Asia Watch: Going Viral
Jun 1, 2021 | Michael Shannon
Little imagination is required to anticipate the reaction among South-East Asian governments to the eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The language of officialdom ticked all the necessary boxes, but the colour is found in the responses of the public, where social media hikes the volume up to 11.
As the fighting continued into its second week, the Muslim-majority nations issued a rare joint statement on May 16. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and the Sultan of Brunei attacked Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and what they described as its “inhumane, colonial, and apartheid” policy toward the Palestinian people.
“We reiterate our solidarity with, and commitment to the Palestinian people, including their rights to self-determination, and the creation of an independent and sovereign State of Palestine,” it added.
These sentiments were echoed vociferously in the streets where protesters waving Palestinian flags marched through several cities in Indonesia and Malaysia, but Malaysian officialdom took it a step further.
The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) announced it would be looking closely at social media platforms for signs of pro-Israel bias. Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister and head of the MCMC, took to Twitter to condemn “certain social media platforms that appear to be biased because it has made too easy an effort to censor content that supports the Palestinian struggle,” he said, without elaborating.
Such vigilance is only directed one way. McDonald’s Malaysia was forced to deny channelling aid to Israel, labelling the claims a “lie and slanderous” amidst WhatsApp messages calling for the boycott of the brand. Head of McDonald’s Malaysia Azmir Jaafar said the boycott is “unfounded” and that the company which operates McDonald’s in Malaysia was fully taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Reza Group with a local business partner in 2017, in which the company’s equity is owned by Muslims.
Azmir added that the situation in the Middle East is indeed something to be very sad about, but this does not mean that “baseless and defamatory allegations can be thrown lightly.”
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s halal activists have launched a boycott of products they said were linked to Israel, starting with Coca-Cola. A video showing members of Malaysia’s Islamic Consumers Association removing dozens of Coca-Cola bottles from a grocery store in Kuala Lumpur has been circulating online.
The five-minute video also showed the group, led by lead vigilante Nadzim Johan, 62, peeling the brand’s labels off a drinks fridge and replacing them with a sign saying, “We do not sell Coca-Cola here.” They tried to set those labels on fire outside the store before deciding to stomp on them, inviting others from the restaurant next door to join in the performance.
Coca-Cola’s representative in Malaysia reacted to the video, stressing that the drinks were made locally. It also weighed in on the violence in the Middle East, saying that it was “deeply concerned.” Other targets of the group include coffee chain Starbucks, sports brand Puma, and tech company Hewlett-Packard.
Also feeling the heat is former Malaysian beauty queen Larissa Ping. The Miss World Malaysia of 2018 drew backlash after calling out Malaysian keyboard warriors for cyberbullying Miss Universe Israel, Tehila Levi, on social media over Israel’s actions against Hamas.
Malaysians began bombarding Levi, who is completing mandatory military service, with hateful comments after she appeared in the national costume round of the Miss Universe pageant while the hostilities continued.
“I’m so embarrassed and mad at our Malaysian keyboard warriors who cyberbullied Miss Universe Israel,” Ping said on May 15 before deleting the comment. “It’s leaving such a bad image on Malaysia and it might affect our own Malaysian representative,” she added.
For her trouble, Ping was herself targeted as her social media page was deluged with profanities. One of the comments said: “Beauty without brains is useless, wouldn’t it be better if you were bombed too?”
In Indonesia, one confused cyber warrior is facing six years in prison under Indonesia’s Information and Electronic Transactions Act (UU ITE), with police alleging that he insulted Palestinians in a TikTok video, even though he claims it was a mix-up.
“H”, 23, went viral with his TikTok video in which he called Palestinians pigs and said they should be massacred. He has since been charged with violation of articles under the controversial UU ITE.
In another video uploaded on TikTok, H asked his audience for forgiveness and said that he had misunderstood the Palestinian role in the situation. “I have made a mistake in what I said, apparently the coloniser is Israel. Israel f— you, is what I meant, please forgive me for my error,” he said.
Despite the apology, police confirmed that H has been arrested and that the legal process will continue.