More needs to be done by the Malaysian government to curb hate speech by members of one community against other communities

I would like to express my deepest disappointment at the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia for giving a half-baked response to my question in Parliament regarding the Malaysian government’s action plan to address anti-migrant hate speech and the fanning of anti-migrant sentiment on social media such as Facebook.

As a background to the matter, Reuters reported that as recent as a month ago, a wave of hate speech and misinformation aimed at Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar began appearing on Facebook, and this happened as coronavirus infections surged in Malaysia this year.

The Ministry in its Parliamentary answer to me stated that it had constantly disseminated “true” information through media statements, infographics, news and/or video coverage through RTM and BERNAMA regarding anti-immigrant hate speech during the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia through the Ministry’s official social media platforms and emphasized that there are a lot of news reports on government’s fair treatment of foreigners despite the spread of the COVID-19.

The Ministry further claimed that such reporting by RTM and BERNAMA had indirectly rebutted misconceptions about Malaysia’s treatment of foreigners in the country, and that for the recent Rohingya refugee issue, RTM has displayed various news reports on the Malaysian government’s efforts in addressing the issue fairly and equitably.

The way the Ministry has answered my question would seem that the Ministry has decided to brush off claims of Malaysians making anti-migrant hate speech online by treating such claims like “fake news”. By using words such as “misconception” to describe the same, the Ministry seem to intend on downplaying the seriousness of anti-migrant hate speech online by covering it up with supposedly positive news, but also to indirectly indicate that Reuters is reporting inaccurate news.

I am disappointed at how the Ministry seems to be living in a world on its own and refuse to see the fire burning vigorously online, which is hate speech. The Ministry seems to be in denial and thinks that the hate speech as reported by Reuters is under control, and there is no need for any further control by law.

The only part of the answer by the Ministry which is relevant to my question, is that the Ministry stated that they had through various mediums, awareness programmes and advocacy programmes reminded the public not to abuse social media to disseminate any content or material that is critical (berunsur kecaman) of a group, which could cause anger and affect peace.

The Ministry further added that contents will be deleted by Facebook if the content is found to violate their terms and conditions, as well as community standards or community standards set by them.

To me, this is a weak answer that reeks of sheer irresponsibility and the government’s intention to wash their hands off these xenophobic activities by blaming Facebook of not controlling the same.

By not taking a strong stand against hate speech, this government is basically encouraging the people of Malaysia to continue making such hate speech against other communities.

Worst still, the Ministry had the cheeks to make reference to the right to freedom of speech enshrined under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia as if dissemination of hate speech is part of such freedom, when in fact there is no such thing as the liberty to spread hatred through speech.

It is about time this PN government wake up and smell the coffee. It has to come to its senses and be aware of the realities of the situation in the country, and how hate speech is affecting national unity and harmony, and now perhaps even extending to foreigners such as the Rohingyas.

Here, I would like to suggest that the government enact a Social Harmony Act that can be used in efforts to, among others, control the hate speech which can potentially harm harmony amongst various community not just in the country, but also around the world, especially in the cyberspace.

Just last year in August 2019, the then de facto Islamic Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that it was high time the government introduce a hate speech law because of the rise of hatred between race and religion.

In early February 2020, the then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Senator P Waytha Moorthy announced that a bill to set up the Harmony and Reconciliation Commission is being drafted and is expected to be tabled in Parliament this year.

However, after the Sheraton Move in late February 2020, the new Perikatan Nasional Unity Minister Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique had instead in August 2020 announced the scrapping of the bill. This is a major step backwards in the efforts in controlling hate speech.

On the outset, it is important to note that hate speech and misinformation (or ‘fake news’) are two different matters altogether. Currently we have sufficient laws to deal with and punish those who spread misinformation under the Penal Code, but there is almost no law controlling those who create and spread hate speech to create hatred amongst people of different community. Hate speech can come in many forms, and most of them do not necessarily fall under fake news.

We reject the Anti Fake News Act and any attempt to revive it. I urge the PN government to instead form the Harmony and Reconciliation Commission instead.

It is time we enact laws that punish makers of hate speech. We all have differences, and such differences should not be used to instil hatred amongst one another.

(Press statement referring to the answer provided, Soalan No 14)

Chan Foong Hin
Media statement by Chan Foong Hin in Parliament on Tuesday, 24th November 2020