“Alliance of Civilisations” on the domestic and international fronts the best antidote to the rise of hate, fear and intolerance through the abuse of social media

Yesterday, Indonesia shut down the Internet in Papua over unrest fears that a stream of offensive and racist posts online will spark more violent protests in the region.

Riots and demonstrations brought several Papuan cities to a standstill this week, as buildings were torched and street battles broke out between police and protesters in Indonesia’s easternmost territory.

A rebel insurgency against Jakarta’s rule has simmered for decades in the island region, which shares a border with Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia slowed internet service in recent days to clamp down on hoaxes, provocative comments and racist abuse targeting Papua’s ethnic Melanesian population. But it shut down service completely late yesterday.

Early this month, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which gave Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) a special status within the Indian Union, Internet access was suspended for the 53rd time this year.

In India last year, there were 65 shutdowns, and 176 over the past eight years, including a six-month ban in 2016.

In recent months Sudan shut down social media to prevent protesters from organising; Congo’s regime switched off mobile networks so it could rig an election in the dark; and Chad hobbled social media to silence protests against the president’s plan to stay in power until 2033.

Last year 25 governments imposed internet blackouts. Worldwide, such shutdowns rose to 188 last year, up from 75 in 2016.

Around the world, governments are hitting on this modish new idea: Turn the internet off but this cure may be worse than the disease.

Choking off Internet connectivity obviously has great appeal for autocrats.

They can use such restrictions to suppress inconvenient news or unwanted opinions, censor political rivals, prevent activists from organizing, and stifle talk of government misdeeds. For instance, after voters cast ballots last year in an election widely seen as corrupt, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo blocked all internet access for nearly three weeks. The stated goal was to prevent “chaos.”

Even in democracies, such bans can be tempting. When terrorists killed more than 250 people in Sri Lanka in April, authorities shut down access to multiple social-media services for more than a week. That might have seemed justified in the moment: Messaging apps can accelerate the spread of disinformation, and further violence appeared imminent.

The problem is that there’s no evidence such bans work. They do nothing to moderate the anger that might lead to violence, and dedicated troublemakers can evade them with VPNs and other technology — or simply by spreading rumors the old-fashioned way.

Malaysia must not take this route of Internet shutdowns but we must learn from other countries to deal with Internet abuses which allow extremist groups to incite fear, hatred and intolerance through false and incendiary Internet posts to destroy the fabric of diverse communities.

We must for instance alert Malaysians to the unusual increase of traffic of fake news and hate speech on Malaysian social media in the past few days as if to provoke inter-racial and inter-religious strife in the country.

My political secretary, lawyer Syahredzan Johan has pointed to the number of incidents in which the Malaysian flag has been flown upside down or in reverse are being deliberately manipulated to create the perception that the national flag is being defiled.

I myself have been demonised by some Malay extremists as wanting to eradicate Malay rights and interests in Malaysia while at the same time, demonised by some non-Muslim extremists as having sold out Chinese and Indian rights and interests in Malaysia.

On Wednesday, Perak ruler Sultan Nazrin Shah made a most apt and timely speech at the Second Malaysia-China Youth Civilisational Dialogue on Islam and Confucianism in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations.

Malaysia is the confluence of four great civilisations in the world – Islamic, Chinese, Indian and Western – and represents a challenge to Malaysians as to how we can best leverage on their values and qualities to build a great Malaysian nation and a better world.

Sultan Nazrin’s confidence of “vibrantly multicultural“ Malaysia as “a fitting location for a dialogue between different religions and sets of beliefs” should be adopted by Malaysians so that Malaysia can play a greater role in the international community to promote understanding, tolerance and harmony at a time when hate, intolerance and conflict are rearing their ugly heads.

Sultan Nazrin referred to the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) initiative 14 years ago under the co-sponsorship of Spain and Turkey to address the root causes of polarisation and violent extremism and to promote inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue as a tool to achieve diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance based on mutual respect.

I have always believed that multiracial, multi-religious and multi-cultural Malaysia is very well placed as the confluence of the four great civilisations of the world to play a leading role in this “Alliance of Civilisations”, both domestically and in the international arena.

I believe that this “Alliance of Civilisations” on the domestic and international fronts to promote understanding, tolerance and mutual respect among different ethnicities, religions and cultures, is the best antidote to check the rise of hate, fear and intolerance through the abuse of the social media anywhere in the world.

Lim Kit Siang MP for Iskandar Puteri