The Barisan Nasional (BN) political coalition ruled Malaysia from independence in 1957 until 2018, maintaining power by manipulating electoral districts, appealing to ethnic nationalism, and suppressing criticism through restrictive speech laws and politicized prosecutions of opposition leaders. The BN lost to an opposition alliance in the May 2018 general elections. However, a period of political turbulence and realignment in early 2020 culminated in a new governing coalition that included parties central to the pre-2018 regime. The current government has been resistant to governance reforms, and there are escalating concerns about narrowing freedoms.
- The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government collapsed in February 2020 following turbulence that prompted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to resign. A week of political machinations and uncertainty concluded with the formation of a new coalition, the Perikatan Nasional (PN), led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
- In July, a Malaysian court sentenced former prime minister Najib Razak to 12 years in prison after finding him guilty of multiple counts of corruption and abuse of power related to the embezzlement of billions of dollars from state investment fund 1MDB.
- State officials invoked the COVID-19 pandemic to justify crackdowns on free speech and movement. Independent news outlets were often excluded from official COVID-19 briefings, parliamentary sessions, and other events of public interest as a purported safety precaution. Thousands of people were arrested for violating various pandemic-related movement restrictions, with migrant workers at times disproportionately targeted.
- Additionally, a number of journalists, activists, and others were charged during the year with sedition, defamation, or violation of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) for speech critical or perceived as critical of authorities.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The prime minister is the head of government and chief executive. Though formally appointed by the monarch, the authority of the prime minister and cabinet is based on the support of a majority in the lower house of Parliament. Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) was not elected through free and fair elections. Instead, he was appointed prime minister following Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation and the PPBM’s decision to leave the PH coalition in order to form the new PN coalition alongside the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Islamic Party (PAS), and smaller parties.
The monarch, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is elected for five-year terms by and from the hereditary rulers of 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states. Sultan Abdullah of Pahang was chosen as head of state in 2019, following the abdication of his predecessor.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The upper house of the bicameral Parliament, the Senate or Dewan Negara, consists of 44 members appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and 26 members elected by the 13 state legislatures, serving three-year terms. The Senate has limited power to amend or block legislation passed by the lower house. The House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat, has 222 seats filled through direct elections in single-member constituencies.
The PH victory in 2018 occurred despite lopsided electoral conditions that gave the BN significant advantages, such as gerrymandered and seriously malapportioned voting districts, weak regulation of campaign spending, and legal constraints on media independence and expressions of dissent.
The PN government that took power in 2020 is composed of the same parliamentary representatives elected in May 2018, but some parliamentarians changed parties following the coalition realignment. At the time Prime Minister Muhyiddin was sworn in in March, the PN ruling coalition and its supporting members of parliament collectively held 113 seats in the House of Representatives, compared to 109 seats held by the PH opposition coalition and its independent supporters. A federal by-election in January 2020 gave an additional parliamentary seat to UMNO, part of the PN coalition.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The Election Commission (EC), which administers elections and is responsible for voter rolls and the delineation of electoral boundaries, was seen as subservient to the government under the BN, with members appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister. The EC chairman appointed in 2018 under the PH government was considered a reformist, but following the takeover of the PN coalition in 2020, he resigned to become the parliamentary speaker. A new chairman was appointed in August 2020, while the other commissioners appointed by the PH in 2019 were not removed. In August 2020, an Electoral Reform Committee submitted a report containing 49 recommendations for revamping electoral laws, including the regulation of political party funding and replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation. Although action on the recommendations remained pending at year’s end, the government announced that in 2021 it would implement constitutional amendments lowering the voting age to 18 and establishing automatic voter registration.
Sabah state elections were held in September 2020. Election watchdog group Bersih noted widespread vote-buying efforts, but commended the EC’s administration of the balloting. However, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) noted insufficient adherence to sanitary protections, and campaigners returning from Sabah to the Kuala Lumpur area were cited by health officials as a trigger for the wave of COVID-19 cases that continued to rise at year’s end.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
The party system in Malaysia is diverse and competitive, but groups that challenged BN rule prior to 2018 often faced obstacles such as unequal access to the media, restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, and politicized prosecutions. The Registrar of Societies (ROS) oversees the registration of political parties and was known to issue politicized decisions under the BN government. Several opposition parties formed by PPBM defectors in 2020, including Mahathir’s new party, alleged in December that the ROS was stalling on registration approval.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Although opposition parties had long governed in a number of Malaysia’s states, the 2018 elections that brought the PH coalition to power represented the country’s first democratic transfer of power between rival political groups at the federal level since independence in 1957.
In 2019, the UMNO and PAS formed an opposition bloc; the PPBM joined them to form the core of the PN government following Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister in February 2020. This coalitional realignment produced a new government without an election, while the PH alliance returned to opposition status. In the September 2020 Sabah state elections, a coalition aligned with the PN federal government defeated the incumbent, PH-aligned state government.
Although the PN’s narrow majority spurred recurrent opposition claims that it had sufficient members of parliament to form a new government, the PN government successfully passed a 2021 budget in December, demonstrating the coalition’s continuing majority.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The military is not active in politics, and foreign powers do not directly meddle in domestic political affairs, though the BN’s increasingly close ties with China were a prominent issue in the 2018 election campaign. In 2020, the PN reverted to the version of a China-funded infrastructure megaproject that was negotiated by the BN but had been suspended and then altered by the PH.
During its decades in power, the BN built strong connections with Malaysia’s business elites and used these relationships to influence electoral outcomes, including through favorable coverage by mainstream private media and greater access to financial resources. Since returning to power in March 2020, parties within the PN coalition have used government-linked companies (GLCs), official monopolies for certain goods and services, and state investment vehicles for political purposes. In May, UMNO’s president stated explicitly that politicians were made heads of GLCs to ensure that PN government policies would be implemented.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Suffrage in Malaysia is universal for adult citizens. However, social and legal restrictions limit political participation among some minority groups. UMNO and the PAS are defenders of long-standing policies that favor the ethnic Malay and Muslim majority. The PN coalition featured minimal representation and participation of Chinese and Indian minorities, but did include representatives of ethnic groups from Sabah and Sarawak states, which are located on the island of Borneo.
Women’s interests remain significantly underrepresented in politics. The PN’s ministry in charge of women’s affairs offered misogynistic advice for women during the COVID-19 lockdown period, suggesting they maintain household harmony by wearing makeup and not nagging their husbands.
Sabah and Sarawak, which are home to distinct ethnic groups, have sought greater autonomy in recent years. States’ natural resource rights have been increasingly recognized, and national oil company Petronas paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sarawak government in September 2020.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
While elected officials determine and implement government policy, the unfair electoral framework has historically weakened their legitimacy. Decision-making power has typically been concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his close advisers.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
High-level corruption was a critical weakness of the BN government, and former prime minister Najib Razak’s efforts to avoid accountability for the 1MDB scandal damaged the country’s anticorruption mechanisms more generally. Najib and his successor as UMNO leader, former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, were arrested in 2018 and indicted for numerous corruption-related offenses.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) launched a National Anti-Corruption Plan under the PH. Although the PN government committed to carrying out the plan, observers questioned the government’s political will to implement it. Several high-profile corruption cases were dropped in 2020, including dozens of timber concessions-related graft charges against former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman, and the 1MDB-related charges against Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz. However, Najib was convicted in July 2020 on seven counts of criminal breach of trust, money laundering, and abuse of power. He received a total sentence of 42 years in prison, but the most severe charge carried a 12-year term, with the rest served concurrently. A prolonged appeals process was expected to follow; Najib also faced a series of additional trials on related charges.
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, published in November 2020, showed that two-thirds of those surveyed thought the government was doing a good job at fighting corruption, though 40 percent of Malaysians felt that corruption had increased in the previous 12 months, and 13 percent had paid a bribe in the preceding year.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
A lack of independent oversight regarding state-affiliated companies and investment funds has long created conditions conducive to corruption. Efforts towards enacting a freedom of information act and other reforms stalled after the PN government took power.
Although the government was initially open and transparent regarding Malaysia’s COVID-19 status and the state’s response, observers faulted the government’s data transparency as the late-year coronavirus wave accelerated. In addition, no legislative action on economic stimulus occurred until Parliament convened in May, and no debate was permitted during the parliamentary session. The government made its pandemic-related financial expenditures public, but there was no external review of spending.
|Are there free and independent media?
Prior to the 2018 elections, most private news publications and television stations were controlled by political parties or businesses allied with the BN, and state news outlets similarly reflected government views. The market began to change after the PH took power, as independent outlets benefited from a reduction in political pressure and harassment. The PH pledged to reform restrictive media laws, and in 2019 it achieved repeal of the 2018 Anti-Fake News Act, but several problematic laws remained in force at the end of its tenure.
A draft bill on the establishment of a Malaysian Media Council that would encourage both media freedom and press accountability remained pending at year’s end. Press freedom watchdog group Article 19 noted that the draft failed to clarify the relationship between the prospective Media Council and the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which monitors websites and can order the removal of material considered provocative or subversive. A 2012 amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act holds owners and editors of websites, providers of web-hosting services, and owners of computers or mobile devices accountable for information published through their services or property.
The change of government in March 2020 brought increased government pressure on private media. State officials invoked the COVID-19 pandemic to justify the exclusion of independent outlets from official COVID-19 briefings, parliamentary sessions, and other events of public interest. The government also initiated investigations and prosecutions of multiple reporters and outlets for alleged crimes including sedition, defamation, and violations of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). In August, the police raided the office of international news outlet Al-Jazeera and two local broadcasters in Kuala Lumpur as part of its investigation into an Al-Jazeera documentary that included footage of law enforcement raids targeting migrants in Malaysia during the pandemic. Additional state actions criticized by press freedom advocates were the investigation of an editor of an online health news portal who allegedly violated the Official Secrets Act by reporting the findings of an independent inquiry into a hospital fire, and the filing of contempt of court charges against online news outlet Malaysiakini and one of its editors for hosting reader comments that allegedly insulted the judiciary.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to increased government pressure on private media, including law enforcement actions in response to critical coverage and the government’s use of the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to prevent independent outlets from covering key events.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
While Malaysia is religiously diverse, legal provisions restrict religious freedom. Ethnic Malays are constitutionally defined as Muslim and are not entitled to renounce their faith. The powerful Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) has played a central role in shaping and enforcing the practice of Islam in Malaysia, and state-level authorities perform their own enforcement functions. Muslim children and civil servants are required to receive religious education using government-approved curriculums and instructors. Practicing a version of Islam other than Sunni Islam is prohibited, and Shiites and other sects face discrimination. More than 30 people were arrested for practicing Shia Islam in the states of Selangor and Johor during 2019.
Non-Muslims are not able to build houses of worship as easily as Muslims, and the state retains the right to demolish unregistered religious statues and houses of worship. In 2018, a dispute over the relocation of a Hindu temple triggered rioting, with assailants allegedly linked to a property developer storming the temple and beating worshippers.
Strict regulations were established for places of worship during the pandemic, and foreigners were not allowed to attend services.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
There is some degree of academic freedom in Malaysia. Under the BN government, instructors and students who espoused antigovernment views or engaged in political activity were subject to disciplinary action under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971. Under the PH government in 2018, Parliament amended the UUCA to allow students to engage in political activity on campus.
The government continues to control appointments of top officials at public universities; in 2018 the PH education minister, Maszlee Malik, organized the replacement of several university chairmen who had been installed by the BN. Maszlee himself was appointed as president of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, but he resigned that post in January 2019 following protests. The PH government was seeking to abolish the UUCA when the government changed hands in 2020, and the PN government announced that the law would remain in force.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
The PH government’s initial statements and initiatives created a more open environment for public discussion of issues that had previously been considered off limits. However, the government did not fulfill a promise to repeal the Sedition Act, and other restrictive laws, including criminal prohibitions on blasphemy, remained in place, impeding individual expression on sensitive political and religious topics.
In May 2020, the government announced it would pursue legal action against people who disseminate supposed fake news related to COVID-19 under laws including the Sedition Act, the Penal Code, and the CMA; at least 270 such cases had been opened by October.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly can be limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. In 2019 Parliament amended the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act, reducing the mandatory police notification period from 10 days to 7 days before the planned event, among other changes. However, the law still imposed criminal penalties for violations, lacked provisions to allow spontaneous assemblies, banned those under age 21 from organizing an assembly, and prohibited participation by minors and noncitizens. While demonstrations are often held in practice, police continue to enforce such restrictions and investigate participants in allegedly illegal protests. In 2020, the government used COVID-19 restrictions to press charges against hospital union activists who picketed alleged mistreatment of hospital workers.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
A wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Malaysia, and they have a strong record of campaigning for electoral, anticorruption, and other reforms. However, NGOs must be approved and registered by the government, which has refused or revoked registrations for political reasons in the past. Some international human rights organizations have been forbidden from forming local branches. Numerous individual activists remained subject to police harassment and criminal charges—particularly for speech-related offenses—under both the PH and PN governments.
Following the accession of the PN government in March 2020, a number of activists were subjected to criminal investigation under the CMA. In June the government opened an investigation of prominent activist Cynthia Gabriel for a public letter criticizing the manner of the PN coalition’s accession to power. Another activist was investigated under the Peaceful Assembly Act for urging citizens to protest against the PN government.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Most Malaysian workers can join trade unions, but the law contravenes international guidelines by restricting unions to representing workers in a single or similar trade. The director general of trade unions can refuse or withdraw registration arbitrarily. Collective bargaining rights are limited, particularly in designated high-priority industries, as is the right to strike.
A new labor law passed in 2019 shifted some discretionary powers from the minister for human resources to the director general of industrial relations and replaced the penalty of imprisonment for illegal strikes with higher fines, among other changes. The Malaysia Trade Union Congress (MTUC) objected to the measure, arguing that its provisions allowing rival unions to compete for sole bargaining rights at a workplace would effectively empower employers and their preferred unions. The ROS suspended the MTUC and threatened it with deregistration over allegations of mismanagement in December 2019; the suspension was lifted in January 2020, and the organization advocated for workers’ economic and health rights throughout the year.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Judicial independence has historically been compromised by extensive executive influence, with courts frequently issuing arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts in high-profile cases. However, a series of judicial appointments in 2018 and 2019 improved confidence in the independence of the higher courts and prospects for reform. In May 2019, Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat became the first woman to hold the chief justice post at the Federal Court, and she continued to emphasize anticorruption and efficiency-enhancing reforms in 2020.
The July 2020 guilty verdict in former prime minister Najib Razak’s corruption trial signaled a degree of judicial independence. Conversely, allegations of misconduct by senior judges prompted SUHAKAM to reiterate previous calls for the formation of a royal commission of inquiry during the year.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Several existing laws undermine due process guarantees. The 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act allows police to detain anyone for up to 28 days without judicial review for broadly defined “security offenses,” and suspects may be held for 48 hours before being granted access to a lawyer. It was renewed for another five years in 2017. Also that year, lawmakers amended the Prevention of Crime Act—a law ostensibly aimed at combating organized crime—to revoke detainees’ right to address the government-appointed Prevention of Crime Board, which is empowered to order the detention of individuals listed by the Home Ministry for renewable two-year terms without trial or legal representation. The 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act, together with the National Security Council (NSC) Act from the same year, gives the NSC—led by the prime minister—wide powers of arrest, search, and seizure without a warrant in areas deemed as security risks and in the context of countering terrorism. The PH government proposed the formation of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, but in 2020 the PN government introduced a bill that would establish a weaker version with little independent authority.
Malaysia’s secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia (Islamic law), the interpretation of which varies by state, and the constitution’s Article 121 stipulates that all matters related to Islam should be heard in Sharia courts. This results in different treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims in “moral” and family law cases.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Torture and abuse in police custody remain problems, and prisons are often overcrowded and unsafe. A number of criminal offenses can be punished with caning, including immigration violations.
The death penalty can be applied in Malaysia for numerous offenses; most of the roughly 1,300 people facing execution in Malaysian prisons were convicted under the country’s harsh laws on drug trafficking. Despite imposing a moratorium on executions in 2018, the PH government announced in 2019 that it would retain the death penalty but seek to end its mandatory application for certain offenses. Movement toward reform stalled in 2020, as the PN government declined to push legislative changes and refused to publicly release the findings of a death penalty review committee established in 2019.
The Malaysian government initially received credit during the COVID-19 pandemic for pledging not to jail people for violating movement restrictions. However, a policy shift resulted in thousands of individuals being arrested, detained, and prosecuted for alleged breaches of the movement control order, and rights groups characterized the social distancing protocols at jails as insufficient. As of the end of July, over 21,000 people had been arrested and charged in court for violations of movement restrictions.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, it grants a “special position” to ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, known collectively as bumiputera. The government maintains programs intended to boost the economic status of bumiputera, who receive preferential treatment in areas including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, business affairs, and government contracts.
Women are placed at a disadvantage by a number of laws, particularly Sharia-related provisions. They are legally barred from certain occupations and work schedules, and they suffer from de facto discrimination in employment.
LGBT+ Malaysians face widespread discrimination and harassment. Same-sex sexual relations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison under the penal code, though this is generally not enforced. Some states apply their own penalties to Muslims under Sharia statutes. Transgender people can also be punished under state-level Sharia laws. In November 2019, five men in the state of Selangor were sentenced to fines, up to seven months in prison, and six cane strokes for “attempted” same-sex sexual activity following a police raid on a private event. LGBT+ advocates reported that during the COVID-19 lockdown, law enforcement agents engaged in harassment based on individuals’ perceived sexual orientation. In April, a viral social media post claimed that COVID-19 was divine punishment for the rise in LGBT+ people and associated “immoral” acts.
Migrant workers and refugees do not enjoy effective legal protections, and individuals in these communities experienced discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. Routine mistreatment of Rohingya asylum seekers and a government crackdown on undocumented migrants in May were harshly criticized by human rights organizations and a group of United Nations experts.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Citizens are generally free to travel within and outside of Malaysia, as well as to change residence and employment. However, professional opportunities and access to higher education are affected by regulations and practices that favor bumiputera and those with connections to political elites. Although the practice is illegal, employers of migrant workers commonly hold their passports, preventing them from leaving abusive situations. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a series of movement restrictions of varying intensity throughout 2020, with thousands of arrests for violating the law.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Malaysia has a vibrant private sector. Bribery, however, is common in the business world, and the close nexus between political and economic elites distorts normal business activity and fair competition. Some laws pertaining to property and business differentiate between bumiputera and non-bumiputera, and Sharia-based inheritance rules for Muslims often favor men over women.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
While some personal social freedoms are protected, Muslims face legal restrictions on marriage partners and other social choices. Societal pressures may also regulate dress and appearance, especially among Malay women. Sharia courts often favor men in matters of divorce and child custody. The minimum age for marriage is generally 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but Sharia courts in some states allow younger people to marry, and child marriage is a common occurrence. Although the PH government attempted to raise the minimum age to 18 for Muslims and non-Muslims of both genders, only one state did so by the end of 2019. Reports of domestic violence increased substantially during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Rural residents and foreign workers, especially those working illegally, are vulnerable to exploitative or abusive working conditions, including forced labor or debt bondage. Foreign workers make up over a fifth of the country’s workforce; about two million are documented, and estimates of the undocumented range from two million to more than four million. The authorities’ periodic crackdowns on illegal foreign workers can result in punishment rather than protection for victims of human trafficking. Investigations into forced labor in Malaysia’s palm oil industry resulted in several large companies being barred from shipping to the United States in 2020.
In 2020, the government initially offered medical assistance to undocumented migrant workers, but then reversed course and engaged in a series of immigration raids, while blocking migrants and asylum seekers from aid programs.
There have been no convictions of Malaysians for involvement in a network of human trafficking camps along the Thai-Malaysian border since the sites were discovered in 2015. The camps included mass graves holding the bodies of dozens of victims, and corrupt Malaysian officials were thought to have been complicit in the operation.
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Global Freedom Score53 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score61 100 partly free