When politicians resort to race-baiting

Mustafa K. Anuar

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has expressed deep concern over a surge of race-and-religion rhetoric on social media, particularly in the run-up to the last general election. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, June 3, 2023.

Commentary by Mustafa K Anuar 

AHMAD Zahid Hamidi expressed deep concern recently over a surge of race-and-religion rhetoric on social media, particularly in the run-up to the last general election.

Responding to a social media monitoring study published by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), the deputy prime minister urged the Communications and Digital Ministry through the Communications and Multimedia Commission to monito racial narratives posted by politicians and their supporters on social media. 
He and his colleagues in the unity government, as well as concerned Malaysians, indeed have cause for concern.

In the report, the CIJ stated that out of 117,152 postings made across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok between October 20 and November 26, 2022, 66,933 were on racial issues. 
It was the highest compared to other narratives, such as religion (24,484), royalty (14,320), gender and LGBT (7,596), and refugees and migrants (3,819). 
On October 20, the Election Commission had announced the date for the last general election – November 19. 

In many ways, it was no surprise that racial discourse crowded out the other narratives, given that race and religion have been the staple diet of particularly ethnic-based political parties over so many years.

In other words, such race-based narratives on social media are generally a reflection of the political reality in the country. Certain politicians and political parties consciously exploit race and religion to achieve their political ambitions, often with impunity.

What is concerning is that such negative narratives as hate speech get amplified, particularly before and during elections, and are fine-tuned and calculated to achieve the most traction among the target audiences. 

It is against this backdrop that we should be mindful that social media would play yet again an integral role in the state elections.  
What is feared is that race-based speeches and postings on social media would bring about a society where some members of ethnic communities would be induced to be suspicious, fearful and even hateful towards others.

This is the handiwork of certain individuals and parties pitting one ethnic group against another for political expediency. 
In this context, an ethnic community is given the impression by the scheming politicians and political parties concerned that it is facing an existential threat from another ethnic community in the country.

The siege mentality that is being developed is aimed at convincing the so-called besieged community that it needs a saviour of its own kind in the form of the politicians or party concerned. That is how socially divisive such a political strategy can be. 

Thus, some Malays find themselves suspicious of the non-Malays, and vice versa. 

For instance, it does not promote goodwill and harmonious relations if the non-Malays are characterised, as a senior opposition politician did, as the root cause of corruption in the country as if Malays are devoid of such misdeeds.  

Nor does it help to claim, as did the seasoned politician, that non-Muslims are unfit to lead the country.

Monitoring social media may be one concrete step to address the issue of race and religion narratives that are socially divisive. 

However, in the long run, the government may want to apply in a big way the Madani concept of compassion, trust, and respect, among other things, through its policies so that no Malaysian would feel neglected and threatened.

Government policies, such as those concerning poverty eradication and educational opportunities, should take an inclusive approach that would benefit Malaysians from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.  

To reiterate, this is to help prevent unscrupulous politicians from preying on people who have been divided for the political ends of the former.  

Additionally, students in schools and tertiary institutions, who are exposed to media platforms such as TikTok, should be vigorously taught critical thinking so that they could separate the wheat from the chaff.  

Many messages posted on social media are partisan and blinkered, needing to be critically unpacked.   

Equally important, component parties in the unity government, particularly the ethnoreligious-based ones, should learn to appreciate more the significant value of inclusivity and fairness in a multiethnic and multireligious society such as ours.  

Purveyors of hate speech and racial bigotry should realise that they do not become nobler or greater by running down other people. If anything, they may appear insecure and vicious. – June 3, 2023.  

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