are continuously seeing the stigmatisation and discrimination against migrants and refugees in Malaysia. Conflating information about these marginalised groups of people may even incite violence against them. It’s important for us to understand that crossing borders for gainful employment and seeking asylum are not a crime.”

CIJ’s preliminary assessment during the above period shows how race and religion remain dominant framings and occupy much of online political discourse with relatively worrying severities of hate speech.

As the state elections draw near, CIJ and partners reiterate their solidarity with the targeted communities and victims of hate speech and call on all to “say no to hate speech”.

Our daily monitoring data and other resources are publicly accessible on the Say No to Hate Speech portal. We welcome contributions from the public by reporting hate speech on social media through our reporting portal to counter hate speech during the state election period.

This project is conducted by CIJ in collaboration with our rapid response partners – Architects of Diversity, Beyond Borders, Justice for Sisters, Kryss Network, North South Initiative, Sisters in Islam, Pusat Komas and Persatuan Sahabat Wanita – as well as our media partner, Malaysiakini.

For more information, visit  the Say No to Hate Speech monitoring portal.

Wathshlah Naidu is the executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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