Influencer Aliff Syukri pictured here in April 2021.

Influencer Aliff Syukri pictured here (centre) in April 2021. (Photo: Aliff Syukri Terlajak Laris / Facebook)

Persuasion Not Regulation the Key for Social Media Influencers Navigating Religion and Culture


There is already a patchwork of laws supported by some communal surveillance and cultural policing when it comes to social media influencers in Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia. It is perhaps possible to socialise influencers, Muslim or otherwise, to tread carefully when navigating sensitive issues, but this must stop short of over-regulation.

In Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia, social media influencers today can sometimes play a significant role in shaping religious life and discourse, apart from the traditional Muslim elites or the ulama. In Malaysia, formal state regulations or guidelines on how these online influencers are expected to behave or conduct themselves publicly are broadly secular in origin and focus, mainly regulating licensing, defamation, and content control matters. However, the legal domain is a messy patchwork that leaves the broader question of how to maintain inter-religious harmony unanswered.

This has often led to the general consumer of social media taking on the task of everyday policing. Some conservative elements use their socio-cultural and religious values to unofficially ‘regulate’ users on social media platforms, such as assessing and commenting – sometimes harshly – on the actions of celebrities and influencers.

A few examples illustrate the above observation. In Malaysia, netizens have constantly flagged celebrity Aliff Syukri for his ‘provocative’ content, which they allege challenges Malaysian society’s socio-cultural and religious norms. In 2017, Syukri produced a single, “Bobo Dimana” (in Indonesian slang, this title means “Where Are You Sleeping?”), and appeared in a controversial music video for the song with Malaysian celebrity Nur Sajat and Indonesian celebrity Lucinta Luna. The video was deemed by many Muslim commentators as culturally and religiously inappropriate due to its content and risqué dancing and costumes. Separately, in Brunei, a Malay Muslim male influencer touched another female influencer’s hand and shared this incident on his “Instagram stories”. Netizens called him out, deeming his actions inappropriate.

Currently, laws and regulations affecting social media influencers who potentially offend religious or community sensitivities are confusing, with different authorities having overlapping jurisdictions. Generally, online influencers are subject to a raft of existing secular advertising industry standards and legislation meant originally for print and television media. Malaysia, for example, has no specific regulation to handle “influencer” marketing and disclosure. Nevertheless, as disseminators of information or licensed “advertisers” when they promote products or other items, Malaysian influencers could be subject to laws such as the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA 1998), Consumer Protection Act 1998, and the Medicine (Advertisement & Sale) Act (1956).

While not having the force of law, the Content Forum, Malaysia’s self-regulatory industry body for advertisers, revised its industry “Content Code 2022”, which came into effect on May 30 this year, for self-regulation of content online. Arguably this would apply to influencers, as the definition of an influencer’s ‘job’ includes the advertisement of products.

In addition, Malaysia’s CMA section 233 specifically outlaws any creation, solicitation or transmission of comment that is “obscene, indecent, false, menacing, offensive…” or made with the purpose of “abusing, intimidating, harassing” any person. Malaysia’s Penal Code may also apply in cases of “insults that cause disharmony, disunity or feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will on grounds of religion”, criminal defamation, or the dissemination of pornography.

Brunei has no specific influencer regulations, but existing legislation such as the Child Online Protection (COP) Framework, the Undesirable Publications Act (Cap 25), the Public Entertainment Act (Cap 181), the Defamation Act (Cap 192), the Computer Misuse Order 2000, and the Internet Code of Practice 103 are collectively applied to regulate relevant content sharing on social media.

Somewhat like the Malaysian situation for advertisers, the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) promotes a high standard of industry ethics in advertising through self-regulation. These Guidelines on Interactive Marketing Communication and Social Media took effect on August 29, 2016 and could be used to apply to influencers operating in Singapore.

These regulatory guidelines are based on secular concerns about influencers’ practices as advertisers, such as fraud or false advertising, claiming fake followers, unfair marketing practices, and inappropriate content. They cover typical influencer practices, such as product endorsements, paid partnerships with companies, and the need for collaboration disclosures so as not to mislead their social media followers.

Influencers who cross the line, such as by promoting violence, terrorism, or promoting hate speech, can be easily handled by security agencies. However, managing influencers who touch on religiously or culturally divisive issues requires the art of persuasion rather than hard power.

However, in multicultural and multi-religious Southeast Asia, regulating influencers with different religious views has its challenges. This could be due to the recent emergence of a high number of influencers, making it difficult for the authorities to keep track of them, or the fact that their practices may not be considered problematic except by a conservative minority. Societal concerns about influencers’ behaviour vary greatly: some societies, even majority-Muslim ones, may tolerate the likes of Aliff Syukri and Nur Sajat, while others would not. As a result, the potential risk of moral outrage arising from influencers’ behaviour is uncertain and the ways to tackle any controversies or upsets must vary.

Influencers who cross the line, such as by promoting violence, terrorism, or promoting hate speech, can be easily handled by security agencies. However, managing influencers who touch on religiously or culturally divisive issues requires the art of persuasion rather than hard power. While they must be allowed free expression, they must also be reminded that they co-exist alongside those who are becoming more religious, if not more conservative.

On the conservative side, more young people are now comfortable with promoting halal lifestyles in Muslim-majority countries in the region. Traditionally, halal standards were predominantly used to define what is permitted or lawful in Muslim food consumption. But sectors such as the economy,  pharmaceuticals,  cosmetics, media and even recreation have all adopted ‘halal’ standards. Whatever their religious inclination, social media influencers must respect those who cherish these Islamic guidelines considered as shariah-compliant. They must also tolerate Muslims who disagree with them or their online posts.

The soft power of persuasion when dealing with influencers would be ideal for ensuring that a population’s creativity in creating online content is not paralysed by divisive debate on policing. A balance between regulation and the freedom to create content would be imperative for healthy social media practices. Such a balance would mobilise social media users rather than stifle them. A thorough deliberation of the regulations is needed to prevent radical, sexist, violent, and anti-pluralist ideas from penetrating the social mediascape, whether they emanate from secular or religious sources.


Siti Mazidah Mohamad was Visiting Fellow at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.