ASEAN Member States should implement stronger laws against hate speech, including comments made against people based on sexual orientation, said Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
Delivering a keynote speech at the inaugural ASEAN Digital Ministers’ Meeting on Thursday (21 January), Muhyiddin said Member States could consider introducing laws that “among others, compels digital platforms to remove, or mete out punishment for any speech willfully promoting violence and attacks”.
Such attacks may be the verbal or physical kind, including but not limited to, harassment and threats against a person or persons based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability or nationality, he said.
Malaysian Bar president Salim Bashir in response said that the Bar “wholeheartedly welcomes this statement”, particularly after Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) Ahmad Marzuk Shaary’s disclosure earlier this week.
The minister on Tuesday said that the government is not ruling out the possibility of strengthening the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 or Act 355 to provide for harsher punishments against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Marzuk’s statement drew the ire of many netizens online, who criticised the minister’s move to use LGBT people as a diversion from the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
Salim said that LGBT people in Malaysia are also entitled to protection under Article 8(1) of the Federal Constitution and deserve to be treated equally and with respect, without the fear of being harassed or threatened.
Rights groups have similarly condemned Marzuk’s statement, with the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) saying that “Marzuk’s remarks were an example of a state actor being complicit in inciting attacks and hate speech towards the LGBT community”.
Women’s rights group Sisters in Islam said that although Muhyiddin’s call against hate speech appeared to be progressive, it was a direct contradiction of Marzuk’s comments, which would have a damaging effect against the LGBT community in the country.
From an international perspective, said the All Women’s Action Society, “Malaysia’s image suffers not only as a country that is not inclusive but one with openly fragmented views from the government” as a result of such a contradiction.
The Women’s Aid Organisation said that Muhyiddin should prove Malaysia’s commitment by reviewing existing policies and practices to protect Malaysians against hate, violence, and discrimination.
“There are still policies that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression,” WAO said.
Lawyers For Liberty earlier said that Marzuk’s remarks were “nothing more than a tired and cheap political ploy” to divert the public’s attention from pressing issues currently affecting Malaysians.
Muhyiddin’s speech also drew criticisms from netizens.
Commenting on Malaysiakini’s Facebook post on the matter, they pointed out the “inconsistency within the govt” and ministers being “all mini Napoleons” by “acting on their own”.
A couple of users urged Muhyiddin to “convince your own ministers first” before trying to persuade leaders of other nations.
Several users proposed that the government should walk the talk and “take immediate action” instead of simply making statements.
One particular user joked that Muhyiddin must have been “reading the script prepared by a smarter assistant”.