‘Mediocre scholar’: Anwar’s swipe at US professor claiming Malaysia backs another Holocaust

Bruce Gilley, Portland State University professor, left alleging Malaysia was unsafe but U.S. embassy refuted that claim.
Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
‘Mediocre scholar’: Anwar’s swipe at US professor claiming Malaysia backs another Holocaust Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (center) gestures at a pro-Palestine rally in Kuala Lumpur amid Israel’s air and ground assault on Gaza after militant outfit Hamas killed more than 1,100 people in an attack on southern Israel, Oct. 24, 2023.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Friday brushed off an American professor as a “mediocre scholar” after the academic controversially claimed that the country backed another Holocaust.

Bruce Gilley, a Portland State University professor, ignited a firestorm on social media after a lecture in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday during which he denigrated Malaysia and its place in international relations and accused its leaders of supporting a “second Holocaust against the Jewish people.”  

At an event on Friday, reporters asked Anwar about the controversy. Three days after the professor’s lecture, Gilley was still the target of a fusillade of put-downs by Malaysians on social media. 

“Mediocre scholars should not be brought in as visiting professors in the first place,” the PM, an unapologetic critic of Israel, told reporters.

He added that anything else that needed to be said or done had been taken care of by the country’s higher education ministry.

Gilley is a professor of political science, according to the website of Portland State University in Oregon. He is a specialist on the comparative politics of China and Asia and his research is focused on democracy and global politics, among other subjects, the website says.

He was invited to give three lectures and a keynote address as part of a visiting professor program in the international studies department at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. 

On the social media site X (once called Twitter), he posted a sentence from his keynote address on Malaysia’s foreign policy delivered Tuesday and titled “Will Malaysia Become an Active Middle Power?”

“A country whose political leaders advocate a second Holocaust against the Jewish people will never be a serious player in world affairs and will certainly never be a friend or partner of the U.S,” he posted late on Tuesday.

The post spread rapidly on X, as appalled Malaysians expressed disbelief, at first, and then ridiculed Gilley for what they said was his lack of knowledge.

As the controversy raged, the higher education ministry ordered Universiti Malaya late Wednesday to cancel all Gilley’s events, which it did – the institution later apologized as well.

Bruce Gilley, Portland State University professor, delivers a lecture at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, April 23, 2024. [Via X/BruceDGilley]

Gilley then claimed to have deleted his post, although he made that claim in another post that carried a screenshot of the earlier one with the controversial sentence.

He said the quote reflected his personal views and that he regretted any distress caused to colleagues at the Kuala Lumpur institution.

That wasn’t the end of the controversy.

Early on Thursday, Gilley announced, again on X, that he had left the country.

“I have safely departed from Malaysia, one step ahead of the Islamo-fascist mob whipped up by the government there. This is not a safe country to travel to now. Updates to follow,” he wrote.

There were no media reports about mobs forming in response to the professor’s posts.

However, there was plenty of evidence that Gilley had annoyed Malaysians and those living in Malaysia even more. 

University of Nottingham Malaysia academic Bridget Welsh was one of those people.

“Malaysia is a safe/hospitable country,” Welsh said in a post on X. 

Minister of Higher Education Zambry Abdul Kadir said Gilley’s comments were “dangerous.”

“This is not about curbing academic freedom but we question the rude comments made by a visitor about the country’s security, our stand, our image,” he told reporters on Friday after an event.

“We are not contemplating taking any form of action against him. Why did he run away and make another statement saying that the situation is not safe?” the minister asked.

Gilley did not immediately respond to BenarNews emails requesting comment.

The United States Embassy found itself caught in the middle of the controversy when media, including BenarNews, reached out to officials to ask about safety in Malaysia.

The embassy’s public affairs officer said Malaysia is a safe place to travel.

“There has been no change to the U.S. travel advisory for Malaysia which remains at Level 1, the lowest level out of four,” said the officer who is not cleared to speak to the media and asked to remain anonymous.

Israeli police arrest a peace activist who joined members of the group “Rabbis for Ceasefire” during a march toward the border with northern Gaza Strip to call for a permanent ceasefire, April 26, 2024. [Jack Guez/AFP]

Gilley is no stranger to controversy. 

In 2017, the Third World Quarterly journal published his paper titled “The Case for Colonialism.”

The journal later retracted it after 15 board members resigned in protest and a petition on Change.org signed by more than 10,000 people called for its retraction, according to The Retraction Watch, a blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers and on related topics.

The beginning of the abstract of Gilley’s paper said the following: 

 “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy,” it said, according to Retraction Watch.

“Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found using realistic measures of those concepts.”

No diplomatic ties

While Muslim-majority Malaysia does not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state of Israel, and is a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, Gilley had misrepresented the Southeast Asian nation’s stance, said Amira Aisya Abd Aziz,  from the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, a youth-based liberal Malaysian party.

Malaysia has consistently advocated for a two-state solution as Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, but the statements by Gilley, whose header picture on X is that of an Israeli flag, is “absolutely misleading and unacceptable,” Amira Asiya said on the social media site.

“His statements are falsely depicting Malaysia’s aim and goals towards peace for an independent Palestine state. We have never advocated for a second Holocaust,” she said.

“In fact, it is the Zionist government of Israel that is currently committing genocide at this very moment. Academic institutions should be very careful in inviting speakers and lecturers who are spreading pro-Zionists narratives,” she added.

Israel’s ground and air strikes have killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants killed more than 1,100 people in an attack on southern Israel. Most countries around the world have called for a ceasefire, saying the Jewish state’s response has been disproportionate.

Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia, did not mince words in expressing her disapproval of Gilley’s comments.

“Strongly disagree w[ith]/views that misrepresent [and] reflect a gross lack of knowledge of Malaysia, her policies/people. … Public outrage justified,” she said.

“Scholars should promote understanding, not cause harm, and [should] express differences responsibly.”


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