Malaysia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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Malaysians were shocked in June 2002 when long-standing prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, announced his intention to retire from politics in 2003. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was appointed as his successor by the party leadership. Mahathir's retirement signaled a power transition, which has increased infighting in the dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), part of a 14-party coalition known as the National Front. This transition is taking place while UMNO is fighting to maintain its superiority over the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). The two parties clashed in July over PAS's attempt to introduce strict Sharia (Islamic law) in Terengganu state and continued to disagree over the role of Islam in society and over Malaysia's response to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The government made liberal use of the harsh Internal Security Act (ISA) throughout the year to constrain the activities of opposition parties as well as suspected Islamic militants. A crackdown on illegal immigrants, in which thousands of workers and their families were rounded up into detention camps and deported, led to rising tensions with neighboring Indonesia and the Philippines as well as to strains in the Malaysian economy.

Malaysia was founded in 1963 through a merger of the former British colony of Malaya with the British colonies of Sarawak, Sabah, and Singapore (Singapore withdrew in 1965). The ruling National Front coalition has won at least a two-thirds majority in all 10 general elections since 1957. The Front consists of 14 mainly race- and ethnic-based parties, led by the conservative, Malay-based UMNO. Since becoming prime minister in 1981, Mahathir, the UMNO leader, has helped transform Malaysia from a sleepy backwater into a high-tech exporter. Arguing that economic development must come before individual liberties, he has also sharply restricted freedom of expression and other basic rights.

Malaysia's economy notched up nearly a decade of growth until 1997, when the regional financial crisis caused growth to slow sharply. As the economy slid into recession in 1998, Mahathir loosened fiscal and monetary policies to stimulate growth. The crisis precipitated a political struggle between Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim, his deputy prime minister, who disagreed with dimensions of economic policy and launched a challenge to his rule. In September 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar and had him detained on corruption and sodomy charges. Anwar was later convicted and jailed for abuse of power and covering up corruption, in a trial that international and domestic observers said was politically motivated.

Amnesty International declared Anwar a prisoner of conscience, echoing a widespread belief among Malaysians that Mahathir's real aim in prosecuting Anwar was to sideline him from politics. Mahathir's crude treatment of Anwar contributed to a large swing in the ethnic Malay vote to PAS from UMNO in the November 1999 parliamentary elections. While the National Front kept its two-thirds majority in parliament, UMNO itself lost 20 seats and PAS gained an equal number, overtaking the Chinese-based Democratic Party (DAP) as Malaysia's largest opposition party. The National Justice Party (Keadilan), a new secular party formed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, won five seats.

Since the election, both Mahathir and PAS have tried to woo ethnic Malay voters with appeals to Malay unity and their competing visions of the proper role of Islam in a modern nation. Mahathir declared Malaysia an "Islamic state" in 2000 to offset PAS's appeal. Long a champion of Muslim Malay interests but within a secular, tolerant society, Mahathir used the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, on the United States to link PAS to Islamic extremism. PAS's condemnation of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan also appeared to be aimed at bolstering its support among Malays. It risked, however, alienating moderate Muslims and proved to be too divisive for the DAP, which in October 2001 pulled out of the Alternative Front. Attempts by both parties to use Sharia as an issue resurfaced in 2002. In July, the PAS-dominated legislature in the northeastern state of Terengganu approved a bill to introduce Islamic criminal law. However, it has little chance of being implemented because of opposition from the UMNO-dominated federal government. PAS, like UMNO, is undergoing a leadership change--the party president, Fadzil Nor, died after a heart operation in June--and appears to have become more conservative under its new hardline leader, Abdul Hadi Awang.

In addition to fighting for the Malay heartland, Mahathir has made increasing use of the ISA. Ten opposition activists (most of them senior Keadilan members) were arrested in 2001 for allegedly planning armed antigovernment protests, and 12 PAS members or supporters were arrested for allegedly planning an Islamic-based revolt. The government made several further rounds of arrests throughout 2002, although these focused on suspected Islamic militants and members of the Malaysian Mujahideen Group (KMM) rather than members of the political opposition. Close to 120 detainees are currently being held without trial, with around 70 suspected of militant activities.

The government was buoyed by two by-election victories in early 2002 and a by-election in Sabah this fall. The Democratic Party of Sabah (PBS), the leading opposition party in that state, rejoined the National Front and strengthened the government's control of East Malaysia. In September, Mahathir confirmed that he intended to retire completely from politics in 2003. Despite his resignation, Mahathir remains a popular leader.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malaysia's constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and cabinet. The House of Representatives, which has 193 members, is directly elected for a 5-year term, while the 70-member Senate serves a 6-year term. Over time, the government has concentrated power in the prime minister's hands, while parliament has become less of a forum for real debate, according to the U.S. State Department's report on Malaysia's human rights record in 2001. The report noted, however, that opposition legislators do vigorously question government officials in parliament, although the questions are not often answered.

Malaysians face many hurdles to changing their government through elections as well as restrictions on many basic rights. The government gives itself an overwhelming advantage in elections through its selective allocation of state funds to supporters, use of security laws to restrict the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, and partisan use of broadcast media. The government tightened its hold on elections through a more restrictive election law and redistricting this year. Opposition parties also allege that the government uses its control of state funds to punish and deter support for the opposition. Despite these obstacles, the opposition PAS in 1999 retained control of Kelantan state and captured oil-rich Terengganu for the first time.

Political news coverage and editorials in Malaysia's main private newspapers strongly support the government line. Most major papers are owned by businessmen and companies close to the ruling National Front. The PAS newspaper has had its ability to publish curtailed. The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) requires all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual permit to operate, which can be withdrawn without judicial review. Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and issues containing critical articles are frequently delayed. The Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, and the Broadcasting Act also impose wide restrictions on freedom of expression. Government pressure was suspected when more than 40 journalists resigned or were laid off from the Sun newspaper after it published a politically sensitive story in January. Mahathir has also increased official pressure on, an online news daily. State-run Radio Television Malaysia and the two private television stations offer flattering coverage of the government and rarely air opposition views. "Sensitive" political issues, including race, language, and religion, are not allowed to be discussed even though they continue to dominate politics. Many journalists practice self-censorship.

Islam is Malaysia's official religion, but Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other religious minorities worship freely in this secular country. The government restricts the rights of Muslims to practice teachings other than those of Sunni Islam and monitors the activities of the Shia minority as well as occasionally arresting Shias under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Partly to prevent the opposition PAS from spreading its political message through mosques, authorities keep close tabs on sermons in state-affiliated mosques. In November, the government-controlled state of Kedah announced its intention to install video cameras and recording devices in mosques to deter preachers from delivering political sermons. Sharia courts run by each of Malaysia's 13 states have authority among Muslims over family and property matters. Activists allege that women are sometimes subject to discriminatory interpretations of Islamic law in inheritance and divorce matters, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report. PAS-controlled administrations in Kelantan and Terengganu have imposed some religious-based dress, dietary, and cultural restrictions on Muslims. In September, Kelantan imposed a ban on all performances by women and by rock groups, and a total of 120 women were fined between January and May for not adhering to the state's dress code.

The government places significant restrictions on freedom of assembly. Police have forcibly broken up many of the dozens of antigovernment demonstrations held since Anwar's 1998 jailing and arrested hundreds of protesters, including many opposition leaders. Courts acquitted many of those arrested, but sentenced some to jail terms of from one to three months. Many were accused of violating the 1967 Police Act, which requires permits for all public gatherings except for workers on picket lines. Opposition groups faced a new stumbling block to reaching supporters after the government in July 2001 banned all political rallies, stating they posed a threat to national security. Following the ban, police denied permits for PAS to hold political meetings, broke up several unauthorized gatherings, and used the ISA to arrest at least a dozen PAS members or supporters. At a PAS rally held in the northern state of Kedah in February 2002, police reportedly dispersed crowds with tear gas and arrested 31 people. Lim Kit Siang, the chairman of the opposition DAP, and a number of DAP members were arrested several times during the year for distributing leaflets urging that Malaysia's constitutional status as a secular country remain unchanged.

Malaysia has thousands of active nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but authorities have refused to register some groups. The 1966 Societies Act requires any NGO with more than six members, including political parties, to register with the government. University students are legally barred from being active without their school's permission in any political party, NGO, or trade union. The Universities and University Colleges Act also bans political rallies and meetings on campuses; the Malaysian government tightened its restrictions on student activities this year, as part of an effort to curb support for the opposition among young voters. Human Rights Watch noted that in October 2001, 61 university lecturers "alleged to be engaged in antigovernment activities were warned, transferred, or fired."

Most Malaysian workers can join trade unions, with the exception of police and defense officials and small numbers of "confidential" and "managerial and executive" workers. The law permits a union to represent only workers in single, or similar, trades or industries. Labor laws restrict strikes by allowing the government to refer labor disputes to the Industrial Court and prohibiting strikes while disputes are before that court. In practice, workers rarely strike. Unions, however, bargain collectively in many industries. Less than 10 percent of Malaysian workers are unionized. An immigration law amended in 2002 provides for heavy fines, imprisonment, or caning of illegal workers and those who recruit and employ them. As part of an effort to tighten its borders and curb crime, Malaysia tightened up its policy regarding illegal workers and launched a controversial operation that affected hundreds of thousands of migrants, who are regularly subjected to arbitrary harassment by state officials. In August, allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse at a detention camp for illegal migrant workers led to complaints from the Philippine government.

Although the impartiality of the judiciary appeared to improve during 2001 under the stewardship of Chief Justice Mohamad Dzaiddin Abdullah, "government action, constitutional amendments, legislation and other factors" continued to undermine its independence, according to the U.S. State Department. Domestic and international human rights groups roundly condemned as politically motivated both former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's six-year prison sentence in 1999 for abuse of power, and a nine-year sentence in 2000 for sodomy. In July, Malaysia's highest court rejected Anwar's appeal to overturn his 1999 conviction. Meanwhile, Ezam Mohamad Noor, an ally of Anwar's and youth leader of the Keadilan party, was convicted in August under the Official Secrets Act for leaking state secrets and sentenced to two years in prison.

However, the courts did rule against the government several times in 2002. In September, the high court decided that the police had acted wrongly in arresting five opposition activists last year. A court in November ordered the release of Nasharuddin Nasir, a businessman held for more than six months under the ISA on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization. He was released the following day but immediately re-arrested. According to the BBC, Mahathir then announced his intention that the courts would be stopped from challenging the police and government over arrests ordered under the ISA.

Malaysia's police have in recent years killed dozens of criminal suspects. Press reports suggest that some of the police killings may have been appropriate under the circumstances. Authorities have prosecuted officers in some death cases. Police also at times torture, beat, or otherwise abuse ordinary prisoners and detainees, according to Amnesty International. Following its first public inquiry, Malaysia's official Human Rights Commission ruled in August 2001 that police used excessive force in breaking up a November 2000 Keadilan rally just outside Kuala Lumpur. The commission, however, lacks enforcement powers and can only recommend governmental action.

The government detains hundreds of suspects each year under the ISA and two other acts that also permit long-term detention without judicial review or formal charges--the 1969 Emergency Ordinance and the 1985 Dangerous Drugs Act. Both the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance allow authorities to detain suspects for up to two years. Enacted in 1960 to mop up the remnants of a Communist insurgency, the ISA has in recent years been used for long-term detention of suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects, and members of "deviant" Muslim sects. Domestic and international human rights groups have criticized the government's use of the ISA to jail political opponents. At year's end, a number of opposition politicians and activists arrested under the ISA during 2001 remained in jail under two-year detention orders. They included Keadilan deputy leader Tian Chua, and social activist and media columnist Hishamuddin Rais. A pattern of arrests continued throughout 2002, but the focus shifted to alleged Islamic militants, with at least 70 being detained during the year. In May, Human Rights Watch stated that there were 105 ISA detainees being held in Kamunting prison camp.

Despite continued gains, women are still underrepresented in the professions, civil service, and politics. The government has in recent years introduced programs to promote women's equality in education and employment, adopted a law against domestic violence, and created programs to help victims of spousal abuse and rape. Some convicted rapists receive heavy punishments, including caning, but women's groups say many others receive sentences that are too light. In June, the Asian Times reported that more than 70 women's groups expressed their concern over the proposed imposition of strict Sharia in Terengganu state.

Some ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as many Malays criticized the government's April 2001 decision to extend by 10 years a long-standing policy that aims to boost the economic status of ethnic Malays and indigenous people through favored treatment in many areas. These include property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs. Critics say the system should be based on need rather than race. The government says the quotas have improved racial harmony. They were established in 1970 in response to anti-Chinese riots in 1969 that killed nearly 200 people. Despite some gains in wealth and professional achievement, Malays remain poorer on average than ethnic Chinese. Yet, Chinese and Indians lack the same access to the state and are considered by many as "second class" citizens, and their parties within the National Front lack the clout of earlier years.

Indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia and the Borneo states generally have little input into government and business decisions affecting them. Logging companies continue to encroach on land traditionally held by indigenous groups in the Borneo states. State governments in peninsular Malaysia are moving slowly in carrying out federal orders to transfer individual land titles to many of the roughly 100,000 indigenous people there, according to the U.S. State Department Human Rights report.