Malaysia’s Prime Minister Scored a Trending Hashtag, But Not For the Reasons He Hoped

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak poses with a group of young people for selfies. Photo: Facebook.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling corruption charges at home, but online he's basking in the glow of a new hashtag campaign. Except the #RespectMyPM movement didn't trend on March 7 for the reasons Najib probably hoped. Instead of promoting “respect,” many Internet users used the hashtag to attack the prime minister's record as leader. Critics also promoted the rival hashtag #SuspectMyPM as a countermove.

Najib is accused of receiving more than 600 million US dollars from a state-run investment firm. He says the money deposited in his personal bank accounts was a political donation from the royal family in Saudi Arabia. The issue sparked large nationwide protests and even some of Najib’s allies are calling for his resignation.

Last January, the attorney general cleared Najib of any wrongdoing, but the movement calling for his resignation has continued to gather strength. Last week, various civil society leaders, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, signed a declaration demanding Najib’s removal from office.

It's possible that this declaration is what prompted Najib's supporters to try to garner support online with the #RespectMyPM campaign. Malaysian activists didn't invent this hashtag, however. (That feat belongs to supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following his election in 2014.) In Malaysia, Internet users revived the hashtag after a Facebook page called “Pertahan Negara Kita” (Defend Our Country) used it to encourage Najib supporters to rally behind their beleaguered prime minister.

Criticism is fine But don't damage own country. We are all Malaysians. It's our country!#RespectMyPM @NajibRazak pic.twitter.com/yitsTNfcA5

— Tan Keng Liang (@tankengliang) March 7, 2016

The hashtag gained more appeal when Cabinet Minister Azalina Othman used it in a tweet.

I am from #Johor, and I #respectmyPM pic.twitter.com/ECTqjPlUT9

— Azalina Othman Said (@YBAOS63) March 6, 2016

As the hashtag gained popularity, however, it attracted the attention of Najib's critics, who soon subverted it with posts mocking the prime minister.

I will #RespectMyPM if he decided to resign.

— Syahmi Asmari (@shamiebledsoe) March 7, 2016

Internet users cited various scandals involving Najib to popularize another hashtag, #SuspectMyPM.

I can't find a good reason to #RespectMyPM , but I have many reasons to #SuspectMyPM. pic.twitter.com/GSxWnvDJpH

— Adrian Lim Chee En (@adrianlimcheeen) March 8, 2016

A champion student debater lists the reasons why Najib should step down:

Respect cannot be forced,

Respect must be EARNED.#RespectMalaysia, not #RespectMyPM pic.twitter.com/K8HaXgwUkD

— Saddiq (@SyedSaddiq) March 7, 2016

Perhaps this tweet, by Syahredzan Johan, best sums up the story of #RespectMyPM:

#RespectMyPM is trending, but for all the wrong reasons hahahaha

— Syahredzan Johan (@syahredzan) March 6, 2016

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