Malaysia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017



Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Kuala Lumpur
Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Although Malaysia holds regular elections, it has been ruled by the same political coalition since independence in 1957. The coalition has maintained power by manipulating electoral districts, appealing to ethnic nationalism, and suppressing criticism through restrictive speech laws and politicized prosecutions of opposition leaders.

Key Developments: 
  • The coalition of civil society organizations and opposition parties known as Bersih (Clean) continued their campaign for electoral and other reforms with rallies in November across the country and abroad, including tens of thousands of people in the capital.
  • The government’s arrest of several key activists and organizers the day before the rally is the latest in a series of heavy handed attempts to quell and silence civil society activism.
  • Press freedom violations continue, including the shut down of independent news site The Malaysian Insider in March after the government ordered one of its reports to be blocked.
  • In November, a court found opposition politician Rafizi Ramli guilty of disclosing state secrets after he made public the Auditor General’s report on the 1MDB scandal.
Executive Summary: 

Malaysia holds regular elections, but it falls short of international standards. The political playing field is tilted toward the ruling party through measures such as gerrymandering of electoral districts, unequal candidate access to the media, and restrictions on campaigning, in addition to election day fraud. In noncampaign periods, opposition figures continue to face charges for sedition and other criminal offenses for criticizing the government or organizing demonstrations, and the government influences the judiciary for political ends. In November 2016, a court ruled against opposition politician Rafizi Ramli for making public a report on the ongoing 1MDB scandal. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s mismanagement of and possible embezzlement from state development fund 1MDB has continued to be highly controversial domestically and internationally.

Tens of thousands of people congregated for the Bersih 5 rally in November in Kuala Lumpur, which built on four previous rallies over the past decade in favor of anticorruption reforms and other democratic improvements. This year, the government intensified its crackdown on the movement, raiding the offices of the organizers and arresting leaders and participants.

Religious minorities including Shiites face discriminatory treatment that is often ignored by the government, though some ruling party members articulate the need for a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam in Malaysia. Muslims are subject to Sharia (Islamic law), leading to unequal treatment particularly of women and LGBT persons. Free expression faces a range of restrictions, many of which have recently spread to the internet. The government can suspend or revoke publishing licenses and censorship is common. The government engages in legal harassment of critical voices using a range of laws at its disposal.

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