Malaysia | Freedom House

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In July 2011, police in the capital dispersed a peaceful demonstration in favor of electoral reforms, arresting some 1,700 people and firing tear gas into the crowds. Prime Minister Najib Razak in September promised changes to restrictive laws on security, assembly, and the media. However, hopes for reform were undercut by crackdowns on academic freedom, violations of religious rights, and the passage of harsh new legislation on assembly late in the year.

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 10 of the first 11 general elections after independence, the exception being the 1969 elections, which were nullified following largely anti-Chinese race riots. The BN consists of mainly ethnic parties, dominated by the conservative, Malay-based United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Mahathir Mohamed served 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.

In 2003, Mahathir stepped down and handed power to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The BN won 198 of the 219 seats in the lower house of Parliament in the 2004 elections, though opposition allegations of vote buying and problems with the electoral roll were substantiated. Abdullah’s government achieved little in the way of substantive reform. A series of court rulings during 2006 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 activism on ethnic issues by non-Malay groups, citing the need to prevent national unrest.

 During 2007, public frustration skyrocketed in response to government suppression of peaceful protests, high-level political corruption cases, a related crackdown on online media, and a crisis involving alleged politicization of the judiciary. Demands for electoral reform in advance of the 2008 general elections—coupled with perceptions of rising crime, corruption, and inflation—triggered the largest antigovernment demonstrations in nearly a decade.

In the March 2008 elections, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in the lower house of Parliament for the first time since 1969, meaning it could no longer amend the constitution unilaterally. The BN secured just 140 of the 222 lower house seats, and Abdullah faced calls for his resignation. The opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) captured 31 seats, followed by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) with 28 and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) with 23. These opposition parties also won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, and formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance (PR). However, the PR later suffered from defections and infighting, and lost control of the state of Perak in 2009 after a handful of crucial defections in the state assembly. Meanwhile, Abdullah stepped down as UMNO leader and prime minister, and was succeeded in April 2009 by his deputy, Najib Razak.

In December 2010, PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim was suspended from Parliament for six months after he compared Najib’s 1Malaysia program—designed to promote racial and religious unity—to a similar program in Israel. Three of his PKR colleagues received similar punishment for vocally objecting to the suspension. Anwar was also dogged by claims that he sodomized a young male aide in June 2008, a charge he said was a politically motivated fabrication. The trial proceeded slowly in 2011, and a verdict was pending at year’s end.

In another case that the opposition characterized as politically motivated harassment, PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu was charged with criminal defamation in September 2011 for supposedly defaming police and soldiers who defended a police station from an attack by communist guerrillas in 1950. He faced two years in prison and a fine if convicted. By the end of 2011, Mohamad’s lawyers had applied for a declaration that the defamation charge was invalid.

A mass demonstration calling for electoral reform was forcibly dispersed by police in July 2011, prompting domestic and international criticism. In September, the government announced plans to repeal the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), amend the Police Act to expand protections for freedom of assembly, and ease media restrictions in the Printing Presses and Publications Act. However, by year’s end it appeared that the ISA would be replaced by similar legislation that was still under consideration, and freedom of assembly would be further curtailed by the Peaceful Assembly Act, passed by both chambers of Parliament in November and December.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malaysia is not an electoral democracy. The leader of the party that wins a plurality of seats in legislative elections becomes 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. Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah was elected to the post in December 2011. 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.

The ruling BN is a coalition of 13 parties, most with an ethnic or regional base, including the dominant UMNO as well as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). The 2008 electoral gains of the three main opposition parties—the DAP, PAS, and PKR—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 first-past-the-post voting system also increases the power of the largest grouping, and national electoral outcomes have been affected by the malapportionment of constituencies in favor of East Malaysia. 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 to aid the ruling coalition, and the Registrar of Societies arbitrarily decides which parties can participate in politics.

Government and law enforcement bodies have suffered a series of corruption scandals. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) came under scrutiny itself in 2009, when DAP official Teoh Beng Hock was found to have fallen to his death from the window of an MACC building while being questioned about an investigation into the disbursement of state funds. An inquest ruled the death a suicide brought on by aggressive interrogation. Similarly, customs officer Ahmad Sarbani Mohamed was found dead after falling from the third floor of an MACC office in Kuala Lumpur in April 2011. He was allegedly tied to a corruption investigation involving 62 customs officers; an inquest ruled his death an accident in September. Also during 2011, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women, family, and community development, became embroiled in a corruption scandal along with her husband, Mohamad Salleh Ismail, the executive chairman of National Feedlot Corporation. They were accused of using an $82 million loan to the company to buy personal real estate. Malaysia was ranked 60 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. A Whistleblower Protection Act took effect in December 2010, but it did not appear to significantly improve transparency in 2011.

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but restricted in practice. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act 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. Privately owned television stations have close ties to the BN and generally censor programming according to government guidelines. State outlets also reflect government views. Books and films are directly censored or banned for profanity, violence, and political and religious material.

The internet has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. The government has responded in recent years by engaging in legal harassment of critical bloggers, charging them under defamation laws, the ISA, the Official Secrets Act, and the Sedition Act, all of which can draw several years in prison. The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), an agency responsible in part for regulating the internet, has been known to monitor online content and order outlets or bloggers to remove material it views as provocative or subversive.

While the BN government continues to articulate the need for a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam, religious freedom is restricted in Malaysia. Ethnic Malays are defined by the constitution as Muslims, and 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 among Muslims by other religious groups is prohibited, and a 2007 ruling by the country’s highest court effectively made it impossible for Muslims to have their conversions to other faiths recognized by the state; in very rare exceptions, a small number of non-Malays have been allowed to revert to their previous faiths after converting to Islam for marriage. Non-Muslims are not able to build houses of worship as easily as Muslims, and the state retains the right to demolish unregistered religious statues and houses of worship.

A court ruling in late 2009 overturned a government ban prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to God, touching off a wave of January 2010 arson attacks and vandalism that struck Christian churches as well as some Muslim and Sikh places of worship. Appeals in the case seemed to be in stasis by 2011, and the 2009 ruling had yet to be enforced. However, acts of anti-Christian persecution continued during the year. In August, authorities in Selangor raided a multiracial dinner at a Methodist church, alleging that Christians were proselytizing to Muslim guests. The sultan of Selangor later ruled that neither the Christians nor the Muslim religious officers breached any laws. At the end of 2011, an evangelical Christian leader faced charges of sedition for questioning the monarch’s responsibility to safeguard the special position of the Malay community.

The government restricts academic freedom; teachers or students espousing antigovernment views or engaging in political activity are subject to disciplinary action under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971. In July 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled that the National University of Malaysia had breached Article 10 of the constitution when it disciplined four students involved in a political campaign in 2010. The prime minister announced in November that the UUCA would be amended, but he stressed that his administration would still appeal the court ruling, and that political activity on campuses remained strictly prohibited. This led to protests by student activists who called for the act to be repealed. On December 17, about 100 undergraduates marched to UMNO’s headquarters. Up to 17 were arrested, and several were beaten.

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. Demonstrators can be detained under laws including the Sedition Act, the Police Act, and the ISA. On July 9, 2011, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih)—an alliance of civil society organizations working for electoral reforms, transparency in government, and an end to corruption—attempted to hold a rally of 20,000 or more participants in Kuala Lumpur. The authorities responded with water hoses, tear gas, and batons, and arrested almost 1,700 people, drawing domestic and international condemnation for their harsh tactics. In an attempt to block further demonstrations by Bersih, a curfew was imposed in the capital, along with roadblocks and police checks for residency papers. Despite the September 2011 announcement of possible legal reforms, the Peaceful Assembly Act passed at the end of the year was seen as a bid to restrict rather than safeguard freedom of assembly. There were protests against the bill before its passage, and opposition politicians walked out of Parliament to express their disapproval.

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 refused or revoked registrations for political reasons. Numerous nongovernmental organizations operate in Malaysia, but some international human rights organizations are forbidden from forming 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. Collective bargaining is limited. Unions in essential services must give advance notice of strikes; various other legal conditions effectively render strikes impossible. Amendments in November 2011 to the Employment Act further weakened workers’ rights by removing responsibility from employers and allowing greater use of subcontracting arrangements. The changes triggered protests in the capital and in Penang.

Judicial independence has been compromised by extensive executive influence. Arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts are not uncommon, with the most prominent example being the convictions of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in 1999 and 2000 for corruption and sodomy. The 1999 sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004, and Anwar was released from prison, but the corruption charge was upheld, delaying his return to elected office until 2008. The second, current sodomy case against him began that year.

Malaysia’s secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia (Islamic law), 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. This results in vastly different treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims regarding “moral” and family law issues.

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 without trial. The law 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. Detainees have reported cases of torture while in custody, but official documentation of these claims is rare. More than 40 people remained in detention under the ISA at the close of 2011, as lawmakers considered a replacement law that would focus on combating terrorism.

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. Bumiputera receive preferential treatment in areas including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs, and bumiputera-owned companies receive the lion’s share of large government contracts.

Foreign household workers are often subject to exploitation and abuse by employers. Indonesia lifted a 2009 ban on sending such workers to Malaysia in December 2011, after the two governments agreed on a minimum wage and other rudimentary worker protections, but Cambodia imposed a similar ban in October. An estimated two million foreigners work in Malaysia illegally. If arrested and found guilty, they can be caned and detained indefinitely pending deportation.

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. Despite some progress in investigating and punishing sex-trafficking offenses, efforts to combat trafficking are criticized as inadequate.