Malaysia’s keyboard warriors in online war with Al Jazeera over COVID-19 documentary

A screengrab from “Locked up in Malaysia’s lockdown.” Photo: Al Jazeera /YouTube
A screengrab from “Locked up in Malaysia’s lockdown.” Photo: Al Jazeera /YouTube

A group of Malaysian keyboard warriors who call themselves the “bawang army” has been attacking the Al Jazeera Qatari news channel online over a mini-documentary they claimed had tarnished Malaysia’s image. 

The bawang army, which literally translates to onion army, also refers to online commenters who are always on Malaysia’s side. Some of them have been stirring hate against the channel and begun witch-hunting for the journalists and interviewees featured in the Locked up in Malaysia’s lockdown documentary focusing on how migrants were treated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The thousands of keyboard warriors who mostly gathered on the Meanwhile in Malaysia Facebook page had accused the documentary of “slandering Malaysia.” The page, which has 54,000 followers, was previously known for posting funny memes and local news updates before it became a center for the “bawang” vigilantes. 

“They deserve the Bawang Army assault,” the page admin wrote, also claiming that they were making an effort in “preserving Malaysia’s image” and expressed hopes that the national Health Director-General Noor Hisham would recognize this in his daily COVID-19 press briefings.

The 26-minute documentary by journalists Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson had depicted the treatment of migrants in Malaysia during the COVID-19 outbreak in Kuala Lumpur’s emergency zones, where infection rates had skyrocketed in early May. 

The video, which has been viewed 1.4 million times since it was posted last Friday, alleged that hundreds of migrants were rounded up by authorities and ferried to detention centers to be tested for the virus. Some have also lost their jobs as a result of the outbreak and have been relying on aid from NGOs, the footage showed.

Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had commented on the documentary on Monday, saying that it did not portray the full picture of the situation in Malaysia. But he also implied that it was rare for illegal immigrants to be free in any country. 

“We give equal treatment to legal and illegal foreigners. What we did was based on the law,” he told reporters Monday.

“I challenge Al Jazeera to show me which country gives complete freedom to illegal immigrants,” the minister continued.

In the video, Al-Jazeera has clarified that some of the migrant workers’ visas had expired during the lockdown and couldn’t be renewed on time.

The news channel has not issued a public statement in response to Malaysia’s reaction. 

Defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaking at his press conference on Monday. Photo: Ismail Sabri Yaakob /Facebook
Defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaking at his press conference on Monday. Photo: Ismail Sabri Yaakob /Facebook

‘Bawang army’ on Twitter

On Twitter, the xenophobia-fueled uprising appears to have begun with user Sabrina Abdulloeva, who had expressed her disappointment over the international news coverage she seems to believe was unfair for overshadowing the nationwide efforts in tackling the COVID-19 outbreak.  

“Are we going to let Al Jazeera disrespect our gov like this? Our frontliners who did their best to contain the virus? Our PM, Defense Minister, and DG? This is unacceptable to me,” a tweet shared by nearly 200,000 said. 

Her statements then took on a xenophobic tone, which she was later called out for. 

“Malaysia did her absolute best for its citizens and yet is getting slandered like this because of some ILLEGAL immigrants. Immigrants whom our gov took good care of, with 3 meals a day, a place to sleep and healthcare. Had we been as cruel as they are accusing us, we’d have shot those PATI (illegal immigrants) dead,” the next tweet said.

She later added: “It’s not to bash the immigrants, but AL JAZEERA who is spreading fake news without proof or enough research!”

The undergrad also started a petition demanding an apology from the international news outlet, which has since gained nearly 12,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, others saw the keyboard warriors as an embarrassment, noting that they did not show the same rage when the former prime minister was accused of allegedly stealing sovereign funds meant for the nation’s development.

“Najib robbed us to the point that the whole world was talking about it, bringing shame to the country and spawning the new word ‘kleptocrat,’ but you don’t see the bawang army jumping on him,” Twitter user Tijan wrote. 

“Malaysians are mass-disliking an Al-Jazeera video reporting true events revolving migrants in Malaysia and spamming the comments with hate to the point where comments have been turned off. This is just embarrassing,” said another user Ameera.

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