Malaysia

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
High
37 85
Local Resilience & Response
Notable
35 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key Findings

Report by: BC Han and Benjamin Loh

 

  • Steady influence efforts: The Chinese government's media influence efforts in Malaysia remained steady during the coverage period (2019-21), mostly building on inroads made in previous years. Subsidized journalist trips to Xinjiang increased until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and new Chinese state social media accounts opened, but these were minor developments compared to influence activities prior to 2019.
  • Limited public opinion impact: The Malaysian public is wary of all forms of state- controlled news and displays widespread skepticism to Chinese state narratives. Many Malaysians attribute the success of their country’s COVID-19 recovery partly to assistance from China, but a majority worry about the Chinese government’s strategic and economic influence, particularly regarding its growing footprint in the South China Sea. Recent polls of Malaysians consistently show increased wariness and skepticism of Chinese government motives in the region and internationally (see Impact).
  • Wide reach of diplomatic writings: Both Chinese ambassadors that served between 2019 and 2021 were active in publishing op-eds and participating in interviews, finding audiences in a wide range of popular outlets in Malay, Chinese, and English (see Propaganda).
  • China Radio International and other state media content in Malay: China Radio International is the only Chinese state media targeted to the majority Malay-speaking population, with over 600,000 followers on Facebook. Some Malay-language media, including Bernama news agency and Sinar Harian, occasionally republish Chinese state media content (see Propaganda).
  • Strong influence on Chinese-language media, including via disinformation: Ethnic Chinese comprise 25 percent of Malaysia’s population. Ninety percent of the country’s Chinese-language media is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian tycoon with strong business interests in China. The editorial lines of these outlets are accordingly dominated by pro- Beijing narratives and Chinese-language media publish less on politically sensitive topics compared to their English and Malay counterparts. Global Chinese-language disinformation campaigns have penetrated Chinese diaspora media in Malaysia on topics like prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong (see Propaganda).
  • Trips to Xinjiang for journalists and politicians: Chinese state subsidized trips bringing politicians and Malay- and Chinese-language journalists to Xinjiang increased in 2019 but ceased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both journalists and politicians repeated Chinese state talking points upon their return. The Star, a popular English-language paper controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association, regularly amplifies Chinese government narratives on Xinjiang. However, critical coverage of human rights abuses in the region from international news wires has continued to appear in other major media outlets (see Propaganda).
  • Reprisals for critical reporting and self-censorship: The Chinese government blocked the website of Malaysiakini, a prominent online news outlet, in China following reporting critical of the Chinese authorities. Another Chinese-language outlet critical of Beijing had its operating permit denied by Malaysia’s Home Ministry, with the ministry explicitly citing a need to protect bilateral ties between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur as the reason. Chinese embassy officials have reportedly contacted journalists and media owners to express displeasure over certain articles, at times accompanied by threats to their advertising revenue. There appears to some self-censorship among Chinese-language journalists who are wary that critical reporting may result in retribution or harm bilateral ties (see Censorship).
  • Strong market share for PRC-based apps and devices: Content-sharing apps— including messaging service WeChat, short video app TikTok, live streaming platform Bigo, and news aggregator Dong Bao—owned by companies based in the People’s Republic of China are all among the top ten most downloaded apps in Malaysia. Some media outlets and local politicians have accounts on the apps, leaving them susceptible to future censorship or manipulation by the firms under pressure from Chinese authorities. However, no such incidents were recorded during the coverage period (see Control over infrastructure).
  • Diverse media with increasing critical coverage: Malaysia’s media landscape offers resilience against Chinese state media narratives through availability of varied, critical coverage of China and Chinese influence, including using foreign news wires (see Resilience and response).
  • Legal vulnerabilities and lack of media self-regulation: Malaysia does not yet have a press council to set ethical guidelines for journalists, and there are no legal limits on cross- ownership or partisan ownership of media. Most Malaysian outlets are either directly or indirectly controlled by political parties, leaving them vulnerable to political influence. The government’s tight regulatory hold on traditional media and willingness to invoke sedition and other laws in response to critical reporting constrains investigative work and encourages self-censorship (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with a status of Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties,1 and a status of Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, Freedom House’s annual study of internet freedom.2 In 2018, the Barisan Nasional (BN) political coalition that had ruled Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957 lost power to the Pakatan Harapan (PH), an opposition alliance led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Mahathir-led government made some limited political reforms. However, following a political crisis in early 2020, a new governing coalition with parties central to the pre-2018 regime took power.3 In August 2021, the BN regained control under the leadership of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri amid concerns about narrowing freedoms.4

Due to media owners’ close political ties and a tight licensing regime, the Malaysian government has long maintained significant influence over traditional media.5 Over the past decade, however, a variety of alternative digital and online outlets emerged alongside growing internet access. Several have since shut down, partly as a result of financial shortfalls related to COVID-19. 6 Still, such outlets offer a diversity of news sources, including investigative reporting. Newspaper consumption also declined during the pandemic, falling to 24 percent in 2021.7 In comparison, large majorities of Malaysians used television or online sources, including social media, to access the news.8 Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube are the most popular social media platforms for news consumption.9 Radio usage in Malaysia is also high, representing more than 94 percent of the population according to one estimate in 2022, though its popularity as a news source is unclear.10

China and Malaysia established diplomatic relations on May 31, 1974. The relationship has seen periodic tensions due to Malaysian authorities’ treatment of, and the perceived loyalties of, a significant Chinese Malaysian community. Members of this group, which makes up 21 percent of the country’s population, have been historically characterized as outsiders and subject to racial discrimination by members of the Malay majority.11 In 1991, Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad became the first member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to seek an economic partnership with China, laying the groundwork for Beijing’s intense engagement with Southeast Asia today. In 2013, the bilateral relationship was defined as a "comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest level such designation Chinese government can bestow.12 Chinese investment in Malaysia boomed as multiple Malaysian administrations supported closer engagement, particularly through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Malaysia joined in 2017.13 Nonetheless, Chinese incursions into Malaysian waters in 2013 and 2015 contributed to bilateral tensions, even as economic and diplomatic relations grew closer.14

In 2015, a corruption scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund implicated prime minister Najib Razak and others in the government.15 Chinese officials reportedly offered to bug the offices of Wall Street Journal journalists investigating the scandal, and in return, Najib allegedly approved a plan to use Chinese financing to bail out the country.16 In 2018, fallout from the 1MDB scandal and fears that Chinese-financed megaprojects like the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) were contributing to corruption and unsustainable financial burdens on the state led to the reelection of a more China-skeptical Mahathir. Mahathir canceled several BRI projects and warned against “a new form of colonialism” during a visit by Chinese premier Li Keqiang in August of that year.17 In October 2018, Mahathir allowed 11 ethnic Uyghurs who had been previously detained for illegal immigration to travel to Turkey, circumventing an extradition request from Beijing.18

Relations warmed in 2019 when Mahathir successfully renegotiated the ECRL. That year, Malaysian ministers and deputy ministers reportedly visited China about 30 times, while over 50 Chinese vice-ministerial or higher level delegations visited Malaysia.19 Nevertheless, in June 2021, the Chinese ambassador was summoned after Chinese military planes flew into in Malaysian airspace, with the Malaysian foreign minister stating that “having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security.”20  Public summons like this are relatively rare.21 In general, Mahathir’s administration has been careful not to take criticisms of Chinese investments or Beijing’s incursions into the South China Sea too far.22 As of 2021, China remains Malaysia’s largest trading partner, continuing a 12-year-long trend,23 and prime minister Ismail Sabri has taken a noticeably warmer stance towards Beijing.24 In December 2021, a Malaysian state controlled by the opposition approved the ECRL after having blocked it previously, suggesting a broader realignment.25 Several other China-linked projects remained stalled.26

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese state narratives in Malaysia follow the standard Chinese propaganda package: a mixture of rapport building, positive promotion of China and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) governance model, and counternarratives to international criticism, particularly from the United States. Chinese officials emphasized the continued “friendship” between Malaysia and China and stressed that initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative benefitted both countries.1

One topic commonly covered by Chinese state narratives in Malaysia is sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). China’s territorial interests are couched in a rhetoric of “maintaining peace and stability,” implying that other foreign powers are seeking to dominate this space (or unfairly painting the CCP as an aggressor), and that Beijing is ensuring regional order and security.2

Efforts to discredit evidence of mass detentions in Xinjiang and other atrocities by the Chinese government against Uyghurs are also common. Such abuses are of particular interest to Malaysian Muslims, who make up over 60 percent of the population.3 The CCP portrays itself as respecting religious freedoms. Narratives aimed at whitewashing the party-state’s policies in Xinjiang include portraying the region as a prime tourist destination,4 and highlighting similarities in how Islamic culture is celebrated in China and Malaysia.5 Other narratives that appear to respond to credible reports of severe rights violations include how the Chinese government is allowing (rather than destroying) religious sites or permitting halal restaurants (rather than banning them).6 Official statements denounced “Western media reports” of Uyghurs and other minorities being detained in Xinjiang province as sensationalized “half-truths.”7

Finally, COVID-19 was a constant theme in Chinese state media narratives throughout 2020 and 2021. Early during the pandemic, the CCP presented China as a humble nation that struggled to weather the pandemic and stood in solidarity with other ASEAN members to combat the crisis.8 The World Health Organization (WHO) was often referenced to legitimate Beijing’s narrative that it had responsibly controlled the pandemic during its early months.9 During the vaccine rollout in late 2020, China was portrayed as a benevolent nation engaged in researching, producing, and distributing effective vaccines to BRI partner nations including Malaysia.10

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media content reaches audiences in Malaysia through a variety of channels, sometimes directly and other times filtered through local actors. It is available in Malaysia’s most common languages, including Malay, English, and Chinese.11  

Chinese diplomats’ op-eds, private media outreach, and social media presence: Both ambassadors who served in Malaysia during the report coverage period have been fairly active media commentators. Former Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian, who served from November 2017 to December 2020, published at least 15 op-eds on issues such as Xinjiang, COVID-19, and the BRI during his tenure. Bai’s commentary found a wide audience, including in the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily, popular English-language outlets like Malaysiakini, The Star, the New Straits Times, and Malay Mail, and popular Malay-language papers like Sinar Harian and Berita Harian.12 Even outlets like Malaysiakini that have been critical of the Chinese government also published the ambassador’s op-eds. Chinese ambassador Ouyang Yujing, who assumed his position in December 2020, has maintained a similar pace, publishing at least five written interviews and op-eds by the end of December 2021 across a variety of outlets including Sin Chew Daily, The Star and the New Straits Times.

The Chinese embassy in Malaysia also communicated directly with local journalists. Embassy staff sometimes organized closed-door town hall sessions for Malaysian media and other stakeholders on sensitive issues including Xinjiang, the controversial Chinese development project “Forest City,” and other topics.13 Journalists report that they appreciated the sessions because they could engage directly with Chinese authorities and other stakeholders.14 The Chinese embassy also maintained a closed WhatsApp group with journalists to ensure that Chinese diplomats can be contacted directly to provide official statements on developing stories.15

As of December 2021, the Facebook page of the Chinese embassy in Malaysia, which was registered in April 2018, had about 70,000 followers.16 The English-language page, which frequently posts video content, receives high levels of engagement. Its posts regularly receive more than 50 likes, often reaching into the hundreds. The embassy’s Instagram page, also in English and created in March 2020, had less than 4,000 followers as of December 2021 and did not receive much engagement.17 Most of the embassy’s social media posts are innocuous, with content about diplomatic activity, tourism, and trade. However, there are sometimes contentious claims including challenges to criticism of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and suggestions that foreign forces instigated recent Hong Kong protests, which tended to elicit a stronger response from users.18

Malaysian media republish Chinese state media content, echo Beijing’s preferred narratives on Xinjiang: English outlets like The Star and Malay outlets like Sinar Harian occasionally republish news wires from Xinhua. In 2020, Sinar Harian published two articles titled “Mosques in Xinjiang Upgraded”19 and “The Demolition of Mosques in Xinjiang is Not True,”20 with the “Xinhua” label included in difficult to read print at the end of the article. The Star is also part of the Asia News Network, a content-sharing platform headquartered in Singapore which also includes the Chinese state-run China Daily.21 Due to this relationship, The Star has published at least 16 pieces from China Daily in 2020 and 2021 alone. More indirectly, The Star has taken editorial lines that echo Chinese state media in some of its original reporting on Xinjiang. Eight out of nine randomly selected articles about Xinjiang in the outlet that were published during the report coverage period had headlines like “Xinjiang is Paradise on Earth” and “Xinjiang Rises from the Ashes of Terrorism.”22 The Star has as its largest stakeholder the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), one of the oldest political parties in Malaysia that represents Chinese Malaysians and a member of the ruling coalition government. The MCA has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the CCP.23

Friendly Chinese-language media: As of July 2021, ethnic Han Chinese represent Malaysia’s largest minority, numbering over 7 million, and constituting close to a fourth of the population.24 Accordingly, Chinese-language media can be considered part of the mainstream media in Malaysia. Indeed, Malaysia has long been regarded as having one of the most robust Chinese-language newspaper environments outside China. Subsidiaries of Malay-based, Chinese-language outlets are even found in the United States and other countries.25

There are thirteen Chinese-language newspapers in Malaysia: six in peninsular Malaysia, where around 80 percent of the country’s population is based, and seven in the states of Sabah and Sarawak.26 Most of the large outlets that account for almost 90 percent of the Chinese language market in peninsular Malaysia – Sin Chew Daily, China Press, Nanyang Siang Pau, Guang Ming – are owned by Media Chinese International (MCIL), a company led by Tiong Hiew King, a Sarawak-based timber tycoon who has strong business ties to China.27 Sin Chew Daily is also part of the Asia News Network.28

Chinese language media in Malaysia conduct a significant amount of original reporting. All four of the MCIL papers, including Sin Chew Daily—with its reported 1.5 million readers29 —have a fairly pro-Beijing editorial line when it comes to original content, but their news coverage on China also includes more critical content from international sources (see Resilience). Content pulled from various foreign media are often compiled into single articles.30 All four papers generally provide positive coverage of economic cooperation between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing and consistently cover Xi Jinping’s speeches.

Distorted content—including outright disinformation—from Chinese state media and other pro-CCP outlets reached Chinese-language media in Malaysia during the coverage period. For example, after Chinese state media and pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong produced extensive criticism of Hong Kong’s 2019–20 prodemocracy movement, some of it based on false claims, Malaysia’s mainstream Chinese-language media replicated much of this content, often reprinting whole stories without identifying the original sources.31 Such stories included unfounded claims that Hong Kong protesters had attacked a school bus carrying young children with Molotov cocktails and that a protesters’ meeting with an American diplomat was evidence that Hong Kong’s democracy movement was controlled by foreign actors.32 Several of Malaysia’s Chinese-language outlets posted these stories on Facebook pages with hundreds or thousands of followers.33

Chinese state presence on television and social media: Programming by the Chinese state-owned broadcaster, CCTV, can be accessed on the local broadcaster Astro, which has over 70 percent penetration of Malaysian households.34 For social media, one major avenue of influence is the Malay version of China Radio International (CRI), Radio Antarabangsa China, which had a Facebook follower count of over 600,000 in December 2021.35 The account receives consistent but limited attention, and posts generally discuss news from China rather than local issues of interest. Posts during the coverage period included videos claiming that Westerners controlled Hong Kong protesters.36 In 2019, CRI partnered with Malaysia’s Institute of Language and Literature (DBP), a government agency responsible for coordinating the use of the Malay language and Malay-language literature in Malaysia, to publish two Malay-language books showing Chinese culture and history from the Chinese perspective.37 CRI also has a Malay-language website largely featuring Malay translations of regular articles.38

People’s Daily, which is the official mouthpiece of the CCP, and the Chinese state news agency Xinhua both have physical bureaus in Malaysia. Xinhua’s office is located within a building owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, facilitating frequent interactions.

Subsidized journalist trips to Xinjiang: A myriad of programs bring Malaysian journalists to visit China and sometimes Xinjiang, though these trips halted amid travel restriction related to the COVID-19 pandemic. From February 22 to 27, 2019, the English-language paper The Star and the Malay-language paper Sinar Harian were invited by the China International Publishing Group, a CCP-owned foreign-language publishing organization, to travel to China as part of the ASEAN Elites China Tour alongside journalists from Indonesia.39 After the trip, CRI Malaysia and China Daily quoted Asmaliza Binti Mansor, assistant editor at Sinar Harian, as noting the good preservation of mosques in Xinjiang, supporting Beijing’s assertion that Muslims have places to pray and are free to practice their religion in China. 40 Mansor was also quoted as saying that the tour allowed her to see Xinjiang as it is, beyond the negative reports she had previously encountered.41 She published at least two pieces in Sinar Harian about the trip, largely relaying key points made by Chinese officials.42 For its part, Sinar Harian had been quite critical of China’s role in oppressing ethnic Uyghurs, and continued its critical coverage of China after the trip. Another participant in the same trip from The Star similarly wrote a piece touting the positive aspects of life in Xinjiang.43 In July 2019, the Chinese-language outlet Sin Chew Daily was invited by China Daily alongside nine journalists from seven other Asian countries to visit Xinjiang.44 After the trip, Sin Chew Daily published an article repeating key Chinese state media narratives on Xinjiang, including that attending “vocational centers” were voluntary, that camp attendees were cured of terrorist tendencies, and that there is no reduction of praying due to Chinese government policy.45 From July 14 to 22, 2022 journalists from The New Straits Times went to Xinjiang at the invitation of the State Council Information Office of China with journalists from 24 other countries.46 After the trip, one journalist, Khairah N. Karim, wrote a piece claiming that Uyghurs attended re-education camps voluntarily.47 The New Straits Times’ coverage of Xinjiang is generally mixed, with no notable change after the trip.

Political support and echoing CCP talking points: Malaysian political parties have often been supportive of Chinese state narratives and repeated them to local audiences. The United Malays National Organization (UNMO)—the dominant party for most of Malaysia’s history, and the current ruling party as the largest member of the Barisan Nasional coalition—has been relatively pro-China since the emergence of the 1MDB scandal in 2015, attributable in large part to the resulting need for investment. The China-financed East Coast Rail Link became a key campaign issue for the UNMO.48 In December 2021, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri affirmed his support for Malaysia’s participation in the BRI and the ECRL in particular.49

Tan Kok Wai, the chairman of the majority-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) until March 2022, was appointed as the official envoy to China in August 2018, and in that capacity made numerous statements seen as an attempt to improve public perception of China within Malaysia, which were quoted in local outlets.50 The DAP was a key component of the ruling coalition in power from 2018-2020. In October 2019, the envoy supported a Malaysia-China Business Council chief executive officer associated with the DAP who published a trilingual pro-Belt and Road Initiative comic book (Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism) that equated support for Uyghurs with “radicalism.” Malaysia’s then-Finance Minister, too, provided implicit support by writing an introduction to the book. However, public backlash emerged after the publisher began distributing the propaganda comic to schools, leading the government to block its publication.51 Also in June 2019, public backlash among Malaysians erupted after Islamic Affairs minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, upon returning from Xinjiang, described a Uyghur internment camp that he visited as a “training and vocational center.”52 In 2021, Tan Kok Wai said that local Muslims had misunderstood narratives on Xinjiang and affirmed the DAP’s support for the BRI and for deeper cooperation with the CCP. 53

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is the intentional dissemination of false or misleading content, especially by engaging in inauthentic activity (such as via fake accounts) on global social media platforms. Malaysia has a long history of political actors' efforts attempts to manipulate public opinion online through the activities of “cybertroopers” – trolls, hackers, and online commentators allied with major political figures – or other covert tactics.54 The country has been the epicenter of a couple of major Chinese-language disinformation campaigns likely orchestrated by either Beijing or its political allies. There were no disinformation campaigns targeted to other languages in Malaysia.

Pro-Beijing disinformation campaigns often take their repetitious material directly from Chinese-language “content farms.”55 A 2020 Atlantic Council report found that some of these farms were based in Malaysia and target Malaysian audiences.56 One content farm, nicknamed “Qiqu,” hosted content that closely tracked with Chinese government talking points and was distributed across Chinese-language Facebook accounts, pages, and groups that appeared to focus on Malaysian politics. On September 25 and 30, 2020, twenty-five different Facebook pages with over 1.5 million followers in total simultaneously posted identical content from Qiqu that presented US politics as chaotic.57 This demonstrated the scale that such coordinated inauthentic behavior disinformation campaign can reach, but that campaign ultimately received very little engagement from Malaysian users.

Censorship and intimidation

Some caution and self-censorship seem to surround China-related news coverage in Malaysia, occurring most prominently among Chinese-language media. Six Chinese-language media journalists contacted for this study declined to be interviewed. According to a former journalist, local Chinese media used to be “freer” before Media Chinese International (MCIL) started buying up these outlets in 2008.58

Incidents of pressure or reprisals against outlets critical of the CCP can also reinforce self-censorship:

  • Behind-the-scenes pressure from the embassy: According to interviews with Malaysia-based journalists in September and October 2021, the Chinese embassy’s WhatsApp group for media provides a direct line of communication for Chinese diplomats to indicate when they are not happy with a media outlet’s reporting.59 What is more likely to happen, however, is that the embassy would call an outlet’s upper management to express displeasure, accompanied by threats to pull advertisements if certain demands are not complied with.60
  • Malaysiakini website blocked in China: In late 2019, China’s website-filtering system (known as the Great Firewall) blocked access to the online news portal Malaysiakini’s website, according to data collected by the anticensorship group GreatFire.org. As of June 2022, it remained blocked.61 However, one Malaysiakini journalist noted that the outlet, which has produced critical investigations of Chinese influence, was less susceptible to economic pressure from pro-Beijing actors because it was not reliant on Chinese advertising revenue.62
  • Malaysian ministry denied license to critical Chinese language outlet: The Epoch Times, a newspaper critical of the Chinese government founded by Falun Gong practitioners,63 applied and was rejected multiple times for a permit for its Malaysian edition. The most recent attempt was in May 2019 and was rejected in September 2019. A formal communication from the Ministry of Home Affairs justified the rejection as being linked to protecting good relations with Beijing, noting, “The decision is … [to] maintain bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China.”64

Control over content distribution infrastructure

China-based companies do not have a presence in Malaysia’s digital television infrastructure, but other firms with close ties to the CCP have been gaining a presence in the social media and mobile phone sectors, creating potential vulnerability to future manipulation.

Given the large number of Chinese speakers residing in Malaysia, WeChat, owned by the PRC-based technology company Tencent that has close ties to the CCP, is an especially popular app in Malaysia. Nearly 28 percent of Malaysian netizens used WeChat in 2021, making it the fourth most commonly used communication app in 2020.65 For a period of time, both Chinese and Malay speaking communities used WeChat as an alternative to the more popular WhatsApp, but once Telegram became popular it attracted WeChat Malay users, and WeChat became primarily used by Chinese communities. Censorship on WeChat’s mainland China version has been well-documented, and all official accounts, including ones outside of China, must be registered in China and are thus subject to Chinese censorship restrictions.66 Eight WeChat accounts specifically targeted to Malaysian audiences reviewed by Freedom House outside of Mainland China maintained largely pro-Beijing narratives on various topics including Xinjiang, BRI, COVID-19, and Taiwan.67 This includes the account of Oriental Daily, which published some critical articles of Beijing on its website during the coverage period. In Malaysia, however, censorship restrictions on WeChat may have limited impact, as Chinese-Malaysian WeChat users report that they are unlikely to use the app to search for information and largely use it to communicate with friends and loved ones.68

Other commonly used PRC-based apps also increase Malaysia’s vulnerability to potential manipulation. In 2021, TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was the seventh-most downloaded app in Malaysia.69 Bigo, a livestreaming app, was the fifth, and Dong Bao, a news aggregator app, was the sixth. 70 Most politicians in Malaysia have a TikTok account, including health minister Khairy Jamaluddin; the parliamentarian Syed Saddiq; and former prime ministers Mahathir and Muhyiddin.71 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.72 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.73

Huawei, another PRC-based company with strong ties to the CCP and a record of providing censorship and surveillance technologies to the Chinese and foreign governments,74 controls 13.8 percent of Malaysia’s mobile phone market.75 It has also long been Malaysia’s dominant supplier of internet modems. Xiaomi, a PRC-based company, accounts for another 11 percent of the market.76 In 2021, concerns were raised about latent censorship on Xiaomi devices.77 Chinese suppliers collectively provide about half of all mobile phones in Malaysia.78

There was no evidence during the coverage period of political censorship or content manipulation on Chinese apps or devices using Chinese technology in Malaysia. Additionally, Malaysia has chosen the Swedish company Ericsson to develop its national fifth generation (5G) wireless networks, allaying concerns about the security risks of using Huawei equipment in critical infrastructure.79

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

Malaysian journalists are highly skeptical of the Chinese government and the implications of its media control.80 An academic argued that “no local media will ever look to Chinese media for training.”81

Despite this, there are some records of Malaysian journalists traveling to China for professional training,82 and records of major Malaysian political parties including the MCA that have received training from the CCP on topics such as “media management.”83 There is no evidence that these trainings have produced changes in coverage, journalistic practice, or increased deference to the Chinese government, however.

An academic paper funded by the Ministry of Higher Education examined China’s “anti-fake news laws” as part of a multicountry analysis to understand how Malaysia could better respond to misinformation but did not recommend that the Malaysian government follow any particular aspect of the Chinese model.84

Chinese diaspora media

Malaysia is home to a large Chinese diaspora and Chinese-language media landscape. Given the size and significance of the Chinese diaspora and Chinese language-media sector, analysis of these topics has been incorporated into the above sections of this report.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Growing investigative media capacity, especially online: Although Malaysia does not have a historic culture of investigative journalism, watchdog journalism is growing. The Malaysian government has long had a stranglehold on traditional media via politicized use of its licensing regime. The spread of internet access has given rise to a more diverse media landscape and alternative news websites, although they face potential prosecution under sedition and other laws. In 2010, investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown founded Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report, media outlets focused on corruption and environmental issues. Other notable examples include the impact media collective The Fourth and Media Rakyat, an online outlet which aims to provide diverse information on Malaysian politics to improve freedom of information.1 In 2015, the business publication The Edge was suspended by the Malaysian government for its investigative coverage of the 1MDB scandal.2
  • Vibrant press freedom community: Malaysia has a vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector that includes press freedom advocacy organizations and watchdogs like the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ), AmerBON, and Gerakan Media Merdeka (GERAMM). GERAMM is part of a multistakeholder initiative to increase funding for investigative reporting in Malaysia.3 Another promising initiative is the Media Education For All, a national movement aimed at improving media literacy across the country and bolstering resilience against disinformation.4 These organizations have little specific focus on China, if at all, but they contribute to developing broader media resiliency and could easily integrate knowledge development on CCP media interference into their work in the future.
  • Limits on foreign media investment: The Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 only allows locally incorporated companies to apply for broadcasting licenses, and the government imposes foreign ownership percentage caps (typically up to 49 percent foreign ownership) on most licenses issued.5

China-specific media resilience

  • Increase in research and awareness on China and CCP influence: Increasingly, there have been efforts to both expose and ameliorate Chinese media influence efforts. A former Malaysiakini journalist noted that the outlet had a clear position on not attending any Chinese state–sponsored events such as trainings and closed media sessions.6 Journalists have reported on several issues relating to CCP influence in Malaysia, mainly in relation to the creation of walled-off Chinese cities, property developments catered toward Chinese migrants, and growing Chinese investment under the BRI.7 There is relatively limited work on CCP media influence specifically, though in January 2020 Malaysiakini covered a Freedom House report on Beijing’s global media influence, and published an expose on Hong Kong–related disinformation in August 2021.8 Additionally, academics are paying increasing attention to the issue of Chinese influence. For example, Ngeow Chow Bing, director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, has written extensively about Chinese influence in Southeast Asia and Malaysia in recent years.9 However, a Malaysian academic who focuses on China noted that Ngeow was more frequently quoted in foreign media than in local media.10
  • Public skepticism toward Chinese state narratives, including on Xinjiang, South China Sea: The Malaysian public is largely skeptical of any state-driven narratives coming from China. In one example, there was significant backlash in December 2019 after the Chinese ambassador wrote an article in The Star countering Western claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang that was republished by various Malaysian outlets.11 Top Muslim intellectuals responded to the article with comments like “How much do they pay you?” and “Shame on you for this Chinese propaganda.”12 The Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a think tank for youth empowerment and the promotion of Muslim intellectual discourse, slammed outlets that carried the pieces, saying they were “obsessed with trying to publish anything positive about China.”13 There was a similar backlash against Malaysia’s Islamic Affairs minister in June 2019, after he described a Uyghur internment camp that he visited in Xinjiang as a “training and vocational center.”14 In October 2019, there was popular criticism of a comic book depicting Uyghurs as radical extremists. The uproar led the Malaysian government to invoke a section of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 to block the comic book’s publication on the grounds that it could promote division among Malaysia’s different ethnic groups.15 Other examples of public skepticism include pushback against entertainment media, though this has at times been accompanied by censorship. In October 2019, Malaysian netizens cheered the blocking of the American animated movie Abominable from theatrical release in Malaysia, because it showed a map including the “nine-dash line”—an expansive loop depicting Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea which are contested by other countries including Malaysia.16 Similarly, in November 2021, the Chinese film Battle at Changjin Lake was denied theatrical release after public outcry that the film was “promoting communism.”17 In October 2021, Malaysian-Chinese rapper Namewee released a music video mocking Chinese state censorship and CCP-backed online trolls known as “little pinks” that was well-received by netizens in Malaysia and across the global Chinese diaspora (though it contained some racist imagery). 18 The video was later blocked in China.19
  • Diversity of sources for China coverage: Most major Malaysian media outlets carry stories from international outlets that critique the CCP’s behavior at home and abroad.20 Even outlets that are editorially aligned with Beijing or that source regularly from Chinese state media The Star also republish from international news agencies.21 The Star maintains an office in Beijing, giving the outlet the capacity to report independently from within China.22  Chinese-language media that are generally pro-Beijing have also covered international criticisms of Chinese government policy. In 2021 Sin Chew Daily published an article about a Freedom House report on transnational repression conducted by Chinese government actors.23 The article relayed key points from the report, then included a short quote from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stating that Freedom House views China with “tinted glasses.” A Freedom House review of six non-MCIL-owned Chinese-language papers revealed similar patterns.24 One of the reviewed papers is the Chinese version of Malaysiakini, whose coverage is similar to that of its English-language version.25
  • Critical statements from political leaders: Politicians criticize Chinese government policy frequently and openly. In addition to Mahathir’s extensive campaigning against “colonial” Chinese investment deals, top officials from the majority-Chinese DAP have criticized attempts to whitewash Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and distanced themselves from party elements that repeat Chinese propaganda narratives.26 For example, some DAP lawmakers denounced the Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism comic that portrayed Uyghurs as radical.27 P. Ramasamy, the DAP-aligned deputy chief minister of Penang State, has criticized the Malaysian government’s tepid response to the CCP’s atrocity crimes in Xinjiang.28 The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has vocally condemned the oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.29 Additionally, the Foreign Ministry has grown more forceful in its objections to Chinese incursions in Malaysia’s territorial waters in the South China Sea.30

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Partisan and government-influenced press: Most newspapers and the public broadcaster are indirectly controlled by political parties or their allies, and there is no law regulating partisan ownership of media. The Malaysian Chinese Association is the largest shareholder for The Star, while Berita Harian and the New Straits Times are associated with the UNMO. In addition, the Minister of Home Affairs has the authority to suspend or revoke newspaper licenses in the interest of public order, or to impose restrictive conditions on licensing, such as banning a paper from publishing in Malay or limiting a party-affiliated newspaper’s distribution to its relevant political party.1 These rules give wide leeway to pro-Beijing politicians and ministers to censor media criticism of their allies in Beijing. Malaysia also has no laws against cross-ownership.2
  • Laws, intimidation, encourage self-censorship: The restrictive Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and Sedition Act have been in force since 1998 and 1948, respectively. The country’s political parties also have a long history of working to control narratives through their media ownership during the run-up to elections. In recent years, and especially since 2020, Malaysian journalists and media outlets have faced increasing legal harassment. In February 2021, Malaysiakini, the country’s most popular independent online newspaper, was found guilty of contempt by Malaysia’s highest court for posting five readers’ comments about the judiciary.3 In 2021, Malaysia promulgated an anti-fake-news law that was used as a justification to arrest journalists.4
  • Gaps in transparency and media self-regulation: Media transparency exists to a certain degree; the names of shareholders and directors can be determined through a straightforward Companies Commission search, but the use of proxies may make it difficult in some cases to determine the actual owners of a media company.5 Online outlets are also exempt from transparency regulations.6 Chinese state media content is often labeled with the outlet in which it originated, but outlets are usually not explicitly noted as being tied to the Chinese government. Some Chinese state media content is not labeled, especially that which appears in Chinese-language media.7 Malaysia lacks a press council; the country was in the process of developing stronger and more independent media protection mechanisms, but this was put on pause after the shift in government in 2020.8 The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), set up by the Communications and Multimedia Act with “powers to supervise and regulate the communications and multimedia activities in Malaysia,” lacks independence and is subject to ministerial oversight.9

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Recent polls show Malaysian respondents’ increased wariness and skepticism toward the Chinese government’s motives both in the region and internationally since 2019, even as they also expressed appreciation for support from China during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to 2019, Malaysians have given high favorability ratings to China in public polling.1

Polling by the ASEAN Studies Center and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 58 percent of Malaysian respondents had little or no confidence that “that China will ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance” in 2021, up from 50 percent in 2020.2 While 64 percent consider Chinese assistance a major factor in recovery from COVID-19, almost 80 percent worry about the government’s strategic influence, 63 percent are troubled by the country’s economic influence, and 63 percent have strong concerns about its growing footprint in the South China Sea.3

When asked which of five statements best reflected their “view of China’s reemergence as a major power with respect to Southeast Asia” in 2021, 45 percent of Malaysian respondents replied that China is a revisionist power working to turn Southeast Asia into part of its sphere of influence, up from 41 percent in 2020.4 Virtually no respondents answered that China was a “benign and benevolent” power.”5 When asked in 2021 what ASEAN should do if forced to choose between Beijing and Washington, 53 percent of Malaysian respondents chose Washington (up from 39 in 2020) compared to 47 percent who chose China (down from 60 percent in 2020), representing a dramatic reversal of preference within one year.6

header7 Future trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in Malaysia that should be closely monitored by the government, journalists, and civil society in the coming years.

  • A pro-Beijing turn amid unstable politics: Malaysia's volatile political context has produced three governments in three years. Should an UMNO-led coalition stay in power, watch for a shift in coverage among aligned news outlets toward a more Beijing-friendly direction.
  • Narratives on the South China Sea: As tensions continue to grow over territorial issues in the South China Sea, local media have been careful to not villainize China while still respecting local sentiments toward Malaysia’s territories. As this issue escalates, media outlets may feel compelled to be more critical of China. The Chinese embassy or local actors may in turn feel the need to apply greater pressure on media owners and journalists to support Beijing’s position or avoid critical reporting.
  • Chinese government appeals to religious leaders and groups: There is great incentive for the CCP to convince religious leaders in the majority-Muslim Malaysia that Uyghurs are not oppressed in Xinjiang and that Islam is flourishing in China. Such efforts have been observed in Indonesia, another majority-Muslim country in the region.
  • Potential increase in covert tactics: Aware of the poor optics of media outlets or officials that are perceived as openly supporting the CCP, Chinese state-linked actors may increase their use of more covert and indirect ways of influence, such as CCP-backed or pro-Beijing disinformation and influence campaigns, or employing intimidation through private messaging groups.

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