Witness #17 | Alia Affendy
It all began on the day Muhyiddin Yassin was announced as the new Prime Minister. When it was first announced, there were a lot of waves of emotion going through me — as a first-time voter, I was looking forward to the promising changes that were going to happen in this country. Ultimately, this came crumbling down with the change of the new Government. As a rakyat [citizen], I felt robbed, knowing that our only right to exercise power was taken away. I irrevocably rejected Muhyiddin as my Prime Minister in my speech.
As a Malaysian, I strongly believed I had every right to express my disappointment with the ‘backdoor’ Government. The speech was a way to address my anger as a voter, to point out that power should not manifest or exist so arbitrarily for certain people. That our voices, however angry or small, should matter.
The next morning, I woke up to multiple messages from friends notifying me that a snippet of my speech was edited and had gone viral on Facebook. The video did not feature my full speech, but unfairly focused on the part where I questioned “siapa Muhyiddin”. I did not know who filmed me at the protest or who posted the video online. My immediate concern was potential police investigation. I went to friends with a legal background, to comb through the video to see if what I said could be used against me, or if any element of crime or defamation was present. Once I was out of the fear of police investigation, right away I was overwhelmed by all the hate, violence and insults that were directed to me on social media.
It started with Facebook, but soon people managed to identify my Twitter and Instagram accounts, and the video was disseminated to a wider network on Twitter. Among others, I was also doxxed, and my private information, email, and other social media accounts were exposed. Some had impersonated me on Facebook and Twitter by creating fake accounts to insult me; some of my old friends started sharing information about me on social media, mostly to defame, discredit and to shame me — all these further exacerbated the attack against me; memes, parody videos and comics were created to attack me; people tagged PDRM [Polis Diraja Malaysia] and asked for an investigation to be made against me, or to have me arrested; a relatively famous artist had created a comic that illustrated a man stepping on the victim, implying that physical violence against me was legitimate.
I received numerous direct messages on my Facebook and Twitter from strangers hurling abuse on my physical appearance, and even threats. The attack narratives ranged from me disrespecting and betraying the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Government, to me being too emotional and acting like a deranged woman, shaming my body and physical appearance and accusing me of being a political puppet for DAP [Democratic Action Party].
The whole experience was overwhelming — I saw threats on me, and my face, my body being ridiculed online for several months. I developed anxiety and it got worse when I was called in by the police for an investigation. At the time, I had already deactivated my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts as it got overwhelming. I isolated myself from the physical world as well as the digital world. I had to look over my shoulder every time I walked out of my own home. Just days before we went into the first lockdown [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], I had a stranger stopping me to identify me from the video. When it happened, I shrugged it all off and told them that they got the wrong person.
Months after the first attack had died down, I received another wave of attacks following the vandalisation of a mural — featuring the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, then-Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, and PAS President [Tan Sri Haji] Abdul Hadi Awang — that was sprayed with obscene words using red paint. A CCTV recording that showed two women vandalising the mural went viral. The facial features of the women were not clear from the CCTV recording. The issue riled up a lot of nationalist and monarchist sentiments among the public, and there was a lot of pressure on the police to investigate or to make an arrest. A few Facebook accounts started spreading disinformation by linking me as the woman who vandalised the mural. Following that, the “siapa Muhyiddin” video resurfaced on Facebook and Twitter, and I was once again attacked online. Multiple police reports were also lodged against me by different conservative groups.
Soon after, I received a call from the police wanting to investigate me for the vandalism. Though no formal notice was issued to me, the police made an impression on me on the seriousness of the issue, and that my appearance was mandatory. Reluctantly, I complied because I just wanted to get the whole situation over with. The moment I stepped into the senior police officer’s office, the officer said to me, “Eh, bukan awaklah yang dalam CCTV tu.” It was clear that my presence there was due to unfair and unjust public pressure against me. Despite my reluctance to share my images, I was pressured to give out my photos to the police.
It took me a year to fully recover from the attacks. For a long time, I felt anxious about being in public, and would often isolate myself. I developed separation anxiety and was constantly afraid of being left alone, fearing that someone may break into my home and assault me physically. I took a social media hiatus for about four to five months. I created a different Twitter account under an anonymous name. I also felt anxious whenever I had to apply for a job, fearing that the recruiters or interviewers may recognise me from the video. I had to seek professional therapy to cope with my anxiety, and it was at my own cost.
I feel like the virality of the mob attacks had reduced myself and the person that I am — every inch of my body, my face, and my entirety was made into content for the public to ridicule me. They had someone to abuse and harass for their entertainment, and my identity was reduced to being “the woman who spoke up against Muhyiddin and his Government”. Some even made the assumption that I am with a particular political party, and some were under the impression that only women representing political parties are allowed to speak on politics.
Whenever I meet new people, they would say things like, “You’re that girl from the video!” To this day, having strangers come up to me to ask that question and invade my space in public is, at best, uncomfortable but, at worst, scary. Since the incident, people have felt that approaching me in public is okay and that encroaching on my private space is not problematic.
Fortunately for me, because of my privilege and the support I have from my partner, friends and network, I have managed to reclaim my identity by taking control of the narrative surrounding me. The situation surrounding Muhyiddin and the Government during the pandemic definitely gave me some leverage to publicly speak out on my experiences. I have since publicly shared and spoken on my experiences in articles, podcast and webinars.
I hope that by coming out today and speaking on this matter, this will open our eyes to the treatment of women and marginalised communities in our public spaces, especially in digital spaces. I hope this triggers a very important conversation surrounding the creation of safe spaces for women in the public sphere — whether it be a physical or a digital one.