The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is Playing Out…In Malaysia

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, an early site of the clashes

Someone looking at Malaysia over the past week or so might be forgiven for thinking it’s located in the Middle East.


Since Israel and Palestine erupted in violence last week, Malaysian society has erupted along with them. Malaysia’s king urged Malaysians to stand in solidarity with Palestine and condemned Israel’s conduct. The prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, has not only denounced Israel’s “brutal and vicious attacks” against Palestinians, he’s been taking calls from Hamas in which he gets updates on the situation in Gaza and pledges Malaysia’s support for the Palestinian cause. Malaysian politicians on both sides of the political aisle have fallen over themselves to demonstrate their outrage towards Israel and their fealty towards Palestine. There’ve been countless donation drives in support of Palestinians, including one by Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state. A witch hunt and boycott threats from Malaysian Muslim groups have prompted brands like Coca Cola and McDonald’s to disavow any support for Israel. News editors at a state broadcaster are under investigation and have been given show-cause letters after one of its news reports committed a faux pas by referring to Hamas as a “radical militant” group, thus painting it as less than heroic – although, if we’re being honest, a more accurate description would be “terrorist group.” Just yesterday, police arrested a civil servant for uploading a TikTok video in which he expressed support for Israel, because this video apparently triggered “negative reaction from netizens as it was seen to touch on religious and racial sensitivities,” thus justifying detention under Malaysia’s draconian laws. Did Hamas hijack the Malaysian government when I wasn’t looking such that people here can now be punished for expressing views that don’t fit with its narrative? Do we now only get to exercise our freedom of the press and freedom of expression so long as it pleases desert terrorists half a world away?


Most disturbing of all is the hate I’ve seen so many Malays express towards Israelis and Jews in general; I’ve seen usually smart, decent people post that they’re praying for more Israelis to die. This is despite the fact that most of them have probably never met an Israeli or a Jew, because there are almost none in the country.


In a sense, this shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. An article in Tablet magazine called Malaysia “one of the most anti-Semitic countries on Earth.” Sadly, this is probably true. A 2014 poll by the Anti-Defamation League found that 61% of Malaysians admitted to being prejudiced against Jews, making it the most anti-Semitic country in Asia. Malaysia has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel; as a Malaysian, my passport states that it is “valid for all countries except Israel,” and any Malaysians wanting to visit Israel have to go through a complicated process. Malaysia periodically comes up with petty ways to slight Israel. When it hosted an international windsurfing competition in 2015, it apparently delayed the visas for Israeli athletes and prohibited them from displaying their country’s flag or playing its anthem if they won, prompting them to pull out of the event. In 2019, the International Paralympic Committee stripped Malaysia of the right to host the World Para Swimming Championships after it tried to exclude Israeli athletes from participating. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, our longest-serving prime minister, is unabashedly anti-Semitic and often ranted about international Jewish conspiracies.


In fact, Malaysian politicians in general have a ridiculous habit of blaming their crimes and their failures – and the resulting public discontent at them – on shadowy Jewish/Zionist agents. Is Malaysia not attracting enough American investment? The Jews are behind that. Are Malaysians protesting against my vote-rigging and corruption? The people actually love me – the protests are being orchestrated by Jews who want to overthrow our Muslim government. Oh, and the money I’m accused of embezzling from a state fund wasn’t stolen at all – it was given to me by a Saudi prince to help us fight against the Jews. As Zurairi A. R. noted in an article in the Malay Mail, “Tarring someone as pro-Jew or backed by Jews…is an almost surefire way to rile up the majority [Malay] ethnic group with irrational hatred and zealous fear against something.” In Malaysia, Jews have been turned into boogeymen and blamed for virtually anything that goes wrong.


Why? Why is a Southeast Asian country so far removed from the Middle East, filled with people who have never met a Jew before, so hostile towards Israel? Some have postulated that this is because the enterprising Jews remind the Malay majority of the market-dominant Chinese minority in Malaysia (who make up about 20% of the population), who they sometimes also resent.

Why is a Southeast Asian country so far removed from the Middle East, filled with people who have never met a Jew before, so hostile towards Israel?

There may be some truth to that, but I suspect the answer has more to do with a desire to feel more Islamic. Ethnic Malays make up about 60% of Malaysia’s population, are dominant in politics, and are forced by law to be Muslim. For many Malays, Islam is at the core of their identity, and, for Malay politicians, a rallying cry and political tool. For Malays, who share a country with large Chinese and Indian minorities, who hail from great, ancient civilizations, leaning into their Islamic identity can make them feel that they are part of a great, ancient civilization too. It also probably helps console them in the face of unflattering comparisons between Malaysia and its archrival Singapore (“Sure, Singapore is richer, nicer, and more developed than Malaysia, but they’re not Islamic there, so they’re all going to hell anyway!”), which, not-coincidentally, is sometimes called “the Israel of Southeast Asia,”[1] and makes them feel like their relatively insignificant country is part of something bigger. And since the heart of Islamic civilization is the Arab world, many Malays have taken to copying Arabs, not just in their views and practices, but in their friends and enemies too. This, of course, includes the plight of Palestinians as a cause celebre, such that Malay children are often taught from a young age to identify with Palestine and to despise Israel, and few Malay politicians seem to be able to speak at a function without mouthing some pieties about “standing in solidarity with Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

A rally in support of Palestine in Kuala Lumpur, 2012 (Picture Credit: Sham Hardy)

Over the decades, this sense of Muslim identity has been drummed-up by many Malay politicians to garner support and to pit them against other Malaysians. Even more pernicious has been the spread of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam from Saudi Arabia, chiefly through Saudi-funded mosques and madrassas. Today, certain classes in public schools and universities teach the supposed superiority and purity of Islamic civilization over all others. As a result, many Malays have become what I call Wahhabi wannabes, adopting increasingly intolerant beliefs, eschewing the more tolerant Islam of their heritage, and most Malay women now wear headscarves, something their mothers or grandmothers never did. Naturally, this has also resulted in a near fanatic hatred of Israel amongst many Malays, as well as blind support for anyone who claims to champion the Palestinian cause.


I wish they’d realize that much of this sentiment stems from insecurity about their identity and their place in the world. And I wish they’d realize that this insecurity is wholly unnecessary since Malaysia is a fine country in its own right, with its own rich heritage, and that it doesn’t need to ape the Arab states and import their feuds and prejudices.

Malaysia is a fine country in its own right, with its own rich heritage, and it doesn’t need to ape the Arab states and import their feuds and prejudices.

Wreckage of a bus and car in Holon, Israel, after a Hamas rocket attack, 11th May 2021 (Picture Credit: יואב קרן, עיתונאי וסופר)

This doesn’t mean, of course, that they should stop sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians – in fact I do think that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” that “the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Decent people should care about the Palestinians who are being killed in this conflict. I don’t even particularly like the current Israeli government, and I’m sure as hell not going to defend everything it’s done, including its illegal expansion of settlements on the West Bank. But, while people of honor are bound to disagree on anything this controversial, I think a few things should be abundantly clear. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long and hugely complicated and there’s plenty of blame for both sides. Israel should bear its share of the blame, but if the Arab states hadn’t attacked it in 1948, and if the Palestinians hadn’t launched the Second Intifada against it, we wouldn’t be in such a quandary today. I think it’s clear that we can value the humanity of one side without denying the humanity of the other. That, whatever your grievances, there is no justification for deliberately trying to maximize civilian casualties, and that doing so makes you a terrorist. That virtually no country in the world would let you launch rockets at it without retaliating. That, just as might doesn’t make right, being weaker doesn’t make you right and being stronger doesn’t make you wrong either. And I think it’s clear that a group like Hamas – which cares so little about its own people that it uses them as human shields by storing its arsenal in schools and mosques, operating out of hospitals, and striking from residential areas, and then feigns outrage when they’re killed as collateral damage when Israel retaliates and milks the tragedy to get sympathy – is unworthy of support from anyone who cares about Palestinian lives.

Remains of a building in Gaza after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, 14th May 2021 (Picture Credit: Osps7)

Malaysia is lucky enough not to be caught up in this conflict, to not have any significant interests at stake. Unlike the belligerents in this clash, we have the luxury of distance. We should take advantage of this distance to examine things objectively, to rise above internecine hatreds, to resist simplistic and misleading narratives. It’s time Malaysians realized that a strong sense of identity comes not from mindlessly following others or repeating shibboleths but from deciding things according to our own conscience and our own reason. It’s time we pushed back against attempts to suppress dissenting views in the name of Islamic solidarity. It’s time we started thinking for ourselves.

[1] This sense of Islamic identity may also explain why Malaysia is hypersensitive to any perceived slight from Singapore, but when it’s insulted by Indonesia, another neighbor, and a fellow Muslim-majority country, it just sits there and takes it.