ONLINE HATE SPEECH IN MALAYSIA - by Ahmad Tajuddin Bin Mohd Said

9th September 2020-

In recent years, hate speech has increasingly become a global concern. The advent of social media has become a conduit to amplify feelings of hatred that may have already existed in societies. Measures have been taken by social media providers to restrain online hate speech on their platforms; such efforts were made by using technologies and human monitoring. Nonetheless, the issue still persists.

Like all other terms, there is no universally accepted definition of hate speech. The United Nations (UN) in its "Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech" document, explained hate speech as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.

Based on the statistics provided by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), there has been an increase in hate speech complaints involving Race, Religion and Royal Institution (3R), in the last five years. The year 2017 saw a high number of complaints but the figures slightly decreased in 2018. The complaints then increased by more than a hundred percent in 2019. Shockingly, in just half a year, 929 complaints were reported up until June 2020. The number of complaints is almost a one hundred percent increase from the previous year, depicting a sharp rise in the number complaints on online hate speech in Malaysia. According to MCMC, all complaints were addressed using relevant procedures in place.

Two assumptions can be made on the significant rise, 1) On August 2019, it was reported that the public may channel all 3R complaints to MCMC’s WhatsApp number, thus making it more convenient for people to lodge a complaint, and for MCMC to respond quicker 2) Most Malaysians were stuck at home during the MCO period and spent more time on the internet which raises the possibility of a higher number of people committing online hate speech or more complainants. Further research needs to be conducted to identify the reason for such increase, either the rise of online hate speech or the awareness of the issue.

Nevertheless, this trend is alarming because hate speech is the foundation of extremism and the beginning path to radicalisation that may lead to violence. For a multiethnic and multicultural country like Malaysia, the 3R are sensitive matters and must be handled delicately. In addition, 81 percent of Malaysians are social media users. The top ten social media platforms in Malaysia are You Tube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, FB Messenger, WeChat, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and Pinterest. The combination of sensitive matters on social media platforms are a perfect storm and pose an absolute challenge to the nation.

Measures must be taken by the Government to address this issue, especially in terms of educating the public. It is best for the Government to encourage further Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), social media influencers and tech companies to be part of the effort to curb hate speech. CSOs, social media influencers and tech companies can play an important role in promoting anti-hate speech through their various engagement, programmes and platforms.

It is interesting to note that the UN document on hate speech stressed a great deal on addressing this matter by applying soft approaches and measures. Among them include, addressing the root causes and drivers of hate speech in order to develop the suitable formula to address it; engaging and supporting victims of hate speech; building coalitions with experts and independent mediation; engaging traditional and new media to promote values of tolerance and non-discrimination; using formal and informal education as a tool for preventing and countering hate speech; raising awareness on respect for human rights, non-discrimination, tolerance and understanding of other cultures and religions as well as mutual understanding; and highlighting hate speech trends and to express sympathy to the victims through advocacy.

It is important to note that, if the reason for hate stems from an event happening outside the country, then the greater challenge is to address the root cause. Hence, more efforts need to be made in developing critical thinking among Malaysians, especially for our youth to have mental firewalls and to improve digital literacy skills in general.

There is a need for a concerted efforts in countering hate speech in Malaysia to maintain social harmony. These efforts should involve various ministries, agencies and CSOs.  In parallel, the existing legal framework needs to be improved in order to ensure Malaysia employs a comprehensive approach in addressing hate speech.

The Government needs to handle this issue while it is still at its infancy. This would ensure that extremist and terrorist operatives will not have an opportunity to capitalise on any of the issues that stem from hate and use of hate speech. While respect and tolerance should begin from home, nonetheless, the Government and CSOs must take the proper lead in addressing this issue.

As Malaysia commemorates its 50th Anniversary of "Rukun Negara" (National Principles), the fifth principle which is "Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan" (Courtesy and Morality), must be upheld and more importantly, practiced by all Malaysians.

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