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 2018 general elections, and political affairs have since been characterized by a more complex pattern of competition and cooperation among multiple coalitions, creating opportunities for reform and modest improvements to civil liberties.
- Former prime minister Najib Razak began serving a 12-year prison sentence in August, after the country’s highest court rejected his final appeal. He had been convicted in 2020 on charges related to the embezzlement of billions of dollars from a state development fund, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
- General elections were held in November, and the resulting Parliament was divided between several multiparty coalitions. Following protracted negotiations, four of the blocs formed a governing alliance, with longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) serving as prime minister.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||2.002 4.004|
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. Anwar Ibrahim of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and its PH coalition became prime minister in November 2022, after that month’s general elections. He replaced Ismail Sabri Yaakob of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party of the BN coalition, who had held the post since 2021.
The monarch, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is elected for five-year terms by and from among 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?||2.002 4.004|
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, consists of 222 members who are directly elected in individual constituencies.
Lower house elections, last held in 2018, were conducted ahead of schedule in November 2022. Prime Minister Ismail triggered the early polls after the BN performed well in Johor State elections in March, arguing that he needed a more stable majority to govern. The electoral system continued to be affected by chronic problems including gerrymandered and malapportioned voting districts, weak campaign-spending regulations, and legal constraints on media independence, but the results reflected ongoing turmoil in the multiparty system.
The opposition PH emerged as the largest bloc with 82 seats, despite losing ground overall. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin (2020–21), more than doubled its representation to place second with 74 seats. The BN fell sharply to just 30 seats, followed by the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) with 23, the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) with 6, and the Parti Warisan with 3. Smaller parties and independents collected the remainder.
Anwar’s PH ultimately formed a governing alliance with the BN, the GPS, the GRS, and a number of smaller groups, leaving the PN in opposition.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
The Election Commission (EC), which administers elections and is responsible for voter rolls and the delineation of electoral boundaries, was long seen as subservient to the government, with members appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister. Changes in its personnel and in the government itself since 2018 have led to some perceived gains in the EC’s transparency and independence, and constitutional amendments that lowered the voting age to 18 and established automatic voter registration took effect in December 2021. However, no other major reforms to the electoral framework—such as measures to address its heavy gerrymandering and malapportionment—had been adopted as of 2022.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
The Malaysian party system is diverse and competitive, but factions in the opposition have faced unequal access to the media, restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, and politicized prosecutions. The Registrar of Societies (ROS), which is overseen by the home minister, manages the registration of political parties and has issued partisan decisions under BN, PH, and PN governments.
However, the relatively fluid political situation in recent years, with no bloc firmly in control, has allowed the emergence of new parties and stoked greater competition overall. A record number of candidates participated in the 2022 general elections, and many constituencies had multiple viable candidates instead of one-on-one contests.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to the formation of new parties in recent years and increased competition among parties in the 2022 elections.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Although opposition parties have long governed in a number of Malaysia’s states, the 2018 elections that brought the PH to power represented the country’s first democratic transfer of power between rival political groups at the federal level since independence.
In 2020, coalition realignments led to the formation of the PN, while the PH returned to opposition status. In August 2021, the PN’s prime minister, Muhyiddin, resigned after losing his parliamentary majority. The PH came close to returning to power, but Ismail Sabri of the BN succeeded Muhyiddin with a majority that largely resembled the previous one.
The PH maintained significant influence despite its opposition status for much of 2022, owing to the Ismail Sabri government’s slim majority. The PH’s victory in the general elections reinforced the system’s openness to rotations of power, though it remained unclear whether the new coalition government would survive a full term in office.
|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?||2.002 4.004|
The military is not active in politics, and foreign states do not directly meddle in domestic political affairs. However, the BN maintained close ties with China while it was in power.
During its decades in government, the BN also built strong connections with Malaysia’s business elites and used these relationships to influence electoral outcomes. The PN government similarly used state-linked companies, official monopolies for certain goods and services, and state investment vehicles for political purposes.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||2.002 4.004|
Suffrage is universal for adult citizens, but social and legal restrictions limit political participation among some minority groups. Parties including UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) are defenders of long-standing policies that favor the ethnic Malay and Muslim majority. The Malaysian Chinese Association has attracted support from among the ethnic Chinese community—which makes up 21 percent of the country’s population—and has traditionally supported the BN, though other, multiethnic parties compete for support from this group. Ethnic Indians account for 6 percent of the population and also have a presence in Parliament through various parties. The PN features minimal representation of and participation by Chinese and Indian Malaysians but does include representatives of ethnic groups from the states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are located on the island of Borneo. Representation for the country’s Indigenous groups remains poor.
Women continued to be underrepresented in politics in 2022, accounting for less than 18 percent of the new cabinet and 14 percent of the lower house of Parliament. Harsh discrimination and criminal restrictions on same-sex sexual relations make it extremely difficult for LGBT+ Malaysians to publicly advocate for their political interests.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
While elected officials determine and implement government policy, an 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.
Elected lawmakers were unable to fulfill their functions for much of 2021, as Prime Minister Muhyiddin had imposed a COVID-19-related state of emergency in January that allowed him to rule by decree. Parliament and state legislatures were suspended, as were elections, and opposition lawmakers accused Muhyiddin of using the emergency declaration to avoid a no-confidence vote. Parliament was reconvened that July, while the state of emergency expired at the beginning of August. There was no repetition of the tactic during 2022, and Parliament was not dissolved until October, ahead of the general elections.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because there was no recurrence in 2022 of the previous year’s seven-month suspension of Parliament and state legislatures.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is responsible for fighting corruption. While successful prosecutions have been on the rise in recent years, corruption in government and state-owned enterprises is still considered endemic.
In August 2022, former BN prime minister Najib Razak was sent to prison after the Federal Court upheld his 12-year sentence for offenses linked to the 1MDB corruption and fraud scandal. He had originally been arrested in 2018 and convicted in 2020. Rosmah Mansor, Najib’s wife, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 2022 for soliciting and receiving bribes; she filed an appeal and remained free at year’s end. Also in September, the High Court acquitted UMNO president and former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of some corruption charges, though others were still pending. He later returned to the post of deputy prime minister in Anwar’s cabinet.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
A lack of independent oversight regarding state-affiliated companies and investment funds has long created conditions conducive to corruption. Efforts to pass a freedom of information act and other transparency-related reforms have stalled in recent years.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
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 liberalized after the PH took power that year, as independent outlets benefited from a reduction in political pressure and harassment. The subsequent PN government placed more pressure on the media, excluding independent outlets from events of public interest.
Despite some efforts at reform, a number of restrictive media laws remain in place, including civil and criminal defamation statutes. The amended 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, exposing them to punitive fines and encouraging self-censorship.
In September 2022, authorities filed criminal defamation charges against journalists with The Edge media group for a report on market manipulation. Also that month, reports emerged of alleged political interference in the appointment of a major English-language daily’s group editor.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||1.001 4.004|
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. Individuals seeking to convert from Islam have sometimes faced apostasy charges. Those seeking to leave the faith also risk discrimination and threats.
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.
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.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||2.002 4.004|
There is some degree of academic freedom in Malaysia. However, under the pre-2018 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. In 2018, the PH government amended the UUCA to allow students to engage in political activity on campus, but plans to abolish the UUCA entirely were dropped under the subsequent PN government. Post-2018 governments have continued to control appointments of top officials at public universities.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
While private discussion is robust, individual expression on sensitive political and religious topics is impeded by the penal code and legislation including the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act. In April 2022, for example, graphic artist Fahmi Reza was arrested and investigated under the Sedition Act for a satirical drawing that appeared to criticize one of Malaysia’s monarchs.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of assembly can be limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. The Peaceful Assembly Act requires advance notice to police of planned events, imposes criminal penalties for violations, lacks provisions to allow spontaneous assemblies, bans those under age 21 from organizing an assembly, and prohibits participation by minors and noncitizens. While demonstrations are often held in practice, police continue to enforce restrictions and investigate participants in allegedly illegal protests.
In August 2022, the secretary-general of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance party was charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act for organizing a protest against a mismanaged naval procurement project, and several others associated with the demonstration were questioned by police.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
A wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Malaysia and 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. Numerous activists have been subjected to police harassment and criminal charges—particularly for speech-related offenses—under successive governments.
In March 2022, activists from the human rights organization Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) and the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH) were summoned by police over a protest against the proposed Independent Police Conduct Commission, and in April representatives of the NGO Lawyers for Liberty were similarly questioned after their protest against the death penalty outside the Singaporean embassy.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
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. Some private employers engage in antiunion activity. In March 2022, the Electronics Industry Employees Union Northern Region alleged that Molex Malaysia’s management had intimidated employees who were organizing.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
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 2019, Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat became the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Federal Court, and she subsequently initiated anticorruption and efficiency-enhancing reforms.
The Federal Court’s August 2022 decision to uphold former prime minister Najib’s prison sentence was an important sign of judicial independence, particularly at a time when the defendant’s party was in power. In December, the High Court, ruling in a civil lawsuit, ordered the Malaysian government, two former police officers, and a close adviser to Najib to pay financial compensation to the family of a Mongolian model whom the officers murdered in 2006; allegations that Najib or his adviser had ordered the killing—though never proven in criminal court—had long plagued his political career.
The Federal Court has also issued rulings against the government that supported individuals’ legal and constitutional rights in recent years. In December 2022, the court agreed to hear an appeal by Malaysian mothers who were challenging the government’s position that their children born overseas to foreign fathers were not entitled to automatic Malaysian citizenship.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the judiciary has displayed an increased level of independence from the government through a series of decisions over the past several years.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
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 that year’s National Security Council (NSC) Act, gives the NSC—led by the prime minister—wide powers of arrest, search, and seizure without a warrant in areas deemed to be security risks and in the context of countering terrorism.
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?||2.002 4.004|
A number of criminal offenses can be punished with caning, including immigration violations. Torture and abuse in police custody remain problems, and prisons are often overcrowded and unsafe. In recent years, prisoners and detainees have died in unclear circumstances while in custody. There were 24 deaths in police custody in 2022, down from 46 in 2021.
The death penalty can be applied for numerous offenses; most of the roughly 1,300 people facing execution were convicted under the country’s harsh laws on drug trafficking. In June 2022, the government announced that it would introduce legislation to abolish mandatory death sentences, meaning judges would have the discretion to impose alternative penalties for the relevant offenses. The legislation was pending in Parliament at year’s end.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, it grants a “special position” to ethnic Malays and other groups that are considered native to Malaysia, known collectively as bumiputera. The government maintains programs intended to boost the economic status of bumiputera, who receive preferential treatment over ethnic minorities such as the Chinese and Indians 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 employment discrimination.
LGBT+ Malaysians face widespread discrimination and harassment. Same-sex sexual relations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison as well as whipping under the penal code. Some states apply their own penalties to Muslims under Sharia statutes. Transgender people can also be punished under state-level Sharia laws. In August 2022, Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters published a report on government-funded religious “retreats” known as mukhayyam that aim to “rehabilitate” or change LGBT+ people; it cited JAKIM statistics showing that more than 1,700 people had attended the retreats over several years.
Migrant workers and refugees do not enjoy effective legal protections, and individuals in these communities experienced discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees from Myanmar are regularly mistreated.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
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.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
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?||2.002 4.004|
While some personal social freedoms are protected, Muslims face legal restrictions on marriage partners and other social choices. All non-Muslims who wish to marry Muslim partners must convert to Islam to receive the recognition of a Sharia court. 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.
In August 2022, the Court of Appeal overturned a High Court ruling that children born overseas to Malaysian mothers with foreign spouses must be granted citizenship, as is the case with children born overseas to Malaysian fathers. The Federal Court agreed to hear an appeal by Malaysian mothers in December.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
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 officially make up some 15 percent of the country’s workforce; about two million are documented, but estimates of the undocumented range as high as six million. The authorities’ periodic crackdowns on illegal foreign workers can result in punishment rather than protection for victims of human trafficking.
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Global Freedom Score53 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score59 100 partly free