Freedom in the World
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Malaysia received an upward trend arrow due to the opposition’s significant gains in general elections, greater pluralism and discussion in the media, and the peaceful conduct of major public protests.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost its long-standing two-thirds parliamentary majority in the March 2008 general elections. The BN also lost control of five state governments to the opposition. Amid rising prices and the perception that the government was disconnected from the people, a large number of protests and demonstrations took place during the year. Some were halted by the police, but many were allowed to proceed. The year also featured more open political discussion in the media. However, the authorities again invoked the draconian Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act in September, arresting an opposition lawmaker, a journalist, and two bloggers.
Malaya gained independence from Britain in 1957 and merged with the British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah to become the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN, known as the Alliance before 1969) won at least a two-thirds majority in all 11 general elections between 1957 and 2008, except the ill-fated 1969 election, which was nullified following violent racial riots. The BN consists of mainly ethnic parties, dominated by the conservative, Malay-based United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Racial tensions between the Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities have played a central role in Malaysian politics and economics since the country’s founding. Independence was premised on a social contract, enshrined in the constitution, that granted 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). After the outbreak of race riots in 1969, in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed and more than 180 people were killed, 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 prime minister from 1981 to 2003. His development policies transformed Malaysia into a hub for multinational corporations and high-technology exports. At the same time, he stunted democratic institutions, weakened the rule of law by curtailing the press and political opponents, and drew allegations of cronyism with his state-led industrial development. Mahathir criticized conservative Muslim leaders for failing to promote a more modern brand of Islam and, at the same time, attempted to co-opt Islamist opposition forces by weaving their positions into UMNO’s ideology. Mahathir’s anti-Western and anti-Semitic views rankled outsiders as well.
In October 2003, Mahathir stepped down and left the premiership to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The BN won 198 of the 219 seats in the lower house of Parliament in the 2004 elections, which were generally regarded as transparent. However, the threemain 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 his strong popular mandate, Abdullah achieved little in the way of reform. In 2006, sharp divisions emerged within UNMO as Mahathir launched a series of harsh attacks on Abdullah. Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who had been controversially removed by Mahathir in 1998, reemerged as a major opposition figure. Religious freedom declined significantly during the year with a series of court rulings that denied certain religious and legal rights for non-Muslims, sparking a national debate on constitutional guarantees and the role of Islam in Malaysia. The government took action to suppress press coverage, public discussion, and related civil society activism on ethnic issues, citing the need to prevent national unrest.
Over the course of 2007, Malaysia moved farther away from Abdullah’s promises of an open and accountable government, and public frustration skyrocketed in response. Highway toll hikes in January drew peaceful protests, which were brutally suppressed by police and neglected by mainstream media. Bloggers and online news sites exposed several high-level political corruption cases, but a major crackdown on online media was launched in June and July. In May, the long-awaited judgment in the case of Lina Joy, a Muslim convert to Christianity, added to frustration among the non-Muslim population. The final ruling effectively barred Muslims from converting to other faiths. Separately, a judicial crisis kicked off in August, focusing on allegations that political figures were using their influence to secure the promotion of compliant judges. Demands for electoral reform in advance of the general elections—coupled with perceptions of rising crime, corruption, and inflation—prompted over 40,000 Malaysians to defy a police ban and attend a major November rally by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), an alliance of opposition parties and other civil society groups. The protest formed part of what became the country’s largest antigovernment demonstrations in nearly a decade. The police attempted to suppress them with tear gas and water cannons, and arrested demonstration leaders. On the economic front, the government downplayed middle-class difficulties while pursuing a development program that maintained pro-Malay affirmative-action policies.
The BN suffered from a January 2008 sex scandal that forced the resignation of the health minister. Nevertheless, Abdullah confirmed observers’ expectations by dissolving Parliament in February and scheduling early general elections for March 8. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of the PKR had been convicted on what were widely seen as politically motivated sodomy and corruption charges following his 1998 dismissal as deputy prime minister, and a five-year ban on his participation in electoral politics was due to expire in April; speculation arose that the new polls were timed so that Anwar would be unable to seek office.
The early elections appeared to backfire on the BN, as it lost its long-standing two-thirds majority in the lower house of Parliament. That dominance had allowed it to amend the constitution over 40 times since independence. The BN managed to secure just 140 of the 222 lower house seats, and Abdullah soon faced calls for his resignation. Meanwhile, the PKR captured 31 seats, up from just 1 in the 2004 elections, followed by the DAP with 28 and PAS with 23. The opposition parties also won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, and formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance in the wake of the polls.
Abdullah’s government struggled to recover from the election defeat in the spring, but in June it implemented highly unpopular fuel-price increases to reduce the cost of ballooning oil subsidies. Opposition party members and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) responded with a major protest rally, which police allowed to proceed after urging the public not to participate.
In August, Anwar returned to elected office by winning a by-election in a Parliament constituency held by his wife since his criminal convictions; she resigned to allow him to take the seat. The victory gave Anwar momentum to pursue his plans to form a new government, but he was ultimately unable to convince enough members of the BN to defect to his side. His failure to meet his own deadlines for organizing a majority coalition had cost him some credibility by year’s end. Anwar was again accused of sodomy charges in 2008 by a former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, and the case was pending at year’s end. Though it remained in power, the BN continued to falter. In September, reported anti-Chinese remarks by a senior UMNO politician stirred dissent among the ethnic Chinese elements of the ruling coalition, and the journalist who initially reported the comments was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Following that arrest, opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok and controversial blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin were also arrested under the ISA. The arrests were widely condemned both within and outside the BN, and all three detainees were eventually released. A series of peaceful marches in support of Raja Petra, the last to be released in November, proceeded without police interference.
In response to the arrests, Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim tendered his resignation and called for a repeal of the ISA. His departure was a serious setback for Abdullah, who had appointed him in March to spearhead judicial reform and restore the BN’s popularity. Also in September, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) announced that it was withdrawing from the ruling coalition, although some members split with the party and remained allied with the government.
Meanwhile, Abdullah faced mounting impatience within UMNO regarding his plans to hand power to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2010. In October, Abdullah announced that he would not seek reelection as president of UMNO in March 2009, paving the way for Najib to seek both the party leadership and the premiership.
Malaysia is not an electoral democracy. 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. The paramount ruler, the titular head of state, is elected for five-year terms by fellow hereditary rulers in 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states. Mizan Zainal Abidin al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud al-Muktafi Billah Shah was elected to the post in 2006. The upper house of the bicameral Parliament consists of 44 appointed members and 26 members elected by the state legislatures, serving three-year terms. The lower house, with 222 seats, is popularly elected at least every five years. While its oversight power has increased under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and since the opposition gained seats in the March 2008 elections, Parliament’s role as a deliberative body has deteriorated since the 1970s.
The ruling BN is a coalition of 14 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 three main opposition parties—the DAP, PAS, and PKR—formed their own People’s Alliance coalition after the March 2008 elections.Their dramatic electoral gains came despite serious obstacles, such as unequal access to the media and restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, which left them unable to compete on equal terms with the BN. The country’s first-past-the-post voting system also increases the power of the largest grouping. Despite winning more than 40 percent of the vote in the 2004 elections, opposition parties collectively captured only 18 out of 219 seats in the lower house.In 2008, the BN won just 51 percent of the vote but secured 140 of 222 lower house seats.
The Election Commission (EC) is frequently accused of manipulating electoral rolls and gerrymandering districts in favor of the ruling coalition, and the Registrar of Societies arbitrarily decides which parties can participate in politics. However, the EC was generally seen to have performed well in the 2008 elections, despite its sudden reversal on the use of indelible ink on election day—which cost tax-payers $600,000—and the sporadic inclusion of phantom voters on the electoral rolls.
Abdullah has largely failed to follow through on his anticorruption campaign pledges. Corruption worsened among members of the ruling coalition in 2007, with a number of cases at the very highest levels. Also that year, the police inspector general and the deputy minister for internal security launched corruption allegations against each other, and the third-highest-ranking police officer was arrested on charges of concealing massive wealth in November. A royal commission tasked with investigating the police in 2005 recommended the creation of an independent complaints and misconduct board, but the move has been resisted by the police inspectorate general and the attorney general. A Special Complaints Commission (SCC) bill was introduced in late 2007, but it faced considerable criticism, and decisions on the issue were deferred until 2008. Malaysia was ranked 47 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act (OSA) reduces transparency in governance and curbs freedom of information. It has been invoked both to prevent and to punish the disclosure of politically damaging information.
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but restricted in practice, although the scope of political discussion in the media expanded noticeably after the March 2008 elections. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) gives the government the authority to revoke licenses without judicial review. It also requires that publications and printers obtain annual operating permits, encouraging self-censorship and limiting investigative journalism. A request from the Tamil-language daily, Makkal Osai, to renew its printing permitwas turned down in April, but was restored later that month following an appeal. Privately owned television stations have close ties to the BN and generally censor programming according to government guidelines. Books and films are directly censored for profanity, violence, and political and religious material.
With traditional media so heavily restricted, the internet has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. The government responded in 2007 with an escalating crackdown, including the first defamation charges against bloggers. Bloggers were also threatened with arrest under the ISA, the OSA, and the Sedition Act, all of which could draw several years in prison. Following the March 2008 elections, the BN significantly softened its efforts to curtail online expression. Even BN veterans began to take up blogging and other new media platforms, although many of these ventures were eventually discontinued, and some politicians’ blogs were allegedly written by aides.
Freedom of expression online came under attack again in August, when the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) ordered all service providers in the country to block the controversial website MalaysiaToday.net. However, the cabinet in September bowed to public uproar over the decision, ordering the MCMC to reverse its ban on MalaysiaToday.net as well as all 127 websites that had been blocked previously for alleged pornography, fraud schemes, and illegal gambling. Also in September, prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was arrested under the ISA, and blogger Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, known online as Kickdefella, was held under the Sedition Act for allegedly encouraging others to fly the national flag upside down. Syed Azidi was released within days, while Raja Petra was held until early November.
While Abdullah continues to promote a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam, religious freedom is restricted in Malaysia. Practicing a version of Islam other than Sunni Islam is prohibited. Muslim children and civil servants are required to receive religious education using government-approved curriculums and instructors. 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 2007, the country’s highest court issued the final ruling in the high-profile case of Lina Joy, a Muslim who converted to Christianity in 1998 and has since fought to have her conversion legally recognized. The court effectively upheld a ruling that Muslims must obtain an order from a Sharia (Islamic law) court stating that they have renounced Islam before they can change their national identity cards. Given that the constitution declares Malays to be Muslims and that Sharia courts effectively prohibit Muslims from renouncing their faith, the decision rendered conversion impossible.
The government restricts academic freedom to the extent that teachers or students espousing antigovernment views may be subject to disciplinary action under the University and Colleges Act of 1971.
Freedoms of assembly and association are limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. A police permit is required for all public assemblies except picket lines, and the granting of permits is sometimes politically influenced. Police forcefully suppressed or dispersed a number of peaceful protests in 2007, including major rallies held in defiance of police bans in November of that year. Hundreds of people were arrested in those incidents. However, several demonstrations proceeded without police interference in 2008, including rallies to protest fuel-price increases and ISA arrests.
The Societies Act of 1996 defines a society as any association of seven or more people, excluding schools, businesses, and trade unions. Societies must be approved and registered by the government, which has periodically refused or revoked registrations for political reasons. Numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Malaysia, but some international human rights organizations are not allowed to form Malaysian branches.
Most Malaysian workers—excluding migrant workers—can join trade unions, but the law contravenes international guidelines by restricting unions to representing workers in a single or similar trade. The Director General of Trade Unions can refuse or withdraw registration arbitrarily, and the union recognition process can take from 18 to 36 months. In practice, collective bargaining is limited. Unions in essential services must give advance notice of strikes, and various other legal conditions effectively render strikes impossible.
Judicial independence has been compromised by extensive executive influence since an infamous 1988 scandal in which then prime minister Mahathir Mohamed sacked six top judges. Arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts are not uncommon, with the most prominent case being the convictions of Anwar Ibrahim in 1999 and 2000 for corruption and sodomy. The sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004, and he was released from prison, but the corruption charge was upheld.
Public frustration with the lack of judicial integrity soared in 2007. Long delays and obfuscations in the ongoing murder case against Abdul Razak Baginda, a prominent political analyst close to the deputy prime minister, fed perceptions of judicial bias. (The defendant was acquitted in October 2008.) The previously acquiescent Conference of Rulers (or COR, Malaysia’s nine hereditary sultans) spearheaded calls for prompt reform in 2007, blocking key judicial appointment decisions by Abdullah, and the rulers were joined in their demands by lawyers’ organizations. After the 2008 elections, Abdullah named Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim to lead the government’s judicial reform effort, but Zaid resigned in September to protest the three ISA arrests that month. Parliament passed the Anti-Corruption Commission bill and the Judicial Appointments Commission bill in early December. However, the bills have been criticized for being watered down pieces of legislation, and the Malaysian Bar Council has criticized the judicial reform bill in particular for allowing for excessive executive influence over the composition of the judiciary.
Malaysia’s secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia, the interpretation of which varies regionally, and the constitution’s Article 121 stipulates that all matters related to Islam should be dealt with in Sharia courts.
There is no constitutional provision specifically banning torture, and police have been known to torture prisoners and use excessive force or inhumane tactics in conducting searches. Police reform has been inhibited by resistance at the highest levels of the police force and, according to many, by the attorney general. In August 2007, a former chief of police and member of the 2005 commission on police reform, Hanif Omar, published a scathing statement on police practices and the government’s failure to resolve the problems as crime soared
Individuals may be arrested without a warrant for some offenses and 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 to jail mainstream politicians, alleged Islamist militants, trade unionists, suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects, and members of “deviant” Muslim sects, among others. Hundreds of detainees currently held under the ISA are reportedly denied due process and systematically abused. Five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) were detained under the ISA after the November 2007 protests, and their applications for early release were rejected in 2008. HINDRAF was banned in November 2008.
Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, the government maintains an affirmative-action program intended to boost the economic status of ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, known collectively as bumiputera. Bumiputerareceive preferential treatment in areas including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs, andbumiputera-owned companies receive the lion’s share of large government contracts. Of the five opposition-led states, only the DAP-controlled state of Penang has offered to eliminate the race-based preferential policy. However, no concrete measures had been put in place by year’s end.
Foreign domestic workers are not covered by the Workmen’s Compensation Act and are thus subject to exploitation by 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. If arrested and found guilty, illegal workers can be caned and detained indefinitely pending deportation. An untrained volunteer reserve of hundreds of thousands of baton-wielding Malaysians, called Rela, has been pursuing illegal foreign workers and refugees since 2005, raising serious concerns among human rights groups.
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 are legally disadvantaged because their family grievances are heard in Sharia courts, where men are favored in matters such as inheritance and divorce, and women’s testimony is not given equal weight. In its 2008 human trafficking report, the U.S. State Department placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 Watch List, noting the passage of antitrafficking legislation in 2007 but calling on the government to fully implement and enforce the law.