Malaysia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Malaysia received a downward trend arrow due to a decline in religious freedom and restrictions on press coverage and public discussion of issues relating to race or religion.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s anticorruption and police-reform efforts largely stalled in 2006, and a cabinet reshuffle in February brought few concrete changes. The political scene was dominated by the rise of sharp divisions within the United Malays National Organization (UNMO) and, specifically, a series of harsh attacks by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed on Prime Minister Abdullah. Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister whom Mahathir had controversially deposed, returned to Malaysia and suggested that he might run for public office. Religious freedom declined significantly with a series of court rulings that denied certain religious and legal rights for non-Muslims, sparking a national debate on the role of Islam in Malaysia and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. The government took action to suppress related civil society activism, public discussion, and press coverage, citing the need to prevent national unrest. Heightened racial and religious divisions were compounded in September by the release of a think-tank study that challenged the calculations used to justify the country’s continued affirmative-action policies, which lay at the heart of the government’s New Economic Policy, renewed in December 2005, and the Ninth Malaysia Plan, a development program launched by Abdullah in March 2006. The year’s developments came to a head at the UMNO national party congress in November, when several ministers issued racist comments and threats in defense of Malay supremacy and Islam, making clear that all affirmative-action quotas would be maintained.

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).

Racial tensions between the country’s indigenous Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities have played a central role in Malaysian politics and economics since the country’s founding and were especially prominent through the early 1970s. Independence was premised on a social contract between these groups, enshrined in the constitution, that grants Malaysian citizenship to the non-Malay population in exchange for special rights and privileges, especially in education and economics, for all bumiputera (Malays and other indigenous peoples). Tensions culminated in the Race Riots of 1969, in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed and more than 180 people were killed. In response, the government declared an 18-month state of emergency and tightened restrictions on free speech, assembly, and political organizations.

Modern Malaysia has been shaped by Mahathir Mohamed, one of the key architects of efforts to shift economic power from the Chinese to the Malays, first as education minister and then as Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003. Through his “Look East” policy for economic development, he transformed Malaysia from a sleepy backwater, dependent on tin, rubber, and palm-oil exports, into a hub for multinational corporations and local firms exporting high-tech goods. At the same time, he 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. Mahathir was a polarizing figure who criticized Malaysia’s conservative Muslim leaders for failing to promote a more modern brand of Islam and, at the same time, pushed through a gradual Islamization of UMNO as part of an effort to co-opt Islamist opposition forces, which had begun gaining ground with the dakwah movement of the 1970s. Mahathir’s anti-Western and anti-Semitic views rankled outsiders as well.

In October 2003, Mahathir stepped down after more than two decades in office, paving the way for the political ascent of his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who sought early on to establish his own leadership style. Many countries and international organizations with hopes of reform regarded Abdullah’s appointment as prime minister with enthusiasm.

The BN, led by Abdullah, won 198 of the 219 seats in the lower house of Parliament (Parlimen) in the March 2004 legislative elections, which were generally regarded as transparent. However, the three main opposition parties—the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), and the People’s Justice Party (PKR)—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, although allegations of vote buying and problems with the electoral roll were substantiated.

Despite a strong popular mandate in 2004 and signs of renewed momentum on police reform and anticorruption efforts in 2005, little concrete reform has actually been achieved since Abdullah took office. In 2006, the prime minister’s efforts were undermined by police resistance and his need to maintain the backing of his own increasingly fractious party. A long-overdue February 2006 cabinet reshuffle saw few changes largely for this reason; the large cabinet was not reduced in size, and the most controversial ministers retained their positions. In an effort to cut government subsidies, fuel prices were significantly increased in late February, sparking tremendous public resistance and a series of protests in March.

Escalating divisions within UMNO rocked the political scene for much of the year. Motivated at least in part by his own waning influence in the party, Mahathir harshly criticized Abdullah and his policies following the cancellation of plans to build a bridge between Malaysia and Singapore in April. By late August, Mahathir’s attacks had developed into a wide-ranging campaign to discredit and depose Abdullah. In a series of dramatic statements, Mahathir accused Abdullah of undermining his legacy and failing to live up to campaign promises. While Abdullah’s lackluster responses added to perceptions that he was ineffective, Mahathir’s failure to curtail his criticism in the interest of preserving party strength and unity discredited him among many UMNO members by year’s end. The UMNO division in Kubang Pasu, a constituency Mahathir had represented for decades, rejected him as their delegate to the national party congress in the fall (although the nomination process was called into question for irregularities). After Mahathir had a heart attack in November, the conflict ebbed. During the UMNO congress later that month party members reaffirmed their support for Abdullah.

Party divisions earlier in the fall led the UMNO Supreme Council to postpone internal party elections (scheduled for 2007) until after the next general elections required to be held before April 2009. Observers speculated that Abdullah might call early general elections, however, in light of his need for a renewed public mandate after the pummeling of his policies and leadership capacity this year.

Malaysian politics were further complicated that year by the return to Malaysia of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister deposed by Mahathir in 1999 on questionable charges of sodomy and corruption. Anwar began playing an active role in the opposition PKR’s rejuvenation and suggested that he might run for public office, although his corruption conviction prohibited him from doing so until 2008, meaning he would not be able to participate if early elections were called.

By far the most important issue in the country in 2006 was what has generally been termed the “Islamization” of Malaysia, a phenomenon encompassing a crystallized racial divide and a sharp downturn in religious tolerance. A series of court cases raised concerns among non-Muslim minorities regarding their religious and legal rights. The ongoing case of Lina Joy, a former Muslim convert fighting to be recognized as a Christian by the state, emerged as a test of the state of religious freedom in the country. Wary of the sensitivity of the issues of race and religion, the government suppressed public and political discussion of religious rights along with related press coverage. UMNO’s refusal to entertain discussion of minority rights culminated at the party congress in November, where ministers demonstrated unrestrained racism and Islamic zeal, warning Chinese and Indian minorities (represented by UMNO’s BN partners) against continued questioning of the special status of Malays and Islam.

Racial and religious tensions were compounded by developments on the economic front. The New Economic Policy (NEP) and its affirmative-action quotas favoring the Malay population were renewed at the urging of UMNO Youth, the party’s youth wing, in December 2005. In April 2006, Abdullah launched the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP), the latest in a series of short-term plans to fully develop the country by the year 2020, with an emphasis on nurturing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and meeting the 30 percent target for bumiputera corporate equity share, a primary justification for the NEP’s continued affirmative-action policies. In September, the Center for Public Policy Studies (CPIS) affilitated with the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI), a Kuala Lumpur–based think tank, published a study arguing that bumiputera owned 45 percent of corporate equity, not 18.9 percent as stated in the 9MP, sparking tremendous national debate over the policy and assessment of ethnic wealth. UMNO ministers came out in strong support of the calculations of the Economic Policy Unit (EPU), the government agency behind the 9MP, and the ASLI was forced to apologize and withdraw its report. UMNO ministers insisted that the affirmative-action entitlements would be upheld. Fearing the incitement of racial tensions, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered an end to the discussion altogether. Opposition leaders, including Anwar as well as a growing number of Malays, have called for the abolishment of racial preferences in recent years, arguing that they fostered Malay dependence while not really improving their standing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malaysia is not an electoral democracy. The country 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 the prime minister and cabinet. Former prime minister Mahathir’s 22-year tenure, which ended in 2003, was marked by a steady concentration of power in the premiership.

The Malaysian Parliament is divided into two houses. The nonelected members of the upper house are comprised of political appointees. The paramount ruler is the titular head of government and is elected by fellow hereditary rulers or sultans in nine of Malaysia’s states. Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud al-Muktafi Billah Shah was elected the new paramount ruler in December 2006. The lower house, with 219 seats, is elected every five years.

In general, powers of parliamentary oversight have increased under Prime Minister Abdullah. The Parliament’s role as a deliberative body, however, has deteriorated since the 1970s as opinions expressed by opposition parties tend not to be given serious consideration. Malaysia’s ruling BN is a coalition of roughly 15 parties, most with an ethnic or regional foundation, including the dominant UMNO as well as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The means by which the new Family Law was passed in December 2005 (although subsequently not implemented) reflects UMNO’s continued strength in Parliament; 16 female BN senators opposed to the law were forced to vote for it against their will.

The same month, pressure from Abdullah forced non-Muslim Cabinet Ministers to withdraw a memorandum aimed at upholding the principles of religious freedoms as articulated by Article 11 of the federal constitution.

Prominent opposition parties include the DAP, PAS, and PKR. They face serious obstacles, such as unequal access to the media and restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, that leave them unable to compete on equal terms with the BN. The BN currently controls 12 out of 13 state parliaments; state elections in Sarawak and by-elections in 2006 brought both notable gains and losses. UMNO won an additional seat in Kelantan, the only state in Malaysia controlled by an opposition party, PAS, leaving PAS with a majority of just one seat. Opposition numbers increased from one to nine in the Sarawak state assembly, sending an alarming blow to the BN. The political balance in this region has been maintained by the long-serving BN chief minister on his way out, with no clear successor. The future prospects of the opposition in general could hinge on the ability of Anwar Ibrahim, the leading opposition political figure, to unite a diverse group of parties, including the DAP and PAS, with different ideological foundations.

Malaysia was ranked 44 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption in the country is mostly limited to elite circles. There is marked graft in the police force, and political corruption, particularly bribery and cronyism, is common in the ruling BN coalition. Abdullah followed through to some extent on his anticorruption campaign pledges by launching a National Institute for Ethics and a National Integrity Plan in 2004. Progress has been slow in subsequent years, however. Federal Territories Minister Mohamed Isa Abdul Samad finally resigned in October 2005 after being found guilty of buying votes in UMNO’s party elections in 2004. The police inspectorate general’s refusal to establish an independent police complaints and misconduct board in March 2006, coupled with resistance from several BN members of parliament, undermined progress on reducing police corruption. A long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle, finally implemented in February 2006, retained many of Mahathir’s ministers, including the controversial minister of international trade and industry, Rafidah Aziz, who was tainted in 2005 by favoritism in allocation of state contracts and licenses. While 2006 saw the disclosure of a number of corruption scandals under the Mahathir administration, many of these did not receive decisive responses. Abdullah pointed to the large increase in the number of arrests and prosecutions for corruption since he entered office and pledged that anticorruption efforts would be strengthened under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, yet his record in 2006 on corruption did little to inspire confidence.

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government restricts this right, particularly in cases of perceived security concerns. Under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), publications and printers must obtain annual operating permits from the government, causing most print media outlets to practice self-censorship and limit investigative journalism. The law also gives the prime minister—as the minister of internal security—the authority to revoke licenses at any time without judicial review. The PPPA was invoked in early 2006 to indefinitely suspend the Sarawak Tribune and temporarily suspend the Guang Ming Daily for reproducing infamous Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Abdullah invoked the act in mid-February to prohibit the publication, distribution, or possession of any materials relating to the Danish caricatures. Fearing a selective crackdown after the government’s handling of the cartoon issue, the media self-censored their coverage of major fuel price hike protests in April, some of which were brutally suppressed by the police.

In July 2006, the prime minister banned public discussion of the status of Islam, religious freedom, and interfaith issues, as well as all reporting on the issues of race and religion. The information minister then issued a sharp warning that the government would take action against all media outlets that did not comply. Internet editions of newspapers are not currently required to obtain permits, but some government harassment of online newspapers occurs. The recent debate over Islam and minority rights prompted some government ministers to call for extending the PPPA to cover online media in 2006. While Abdullah pledged to uphold media freedom in November 2006, his administration’s actions that year reflect the extent to which the government attempts to suppress public discussion of divisive and potentially explosive issues through control of the press.

Privately owned television stations have close ties to the BN, illustrating a larger pattern of media manipulation that often takes the form of biased news production, rather than outright censorship. Nevertheless, the government directly censors books and films for profanity and violence, as well as certain political and religious material. In 2006, a number of books on Islam and religion were banned on the grounds that they might “disrupt peace and harmony.” The number of banned books has risen sharply under the Abdullah administration. Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines.

While Abdullah continues to promote Islam Hadhari or “civilizational Islam,” a tolerant and inclusive form of the faith, religious freedom is restricted in Malaysia in practice and declined significantly in 2006. Traditionally, Muslim worship is governed by Sharia (Islamic law), and 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. Proselytizing by other religious groups to Muslims is prohibited, and non-Muslims are not able to build houses of worship as easily as Muslims. The state retains the right to demolish unregistered religious statues and houses of worship. In 2006, a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) condemned a controversial campaign by local councils to demolish Hindu temples, justified by the need to make way for new state development projects. Many of the temples were built prior to national independence but retain large numbers of worshippers.

Religious freedom has recently declined more broadly with a series of court rulings that threatened non-Muslim minorities’ right to self-identify and to practice freely, as guaranteed by Article 11 of the constitution. In December 2005, a religious court ruled that Maniam Moorthy, a former army officer, died a Muslim and thus must be buried according to Islamic rites, while his wife insisted he was a practicing Hindu and had never converted. Non-Muslims were outraged when the High Court invoked Article 121B of the Constitution, a measure introduced during the Mahathir administration stipulating that only Sharia courts can deal with matters related to Islam, and refused to hear the case. Essentially concluding that non-Muslims have no means for redress in religious matters, the Moorthy ruling led nine non-UMNO ministers to file a memorandum in mid-January calling for a repeal of Article 121 and a review of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms. Widespread demonstrations by both non-Muslims and Islamic activists followed, prompting Abdullah to pressure the ministers to withdraw the memorandum.

Lina Joy, a Muslim who converted to Christianity in 1998, continues to fight for state recognition of her new religion so that she can marry a Christian man. She has fought her battle for the last five years in civil courts on the basis of Article 11 and argued that, since she renounced her Muslim faith, Sharia courts do not apply to her in marriage, property, and divorce. After a series of civil court decisions against her, which maintained that Malays cannot renounce Islam because the constitution declares Malays to be Muslims, her case was brought before the national Court of Appeals on the grounds that the national registration department, which lists the official religion of all Malaysians on identity cards, cannot force her to contest this matter in the Shariah courts. The case, with the verdict still pending at year’s end, has largely polarized the nation, with many Muslims viewing conversion as apostasy. A number of anti-apostasy campaigns and Islamic defenders groups have emerged in response, and this issue has raised racial tensions. In November, a large mob of Muslims organized outside a church in Ipoh in response to a false report that Muslims were being converted within the church. The government was forced to call on the state’s hardline religious leader or mufti Harussani Zakaria, who was conspicuously absent, to intervene to prevent violence. Still highly politicized, apostasy is predicted to remain a primary issue of contestation in the relationship between Islam and the state.

The government restricts academic freedom to the extent that teachers or students espousing overtly antigovernment views may be subject to disciplinary action under the University and Colleges Act of 1971. In February 2006, five students were accused of distributing leaflets and protesting against campus electoral processes. In July, the Ministry of Higher Education published a historical textbook addressing ethnic relations, which was met with immediate objections by non-Malay NGOs, human rights groups, and politicians. Abdullah quickly had the book withdrawn and rewritten. An effort by the minister of higher education to review the draconian restrictions on students at universities was rebuffed by year’s end.

Freedom of assembly and association are limited on the grounds of maintaining security—particularly with respect to 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 periodically has refused to register organizations or revoked the registration of existing societies, generally for political reasons. Numerous NGOs operate in Malaysia, but some international human rights organizations are not allowed to form Malaysian branches. The activities of Article 11, a coalition of NGOs that advocate for freedom of religion, were inhibited in July 2006 when protesters interrupted their forum, arguing that it was an insult to Islam. Many claimed that the Malaysian police allowed for the interruption. Alarmed by increasing religious and racial tensions, the prime minister ordered an end to all public forums organized to discuss freedom of religion that month. A peaceful protest against the fuel price hike was forcefully broken up by the police in late May.

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 conditions so stringent that strikes are effectively impossible.

Judicial independence has been significantly compromised over the past two decades by the increasing influence of the executive. 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 arrest was widely regarded as having been politically motivated, as Anwar, then the deputy prime minister, had political differences with then–prime minister Mahathir. Both trials, as well as Anwar’s appeals, exhibited serious violations of due process.

In a landmark step in September 2004, which Human Rights Watch considered a signal of “a renewed commitment to judicial independence,” the High Court overturned Anwar’s sodomy conviction and released him from prison, although the corruption charge was upheld. In another significant development in September 2006, Lord President Salleh Abas, who had been sacked by Mahathir as the country’s top judge along with five other senior judges in the “1988 scandal,” led the call for an investigation into Mahathir’s deliberate efforts to prohibit the courts from interfering in a major political battle 18 years ago. The highly politicized case against Abdul Razik Baginda, a prominent political analyst close to the deputy prime minister, will draw attention to the workings of the judiciary. Abdul was charged with abetting the murder of Altantuya Shaaribuu, a Mongolian who was shot and blown up in November 2006.

Malaysia’s secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia, the interpretation of which varies from state to state, and Article 121 stipulates that all matters related to Islam be dealt with in Sharia courts.

Law enforcement is the responsibility of the Royal Malaysia Police, under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry. There is no constitutional provision specifically banning torture, and the police have been known to torture prisoners and use excessive force in conducting searches. Leaked video footage of a naked woman forced by police to perform squats in June 2005 caused public outrage that led an independent panel to issue a report in January 2006, recommending that this fairly routine technique be stopped. Separately, a frank and critical report issued by the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police in April 2005, hailed by human rights groups worldwide, was undermined in 2006 when the minister of police’s refusal to form the recommended investigatory commission was supported by several UMNO ministers, essentially bringing the effort at police reform to a halt.

Individuals may be arrested without a warrant for some offenses, and they may be held for 24 hours without being charged. 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 Islamist militants, trade unionists, suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects, and members of “deviant” Muslim sects, among others. Human Rights Watch continues to decry the denial of due process and systematic abuse of detainees held under the ISA at the Kamunting Detention Center, where more than 700 prisoners are reportedly being held indefinitely without trial or charge. The government has initiated some measures to reform the state’s internal security apparatus.

Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, the renewal of the NEP means that Malaysia continues to maintain an official affirmative-action policy intended to boost the economic status of ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, known collectively as the bumiputera. Bumiputera receive preferential treatment in many areas, including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs. Findings published in September 2006 challenging the calculations used to justify the ongoing affirmative-action quotas generated national debate about continuing the policy, but UMNO ministers made it clear that no changes would be made in the near term.

Foreign domestic workers are not covered by the Workmen’s Compensation Act and are thus subject to economic exploitation and abuse by their employers. Malaysians officially employ about 240,000 domestic workers, 90 percent of whom are Indonesian, representing roughly 20 percent of the national workforce. There are an estimated two million illegal workers in Malaysia. In part because these people are often blamed for crime, the government initiated a series of programs to expel migrant workers in 2004—although it offered an amnesty for Indonesian workers—and began an immigration crackdown in March 2006. If arrested and found guilty, the workers can be caned and detained indefinitely pending deportation. Malaysia remains on the U.S. Trafficking Report watchlist for treatment of foreign labor and failure to protect the rights of trafficking victims within its borders.

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. A new family law was passed by the Parliament in December 2005 that would further inhibit women’s rights by eliminating the requirement that men prove their ability to financially provide for multiple wives prior to engaging in polygamy and giving men the right to a spouse’s assets after divorce. The government has delayed implementation of the law, however, in light of widespread objections.