It is fitting that Zunar has drawn the line between what is morally right and hideously wrong in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have become increasingly popular over the years in Malaysia as they serve as useful ways for getting in touch with friends as well as sharing political news and views.
Lately, however, social media have increasingly developed into a convenient conduit for fake news and, more insidiously, racist and hate comments, thereby worsening the toxic politics of race and religion that have already engulfed our society.
It is in this context that political cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwarul Haque, better known as Zunar, felt compelled to leave his WhatsApp group that he just joined a few days ago.
Although this was the chat group that helped him to reunite with old schoolmates, Zunar believes that the racism that had laced much of the conversation in the chat group was too revolting for him to stomach.
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That is why his parting shot to the group was for the members to promote “positive vibes” instead of spreading hate against those outside of their ethnic community. Inclusivity in the group was very much lacking.
Such a political environment has spawned controversial initiatives, particularly the current boycott of “non-Muslim goods”, through social media, which could drive a big wedge between the Malay-Muslim community and other ethnic groups.
The action taken by Zunar has political significance, especially at a time when certain platforms have been abused to spread messages that are not conducive to harmonious ethnic relations.
Moreover, it is hoped that, given his fame, the step he took would serve as a good example to his fans and other concerned Malaysians.
A relentless advocate of freedom of expression, Zunar, who had faced various challenges under the previous Barisan Nasional administration, knows fully well that such freedom, however, must come with responsibility.
Responsibility is of paramount importance, especially for certain so-called keyboard warriors who are inclined to make racist and emotive remarks on social media in a cavalier fashion under the cover of anonymity. Social media users do not and should not have carte blanche.
This is, of course, not to imply that there is a need for surveillance of communications on social media by the authorities – and, heaven forbid, a ban – as it would be undemocratic.
Besides, hate speech on social media may well be a mere symptom of a much nastier disease that has been festering all these years, which comprises a combination of toxic politics of race and religion peddled by certain politicians, political parties and other interested groups; ethnic exclusivity; government policies that are perceived as biased against certain groups; and a fabricated siege mentality.
Public personalities such as Zunar have an important role to play to ensure that the voice of reason and moderation does not get easily drowned out by the noise of the extremists and the bigot. Together, they can help to buck the disturbing trend of certain quarters fostering hate in society.
Furthermore, such discordant noise should not distract us from the more pressing project of nation-building, deepening democracy and forging national harmony.
It is fitting that Zunar has drawn the line between what is morally right and hideously wrong in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.