Malaysia needs a thoughtful, progressive approach to ‘I Thank Hitler’ ― Tham Jia Vern and Nelleita Omar

DECEMBER 2 ― The Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) graduate’s Nazi salute during his convocation mean different things to different Malaysians — so does the bulk of “hate speech” in Malaysia.

Hot on the heels of the recent uproar over a Universiti Malaya (UM) graduate’s protest against the UM vice-chancellor’s statement at the Malay Dignity Congress, another graduate, this time at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), decided to to raise a Nazi salute on the UMS convocation stage to signal his solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian plight.

The graduate claimed that his gesture was due to “rage, hatred, and vengeance for Jewish people” over the atrocities against Palestinians, and he was therefore thankful to Hitler “for the Holocaust”. While the incident has drawn criticism from some Malaysians as well as the German embassy itself, his views have been previously espoused by prominent figures in Malaysia.

Nazi salutes aside, we have experienced our fair share of controversial speech in 2019: the Malay Dignity Congress, the response to khat writing and preacher Zakir Naik just to name a few.

Is the graduate’s action a form of hate speech? In Germany and parts of Europe that are still keenly reminded of the horror and shame of the Holocaust, it would likely be an open-and-shut case of hate speech. In Malaysia, it’s not as straightforward.

At the time of writing, there has yet to be any form of action taken against the graduate — and perhaps this shows the complexity of the issue. The graduate’s action, by extension, may be reflective of his media exposure and interactions — both online and offline.

Do most Malaysians understand the full extent and consequences of the Holocaust? Do most Malaysians know the difference between being Jewish and being a hardcore Zionist? Probably not. Are negative generalisations about Jews commonplace in Malaysia, even by authority figures? Absolutely.

Meanwhile, there is a steady stream of news about Palestinians losing their homes and homeland — and that is just on the mainstream media. If we had a look at the graduate’s social media feed, we might have an even clearer view of why he acted the way he did. Extremist views about Jews and support for Hitler are abundant online.

To be clear, we are not proposing to excuse, condone or ignore the graduate’s action or others like it. Neither is this a comment on the dire Palestinian situation. Instead, in line with our research work into hate speech management in Malaysia, we are advocating for a civil discussion of whether a Nazi salute by a young man at his convocation constitutes hate speech and more importantly, what a proportionate and helpful response would be.

A couple of weeks ago, The Centre posed two simple questions online: firstly, how well do you think Malaysia is managing hate speech? The majority answer was a resounding “not very well”. As a follow up, we asked whether we, as Malaysians, have a shared understanding of what hate speech is. The majority answer was an emphatic “no” as well.

For some Malaysians, the graduate’s action may be merely insensitive while others may see it as inciting. Still, there are others who might see it as completely fine and justified. This difference in opinion needs to be discussed and mediated by a diverse group of individuals that most Malaysians trust, or at the very least, respect.

Because, and this is the key question, what do we hope to achieve? If it is to educate people about the weight of Nazi salutes and to address the larger problem of potential extremism, punishment would probably not have the intended outcome in this particular case. Punishment and criticism will comfort some of the rakyat, but may also further entrench grievances amongst others.

Perhaps “community service” in the form of history sessions with stakeholders (religious leaders together with the German embassy, perhaps) would be more constructive, not only for the graduate but also for parties within his newsfeed universe. People should be able to stand in solidarity with Palestinians without throwing their support behind the dehumanisation and mass genocide of Jews.

Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa had recently announced that the government has plans to regulate hate speech in Malaysia — while we await details, we hope that constructive approaches are being considered.

“Rage, hatred and vengeance” don’t breed in a vacuum — it is sown in the system we live in and grows in the physical and digital bubbles we inhabit. It is high time we acknowledge this, understand its psychology, and devise more thoughtful, progressive, and effective measures to address it.

* Tham Jia Vern and Nelleita Omar are researching what constitutes hate speech for Malaysians and its effects on intergroup perceptions at The Centre, a think tank dedicated to centrist thought.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

Related Articles