Research| Societal Contracts

Like a Virus: How Racial Hate Speech Looks Like in Malaysia During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Times of crisis amplify emotion and tension between groups. With Twitter as a gauge, we take a look at racial speech during Malaysia’s Covid-19 outbreak and ponder the importance of addressing hate during extraordinary times.

By Jia Vern Tham | 2 April 2020


Editor’s Note: Due to some unintended interpretations of the original title, we’ve edited it to the new one above.

On 25th March 2020, a video of a Chinese woman accusing Hospital Melaka of not treating patients went viral on Twitter. What followed was a string of online attacks against the woman based on her ethnicity including blaming her for leaving her brain in Wuhan, panic buying, and violating the current Movement Control Order (MCO). 


Heightened anxiety, heightened racism

Racialised or ethnicised responses like this are happening all over the world in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In February, a Malaysian Chinese student studying in Australia returned to her rented house in Perth to find the locks changed and her belongings put outside. The note from the landlord implied that the student could be carrying the virus by virtue of her ethnicity.

This is a mild example. In a growing trend of xenophobia, people of Asian descent around the world have experienced more violent reactions such as being sprayed with an air freshener, getting spat on and even aggravated physical assault.

These incidents reflect the fact that crises bring out underlying mistrust and biases, resulting in the targeting of certain communities. A British sociologist noted that such events, once identified with a racial or religious group, sparks a wave of scapegoating in societies. Prominent examples include the increase in racially-motivated attacks against people of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Sikh ethnicities following Islamist terrorist attacks. 


Malaysia’s particular brand of pandemic racism

Violent racial incidents or hate crimes are thankfully rare in Malaysia, but the undercurrents are simmering online. To see the effect of the Covid-19 outbreak on racially-charged speech in Malaysia, we performed web scraping on Twitter for the period of a month from 27th March, the day the second wave of infections was announced (and a day before the infamous tabligh gathering).

We searched for and analysed tweets containing common Malaysian words used to vilify groups including “bodoh”, “p*k*m*k”, “babi”, “pariah”, “malas”, “miskin”, “p*nd*k”, and “l*nc*u”, together with mentions of any ethnicities.

Racially-charged speech against both Malay-Muslims and non-Malays on Twitter rose in tandem with the growing number of Covid-19 cases, though tweets around 1st March were mostly associated with the political crisis precipitated by the Sheraton Move.

Three peaks can be observed in the graph below — one on 29th February, one on 12th March, and another on 19th March. The first peak was recorded a day before Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as the new PM, the second peak came on the day the tabligh event was announced as a new Covid-19 cluster, and the third peak spans over a few days after the Movement Control Order began. 

On most days, offensive or hateful tweets against Malay-Muslims as an ethnic group were the highest, followed by tweets against the Chinese. Tweets against Indians as a group are the lowest, comparatively. In most cases, the racially-charged tweets were triggered by news reports.

A total of 706 negative mentions of Malays/Muslims in tweets were recorded between 27th February and 25th March. “Malas” was used the most, followed by “bodoh”. The highest peak of anti Malay-Muslim mentions was on 12th March, the day the first few Covid-19 cases from the tabligh cluster were reported. The next peak was recorded on 23rd March — which was the day Malaysia experienced the highest daily jump of positive cases.

59% of the 706 hateful mentions were in relation to the tabligh event or its participants, labelling them dumb, burdening, arrogant, and stubborn among others. 34% of mentions were calling Malays lazy in reading news and current affairs. 6% of mentions branded Malays in general as liars, far-right conservatives, and stubborn. 

Of anti-Chinese tweets, 506 negative mentions were recorded within the same time frame. “Bodoh” was mentioned the most, followed by “p*nd*k”. The highest peak of such mentions was on 20th March, a day after a cardiologist of Chinese descent was found defying the MCO by jogging in a public park. The incident was racialised on Twitter after a video of him arguing with enforcement officers went viral; a police report was also later lodged against him. 

In total however, only 15% of negative mentions referred to the incident of the jogging doctor — using it to blame the Chinese in general for disobeying the Movement Control Order as well as other ills like panic buying. A larger proportion of hateful mentions within this time period, 38%, faulted the Chinese as a broad group for bringing in the virus or for eating exotic animals. The remaining anti-Chinese mentions in tweets were on more ‘evergreen’ topics: 29% were seemingly DAP-related* while 18% were accusing the Chinese in general of cultural offences like insulting the Agong, Islam and similar.

*We classified these tweets as targeting ethnicity rather than DAP the political party due to the widespread use of the terms ‘DAPig’ and ‘Cina DAP’ to imply the Malaysian Chinese community.

Hateful mentions in anti-Indian tweets were low compared to other ethnic groups — a total of 156 within the same time period. “P*nd*k” was mentioned the most in anti-Indian tweets, followed by “bodoh”. The highest peak was on 22nd March, which was the day a mechanic of Indian descent was reported to be charged in court for public intoxication and refusing to cooperate with the police.

Only about 24% of all anti-Indian negative mentions were related to Covid-19 — being insults against the recent Hindu chariot fest held in Penang. The bulk of negative mentions were on ‘evergreen’ anti-Indian topics: 24% were related to negative stereotypes of Indians for example. Worryingly, 22% of mentions were calls to marginalise, from “balik India” to suggesting forms of retaliation like using pepper spray.

"India tak kena Covid-19?"

Interestingly, there have been claims, mainly on Facebook, that Indians are less likely to contract Covid-19 due to the Indian diet. Recipes included.


Of civility, and agent provocateurs

As shown the world over, a crisis can bring out the worst in society. Thus, while unpleasant, the findings from our analysis is far from unexpected. In fact, we are somewhat relieved that the degree of hate remains at the level of ‘offensive venting’. There is little overt or concerted incitement to act against any group (so far).

Having said that, firm leadership is needed during this time of confinement. Blaming and denouncing entire groups is hate speech, weakening us further as a society now and when the MCO is lifted. Calling Malaysians to account for this behaviour, offline and online, is the responsibility of everyone in society today. 

Responding to the rise of anti-Malay/Muslim sentiment, IGP Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador called on Malaysians to stop blaming or insulting participants of the tabligh event for the outbreak. In a recent statement, Suhakam called for respect and trust between communities as a shared responsibility in this time of crisis. These reminders and messages need to be taken up by more leaders and made more frequently, particularly now when group biases are heightened.

Read our proposal for a broader and transparent management of hate speech in Malaysia here.

At the same time, those who intentionally exploit racial fears and biases to pursue an agenda need to be dealt with promptly. A concerted effort to incite on Twitter has yet to be seen, but we’ve seen some elaborate attempts to incite on other platforms. On 24th March, a racial Whatsapp message attributed to The Edge’s former executive Anne Tong made the rounds, listing out donations being made by Chinese businesses when “yang sakit are all Melayus”, amongst other things. Anne Tong quickly denounced the message as a fabrication, but the relative sophistication of the text begged several questions regarding the culprit and the intention behind it.

Malaysians’ attention and biases are now even more available for exploitation in this time of restricted movement. Apart from addressing ‘lower level’ racial speech as per the tweets we analysed, the authorities also need to be clear and consistent in its treatment of messages aimed at intentionally inciting anger and hatred amongst specific groups. Various levels of hate require different, but clear, responses.

It is high time for Malaysia to do better — to acknowledge the different levels of hate speech brewing in the country, and to address it systematically and proportionately.

The Centre is currently undertaking research to understand and categorise different intensities of racial hate speech in Malaysia. Parts of the research have been affected by the MCO; we look forward to resume these efforts once the MCO is lifted and bring you the results. Stay tuned.