Over the past few years, many politicians, activists, preachers, academicians, influencers, “opinion leaders” and cyber troopers in Malaysia have been active in drumming up Muslim insecurity and the narrative of “Islam under threat”. Such a threat arguably comes from non-Muslims, liberal Muslims, the LGBT community, migrant workers and as anything perceived as “un-Islamic”. Sometimes, labels such as penjajah (colonizers), pendatang (outsiders), kafir (infidels) and musuh Islam (enemies of Islam) have been used to describe these threats as well.
Such right-wing activists have used various social media platforms to manufacture perceptions and mobilize sentiments. Even though sometimes the factual basis of their argument is questionable, the narratives of “Islam under threat” and “Malay being sidelined” are widely circulated online and even reported and debated in mainstream media.
Such sentiments partly contributed to the solid electoral gains of Perikatan Nasional (PN) in recent elections, thanks to its positioning as a coalition that can “unify and defend Malay Muslims”. These gains were often attributed to the “green wave”, which is often equated with some kind of Islamization. However, as we understand it, it is more the culmination of a right-wing majoritarian moment composed of Malay nationalist and Islamist forces.
This article argues that efforts to understand the green wave must not overlook the social media dimension.
The Right-Wing Playbook
It is impossible for the researcher to get an “objective” view of why voters vote a certain way, as those are complex decision-making processes. In our observation, however, the green wave needs not just to be about voting patterns, but rather politics as experienced by Malaysian voters through social media.
It was reported that 74% of Malaysians get their news from social media, which is even higher than Indonesia, India and the United States,. Such development occur in parallel with certain urbanization trends, like high smartphone ownership (96.7%); long working and commuting hours (especially for the working class and those in the rider economy) that increases social media immersion; and gated and high-rise living communities that often limits one’s exposure to political content mostly via our screens.
Hence, social media necessarily becomes the primary medium where sequestered Malaysian voters experience politics. That means they also experience the wave of hate propaganda, half-truths and downright misinformation that comes with it. There is no understanding of the green wave without an honest reckoning of these elements.
In many ways, we witness a relatively common right-wing playbook in Malaysia – political entrepreneurs claiming that the elites ignore ordinary people’s voices and that minority groups are threatening the majority’s (heterosexual, working-class Malay Muslims) rights. As in the United States, India and Brazil, these appeals have cross-cutting appeal as they wrap the anti-liberal, anti-minority and anti-establishment discourse as one, with the moral critique appealing more to conservative middle-class religiosity. Meanwhile, the elite-shunning discourse appeals to those who perceive themselves marginalized in their “own country”.
Therefore, it is useful to think of Malaysia’s green wave as more of a kind of majoritarianism: majoritarian groups urging the majority to vote and support the parties that could protect the majority. To make this political “movement” work, efforts to manufacture Malay-Muslim insecurity must first bear fruit. Such is evident in right-wing online activism in recent time.
The Jom Ziarah incident could serve as a case study, in which pro-PN influencers, conservative preachers, right-wing activists and right-wing news portals accuse the interfaith program involving Muslims visiting a church as an event with a “Christianization agenda”. What this incident reveals is a pattern of “viralling” that strings together many right-wing political entrepreneurs, who circulate similar accusations in different formats (be it short videos, posters or text messages) across various platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, online portals and WhatsApp groups. It is a kind of synergy that involves mainstream PN politicians and ostensibly “non-partisan”, albeit right-wing, social influencers. Within days, the Ministry of Youth and Sports shelved the program. Such an incident is not an isolated case; it has repeatedly happened in recent years. The government’s capitulation not only accords PN with political points, but also creates the kind of in-group/out-group rigid boundaries that are necessary to sustain the undertones of Malay-Muslim majoritarianism – that the threat is coming from the non-believers.
Most commentators focus on PN’s TikTok campaign during GE15 but we argue that such social media activism to manufacture Malay-Muslim insecurity has been ongoing since as far back as 2018, with many different right-wing actors in play.
This article will highlight two groups who often spearhead these campaigns of insecurity. The first is Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) and ISMA-linked social media accounts in mainstreaming right-wing discourses. The second is PN, especially Parti Islam Se-Malaysia’s (PAS) social media campaigns in the recent elections.
ISMA, a right-wing Islamist organization known by scholars as non-violent extremists for their extreme xenophobia, is a key purveyor of these insecurity and hate-filled discourses. ISMA activists often employ a strategy of spreading fake information to stir racial and religious sentiments. For example, during the first Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration in 2019, former ISMA President Aminuddin Yahaya claimed that there was a stamp collection with photos of churches – claiming it was a “Christianisation” agenda and an attempt to “bully Islam”. In fact, this stamp collection of various worship places was released in 2016, before PH came into power. Such an incident is not an isolated case; Aminuddin Yahaya has been constantly active on his social media accounts in exposing events and individuals that he thinks pose a threat to Islam in Malaysia.
ISMA also use a variety of proxies so that their more aggressive, exclusivist campaigns can be separated from the group’s other “dakwah” activities. Gerakan Pengundi Sedar (Voter Awareness Movement – GPS) is one of the most active ISMA-linked social media accounts. During GE14, ISMA launched GPS, a campaign that urged Muslims to vote for calon Muslim berwibawa (credible Muslim candidates) who uphold the Malay-Muslim agenda. In the aftermath of GE14, GPS became an active Facebook fan page and later also a TikTok page which constantly posts so-called “un-Islamic” incidents and propagates the perception that “Islam is under threat”. It also calls for “the Malay unity” to fight against “the enemies of Islam”.
For example, amidst the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) controversy in 2018, a GPS Facebook post pointed out the dangers of ICERD ratification on Malay rights. Various individuals, groups and media outlets linked to ISMA have also actively propagated similar messages online and mobilized Malay-Muslims to join the anti-ICERD rally on 8 December 2018.
ISMA’s deep involvement is unsurprising, as Aminuddin Yahaya was the chairperson of two coalitions of NGOs that were leading the anti-ICERD protest. Whereas political parties such as PAS and the now-in-government United Malays National Organization (UMNO) lent their support to the rally, they were happy to let NGOs like ISMA be the face to make the movement look more “spontaneous” and “organic”.
GPS also constantly urges Muslims not to vote for kafir. One GPS Facebook posts criticized both PH and Barisan Nasional (BN) for fielding a non-Muslim in a Muslim-majority seat during the 2021 Melaka State Election (a criticism the page repeated often). Despite its negative connotations, the page habitually uses the term kafir to refer to non-Muslims.
This group parallels the effort of an ISMA-linked political party, Barisan Jemaah Islamiah Se-Malaysia (BERJASA), which calls for “Vote Muslim First” in its campaigns. During GE15, BERJASA is part of Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA), which upholds the idea of a Malay-Muslim-dominated political coalition by fielding zero non-Muslim candidates. This shows that being a far-right group, ISMA holds a much more exclusivist stand as compared to Bersatu, PAS and UMNO, which are still willing to work with other non-Malay parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) and Gerakan.
TV Pertiwi is another ISMA’s media outlet – it has an online portal with social media accounts on various platforms. TV Pertiwi is located in the same premise as ISMA in Bangi, while TV Pertiwi’s chairperson, Norzila Baharin is also the vice chief of ISMA’s women wing. This online portal has been constantly perpetuating perceptions that minority groups such as ethnic Chinese, liberals and LGBTs are taking over the political power in Malaysia. In August this year, its official TikTok account was removed because it repeatedly violated the platform’s community guidelines while its website was rendered inaccessible from certain providers.
Earlier in the year during the 2023 State Elections campaign, at least two TikTok short video clips produced by TV Pertiwi were widely spread across social media platforms by pro-PN activists and influencers.One of them accused the potential seat re-delineation of reducing the power of ethnic Malay and turning Malays into a minority on their land. Another one exposed the perceived drastic increase in the number of Chinese migrants and tourists, which might turn Malaysia “from a Malay land to a Chinese land”. These videos all had thousands of shares.
Such narratives are common among ISMA activists as they have focused on reports of Chinese influx and settlement, using them to warn that Malaysia could be the next Palestine or Xinjiang. In doing so, they effectively masked their Sinophobia using an imported language of settler colonialism that enjoys strong resonance locally due to local support of the Palestinian cause.
Another controversial video that was widely circulated to attack PH’s inability to “defend Islam” is an allegation that more than 200 religious schools are being closed down in Selangor. ISMA-friendly Samudera and PAS-owned Harakahdaily are amongst the online portals sharing such news, later being made into video clips circulated on TikTok by various right-wing activists, such as Izzat Johari.
In recent elections, PN, especially PAS, had used a network of party activists, influencers and preachers to spread similar messages of “Islam under threat” across various social media platforms, especially on TikTok. To be fair, PAS’ election campaign messages came in different forms and contents to target different audiences. Nevertheless, race and religion are central to their campaign. Whereas – perhaps with the exception of Ustaz Hadi Awang – PAS preachers and influencers do not always deploy fiery rhetoric, there are signs of radical rhetoric where the “enemies of Islam” discourse has intensified in their messaging. Many of these rhetoric also borrowed from ISMA’s talking points, which are usually on the far-right domain whereby non-Muslim Malaysian are often portrayed as colonial collaborators, or that there are conspiracies to “sinicize” and “secularize” Malaysia.
Like above-mentioned ISMA’s anti-kafir stands, some PAS TikTok influencers and pages urged Muslims not to vote for kafir, further popularising a term with exclusivist connotations. In a popular TikTok clip during the GE15 election campaign (with 587.1k views), the winner of Malaysia Ameerah Influencer Award (PAS’ young women wing) Puteri Syahira urged Muslims not to choose kafir as their leaders.
During the 2023 State Election campaign period, a TikTok video by SiswaPN (university student wing of PN) stated that “Apa hukum tidak mengundi? Kita tak undi, jadi menang kafir harbi lebih mudah merosakkan agama kita…” (What’s the downside of not voting? The kafir harbi [non-believers who should be fought] will destroy our religion).
As we observed in a pro-PAS WhatsApp group, there were many videos being circulated to stimulate siege mentality among Malay-Muslims that kafir, pendatang or penjajah would take over the country if the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) continues to be in power.
Pro-PAS preachers play an important role in mainstreaming PAS majoritarian messages. Preachers such as Ustaz Abdullah Khairy, Ustaz Azhar Idrus and Ustazah Asma Harun all have huge followings on social media, with more than 1 million followers on TikTok. They frequently give talks at various religious functions. Many also run various business enterprises, from restaurants to fashions, from pilgrimage tours to religious counselling. Such a combination of religious credentials, business networks and social media followings allows them to exercise influence among the broader Muslim public, especially those who are pious but not necessarily PAS members. Their preaching contents mainly focus on religious messages and moral advice. Nevertheless, occasionally, and especially during the election periods, they are not shy about their political inclinations – directly or indirectly urging their followers to vote for political parties and candidates who can “defend Islam”. Some preachers are widely known for being affiliated to PAS, such as Ustaz Azhar Idrus and Ustaz Ahmad Dusuki. Others downplay or conceal their connections yet subtly endorse the party, such as Ustaz Khairy Abdullah and Ustazah Asma Harun.
During the GE15 campaign period, a TikTok video entitled “Going to vote? Listen to what they say first!” went viral, with more than 400k likes and 73k shares. Although the original post is no longer available now, the video is still available on TikTok. The video featured speeches of three popular preachers – Ustaz Wadi Anuar, Ustaz Azhar Idrus and Ustaz Khairi Abdullah. In sum, they alleged that “Islam is being bullied” and there are “enemies of Islam”, thus Muslims should vote for the party that can uphold Islam.
To reach out to broader young Malay voters, some pro-PN influencers also use elements of popular cultural and fun contents to mainstream right-wing messages. One of them is DD Chronicle, who has more than 781.3k followers on TikTok. On his TikTok, he makes many parody sketches and cover songs, subtly urging Malay Muslims to vote PN. One of his viral songs, a cover of Siti Nurhaliza’s Nirmala with amended lyrics, received more than 100k likes and 22k shares. The lyrics of the song captures the scaremongering tactics, with the influencer singing “the Malays will end up being squatters (menumpang) in their own land…tuan (owners) only in name”.
In these discourses, one witnesses a negative campaign strategy, whereby calls to vote (see Hadi Awang’s exhortation that voting is mandatory and Muhammad Sanusi’s warning of Malaysia being “colonised”) are paired with existential stakes. These political entrepreneurs constantly evoke apocalyptic scenario for Islam and Muslims if PN loses the election (which did not happen, although proving a negative is almost impossible). The real concern for Malaysian democracy is that such ostensible subscription to electoral norms is part of a dark participation, whereby uncivil activities that ranges from misinformation to hate campaigns and to cyberbullying only erodes long-term trust and functioning of democratic institutions.
Even as the post GE-14 political landscape witnessed the fragmentation of Malay-Muslim political allegiances, we might be seeing a consolidation of a range of right-wing actors and electoral support under a broader banner of Malay-Muslim majoritarianism. The creation of this banner cannot be divorced by a strong online counter-public revolving around the theme of Malay insecurity, with viralling networks amplifying right-wing majoritarian voices and mainstreaming populist ideals and fringe theories. The campaign capitalizes on the existence of algorithmic enclaves; a critical mass of conspiracy theories circulated even by urbane, middle-class internet users and; the amplification of crisis discourses whereby a slew of right-wing political entrepreneurs (no matter their political allegiances) will keep bouncing off on the same “anti-minorities” content to create waves of discontent. With hate speech and misinformation mainstreamed at such volume, efforts aimed at preserving free speech without regulation and “fact-checking” without proactive measures seem increasingly out-of-sync with present challenges.