With Malaysians’ religious sentiments increasingly offended, ‘Outrage Industry’ has field day

Iman Muttaqin Yusof and Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
Kuala Lumpur
With Malaysians’ religious sentiments increasingly offended, ‘Outrage Industry’ has field day Attendees, participants and organizers admire a big bowl of traditional Chinese pork soup known as “bak kut teh” (meat bone tea) at a carnival in Klang, in Malaysia's Selangor state, Nov. 22, 2008.
Saeed Khan/AFP

Nowadays, it appears many Malaysians are becoming outraged over the littlest things that offend their cultural or religious sentiments, analysts and academics say.

What makes these small things blow up, rather than blow over, is the “Outrage Industry” – comprising news television, social media and political party members – which has come of age in Malaysia.

This industry gleefully pounces on every slight, magnifies it, and puts a virtual megaphone in the hands of the overly sensitive to exploit them for ratings or political gains, observers say.

And in a multiethnic and multireligious Malaysia, where religious conservatism is also on the rise, this coalescing of outrage is what most worries many political observers, because it has the potential to inflame communities.

Just three months into 2024, Malaysia is already facing four big outrage-driven controversies that have caused divisions and disruptions – and, in fact, continue to do so.

The latest brouhaha – a supermarket chain selling socks with the word “Allah” inappropriately printed on it – began as a legitimate grievance. But action was taken, with the chain’s founder, a Malaysian-Chinese man, apologizing and saying he had terminated the services of the supplier the socks came from.

That was not enough for the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization, a party that ruled Malaysia for close to 60 years, claiming to be the champion of Malay Muslim interests. The youth wing is stridently calling for the supermarket’s stores to be boycotted because, it says, those who insulted Islam need to be taught a lesson.

UMNO soon backed the youth wing’s calls – after all, it was supposed to be the champion of Malays, the country’s ethnic majority. Starting in 2018, when it lost a general election for the first time, UMNO’s support among the Malays has declined drastically because of a slew of corruption scandals involving its members.

The party’s traditional support base has moved to the Perikatan Nasional group, which comprises the Bersatu party and the hardline Islamic party, PAS. UMNO claimed its decision to back the boycott was not political, it was moral.

UMNO is part of the federal coalition that consists of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s secular Pakatan Harapan group, but it says its stance will not affect ties within.

Students and teachers hold up works of Chinese calligraphy they made for an event in conjunction with the Chinese Lunar New Year, at the Tsun Jin High School in Kuala Lumpur, Jan. 18, 2019. [Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

However, Anwar is rather tired of the controversy around the socks being dragged on despite action having been taken. 

“My stance is clear. … lines were crossed and action must be taken. But after following the law, we move on,” he told reporters on March 20, according to several local media outlets.

“We shouldn’t continue discussing it as [if it is] a massive disaster. Take firm action and then move on.”

At an event the next day, the PM didn’t bring up the controversy but had harsh words, presumably for those who were dragging it on.

Anwar said that endless “jumud” (“ignorant”) and “lapuk” (“backward”) discussions would be an obstacle in the development of Malaysia, the New Straits Times reported.

Political analyst Syaza Shukri told BenarNews that UMNO was playing identity politics with ethnic Malay Muslims with its reaction to the socks controversy.

“Identity politics itself is not dangerous if the understanding of our differences can be managed by a competent leader,” Syaza, of the International Islamic University Malaysia, said.

“It becomes dangerous when the politicians instead of trying to solve problems only cause more problems. What we need are statesmen who see identity politics positively,” the associate professor at the Department of Political Science said.

Ethnic Malays comprise 70% of Malaysia’s population, ethnic Chinese 22.6% and ethnic Indians 6.6%.


Participants at a solidarity event, Kereta Sarong 2023, hold cards that spell out UNITY in celebration of the 60th Malaysia Day at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur, Sept.16, 2023. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The other three recent controversies pitched ethnic Malays against ethnic Chinese, although one of the three also involved the Indians community. Malaysia has been relatively peaceful since the 1969 race riots, but the two larger groups continue to view each other with deep suspicion.

Nga Kor Ming, the minister of Local Government Development, announced on Feb. 1 that the government was making plans to nominate three villages – called Chinese “new villages” – for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Malaysia’s former colonial British rulers had interned Malaysian-Chinese on suspicion of ties with Communists in these villages.

A couple of weeks later, the government gazette published an announcement that the heritage commissioner had named a Malaysian-Chinese herbal pork dish, bak kut teh, one among 10 national heritage objects.

The third controversy kicked off after the Federal Court ruled that vernacular schools were constitutional and rejected an appeal application by two NGOs to overturn a lower court’s decision that also ruled these schools legal.

Many Malays were up in arms that Chinese villages were being nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Status. They said there were many Malaysian villages that were much older. In fact some Malaysian-Chinese were also unhappy, saying there was no need to make what were basically internment camps into a heritage site.

As for bak kut teh, the hardline Islamist party PAS and UMNO were outraged that a pork-based dish was being given national heritage status in a largely Muslim country. Followers of Islam are not allowed to eat pork.

Many in the Malaysian-Chinese community, in turn, claimed that the majority Malays were suppressing the minorities. 

Vernacular schools for the ethnic Chinese and the Tamil Indians caused divisions in the country, UMNO claimed. The party said that for racial harmony there needed to be an integrated education system. The ethnic Chinese and Indian communities said they sent their children to these schools so they could learn their language.

In the past, similar tussles have arisen over the celebration of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Oktoberfest, among others.

Ethnic Indian children smile for the camera while waiting for their bus at a Tamil language primary school in Batang Berjuntai, about 100 km (62.1 miles) west of Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 18, 2008. [Stringer/AFP]

For Azmil Mohd Tayeb, from the Universiti Sains Malaysia, these controversies are a sign of how polarized Malaysia has become.

“Different groups retreat into their respective shells and become easily triggered by any perceived slights to their identity,” the associate professor at the university’s School of Social Sciences told BenarNews.

He said these “ethno-religious” issues can turn dangerous and toxic if left to fester. 

“People would simply focus on differences amongst them, which would deepen resentment and widen the polarization. It is dangerous and an affliction that Malaysia needs to slowly move away from,” he said.

These issues arise also because many don’t respect diversity, said S. Shashi Kumar, president of the Global Human Rights Foundation.

“The acts of racial and religious intolerance exacerbate tensions and divisions within society,” he told BenarNews.

“These acts not only showcase the ignorance and insensitivity of certain individuals but also highlight the need for greater understanding and respect for diversity in the country,” he said. 

Meanwhile, as another observer sees it, “Excessive outrage” on social media can get out of control and lead to issues blowing up rather than blowing over.

According to Helen Ting Mu Hung, of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, disaffection exists because minorities are disproportionately targeted by the country’s laws.

“More problematically, those who expressed extreme views openly on the social media, especially those against minorities, get away scot-free, in contrast to those who criticized the majority or the authorities, some of whom have experienced the weight of law swiftl,” said the associate professor at the university’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies. 

“This lack of even-handedness may fail to appease a lingering sense of resentment especially when the event is viewed from a racial lens.”

In a 2018 report, “Outrage in Malaysia: The Politics of Taking Offence,” author Julian C. H. Lee said that in furores in the Southeast Asian country, “minority ethno-religious groups and individuals ostensibly caused offence to the majority Muslim Malay population.”

Lee said that the so-called offenses were characterized “as transgressions of genuine sensitivities.”

“[I] argue that politics of offence must be seen for the political utility it holds for those who claim to represent the majority group that has been putatively offended.” 


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