KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 — In Malaysia, not enough has been done to raise awareness among youth of extremism; therefore, the time to act is now, experts said.
After what transpired during the 15th general election (GE15), they said the apparent rise of extremist sentiment among youth must be addressed without delay.
Co-founder and director of IMAN Research Altaf Deviyati said the extremist narrative must be nipped in the bud and not allowed to persist without consequences.
“First, address the narrative head-on, and at same time, counter-narratives need to come in too.
“However, in the long-run, we need to build intra-faith, inter-faith and inter-ethnic bridges,” said Altaf when contacted by Malay Mail.
During the GE15 campaign period, social media users pointed out that youth generated TikTok posts warning of a possible repeat of the deadly May 13, 1969 race riots had chalked up hundreds of thousands of views.
Many of the videos, which were directed at Pakatan Harapan (PH) supporters, falsely claimed political dominance by DAP if PH were to form the federal government. They also carried anti-Chinese messages and openly threatened violence against the community.
Some also questioned the religiosity of Malay-Muslims who voted for DAP, insinuating that no Muslim would ever vote for the party.
Some of the hashtags used for the posts were affiliated with Perikatan Nasional (PN), which was also attempting to form the federal government at the time.
These posts led to TikTok issuing a reminder that it was on “high alert”, after they were flagged by online users.
In response to this, Altaf said politicians inflaming racial tensions and extremism should not be let off the hook.
“At the same time, the public needs to be educated on the dangers of extremism. This goes hand in hand.
“Freedom of speech and hate speech are not the same and this needs to be made clear,” she added.
Education and empathy
Altaf also pointed out that there appeared to be a lack of empathy among such youth, which is a trait that can be instilled in several ways.
“We can start by introducing empathy in education. The good thing about empathy is it can be taught.
“One of the key recommendations from IMAN’s own research was teaching empathy to youth.
“This can be done through either programmes or within the curriculum. Currently, we definitely do not do it,” said Altaf, adding that she was not aware of any programme in schools that deal with extremism.
She also said that youth today lack online and offline resilience; hence, their vulnerability to propaganda.
“(Education) would help with prevention and building resilience.
“We shouldn’t give up on youth. We can still reach out to them, but we must start now.
“Another thing that we need to educate them about is democracy. Many went out to vote not understanding what they were doing or what they were voting for. They just followed sentiment,” she said.
Echoing Altaf’s views, Munira Mustaffa, an intelligence and counterintelligence expert, said relevant parties should not dismiss the option of initiating a conversation with the youth responsible for the provocative videos in order to identify, understand and address the underlying grievances that inspired them to create hate-motivated content.
“This is the opportunity to talk to them about empathy and emotional literacy,” she said when contacted.
Munira also suggested that the new government must be competent and capable of understanding and recognising the problem to engage political players and keep them accountable.
“To counteract the escalating polarisation, it is necessary to develop comprehensive and effective policy and guidelines to address grievances on all sides, and this must include strategies that can tackle external shocks, such as financial crisis or climate disasters, to increase national resilience.
“It is critical to establish consistent and transparent lines of communication to mitigate the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation that can distort facts, increase public uncertainty, and undermine trust in governance,” she said.
Additionally, Munira stressed that political leadership and stakeholders must foster empathy to reduce prejudice and be more vocal in their opposition to polarising conduct to influence how partisans view one another.
“To do this, they must be able to criticise members of their own party who exhibit unacceptable behaviour that can exacerbate rifts in the community,” she said.
She also said while both government agencies and grassroots organisations have been running and organising extremism prevention workshops for youth, such programmes are few and far between.
“A lot of it has to do with requiring top-down and lateral approaches,” she said.
Weighing in on this, Nalini Elumalai of Article 19 said her organisation, through its own observations during GE15 and its immediate aftermath, found that identity politics has made nationhood more complex.
“We saw an uninformed younger generation that lacks awareness about history and their surroundings due to a lack of information and education.
“This reflects our polarised society and the failure of the education system to address those polarisations that politicians in this country manipulate.
“Hateful rhetoric perpetuated by political candidates and amplified on social media platforms, including TikTok, exacerbated this problem,” said Nalini when contacted.
Censorship isn’t the solution
Yet, however controversial and incendiary the videos may be, Nalini said censorship was not the answer, but rather the creation of more avenues for dialogue and engagement.
“Firstly, censorship should not be the basis for answers to these issues.
“Too frequently, attempts to ban divisive topics or points of view fall short of addressing the underlying social roots of the kind of discrimination that threatens the right to equality.
“The complexity of this issue becomes evident when we analyse that states’ restrictions on freedom of expression and information have failed to provide space for people to debate and have constructive dialogue because so much expression is restricted and labelled as ‘sensitive’ or even illegal.
“More speech must be permitted, and the atmosphere of intimidation must disappear to allow discussion of important topics like identity, belonging, institutionalised bias, systematic discrimination, and damaging stereotypes,” she said.
She also called for the actions of those politicians or political parties be condemned and investigated, saying they must be held responsible for spreading hatred and fostering a hostile environment in Malaysia.
“It is imperative that political leaders refrain from using messages of intolerance or expressions that may incite violence, hostility or discrimination and promptly speak out against hate speech.
“In addition, political parties should adopt and enforce ethical guidelines in relation to the conduct of their representatives, particularly concerning public speech,” she said.
Agents of change
Speaking from the human rights’ perspective, Nalini said without human rights education as part of the school syllabus, Malaysia will end up with an uninformed society.
“(Education) can be the basis for countering and preventing intolerance and discrimination, raising awareness, addressing the root causes of hate speech, and advancing inclusion and peaceful coexistence.
“By developing knowledge that allows children and youth to identify and claim human rights, they can recognise their own and other people’s biases and become agents of change,” she said.
She added that the education system should promote and provide teacher training on human rights and strengthen intercultural understanding as part of the school curriculum for pupils of all ages.
Most importantly, she said through education and human rights programmes, a society with no bias and more empathy could be created.
“However, to address an issue as complex as hate speech, we need a holistic approach, including measures not only in the field of education, but also culture and information interlinked to eliminate racial and gender-based prejudices,” she said.