Preventing hate speech, incitement and discrimination: the case of Malaysia

7 March 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified hate speech and incitement against minoritiy groups, increasing the vulnerabilities of migrants and refugees in Southeast Asia. To illustrate this regional trend, a case study by GAAMAC’s Asia Pacific Study Group examines how the Rohingya population has become the target of hate speech and incitement in Malaysia.

Asked whether they think a specific group of people is responsible for spreading COVID-19, 69 per cent of Malaysian respondents positively. Respondents specifically named “Chinese people, returning migrants, foreign tourists, ‘illegal foreigners’, migrant workers and foreigners” for causing the spread of COVID-19. Data from the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) from May 2020 shows that hate speech and discrimination targeted the Rohingya community more than other groups during the pandemic.

The two incidents that ignited the hate speech campaign

Two major incidents contributed to the surge of hate speech and incitement towards the Rohingya population. First, the arrival of refugee boats during the lockdown: on 18 March 2020, the government imposed the de facto closing of the border, prohibiting citizens from leaving and foreigners from entering. With the border shut, the arrival of refugees without proper medical screening became a source of anxiety among the general public, especially when the arrival was also interpreted as a direct threat to Malaysia’s border and security. Although the refugee boats were rejected, news of their arrivals during the lockdown led to opposition against the Rohingya community online. A common pattern of hate speech exhibits the locals’ desire to refuse and eject Rohingya refugees from the country while asking the government to prioritize citizens’ welfare.

The second incident regards misinformation about a Rohingya activist, whom in a letter outlined the difficulties the Rohingya faced in Malaysia and called for greater access to health, employment, development, and education. However, this list of demands was interpreted by local media as “stepping on the [Malaysian] host’s head.” In other words, the Rohingya population was portrayed as being ungrateful by overstepping their boundaries in making demands for their well-being.

In response to these events, three patterns of hate speech were observed in Malaysia: online rhetoric dehumanizing the Rohingya group; online rhetoric constructing the Rohingya community as a threat to Malaysia’s national security during the pandemic; and, as a result of perceived threats, the enactment of extraordinary measures such as incitement to violence.

National and international responses

Despite opposition’s call for new hate speech legislation, the response from the Malaysian Ministry appeared to divert responsibility to Facebook to moderate online content according to its term of usage. Reuters reported that the Ministry seemed to downplay hate speech as “misconceptions” or “fake news”. National legislation contains loopholes that reduce its efficiency.

The Malaysian civil society launched a transnational campaign to prompt the government to take action. Following the proliferation of online hate speech, 84 organisations submitted a joint letter on 11 May 2020 urging the Malaysian government to reduce the threat of violence and hateful remarks against the Rohingya in Malaysia. Another noteworthy campaign is from Amnesty International Malaysia, which took a bottom-up approach to build inter-ethnic and cross-cultural understanding among social media users. The slogan “migrants are humans too” portrayed refugees as humans who also deserve protection from threats of violence.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a public statement in response to both hate speech and the crackdown on undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia. On 21 May 2020, the OHCHR pressed the Malaysian government to “strongly oppose xenophobia and hate speech against migrants”.

In the same statement, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Felipe González Morales declared himself “alarmed by what is happening in Malaysia after the initially positive attitude of the government towards an inclusive response to the pandemic.” He expressed his concerns that hate speech was becoming more serious and that it not only targets migrants and refugees but also human rights defenders and journalists who support refugee and migrant rights. He further indicated that “Such threats and hateful comments have also been made by individuals affiliated with the government, political parties and public officials.”


This article is a summary of the chapter on Malaysia in the report Preventing Hate Speech, Incitement, And Discrimination – Lessons On Promoting Tolerance And Respect For Diversity In The Asia Pacific.

Read the chapter on Malaysia

Read the full report

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