While Malaysia wracks its collective soul over its responsibilities for the downing of two planes belonging to the national carrier, more menial though no less disturbing problems are continuing to surface, highlighting this country’s problems and its inability to deal with sensitive issues.
In Penang a teenage student simply hit “like” on an “I love Israel” page on Facebook. Teachers weren’t happy, one shared and vilified the student, about as absurd as senior management at Malaysian Airlines still holding their jobs.
The police weren’t happy either and are actually investigating the actions of the 17-year-old student in Taman Tasek Mutiara, amid sharp criticisms from Muslim zealots, including a call for the student to be burned. The boy has defended his action, saying it was a mistake. To be fair, the police are also investigating the threats made against the student, and have cautioned the teacher against discussing her students on Facebook. The student originally sought aid from the police following the threats made against him, but is now being investigated under the Sedition Act.
“The boy and his teacher had gone to give their statements at the Seberang Prai Selatan district police headquarters,” state police chief Abdul Rahim Hanafi was quoted by the Malaysia Insider as saying.
“Several other people, including teachers and students from the same school, will also be called to assist the investigation.”
More frightening is the assumption that a genuine crime may have been committed. Malaysia’s hardline Muslims, with keen support from former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad – who wants the Internet censored – are increasingly isolating the country and portraying it as some kind of medieval circus.
This has occurred at the everyday level: rock concerts are banned because they don’t reflect Islamic values or because they are sponsored by a brewery, as was the case with Black Eyed Peas. One woman was sentenced to be caned for drinking beer in public. The penalty was deferred.
The Malaysian courts have ruled that Christians are not allowed to use the word “Allah”. In 2010, three mosques were desecrated with pigs’ heads, which police linked to earlier attacks on 11 Christian churches and a Sikh temple that followed an initial court ban on the word. The pigs were left in plastic bags, prompting speculation they were left by Muslims bent on inflaming ethnic and racial hatreds. Muslims are not allowed to touch pigs directly.
Perhaps more importantly is relations between Muslims and the rest of the world in the wake of advances made by the self-anointed Islamic State across Iraq, which has transformed and expanded the wars in the Middle East.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has replaced Osama bin Laden as the public face of terrorism.
Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia have all expressed fears that home-grown jihadists will return from the front lines in Syria and Iraq bent on establishing a Southeast Asian caliphate, as attempted by Jemaah Islamiyah with the backing of bin Laden in the 2000s.
Its an issue that has caught the attention of leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Malaysian authorities know this. Earlier this year arrests were made in Malaysia as four new terrorist groups reportedly emerged, staking a claim over much of mainland Southeast Asia.
Obviously, Malaysia has serious issues to deal with. The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 and the downing of MH17 by Russian-backed thugs in the Ukraine has caused Malaysia’s harshest critics to refrain from unnecessary disparaging remarks.
But the investigation of a schoolboy who might or might not have liked Israel on a Facebook page is an irritating and gormless step in the wrong direction, and will only add to the portrayal of the country as divided and racist. That could cost Kuala Lumpur dearly on the stage of international opinion – where it can do with a bit of help.
Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt