Malaysia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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After initial hopes that Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi, would move forward with democratic reforms, progress slowed in 2005. Abdullah did pursue vote-buying charges against Isa Samad of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and other anti-corruption measures, as well as reform of the Royal Police force. However, by the end of 2005, the recommendations of the police report had not been carried out.

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 Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN) coalition (known as the Alliance before 1969) 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 multinational corporations 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 his 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 the political ascent of his deputy, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi, who sought early on to establish his own leadership style. Many countries and international organizations with hopes of reform regarded the appointment of Abdullah as prime minister with enthusiasm.

In the March 2004 legislative election, the BN, led by Abdullah, won 198 of the 219 available seats in the parliament (Parliaman) in generally transparent elections. However, the three main opposition parties-the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), and the People's Justice Party (PKR)-chal-lenged 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, although at least some allegations of vote buying were substantiated. Despite a strong popular mandate, reform efforts slowed in 2004, as Abdullah faced resistance within UMNO. Abdullah's softer approach, however, has opened up the regime and is helping to strengthen political institutions.

By late 2005, there were signs that Abdullah might be on the verge of recapturing reformist momentum, particularly in areas related to reducing corruption and reforming the police. Talks of a cabinet revamp toward these ends received some initial attention in mid-2005, but eventually yielded very little substantive improvement. The preliminary report of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police was released in the spring to substantial approval. Anticorruption proposals, however, have not been thoroughly implemented.

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 electronics-led economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Malaysia retains good relations with China and has even taken measures to constrain public debate that might be perceived as offensive to China. Abdullah has followed Mahathir's recent policies of emphasizing the role of small firms in economic growth and reducing the country's need for external demand and foreign direct investment. He has also continued to push for reform in governmentlinked companies by pressing for new standards of performance and placing new people on management boards.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Malaysia cannot choose their government democratically. Malaysia has a parliamentary government within a federal system. The party that wins a plurality of seats in legislative elections names its leader prime minister. 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. The 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.

The Malaysian parliament is divided into two houses. The non-elected members of the upper house are composed of the hereditary rulers of nine of Malaysia's states. The paramount ruler is the titular head of government, and is elected from the ranks of this upper house for a five-year term. The current paramount ruler, elected in 2001, is Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin ibni Almarhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail. New elections for paramount ruler will take place in December 2006. The lower house is elected every five years. In general, powers of parliamentary oversight have increased under Prime Minister Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi.

Malaysia's ruling BN is a coalition of some 15 parties, most with an ethnic or regional foundation, and featuring the prominent UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Prominent opposition parties include the DAP, the PAS, and the PKR.

Malaysia was ranked 39 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index; this relatively high ranking is due to the fact that Malaysian corruption is relatively isolated to elite circles. Corruption is marked in the police force; political corruption, particularly bribery and cronyism, is common in the ruling BN coalition. From the start of Abdullah's tenure as prime minister, there were signs, although sometimes fitful, that Abdullah would make serious efforts to reform corrupt practices. In 2004, the government established a National Institute for Ethics and unveiled a National Integrity Plan to combat corruption. In 2005, Federal Territories Minister Mohamed Isa Abdul Samad resigned after he was found guilty of buying votes in UMNO's party elections in 2004. This move recalled measures in which several UMNO members were suspended for vote buying in those same elections. Nevertheless, until Samad's resignation, little had been done to follow up on these measures.

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government restricts this right, particularly in cases where security concerns are said to exist. In practice, such restrictions frequently serve partisan, as opposed to national, interests. Publications and printers must obtain annual operating permits from the government, causing most print media outlets to practice self-censorship and downplay investigative journalism. For example, a string of prodemocracy rallies in May and June 2005, presided over by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, received virtually no coverage in any Malaysian media, despite attracting substantial crowds in several cities. Internet editions of newspapers are not required to obtain permits, but some incidents of government harassment of online newspapers still occur.

Privately owned television stations have close ties to the BN, a situation illustrating a larger pattern of media manipulation that often takes place via the production of biased news rather than through outright censorship. Nevertheless, the government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence, as well as for certain political and religious material; television stations censor programming according to government guidelines. In June, the Indonesian newspaper The Epoch Times was banned because authorities feared its anti-Chinese perspectives would rankle Beijing.

Abdullah has attempted to promote a more tolerant Islam under the rubric of "Islam Hadhari," or civilizational Islam. Still, despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the fact that non-Muslims can largely worship freely in Malaysia, actual practices often fall short of these ideals. Muslim worship is restricted by Sharia (Islamic law); practicing a version of Islam other than Sunni Islam is prohibited. Muslim children are required to receive religious education that conforms to a government-approved curriculum, and Muslim civil servants must take Islamic classes taught by government-approved teachers. In January 2005, religious police officers raided the Zouk nightclub in Kuala Lumpur, arresting Muslims who were inside but letting non-Muslims go free. Civil courts have not ruled on the constitutional basis of the anti-apostate policies of the Sharia courts. Proselytizing by other religious groups to Muslims is prohibited, and non-Muslims are not able to build houses of worship as easily as Muslims. In July, security forces dismantled a camp and tore down statues erected by the Sky Kingdom religious cult.

The government restricts academic freedom to the extent that teachers or students espousing overtly antigovernment views may be subject to disciplinary action. In 2005, two academics that raised critical concerns of poor governance faced retribution: Edmund Gomez's secondment to the Geneva-based United Nations Research Institute for Social Development was not initially renewed, and P. Ramasamy's contract was not extended at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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 can and periodically has refused to register organizations or revoked the registration of existing societies, 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 in 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 measures 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 instances of arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts, selective prosecution, and preferential treatment of lawyers and litigants have occurred. The most prominent of these 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 (ISA), and sentenced in two trials to consecutive prison terms of six and nine years. The move was widely regarded as having been politically motivated, as Anwar, then the deputy prime minister, had been having political differences with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamed; 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 an appeal of Anwar's sodomy conviction and released him from prison. The corruption charge was upheld, but since he had completed the sentence in 2003 (it was reduced to four years for good behavior), he was released. 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." Since that release, Anwar has become a central figure in the movement to promote democracy in Malaysia, although in the last half of 2005, his advocacy has taken place largely from overseas positions in U.S. universities and public forums. Anwar won a libel case in August-September against the former police chief who beat him the previous year.

Malaysia's secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia, which varies from state to state. Efforts in December 2004 to standardize practices in family law raised serious concerns regarding the rights of Muslim women, particularly their rights to divorce. Law enforcement is the responsibility of the Royal Malaysia Police, which is 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. 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 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 (extendable 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. Human Rights Watch has decried the denial of due process and systematic abuse of detainees held under the ISA at the Kamunting Detention Center. In March 2005, following the release of six ISA detainees, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) urged the government to release all remaining prisoners held under that act. The government has also initiated measures to reform the state's internal security apparatus. Human rights groups around the world praised the frank and critical report issued by the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police in April. Despite initial enthusiasm for the document's rhetoric, many remain skeptical about its likely impact on policy.

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 (bumiputeras). Bumiputeras receive preferential treatment in many areas, including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs. Calls to strengthen such measures in the July UMNO general assembly (and subsequently) have raised concerns among non-Malays.

Foreign domestic workers are not covered by the Workmen's Compensation Act and so are subject to economic exploitation and abuse by their employers. Malaysians officially employ about 240,000 domestic workers, 90 percent of whom are from Indonesia. There are an estimated two million illegal workers in Malaysia. In part because these people are often blamed for crime in Malaysia, the government initiated a series of programs to expel migrant workers in 2004, although it offered an amnesty for Indonesian workers.

Despite government initiatives and continued gains, women are still underrepresented in politics, the professions, and the civil service. Violence against women remains a serious problem. Muslim women, whose grievances on family matters are heard in Sharia 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.