Malaysia’s diversity should be celebrated, not used as a political weapon, Southeast Asian MPs say


Malaysia’s diversity should be celebrated, not used as a political weapon, Southeast Asian MPs say

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia must foster the unity of its rich multicultural society and turn away from using divisive rhetoric for political gain, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said today at a press conference following a fact-finding mission on peace and harmony after the country’s recent elections.

During the fact-finding mission from 7 to 10 October, APHR’s delegation, consisting of current and former members of parliament from the Philippines, Singapore, and Timor-Leste, met with the Minister of Communications and Digital, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), the Election Commission (SPR), the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), members of the Malaysian parliament as well as with representatives of civil society, the media, religious leaders, and interfaith groups.

We are pleased to see that, despite years of political instability, Malaysians have been able to express their political choices through the ballot box in November 2022 and August 2023, resulting in a peaceful transition of power at both the federal and state levels,” said APHR member and former Singapore member of parliament Mohamed Irshad. 

We also appreciate the Unity Government’s Malaysia Madani policy framework, particularly its focus on good governance and social harmony. However, several observers have highlighted certain worrying trends regarding religious and racial polarization that must be addressed before they reach a breaking point,” said Irshad. 

During the elections, discriminatory and hateful campaign rhetoric flooded various social media platforms, with TikTok even saying that it was on “high-alert.” These kinds of narratives have caused division in Malaysian society and results in the further marginalization of vulnerable and minority groups. Freedom House has also rated Malaysia’s freedom of religion with its lowest score of one out of four.

We are deeply concerned by the proliferation of hate speech, particularly in online spaces. The lack of trust between different communities that is the basis of some of these narratives is something that needs to be addressed through open and frank discussions in order to get to the root cause of the problems. If not, these issues will only recur in the future,” said Irshad.

APHR also notes with concern that the spread of divisive narratives is further exacerbated by the reach of social media platforms. The lack of suitable safeguards and appropriate oversight mechanism allows for the creation of echo-chambers and the spread of disinformation, divisiveness, and hate. In Malaysia, and globally, these phenomena are undermining democracy, public institutions, social cohesion, and stability.

We believe that governments throughout the region, including Malaysia, must be firm in holding social media companies to act more responsibly and take ownership for their role in facilitating the spread of hate and division,” said Irshad.  

But we must also recognize that politicians and community leaders play a pivotal role in promoting responsible speech and curtailing inflammatory remarks, particularly during elections. We urge our fellow parliamentarians to resist exploiting religious and racial divides for political gains,” continued Irshad.

To address these issues, APHR has compiled several preliminary recommendations, including establishing a preventative strategy to preempt the spread of hate speech during election periods. Collaborative efforts among institutions like the Election Commission (SPR), the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) are vital in this regard.

Parliamentarians and government officials should speak out firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping, and instances of hate speech,” said APHR member and Timor-Leste member of parliament Maria Terezinha da Silva Viegas. “We also reiterate our call for the Malaysian parliament to urgently review laws that have been used to repress freedom of expression – such as the Communication and Multimedia Act – as they also hinder candid religious discussion.”

APHR also recommends a national mechanism for a meaningful, genuine, open, and honest interfaith dialogue, as a way to bridge gaps and promote mutual respect among different religious communities.

As with all peoples, there is more that unites Malaysians than divides them. The challenges that Malaysia – and the rest of Southeast Asia – faces in the next five to ten years, such as climate change, food security, technological advances, are ones that must be faced together, regardless of race and religion,” said Maria.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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