Thomas Daniel was quoted on the South China Morning Post19 March 2022.

  • While Ukraine has the lion’s share of international attention, Malaysian observers say local opinion is being shaped by a deluge of pro-Moscow messaging
  • A key reason for the relative success of Russian propaganda in Malaysia is anti-West sentiment in the Muslim-majority country, shaped by Western Islamophobia

by Hadi Azmi

As Ukraine’s war with its larger aggressor, Russia, continues, so does the propaganda battle between the two sides. As the conflict reaches its fourth week, the fight for supremacy in the information domain has extended beyond the confines of the two countries’ social media spheres.

The world bears witness to the efforts by both sides to influence sentiment about the war, and Malaysia is no exception. While Ukraine has benefited from the lion’s share of international attention and sympathy – given incontrovertible facts surrounding the Kremlin’s obvious aggression – Malaysian observers say a significant proportion of public opinion about Russia is being shaped by a deluge of pro-Moscow messaging.

A key reason for the relative success of Russian propaganda in Malaysia, these analysts say, is the latent anti-West sentiment in the Muslim-majority country of 32 million people.

Such perceptions are a result of a world view shaped by Western Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and a negative view of the West’s role in conflicts involving Muslim people such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing civil war in Yemen.

“In trying to make sense of global affairs, many [Malaysians view] the US specifically as having been unfair to Muslims in Palestine and some other countries. Hence, the mindset has been tuned to be anti-US and anti-West in general,” said political analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar. “In thinking along these lines, they subconsciously also believe this war is justified.”

International security and intelligence researcher Munira Mustaffa said social media posts by some Malaysians treating the war as a sport – and choosing a side to cheer for – was “appalling”.

“The reactionary right [in Malaysia] is already exploiting this conflict to advance their populist argument – ‘might makes right’ – while simultaneously undermining the autonomy of smaller states,” said Munira, a non-resident fellow at the New Lines Institute in Washington DC.

On Facebook, one of Malaysia’s most used social media platforms, Russian messaging has been widely shared. Local users have taken to responding to posts by the Russian embassy with the Russian battle cry of “Ura!” and memes ridiculing the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

A small number of Malaysians have also joined a trend among Russian nationalists for using the letter Z – the first letter in za, meaning “for” in Russian – to show their backing for Moscow. The symbol gained prominence after it was painted on Russian military vehicles taking part in the Ukrainian invasion.

“Kadyrov is with Z, so I stand with Z. Go to hell America!” said one Facebook user, referring to pro-Putin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a Muslim.

For their part, the two sides in the war have sought to tap into the high levels of interest in the conflict in Malaysia.

The Russian embassy posted a series of videos on Facebook in which Pavel Naydenov, personal assistant to the Russian ambassador Naiyl Latypov, dressed in traditional Malay attire and headgear and presented a monologue in Malay outlining the reasons why Moscow was “forced” to “undertake military action against Ukraine”.

On the Ukrainian side, the embassy has also ramped up messaging aimed at the local audience. Ambassador to Malaysia, Olexander Nechytaylo, has been doing interviews with local media as well as with international publications such as the South China Morning Post.

The embassy meanwhile has been posting videos that highlight incidents involving Muslims during the ongoing fighting, including one where Russian forces shelled a mosque in which an estimated 80 people were seeking refuge.

“A big part of this is a policy failure to recognise that people need the right tools to assist them in navigating the online information environment ”
– Munira Mustaffa, security and intelligence researcher

Munira said the deluge of competing narratives Malaysians were currently being inundated with revealed the necessity for an official strategy to educate citizens to recognise, and be resilient to, false narratives.

“A big part of this is a policy failure to recognise that people need the right tools to assist them in navigating the online information environment while also increasing their resilience against false narratives such as disinformation and fake news,” Munira said.

The government-run Southeast Asia Regional Centre for counterterrorism (SEARCCT) – affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – said there was no clear indication the war had intensified the dissemination of false narratives.

“In fact, it is more likely that the conflict and issues at play are too geographically distant for Malaysians to feel motivated to actively participate in the war,” it said.

However, the centre noted that countering misinformation and disinformation during a rapidly evolving conflict was “always an uphill challenge”. It acknowledged that cultivating digital resilience – especially among the young tech-savvy generation – could stop people getting trapped in online echo chambers as well as help them differentiate facts from unsubstantiated claims or conspiracy theories.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was mired in controversy during the early days of the war following a report by the South China Morning Post that quoted official sources as saying the government bungled the evacuation of embassy staff in Kiev.

The Malaysian government had disregarded intelligence about the war, dismissing it as “Western narrative” [propaganda], which led to the foreign minister advising the prime minister to do nothing.

The ministry later insisted that its evacuation went according to plan, and that the account of the evacuation had been sensationalised.

Malaysia, like several other Southeast Asian nations, has so far chosen to take an above-the-fray stance on the war, with the government not naming Russia or President Vladimir Putin in its statements of concern about the fighting.

The Malaysian government did however back a West-led United Nations General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia’s aggression.

Thomas Benjamin Daniel, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, said there remained questions about the motivations behind the government’s hedged position on the war.

In contrast to Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s administration, neighbouring Singapore has openly condemned Russia and backed Western sanctions, saying it was taking a “principled” stance on international law.

“I really suspect that there is a line of thinking here that coming out to criticise Russia means supporting the West,” said Thomas, about Malaysia. He added that the conflict should not be seen as a zero-sum game, in which the result is a loss for one side and a gain for the other.

Security and intelligence expert Munira Mustaffa echoed Thomas’s analysis, saying that condemning Russia for the invasion does not imply approval of continuing conflicts in other countries.

“We should condemn Russian aggression in the same way that we criticise the US’ failings in the Middle East and Afghanistan,” she said.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post, 19 March 2022.

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