Blog: Polarisation, violence and harm in Malaysia – and a need to end this dangerous political game

Blog: Polarisation, violence and harm in Malaysia – and a need to end this dangerous political game - Civic Space

Image credit: Alanis Mah

By Nalini Elumalai, Programme, ARTICLE 19


I wish there could be a time machine so we all could go back to the era when the polarisation of race and religion started in Malaysia, and we could end the misery that we are facing today. When did we become a less tolerant society, less accepting of diversity, differences, and those who have less than us in life? Have we lost the ability to have a civil conversation with those we disagree with, or to learn about different communities and their beliefs and culture? Has the censorship of speech and opinion created a society where we can’t understand each other? Have we lost the fundamental sensitivity about each other’s existence? When did we stop prioritising, and working toward, a nation based on democratic values?

Could everyone involved in the recent ‘Allah’ socks controversy dealt with the situation differently? The controversy arose after a KK Mart store in Bandar Sunway began selling socks with the word ‘Allah’ on them, and someone posted a photo of the socks on social media. The post fuelled outrage, prompting the company’s founder, KK Chai, and Xin Jiang Chang Sdn Bhd, the Batu Pahat-based company that supplied the socks to KK Mart, to issue public apologies. 

The issue led to disproportionate responses, and, on 26 March, KK Chai and Xin Jiang Chang Sdn Bod were charged with blasphemy under section 298 of the Penal Code for intentionally wounding religious feelings. The owner of Xin Jian Chang Sdn Bhd also has been charged under section 109 of the Penal Code. Other individuals faced investigations and were charged under section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act for insulting Islam. Online vigilante mobs targeted individuals who posted on the controversy, and circulated their personal information on social media platforms.

While I recognise that these incidents are considered deeply disrespectful and offensive by many, I am also very concerned about how such incidents are instrumentalised by some political figures and vigilante groups, and even individuals, to spread hatred and hostility in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, identity politics has posed a profound challenge to establishing a sense of national unity, contributing to an increase in intolerance among Malaysians. Unfortunately, the lack of effective political leadership, progressive voices, and inclusive policies have failed to safeguard all communities’ existence, sentiments, beliefs, and diversity, and this has led to severe instances of ‘hate speech’ and prompted a sense of fear among Malaysians, making them scared to even raise their voice or to take a stand on issues they care about.


Politicians, vigilantes, and violence 

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth Chief, Dr Akmal Saleh, is one of the politician who has ‘shined through’ as the controversy has unfolded. He holds considerable responsibility for helping to escalate the issue to what it has become today. UMNO is part of the current Madani Coalition government. As part of the government of the day, could Saleh have been more careful? Could he have been more aware of the danger of his actions when he started to call on people to ‘teach’ KK Mart ‘a lesson’ by lodging police reports? Despite this, those involved immediately addressed the issue and apologised.

Saleh also called for people to boycott KK Mart, which subsequently had an impact on many people who worked at the store. And, after a while, it could also be argued it prompted Molotov cocktail attacks against KK Mart in Perak, another attack in Pahang and, most recently at a branch in Sarawak. Although the UMNO Youth Chief has condemned the attacks and claimed that these aggressions against KK Mart was not because of the boycott, but the damage has been done. It seems appropriate for him to apologies to the nation for creating such anxiety.

Those who carried out the attacks have not been identified. Will these individuals be brought to justice for inciting violence and for causing harm?  

It is important to note that no injuries or fatalities occurred in these highlighted incidents. However, it is a fact that these situations could have been prevented if they had been handled with care and wisdom; authorities’ mishandling of them led to vigilante action. If the response to such incidents is always censorship, violence, and threats, it could lead to further division between Muslims and non-Muslims, preventing them from understanding each other’s sentiments and beliefs. This could create an intolerant and divided society, given the dangers of ignorance and a lack of understanding.

After 60 years in power, we know the UMNO’s history and the impact on the nation. Its leaders have often used Malay supremacy, religion, and racist rhetoric to divide the country and its people. But in recent general elections, UMNO has lost its relevance among the Malay majority. Therefore, the question is: will the UMNO Youth Chief’s recent political stunt be seen as an attempt to regain the support they have lost? As someone who has lived through years of the UMNO regime in charge, I know we cannot rely on the party, to dismantle oppressive systems, reduce hostility between ethnic groups, or protect the interests of the country’s Malay majority. The recent incident is proof of this.

It is crucial that everyone, particularly public officials and politicians, firmly denounce racism, violence, and hatred. As a Youth Chief, Akmal Saleh should avoid using religious sentiments to express his views on the ‘socks’ incident. This is because his followers, particularly the youth, might be influenced by his words. One careless statement can have far-reaching consequences, doing more harm than good in the long run. 

The rights approach 

We can’t expect peace and harmony without equality and acceptance of diversity.

It is imperative to adopt a genuine and pluralistic approach when addressing issues of polarisation, race, religion and violence. It is high time we hold politicians accountable for their role in causing harm, recognise the dangers of vigilantism, take necessary actions to deter it, and implement a solid reverse approach to mitigate the spread of these problems. Politicians and people in authority must be the first to condemn violence and use their position and privilege to effect long-lasting change. The appropriate answer to hate speech is not just more speech – but also policies and actions to tackle the causes of inequality in all its forms and colours.

It is important to solve social issues without resorting to censorship. When contentious topics or viewpoints are censored, the underlying causes of prejudice are not addressed. This issue becomes even more complex when we consider that states’ restrictions on freedom of expression and information often fail to provide opportunities for constructive dialogue. Instead, everything is deemed “sensitive” and restricted. To combat hate speech, racial discrimination, religious tension, and harmful stereotypes, we must allow more speech and put an end to the restrictive environment. This way, we can discuss fundamental issues of identity, belonging, systematic discrimination, and prejudice. Allowing for more dialogue is a more constructive approach to solving these issues affecting the nation.

Importantly, state officials and political figures should lead by example. They have a vital role to play in identifying and promptly speaking out against intolerance and discrimination, including instances of ‘hate speech’. They must not engage in it themselves. 

The Government must further encourage other stakeholders’ initiatives to promote inclusion, diversity, and pluralism, in line with Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action.

Restricting the right to freedom of expression is ineffective in combating religious and racial hatred, and the adequate protection and social inclusion of groups at risk of discrimination and violence requires broader and positive policy measures. This includes the enactment of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and other policies that tackle systemic discrimination against religion and belief, while also ensuring authorities firmly condemn episodes of religious intolerance and help de-escalate tensions.