By Dr. Nicholas Chan
He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Strategic Defence & Studies Centre (SDSC), Australian National University.
By now, plenty of research has charted the rise of far-right groups and ideas in relation to the centrality of social media in modern living.1 What is less known is how (and if) the concept of the far-right can be applied to a Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country such as Malaysia, and how to factor religion into the analysis. To be sure, it is not that religion’s role in the build-up of support for far-right-endorsed issues or figures, such as former US President Donald Trump, is unknown.2 But the far-right phenomenon in the West is usually thought of as a relatively ‘secular’ one because of its core emphasis on racial survival and supremacy.
There are also some important divergences between far-right and ultraconservative religious movements, as seen in how many far-right actors are anti-Semitic neo-Nazis while Christian evangelicals who supported Trump are strongly pro-Israel.3 Thus, scholars like Vedi Hadiz have instead opted for terms like ‘Muslim populism’ to describe an array of political mobilisations in Indonesia that is based on a framing that pits the ‘righteous’ ummah against the ‘outsider’-pandering and immoral elites.4 The term appears to have great utility for Hadiz, as he used it to cover a melange of Muslim groups, from the vigilantes of Front Pembela Islam, to the violent militants of Jemaah Islam, and to the Islamist political party Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS).
This essay, however, will argue that the concept of the far-right, while not entirely appropriate for the Malaysian context, is useful in understanding how social media weakens democracy and reinforces fringe, anti-establishment ideas. Here I will start with Cas Mudde’s classic ideational definition of the ‘far-right’ as social and political actors that are ‘hostile to liberal democracy’.5 Given the prevalence of its ethnoreligious majoritarian politics and the general conservative outlook of Malaysian society,6 this loose definition can cover a whole range of mainstream political parties and actors. Here is where social media comes in handy for two reasons.
First, social media activity offers a glimpse to who are the diligent activists that are pushing a far-right agenda in a way that tries to shift the Overton window in Malaysia.7 The loudest and most consistently far-right actors will stand out in this regard.
Second, social media shines a light on what is the religio-ideological substratum that sustains far-right worldviews. This substratum often includes apocalyptic and conspiratory theories that go hand-in-hand with far-right agendas as they are based on a basic distrust in the political and media establishment, and a fervent belief in the need for extraordinary, authoritarian, and even violent action. I will now touch on these two points in relation to the Malaysian case.
In Malaysia, the Overton window the far-right tries to shift is one that defines its political normalcy: a conservative political order that accepts multiracial/religious participation, albeit with tacit acceptance of Malay-Muslim dominance. That was the Barisan Nasional formula that emerged since Malaysia’s independence. However, that spirit of consociationalism was eroded gradually to the point that it struggled to maintain multi-ethnic representation in government, on the one hand, and mediate East-West Malaysian dynamics that overlap with issues of central-periphery relations as well as ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, on the other (as seen in the famous kalimah Allah issue).8 Amidst the political instability, far-right actors have taken advantage to advance a form of authoritarian Malay-Muslim majoritarianism that dispenses with the need for multicultural representation in Malaysia altogether.9
Given that even mainstream race-based Malay parties were used to having non-Malay partners, it is difficult to see how these discourses can gain significant attention without social media’s viralling capacity. A monoracial or monoreligious political order is not an easy sell for most Malaysians who generally still respect the multicultural ‘melting-pot’ ideal, even if they do not live out those ideals in their daily lives and politics.10 But social media offers the space for something like a right-wing Islamist-linked Facebook page that actively promotes the idea that Muslims should only vote for Muslims, which they supplemented with an on-the-ground campaign that seeks to dislodge non-Muslim candidates from all Muslim-majority constituencies.11
Riding off the box-office success of a controversial ethnonationalist film,12 this social media page has turned to eliminating ethnic minorities from Malaysia’s national historiography in the name of ‘decolonisation’ through disparaging a historical figure by the name of Yap Ah Loy as a British co-conspirator and dismissing his role in the development of Kuala Lumpur. Yap Ah Loy is, of course, merely the vessel for thinly veiled attacks on the loyalty of ethnic minorities. One post about Yap Ah Loy even asked a question as subversive as ‘why do we still let them (the non-Muslim minorities) hold political office’?
A more difficult trend to pinpoint is how religiously-infused apocalyptic ideas were transmitted across social media, and how that intersected with support for identifiable and dedicated far-right actors such as the ones highlighted above. While there is no survey to quantify its significance, the fact that there exists an extensive literature under the subgenre of kiamat and akhir zaman (End of Times) means its influence in a religiously conservative society such as Malaysia should not be underestimated.13
Renowned Indonesian studies scholar Greg Fealy has lamented how ‘populist or conspiracist End of Times writings’ were deemed ‘innocuous and low brow’ even if they enjoyed widespread readership in Indonesia and were linked to violent and non-violent extremism.14 This author also recalls a surreal conversation with a deradicalisation practitioner about apocalypticism in jihadist thought, and the answer I got was, ‘the End Days is coming, but these folks just got the “signs” wrong’. A quick surf on the Malay-language social media space15 will reveal there are plenty of messages about preparing oneself for Judgment Day. Put simply, the social significance of millenarian thought should not be underestimated.
Interestingly some of these discourses were interlaced with conspiracy theories such as the New World Order (NWO) and the Great Reset that are usually linked to anti-globalist far-right thought in the West.16 For those seeking to tackle the far-right phenomenon, this combination of apocalypticism and conspiracism deserves further attention for four reasons.
First, as mentioned above, these ideas are amenable to easy hybridisation. There appears to be no barrier for social media pages propagating anti-West views to adopt conspiracy theories from white supremacist groups. This means that far-flung ideas and narratives can be borrowed and recycled easily for a local audience with minimal cost. Social media facilitates the virality of these ideas, exposing Malaysia to misinformation and conspiracy theories originated elsewhere, widening the source of grievances that may lead to one’s radicalisation.
Second, apocalyptic narratives find relevance by grafting itself onto contemporary events as if they were foretelling an impending cataclysmic event. For example, the Great Reset, initially a post-covid economic recovery plan promoted by the World Economic Forum, was doctored into a World Government conspiracy led by elites who sought world domination in the name of tackling climate change.17
I have seen a Facebook page whose post enjoyed up to a thousand shares linking the Ukraine invasion, vaccination, the food shortages, and the inflation to a global conspiracy while claiming this chain of events portends the coming of the Islamic eschatological figure of the Dajjal. It is important to note that these allusions were not meant to be metaphorical but rather to signify a different view of time: apocalyptic or prophetic time that makes any objective assessment of current issues impossible. This sense of crisis feeds support towards far-right ideas of racial and religious survival at the expense of ‘outsiders’, democratic procedurals, and liberal principles.
Third, in reframing the stakes in existential terms (either one needs to ‘save’ the world or prepare for its End), these ideas render matters such as preserving democracy trivial and pointless. To be sure, believers of millenarian ideas are not necessarily purveyors of violent action. Many are apolitical because they rather focus on enhancing personal piety before facing the Final Judgement. But it is not difficult to surmise that someone thinking a great calamity is upon us will take extraordinary action, as seen in the cases where white supremacist believers of the Great Replacement theory have resorted to terrorist tactics.18
Lastly, whereas ideas such as freemasonry and the NWO are shunned in the mainstream, it has remarkable staying power to the point that even high-level elites have entertained them.19 I was made aware that the recent hit film in Malaysia, Mat Kilau, also made reference to the idea. The logical leap needed for someone to go from believing in fringe conspiracy theories (more so if they are religiously-coloured) to subscribing to a nativist religio-political agenda that clamours for moral purity and the removal of ‘outsider’ influences is, unfortunately, a small one.
To conclude, social media can be regarded as the oxygen to this dumpster fire of far-right ideas. It facilitates the mainstreaming of far-right actors and ideas in two ways: (i) by providing a cheap and accessible platform for far-right actors to maintain a presence while they seek to erode the political centre subtly; and (ii) by sustaining a sub-ecosystem of conspiracy theories that may slowly edge into the mainstream; a possibility that is fuelled by the realities of a turbulent world.20 Items (i) and (ii) may not have connections with each other, but they share a commonality: these activities and their audiences are mainly on social media. As long as governments and platform operators continue to neglect these developments, either out of self-interest or naivete,21 the fire and the oxygen will meet, consuming in the process any concerns for facts, democracy, and minority rights.
1. Littler, M., & Lee, B. (Eds.). (2020). Digital extremisms: Readings in violence, radicalisation and extremism in the online space. Palgrave Macmillan; Edelson, L. et al. (2021). Far-right news sources on Facebook are more engaging. https://medium.com/cybersecurity-for-democracy/far-right-news-sources-on-facebook-more-engaging-e04a01efae90.
2. Dias, E. (August 9, 2002). Christianity will have power. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/09/us/evangelicals-trump-christianity.html.
3. Trump’s politics contains a strange mixture of anti-Semiticism and pro-Zionism, see Field, L. (2017). Anti-Semitism and Pro-Israel Politics in the Trump Era: Historical Antecedents and Contexts. Middle East Report, 284/285, pp. 52-54.
4. Hadiz, V. (2016). Islamic populism in Indonesia and the middle east. Cambridge University Press, p. 4.
5. Mudde, C. (2019). The far right today. Polity Press, p. 7.
6. Zurairi AR. (April 18, 2014). Malaysia among world’s most morally conservative countries, poll finds. The Malay Mail Online; Wong, C. H. (2021). Spooked by disunity: why some Malaysians prefer autocracy to democracy. https://360info.org/spooked-by-disunity-why-some-malaysians-prefer-autocracy-to-democracy/
7. The ‘Overton window’ refers to the range of ideas deemed acceptable by the political mainstream at any time, outside of which lies pariahdom.
8. Wong, C. H, Chin, J., and Othman, N. (2010). Malaysia – towards a topology of an electoral one-party state, Democratization, 17(5), 920-949.
9. Hew, W. W. (2020). The politics of Muslim majoritarianism. Asialink. https://asialink.unimelb.edu.au/insights/the-politics-of-muslim-majoritarianism2
10. Lee, H. A. (2017). Fault lines – and common ground – in Malaysia’s ethnic relations and policies. ISEAS Trends. Fault Lines – and Common Ground – in Malaysia’s Ethnic Relations and Policies.
11. Hew, W. W. (2020). Manufacturing Malay unity and the downfall of Pakatan Harapan. New Mandala. https://www.newmandala.org/manufacturing-malay-unity-and-the-downfall-of-pakatan-harapan/
12. See a critique of the film and its conservative religious undertones, see Ali, B. (July 4, 2020). Gerakan Islam tanpa pawagam [Islamism without cinema]. Malaysia Kini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/hiburan/627094
13. For example, even Malaysia’s former Ministry in Islamic Affairs and mufti of the Federal Territories, Dr Zulkifli Mohd Al-Bakri has released a series of books under those themes, see https://maktabahalbakri.com/?s=kiamat&post_type=product.
14. Fealy, G. (2019). Apocalyptic thought, conspiracism and jihad in Indonesia. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 41(1), p. 65.
15. This is by no means to suggest subscription to millenarian ideas are limited to Malay Muslims. The Ukraine invasion has similarly invoked apocalyptic ideas amongst Christians too, see Bailey, S. P. (March 10, 2022). Russia’s war on Ukraine has some Christians wondering: Is this the end of the world? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2022/03/10/russia-putin-end-of-the-world/
16. Flores, M. (2022). The new world order: The historical origins of a dangerous modern conspiracy theory. https://www.middlebury.edu/institute/academics/centers-initiatives/ctec/ctec-publications/new-world-order-historical-origins-dangerous
17. ‘What is the Great Reset – and how did it get hijacked by conspiracy theories?’. BBC, June 24, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-57532368
18. Rose, S. (June 8, 2022). A deadly ideology: how the ‘great replacement theory’ went mainstream. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/08/a-deadly-ideology-how-the-great-replacement-theory-went-mainstream
19. Zurairi AR. (March 9, 2015). In Dr M’s ‘New World Order’ meet, academics claim war on terror ‘big US lie’. The Malay Mail Online. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2015/03/09/in-dr-ms-new-world-order-meet-academics-claim-war-on-terror-big-us-lie/855701
20. Dacombe, R. (2021). Conspiracy theories: why are they thriving in the pandemic? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/conspiracy-theories-why-are-they-thriving-in-the-pandemic-153657
21. Vaidhyanathan, S. (October 18, 2019). Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t understand free speech in the 21st century. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/18/mark-zuckerberg-free-speech-21st-century.