Malaysia’s 15th general election was anticipated with hope, but the events surrounding GE15 have highlighted that the divisions in our society are reaching a level that is very concerning.
This is evident in the discourse on social media that is rife with hatred and racial and religious undertones. Hate speech has manifested in different forms, depending on the particular platform. The hostile tweets and despicable TikTok videos are only the tip of the iceberg.
This gives rise to the question of who or what is responsible for fuelling racial and religious sensitivities. There are many contributing factors to this complex problem but one reason is the politics of fear that is being used by certain politicians and their supporters. This is a dangerous strategy that has harmed Malaysia and the multicultural relations of its people.
In an attempt to gain support and attract votes, some have resorted to sensationalising, politicising, and manipulating racial and religious issues to inflame public sentiments by pitting one group against "the other".
On one end, fear is being stoked that this country may fall into the hands of "Taliban extremists" that would mark the regression of Malaysia into a hudud state where democratic rights are curtailed, women lose their autonomy and non-Muslims will be oppressed. On the other end, there has been an emphasis on the narrative that certain parties would compromise the position of Malay-Muslims and threaten the religion of Islam if they are voted into power.
Hate speech on its own is already insidious but when politicians participate in it, it adds a sense of "legitimacy" to the public, who may be influenced by what is being said. Research has indicated that countries with higher incidences of hateful political rhetoric tend to have a higher level of violence – specifically, an average of 107.9 domestic terrorist attacks per year between 2000 and 2017.
Many governments acknowledge that when politicians engage in hate speech, it becomes an aggravating factor that may amplify intergroup tension. This is why certain legal systems have increased punishments for offenders in this category.
At present, Malaysia does not differentiate between offenders based on their level of influence, which may contribute to the indifference shown by certain politicians who continue to participate in the politics of fear. That said, the act of promoting animosity and hatred among the people is punishable by law. Section 4 of the Election Offences Act is meant to prevent voters from being influenced to vote based on racial and religious sentiments, as well as protect the people from related hostilities. If a person is found guilty under Section 4, he or she may be barred from voting, or if he/she was elected as a representative in the legislature, the seat would need to be vacated.
Despite the strong legal repercussions, it would appear that various political parties from both ends of the political spectrum have inflamed racial and religious sensitivities. Professor Teo Kok Seng attributes racial and religious tensions to certain factors such as divisive speech among certain politicians. This has influenced the public to adopt a hostile attitude towards people of other groups based on identifying factors such as race, religion, and nationality – as indicated by the public’s engagement in online hate speech, acts of incitement, and threats to public order, pre- and post-GE15.
The government understands the weight of the problem at hand, which is why Barisan Nasional (BN) attempted to table the National Harmony & Reconciliation Bill of 2014. Subsequently, Pakatan Harapan (PH) started a legislative initiative through the Anti-Discrimination Bill, the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill, and the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill. Unfortunately, these bills did not come to fruition due to several factors, including criticism that such laws would be misused and abused, as well as a lack of political will to push the legislation through.
This was made more challenging by several changes in government since 2018, which inadvertently put a halt to legislative reforms. As such, there has not been any tangible legal change in this area.
It is high time that we move away from employing polarising narratives in our effort to realise a more democratic Malaysia because true democracy cannot be achieved when people are influenced by fear rather than guided by knowledge when they go to the polls.
We share a bond with each other and must respect the rights of others, as well as observe our responsibilities. We must move past petty arguments that only magnify our perceived differences. Our leaders can lead by example by following the mean in their thoughts, statements, and actions – as in the Quran (2:143) it is stated, "thus We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you may bear witness to the truth before all of mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you."
Malaysians are hoping and praying that the new government under the administration of Anwar Ibrahim will be a positive new era that does away with money politics and implement good governance. To achieve this aim, Malaysians all play a role in determining the course of this nation.
The question is, what path will be taken? If we hope to build on our common ethical and moral values as the foundation for forging a better future that is inclusive of all Malaysians, it must start by gathering our inner strength to walk the middle path.
Murni Wan Mohd Nor is a senior lecturer at the Department of Government and Civilisation Studies and a research assistant at the Institute of Social Sciences, UPM.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.