Suspicious psychology

Are conspiracy theorists misguided – or onto something?

From Vietnam’s secret powers and the Jewish plot for world domination to the calculated spread of HIV, the conspiracy theory is alive and well in Southeast Asia. The thing is, some experts say they might not be as fanciful as we imagine

Written By:
February 18, 2016
Are conspiracy theorists misguided – or onto something?
Tensions alight: Cambodian Buddhist monks burn Vietnamese flags in Phnom Penh. Photo: Pring Samrang

On a warm Thursday in October 2003, hundreds of Malaysians packed into a convention centre in the administrative capital of Putrajaya. They had gathered for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s annual summit, and onstage the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, delivered the summit’s keynote speech.

After the obligatory flattery of the organisers, he exclaimed: “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews”.

What followed next surprised the few Western journalists covering the event. “[Jews] invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong,” Mahathir continued. “With these, they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power. We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also.”

Britain’s Daily Telegraph described Mahathir as “an angry old antisemite”. Slate magazine called his words “casual antisemitism”. The Star of Malaysia, however, dismissed the Western media coverage, saying it had presented the comments “like a bad jigsaw picture that overshadowed the summit’s call for unity and world peace”.

There were many opinions as to why Mahathir made such comments but, according to Viren Swami, it was simply part of a grand Malaysian conspiracy theory. The professor of social psychology at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University is Malaysian by birth and among the few academics to have studied the psychology of conspiracy theories.

“In Malaysia, antisemitism is really obvious,” said Swami. “People will say: ‘Hitler is a wonderful guy,’ and you can walk into any bookshop and buy books written by prominent politicians about the Jewish conspiracy. It’s almost a mainstream view.”

Borrowing heavily from European antisemitism – hence the wide availability of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Malaysia – there is a belief that Jews are plotting global domination and conspiring to take over Malaysia, according to Swami, who published a 2012 study of the conspiracy that highlights differing opinions over its roots.

Some say that Malaysian antisemitism transposes Jewish people for the Chinese. “It’s a way of saying: ‘We don’t like Chinese people and… their economic power over Malays. But I can’t say that explicitly because it’s against the law, so I’ll evoke the Jews,’” Swami explained.

Conspiracy theories in Southeast Asia
Vocal: demonstrators in Malaysia shout anti-Jewish slogans. Photo: Andy Wong

Others contend that when Malaysians say Jews are plotting to take over their country they genuinely mean Jews. However, Swami said this would be “weird”, given the lack of a large Jewish population in Malaysia, and that it is likely a belief imported from the Middle East.

Swami himself argues that the antisemitic conspiracy is a political tool used by the ruling party to hang on to power. “It’s not something that has developed organically from the bottom up,” he said. “The state uses the conspiracy theory to back up its power. It says: ‘There’s a Jewish conspiracy against us Muslims, so us Muslims have to keep together and work together.’ This gives credence to a government that is politically weak or under pressure, [like the ruling party has been] during the past five or six years.”

A relatively large hindrance: when considering the existence of such beliefs, many people’s minds jump almost automatically to the US. There is a common assumption that such ideas only occupy the suspicious minds of Westerners, typically Americans – after all, a third of US citizens are said to believe that their government is lying about aliens landing on earth – and this means that very little research has focused on Southeast Asian conspiracy theories. Yet most countries in the region seem to have their own unconventional explanations for significant events and circumstances.

When a rumour went around Phnom Penh in 1998 that the Vietnamese were poisoning the water, three Vietnamese nationals were killed in the Cambodian capital the very same day. In one instance not far from the French embassy, an angry mob set upon a man and his wife with sticks and stones and proceeded to beat the couple to death.

When a rumour went around Phnom Penh in 1998 that the Vietnamese were poisoning the water, three Vietnamese were killed

In February 2014, a Vietnamese man was killed in Phnom Penh after a traffic argument escalated into a mob attack. This may or may not be linked to a conspiracy theory that is widely believed in the Kingdom.

“The claim is that the Vietnamese control Cambodia directly through [the prime minister] Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party,” said Sebastian Strangio, journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

The roots of this theory can be traced back centuries, but it was strengthened irrevocably in 1979 when Vietnamese forces liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and took de-facto control of the country for the best part of a decade.

“For people who adhere to [the idea], the flipside is that of Cambodian innocence,” Strangio said. There is a surprising number of Cambodians, for example, who believe it was the Vietnamese who were responsible for many crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. And such beliefs are propagated by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for political gain.

“The CNRP has built its political appeal directly upon this fault line on the issue of Vietnam,” Strangio said. “This is the main political card the opposition has to play, and it has been Hun Sen’s greatest vulnerability.”

While conspiracy theorists were once written off as paranoid and delusional, in recent years more nuanced understandings have emerged. One theory, which Swami subscribes to, is that such beliefs can stem from a feeling of alienation from society.

“The main thing is that [conspiracy theories] restore agency, meaning that people don’t have to be powerless or voiceless,” Swami said. As he wrote in his 2012 study, Malaysia’s antisemitic conspiracy theory has been “fuelled by a sense of Muslim victimhood and defeat”.

And Cambodian theories about Vietnam are, in many ways, simply another side of the same coin, borne out of “concern about the decline of Cambodia; how far the country has ‘fallen’ from the glories of the Angkorian period. Vietnam has come to stand as a symbol of Cambodian decline,” according to Strangio.

Some experts argue that conspiracy theories do have positive effects, such as encouraging people to question authority, which, in turn, could necessitate greater transparency. However, this often leads to a “wrong conclusion, one not based on fact. Most have that same path: going from questioning to drawing a conclusion that lacks evidence,” said Swami.

But there is one more theory. One that is quite controversial. Maybe, it says, there is a modicum of truth behind some conspiracy theories.

“Yes, precisely. More than a modicum,” said Leslie Butt, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria, Canada. For 15 years she has studied local beliefs in Indonesia’s Papua province and, in 2013, published a study looking into the widely held theory that the Indonesian government sent sex workers infected with HIV to the province to eliminate the indigenous population. She believes that this conspiracy theory demonstrates an awareness of inconsistencies in the administration of HIV-prevention policies and how the Indonesian government has disenfranchised local populations.

“A brave report came out at a governmental level just a few years ago. It finally looked at HIV patterns along the lines of self-ascribed ethnicity in the province,” Butt said. “As expected, HIV is much more prevalent among Papuans than non-Papuans. Healthcare is politics by other means.”

She added that there remains a possibility that “conspiratorial thinking is on the rise because conspiratorial forms of political rule are on the rise… political conditions of inequality, and political practice of those in government, together create the rise in conspiracies”.

Conspiracy theories in Southeast Asia
Protest: Indonesians hold placards accusing former US president George W. Bush of terrorism. Photo: Bay Ismoyo

Theories about governments conspiring to introduce HIV into communities are widespread. A 2003 study by Rand Corp and Oregon State University found that 26.6% of African-Americans surveyed believed that AIDS was produced in a US government laboratory, and 15.2% believed that the disease is a form of genocide against black people.

Several pieces of research have found that African-Americans are more likely than Caucasians to believe conspiracy theories, particularly those in which the US government is the conspirator.

Psychologist Rob Brotherton wrote in his book, Suspicious Minds, that black Americans do have more reason than most for what he called “prudent paranoia” – a rational distrust of authority – particularly when it comes to their health and autonomy.

Similarly, Southeast Asians, many of whom suffered under colonial rule, may have good reason to harbour “prudent paranoia” about Western interests.

“Some Indonesian Muslims believe in theories that the West has masterminded, and therefore been accountable for, a series of terrorist attacks in Indonesia,” explained Ali Mashuri, a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam, who has studied anti-West conspiracy theories in Indonesia. “The more that Indonesian Muslims perceive the West as either symbolically or realistically threatening Islamic existence, the more they believe in anti-West conspiracy theories concerning terrorism in Indonesia.”

He added that conspiracy theories often arise in a context where people believe certain changes are undermining the existence of a race, religion, community or other group.

“Globalisation bears within it new norms and values that might radically contradict the old norms and values,” he said. “Globalisation, therefore, could pose a threat to the continuity of people’s traditions. People across the globe are prone to experience such a perceived threat, especially those who are deeply concerned with preserving those traditions.”From Cambodia’s supposed subjugation by Vietnam to the perceived threat of HIV-carrying prostitutes dispatched to Papua, threads of alienation, decline, nationhood and race are weaved inextricably throughout Southeast Asia’s very own conspiracy theories. Perhaps, given the region’s history, that should come as no surprise.

“[The Papuan HIV theory] is clearly associated with colonialism and of the observed intrusion, appropriation, genocide and disempowerment enacted by outsiders,” said Butt. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see this.”

Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Simplicity. That is one suggestion for why people believe in conspiracy theories. The reality of geopolitics and global events may be too complex for some to comprehend, and humans tend to prefer simple narratives with easy-to-understand explanations. As the historian Kathryn Olmsted put it in her book, Real Enemies: “Conspiracy theories are easy ways of telling complicated stories”.

Not everyone agrees. The psychologist Rob Brotherton countered this argument in his book, Suspicious Minds, by turning this suggestion on its head, calling it an “oversimplified explanation” and offering an alternative explanation.

“Conspiracy thinking is a product of psychological quirks that are built into everyone’s brain,” he writes. It turns out that we are all slaves to a number of innate cognitive biases. Proportionality bias is one. When something big happens, such as the 9/11 attacks, we tend to think that something big must have caused it. It couldn’t just be the work of a few individuals. Intentionality bias is another. It assumes that everything happens in the world because someone wanted it to. But the most prevailing of our biases is confirmation bias, a tendency to search out or interpret information that confirms our existing beliefs.

Three other Southeast Asian conspiracy theories
The Finland Plot

In 2006, the Thai media mogul and leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, Sondhi Limthongkul, started a rumour that the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the student leaders of the 1970s democratic movement had met in Finland in 1999 as part of a plot to overthrow the Thai King and instigate a republic. One year later, Thaksin was ousted by the military.


Was the Malaysia Airlines plane accidently shot down during a military training exercise, hijacked by terrorists, flown north not south in the ‘shadow’ of another plane or, as posited by Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, did the CIA have something to do with its disappearance? Others have suggested the woeful lyrics of Pitbull and Shakira’s 2012 hit “Get It Started” included a cryptic message about who was behind it.

Who killed Aquino?

Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr, a senator and a leading opponent of Ferdinand Marcos, was shot dead in 1983 immediately after exiting a plane on his return to the Philippines from exile. The official story was that a Communist hitman named Rolando Galman was the killer – Galman was gunned down moments after the assassination. Today, people still question whether it was the CIA, the head of the Philippine armed forces or even Ninoy’s own wife who actually ordered the hit.

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