1. Background

On May 7th news broke online of the discovery of human trafficking camps along the Malaysia-Thailand border [1]. This was followed by news of Rohingya refugees landing in Indonesia and Malaysia on May 11th [2].

In the days that followed images of overcrowded boats filled with Rohingya refugees spread across social media along with news of their plight and suffering. This was combined with news that Malaysia turned the boats away.

This prompted a conversation online that developed over the following weeks over what should be done about the refugees at sea and who was responsible for their current plight.

2. Our Analysis

We performed opinion-based analysis on 418 users based in Malaysia who tweeted about the Rohingya refugees and related terms from May 7th – May 22nd 2015. The margin of error is +/- 4.79%.

Users were selected based on their tweet content and activity during this period. Sampling was done per-state based on the current estimated user population.

Spammers, news agencies and accounts with automated tweets were not included in the sample.

From this dataset we analysed the individual Twitter user timelines to determine their opinion. This took their tweets, retweets and conversations into account.

Our goal was to gauge public opinion by Malaysian users on the Rohingya refugees stranded at sea, focused on 2 questions:

  1. What should be done?
  2. Who should be responsible?

After surveying the data we found there was one main question on people’s minds – should the refugees be rescued from sea? Where they differed was on who should take responsibility. Based on this analysis we categorised users as belonging to one of the following categories:

  1. Rescue Them
  2. Conflicted
  3. Don’t Let Them Come to Malaysia

Users in the ‘Rescue Them’ category wanted the refugees to be rescued. They were further divided into the following categories based on who they found to be responsible for rescuing the refugees:

  1. Rescue Them – Malaysia’s Responsibility
  2. Rescue Them – Stay Permanently in Malaysia
  3. Rescue Them – Stay Temporarily in Malaysia
  4. Rescue Them – Muslims and Muslim Nation’s responsibility
  5. Rescue Them – Myanmar’s Responsibility
  6. Rescue Them – ASEAN’s Responsibility
  7. Rescue Them – Not specified / Other’s responsibility

The results are shown in the following charts.






Rescue Them






Don’t Let Them Come to Malaysia




Individual Category Breakdown






Rescue Them – Malaysia’s Responsibility



Rescue Them – Stay Permanently in Malaysia



Rescue Them – Stay Temporarily in Malaysia



Rescue Them – Muslims and Muslim Nations’ Responsibility



Rescue Them – Myanmar’s Responsibility



Rescue Them – ASEAN’s Responsibility



Rescue Them – Not specified / Other’s responsibility






Don’t Let Them Come




3. Findings

What follows are the findings for each category.

3.1 Rescue Them – Malaysia’s Responsibility

128 users (30.62%)

These users believed that Malaysia’s government should rescue the Rohingya refugees. Humanitarian reasons were the most commonly mentioned, followed by religious reasons. Many expressed disbelief that Malaysia or other governments would ignore such obvious suffering.

3.2 Rescue Them – Stay Permanently in Malaysia

16 users (3.83%)

These users believed that the Malaysian government should rescue the Rohingya refugees and let them stay permanently in Malaysia. Two common reasons for this was that they had no home to go back to (Myanmar) and Malaysia already has a large migrant population so there was little harm in letting these refugees in.

3.3 Rescue Them – Stay Temporarily in Malaysia

18 users (4.31%)

These users believed that the Malaysian government should rescue the Rohingya refugees and place them temporarily in refugee camps. The duration of their stay was not specified; however many users made it clear that the refugees should be isolated.

3.4 Rescue Them – Muslims and Muslim Nations’ Responsibility

53 users (12.68%)

These users believed the Rohingya refugees should be rescued by fellow Muslims and/or Muslim nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the OIC. They saw the plight of the Rohingya as one of brothers and sisters. Helping them was therefore part of their religious responsibility.

3.5 Rescue Them – Myanmar’s Responsibility

41 users (9.81%)

These users believed the Rohingya refugees should be rescued but ultimately Myanmar should take responsibility for what happens to them. These users commonly blamed Aung San Suu Kyi for her inaction on the long-term issue of Rohingya refugees.

3.6 Rescue Them – ASEAN’s Responsibility

24 users (5.74%)

These users believed that the ASEAN nations should rescue the Rohingya refugees and push for long-term solutions for the refugee issue. Suggestions included distributing the Rohingya refugees among the member nations, and pressuring Myanmar to play a role in solving the problem.

3.7 Rescue Them – Not specified / Other’s responsibility

79 users (18.90%)

Users who believed that the refugees should be rescued, but not specific on who should be responsible.

3.8 Conflicted

18 users (4.31%)

Users who were conflicted about what to do about the refugees. While many supported aiding the refugees with food and fuel, they did not support absorbing the refugees in countries like Malaysia. These users were looking for a long-term solution to the problem, because allowing the refugees to land in one or multiple countries would only encourage more refugees to come.

3.9 Don’t Let Them Come

41 users (9.81%)

Users who did not want the refugees to come into Malaysia. Most expressed little concern about the fate of refugees currently at sea, though they were not opposed to giving them aid and turning their boats away.

Their main concern was on the issue of Malaysia rescuing them. They did not want the refugees to be let into Malaysia for the following reasons:

  • Malaysia has enough local problems
  • Malaysia has enough immigrants
  • Concern about long-term impact of increasing numbers of Rohingya in Malaysia – they may bring their cultural and ethnic conflicts here
  • Concern that letting them in now would encourage more to come
  • Kelantan flood victims are still homeless – we should prioritise our people first
  • Scepticism that they are refugees – some believed the people on the boat to be a mix of migrant workers and refugees; or entirely migrant workers
  • Concern about diseases that they might be carrying

4. Additional Opinions

Users tweeting about the Rohingya also expressed the following opinions/sentiment on related topics. This listing was summarised based on a manual reading of a sample of 2,017 users in Malaysia, inclusive of the sample used for the above analysis.

These expressions are not indicative of their views of whether the refugees should be saved, but we are including it here for informative reasons.

4.1 Expressions of sadness

The majority of users expressed sadness and offered prayers for the Rohingya refugees. Some users wished that more Malaysians cared about the Rohingya.

4.2 Comparison to refugees from other countries

Many users compared the Rohingya refugee problem with that of Palestinian, Bosnian and Syrian refugees. They pointed out that Malaysia and Malaysians had no problems giving aid to refugees from those countries in the past.

There was some suggestion that the Rohingya’s skin colour was an issue in giving aid.

4.3 Expressions of offense

Some users expressed offense on a number of issues:

  • Feeling offended by all the focus on Malaysia when other countries like Singapore are not criticised
  • Feeling offended that Buddhists killing Rohingya does not result in Buddhists being labeled terrorists whereas acts of violence by Muslims results in the media portraying all Muslims as terrorists
  • Emphasising that we should focus our outrage on Myanmar inaction instead of the Malaysian government

4.4 Remarks on political parties

Remarks on political parties were expressed by a minority of users:

4.5 Hope for a long-term solution

Some users expressed concerns about a long-term solution. The present plight of the Rohingya refugees at sea was important to deal with now, but a discussion about dealing with the cause of their migration needed to be held. That discussion would be a more productive use of time than dealing with crises as and when they arose.

4.6 Expressions of Xenophobia

A small minority of users used words/phrases that indicated they looked down on foreigners. Some paraphrased examples:

  • “I have no problems with pendatang asing breeding here, but don’t come near our people”
  • “I don’t mind keeping some Rohingya at home, they can clean my toilets”
  • Comparisons of Bangladeshis with trash in how they are ‘messing up’ public places
  • Discomfort at seeing so many of ‘those faces’ around
  • Stating that Rohingya can eat leftover food from restaurants

5. Conclusion

The analysis indicates that the majority of Twitter users in Malaysia want the Rohingya refugees to be rescued but they were divided on whose responsibility it should be.

Including those in favour of temporary or permanent stay in Malaysia, 38.76% wanted Malaysia to be the nation to rescue the refugees. If we include the users who felt Muslims should help Rohingya,that number increases to 51.44%.

However the variety of opinions on who is responsible, combined with the concerns raised by those who are conflicted and don’t want them here point to a solution where Malaysia takes the lead but only provides temporary shelter.

Having ASEAN countries provide temporary housing for the refugees while a long-term solution is discussed would likely be the most acceptable option by the majority of users. This is because:

  • It helps deal with the immediate crisis while not setting a precedent for more refugees to come and force countries to absorb them
  • Keeping the refugees isolated and making their stay temporary should be acceptable for most users who did not want them here
  • Malaysia is not pressured to house all the refugees

6. About the Population Sample

The results reflect a young demographic, by our estimates to be between 18 – 30 years old. Users were almost evenly divided between Bahasa Malaysia and English speakers:

  • 46% Bahasa Malaysia speakers
  • 44% English speakers
  • 10% Bilingual speakers


6.1 Scale of Importance on Twitter

This network graph shows how Twitter users tweeting about the Rohingya from May 7th – May 22nd were connected. This includes all users on Twitter limited to those who retweeted or had conversations with each other. This helps visualise the scale of the conversation.


Each user is represented by a node (circle) that is coloured based on the number of their tweets that were retweeted and the number of tweets sent to them. The more attention they receive, the larger the node. Any node that retweets another node or tweets to another node is connected.

Nodes are positioned based on their connections to other nodes – strong connections pull them closer. Large nodes are considered influential within the network. We have coloured the nodes based on a scale of blue (least influential) to green; yellow; orange; red; and purple (most influential).

Due to the scale of the graph, we can only show names from the top 1,030 most influential users as seen below:


There are 131,877 users with 231,038 connections within the unfiltered graph. The most popular users were:

  1. @kenroth
  2. @jamilahanan
  3. @abdmalekhussin
  4. @voicerohingya
  5. @ice_skypeth
  6. @gengbebel
  7. @actforhumanity
  8. @oprohingya
  9. @501awani
  10. @hanisalaad1
  11. @ericpaulsen101
  12. @khanoon_k_myst
  13. @nnamiie
  14. @mkcrny
  15. @bbcworld
  16. @itsmenanice
  17. @murtazageonews
  18. @youranoncentral
  19. @khaledbeydoun
  20. @susanamet

7. Popular Content

The following tweets are among the most popularly shared tweets / images on this topic.

8. Location of users

Based on geo-tagged tweets, we are able to determine where users often tweet from. This is indicative of where they spend most of their time e.g. work-place, university, residence.

Blue markers = Rescue Them; Red markers = Don’t Let Them Come; Yellow markers = Conflicted

8.1 West Malaysia


8.2 East Malaysia


9. References

[1] Niyomyat, A. (2015, May 7) More than 50 Thai police punished over human trafficking links. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/07/us-thailand-rohingya-trafficking-idUSKBN0NS0CN20150507

[2] Bintang, R. , Al-Zaquan, A.H. (2015, May 11) Hundreds of refugees arrive in Malaysia and Indonesia after Thai crackdown. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/05/11/us-indonesia-rohingya-idUSKBN0NV0PC20150511

Published On: June 10th, 2015 / Categories: Analyses, Social Media / Tags: , , , , , , /