Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Malaysia's political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the holding of reasonably free parliamentary elections.
By promising improvements in governance, Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, succeeded in shoring up support for the ruling coalition ahead of general elections held in March 2004, which were reasonably free. Abdullah confirmed onlookers' faith in him in September when, under his rule, the Supreme Court overturned the six-year-old politicized sodomy conviction of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, a case that had become the benchmark for human rights and political freedom in Malaysia.
Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957 and in 1963 merged with the British colonies of Sarawak, Sabah, and Singapore (Singapore left in 1965). The ruling BN coalition has won at least a two-thirds majority in all 11 general elections since 1957. The BN consists of 14 mainly ethnic-based parties, dominated by the conservative, Malay-based United Malays' National Organization (UMNO).
Modern Malaysia has been shaped by Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, who became Malaysia's fourth prime minister in 1981. During his tenure, he transformed Malaysia from a sleepy backwater, dependent on tin, rubber, and palm oil exports, to a hub for multinationals and local firms exporting high-tech goods. However, he also stunted democratic institutions, weakened the rule of law by curtailing the press and political opponents, and fostered allegations of cronyism with his state-led industrial development. In addition, he was a polarizing figure at home and abroad, criticizing Malaysia's conservative Muslim leaders for failing to promote a more modern brand of Islam while rankling outsiders with anti-Western and anti-Semitic views.
In October 2003, Mahathir stepped down as the nation's leader after more than two decades in office, paving the way for his deputy, Abdullah, who sought to distance himself from his predecessor. Many countries and international organizations with hopes of reform looked on the subsequent appointment of Abdullah as prime minister with enthusiasm.
In the March 2004 election, the Barisan National (BN), led by Abdullah, won 198 of the 219 available seats in parliament. The elections were conducted in a generally transparent manner. However, the three main opposition parties - the Democratic Action Party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and the Parti Keadilan Rakyat - challenged the results on the grounds that the BN had engaged in vote rigging and other irregularities; most specific challenges were rejected in court or withdrawn. Despite a strong popular mandate, reforms slowed over 2004, as Abdullah faced resistance within UMNO, especially in the September party elections. Abdullah's softer approach, however, has opened the regime and is working to strengthen political institutions.
On the economic front, Malaysia faces the challenge of finding new economic niches now that low-cost manufacturers in China are increasingly attracting the foreign investment that helped fuel Malaysia's roaring, electronics-led, economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Malaysia retains good relations with China. However, in May, Abdullah paid his first visit to China since taking office and discussed the promotion of economic and political ties with his Chinese counterpart. Abdullah has followed Mahathir's recent policies of emphasizing the role of small firms in driving economic growth and reducing the country's need for external demand and foreign direct investment.
Malaysians choose their leaders in elections that are free but not fair. Malaysia has a parliamentary government within a federal system. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet. Mahathir's 22-year tenure was marked by a steady concentration of power in the prime minister's hands; parliament's role as a deliberative body has deteriorated over the years, as legislation proposed by opposition parties tends not to be given serious consideration. Opposition parties face serious obstacles, such as unequal access to the media and restrictions on campaigning and on freedom of assembly, that leave them unable to compete on equal terms with the BN.
Malaysia was ranked 39 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption is marked in the police force; political corruption, particularly bribery and cronyism, is common in the ruling BN coalition. This may be changing under Abdullah's leadership, however. In November 2004, for example, the UMNO suspended several of its members on charges of vote buying in party elections. In reiterating his commitment to fighting corruption, Abdullah noted in October 2004 that 359 graft-related arrests had been made in the first eight months of the year, compared to 331 for full-year 2003. Earlier in the year, the government established a National Institute for Ethics and implemented a National Integrity Plan, both designed to help combat corruption.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government restricts this right in practice. Because all publications must obtain an operating permit every year from the government, most print media outlets practice self-censorship and downplay investigative journalism. Printers must also obtain government permits and are thus reluctant to print publications that are critical of the government. Internet editions of newspapers, however, are not required to obtain permits. Both privately owned television stations have close ties to the BN, so news and analysis related to opposition parties is restricted and slanted. The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence, as well as for certain political or religious material; television stations censor programming according to government guidelines.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the government's official policy is to "infuse Islamic values" into the administration of the country. Nevertheless, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and other religious minorities worship freely in Malaysia, although the government tightly controls building and land allocation for their religious needs. The government restricts the practice of Islamic sects other than Sunni Islam and forbids proselytizing of Muslims by other religious groups. Muslim children are required to receive religious education that conforms with a government-approved curriculum, and Muslim civil servants must take Islamic classes taught by government-approved teachers.
The government restricts academic freedom to the extent that teachers or students espousing overtly antigovernment views may be subject to disciplinary action.
Freedom of assembly and association is limited on the grounds of maintaining security - particularly reducing ethnic conflict - and public order. A police permit is required for all public assemblies except for picket lines, and the granting of permits is sometimes politically influenced. The Societies Act of 1996 defines a society as any club, company, partnership or association of seven or more people (excluding schools, businesses and trade unions). Societies must be approved and registered by the government, and the government has refused to register organizations or revoked the registration of an existing society, generally for political reasons. Nonetheless, numerous nongovernmental organizations operate in Malaysia, but some international human rights organizations are not allowed to form Malaysian branches.
Most Malaysian workers can join trade unions, but Malaysian law contravenes International Labor Organization (ILO) guidelines by restricting trade unions to representing workers in a single, or similar, trade, industry, or occupation, thus preventing the formation of broad-based unions. Unions may organize workplaces and associate with national federations, of which there are currently two. Collective bargaining is widespread in sectors with organized labor. Labor laws restrict strikes by requiring that unions in "essential" services - the government's list of such services includes several not deemed essential by the ILO - give advance notice of planned strikes, and by imposing requirements so stringent that strikes are in practice impossible.
Judicial independence has been severely compromised over the past two decades in line with the increasing influence of the executive over the judiciary. Many examples of arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts, selective prosecution, and preferential treatment of lawyers and litigants have occurred. The most prominent of these, which had become the bellwether case for human rights and political freedom in Malaysia, was the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim in 1999 and 2000 for corruption and sodomy. Anwar was arrested in 1998, beaten while in custody, held under the Internal Security Act, and sentenced in two trials to consecutive prison terms of six and nine years. The move was widely regarded as having been entirely politically motivated, as Anwar, then the deputy prime minister, had been having political differences with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad; both trials, as well as Anwar's appeals, exhibited serious violations of due process.
In a landmark step in September 2004, however, Malaysia's High Court accepted the appeal on Anwar's sodomy conviction and released him from prison. The corruption charge was upheld, but since he had he had completed the sentence in 2003 after it was reduced to 4 years for good behavior, he was released. His release signaled changes in the governance under Abdullah. Human Rights Watch called the occasion "an historic moment for the rule of law in Malaysia" and expressed the hope that the acquittal might signal "a renewed commitment to judicial independence." It is too early to determine, however, whether this one instance reflects a wholesale change in the government's attitude towards human rights and the rule of law.
Malaysia's secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia (Islamic law), which varies from state to state. Law enforcement is the responsibility of the Royal Malaysia Police, which are under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry. Individuals may be arrested without a warrant for some offenses, and they may be held for 24 hours without being charged. There is no constitutional provision specifically banning torture, and the police have been known to torture prisoners and abuse detainees. There have also been reports of police killing individuals in the course of apprehending them. The creation of a Police Commission to review the force in 2004 has led to improvements in detention centers. Nevertheless, in November 2004 hundreds of prison inmates went on a hunger strike to protest poor prison conditions.
The Internal Security Act (ISA), in force since 1960, gives the police sweeping powers to hold any person acting "in a manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia" for up to 60 days (extendible to two years). It has been used in recent years to jail mainstream politicians, alleged Islamic militants, trade unionists, suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects, and members of "deviant" Muslim sects, among others. In May 2004, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting systematic abuse of detainees held under the ISA at the Kamunting Detention Center; it also asserted that detainees had been denied their rights to due process. Later that month, the government opened the center for the first time ever to a tour by selected journalists. While they welcomed the gesture, observers at Human Rights Watch did not believe this step alone would end abuse under the ISA.
Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, Malaysia maintains an official affirmative action policy intended to boost the economic status of ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, known as bumiputras. Bumiputeras receive preferential treatment in many areas, including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs.
Foreign domestic workers are not covered under the Workmen's Compensation Act and so are subject to economic exploitation and abuse by their employers and are extorted by the police. Malaysians officially employ about 240,000 domestic workers, 90 percent of whom are from Indonesia, although the number is much larger. There are an estimated two million illegal workers in Malaysia, who are seen to contribute to crime. The government initiated a series of programs to expel workers in 2004, although it offered an amnesty for Indonesian workers. In general, Malaysian citizens may travel, live, and work without restrictions; however, the government occasionally infringes upon these rights.
Despite government initiatives and continued gains, women are still underrepresented in politics, the professions, and the civil service. Violence against women also remains a serious problem. Muslim women, whose grievances on family matters are heard in Islamic courts, receive unequal treatment because Islamic law favors men in matters such as inheritance and divorce, and does not give equal weight to the testimony of women.