Malaysia | Freedom House

Malaysia

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Although Malaysia signed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Charter in 2007, pledging to uphold human rights and democratic principles, freedom of association and assembly came under duress in the country that year. Crackdowns worsened in the run-up to the 2008 general elections as the government became increasingly intolerant of criticism. Several organizations were denied permits to assemble and were met by police violence when they convened illegally. Also during the year, legislative amendments further restricted migrant workers’ rights and workers’ ability to form trade unions.

 
Freedom of Association
 
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are required to register with the government under the Societies Act of 1996. The act defines a society as any club, company, partnership, or association of seven or more people, including businesses, schools, trade unions, and political parties. The Registrar of Societies (RoS) may deny registration to organizations that it suspects of having unlawful purposes. The Communist Party and the Socialist Party of Malaysia have both been denied registration on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security. The RoS also retains the right to revoke registration of any existing society for violating the act.
 
The activities of some NGOs were restricted in 2007. In June, two activists from the human rights group Suaram were arrested for distributing leaflets during a rally in Johor Bahru in support of a proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.
 
Student associations are prohibited from engaging in political activity and must register with the authorities under the University Colleges Act. The 2007 Youth Societies and Youth Development Act requires youth groups to register with the Youth and Sports Ministry.
 
Worker Rights
 
According to the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC), overall trade union membership has increased, but it has sharply declined in relation to workforce growth. Participation levels dropped from 9.3 percent in 1995 to 7.8 percent in 2006. The MTUC organized several rallies in 2007 in an unsuccessful attempt to push through a minimum-wage bill, as Malaysia does not provide a minimum wage.
 
Under the 1959 Trade Union Act (TUA), certain categories of workers are restricted from joining unions, including those in the electronics sector (the country’s largest industry) and public-sector workers who are considered to be “confidential, managerial and executive.” Amendments restricting workers’ rights were made in 2007 to both the TUA and the Industrial Relations Act (IRA). The IRA amendments lowered compensation caps for wrongful-termination suits, and the TUA amendments created additional procedural requirements for trade unions. Failure to comply with the new procedures results in the automatic denial of a trade union’s recognition, with no possibility of appeal. The director general of trade unions has the power to refuse or withdraw registration arbitrarily.
 
In March 2006, the U.S. government began talks with Malaysia on a free trade agreement. Concerns were raised in 2007 over protection for workers’ rights and a lack of transparency during the negotiations. In January, Malaysian trade unions teamed up with the U.S.-based AFL-CIO labor federation to oppose the trade pact, arguing that it would further weaken workers’ rights under the IRA and the TUA.
 
Migrant workers are barred from joining trade unions and are not protected under the Employment Act of 1955. Work permits tie them to a single employer, which increases the possibility of abuse and causes them to fear retaliatory deportation if they complain about their employer. New legislation introduced in 2007 would confine migrant workers to their workplace and living quarters, further exacerbating their vulnerability to abuse. Previous protests by migrant workers outside their countries’ diplomatic missions have usually led to deportation. In February 2006, several Indian migrant workers were beaten by police during a demonstration outside India’s high commission that was aimed at seeking assistance for unpaid wages and other employment abuses.
 
Freedom of Assembly
 
Police suppressed freedom of assembly throughout 2007 as the government grew wary of criticism ahead of the 2008 elections. Crackdowns began in January as protesters staged the first in a series of four demonstrations against highway toll hikes. Several arrests were made during each demonstration, and the detainees included opposition leaders, who were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. In September, two unarmed protesters were shot by police at a rally organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), an alliance of opposition political parties and civil society groups. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd of demonstrators.
 
The most severe crackdowns of the year came in November during two of the country’s largest demonstrations in over a decade. On November 10, approximately 30,000 people demanded free and fair elections at a rally organized by BERSIH. Malaysian law requires permits for public gatherings of five people or more (except for picket lines), and police tried to prevent the rally by denying permission to organizers and setting up roadblocks. When that failed, police used chemical-laced water and tear gas to disperse the protesters.
 
On November 25, a rally was organized by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) in an attempt to submit a memorandum about discrimination against ethnic Indians to the British high commission. Unrest has increased over the years in Malaysia’s Indian community, whose members complain of religious bias and the preferential treatment ethnic Malays receive in the job market. Three HINDRAF leaders were arrested prior to the November rally and charged under the Sedition Act. Nevertheless, up to 40,000 people convened for the demonstrations throughout Kuala Lumpur, and police used chemical-laced water and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Some 400 protesters were arrested, and 99 were charged under the Police Act for illegal assembly, since HINDRAF had been denied a permit for the rally. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi threatened to detain protesters without trial under the draconian International Security Act (ISA), and HINDRAF leaders fled the country shortly after the rally. Five leaders of the group were ultimately detained under the ISA.
 
On December 9, lawyers and activists were arrested during an illegal march marking International Human Rights Day. Edmond Bond, the Bar Council Human Rights Committee chairman, was arrested for trying to prevent officials from destroying Human Rights Day banners. BERSIH members, including Suaram leaders, were arrested on December 11 for convening in front of the Parliament building with a memorandum protesting a proposed bill that would extend the incumbent Election Commission chief’s term.