Freedom in the World
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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.
- 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.
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.
The paramount ruler, the monarch and titular head of state, is elected for five-year terms by fellow hereditary rulers from 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states. A new king, Sultan Muhammad V, was sworn in on December 13, 2016. The role of the king is largely ceremonial.
Executive power is vested in the prime minister and cabinet. The leader of the coalition that wins a plurality of seats in legislative elections becomes the prime minister. The upper house of the bicameral Parliament, the Senate, consists of 44 members appointed by the king and 26 members elected by the 13 state legislatures, serving three-year terms. The House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat, has 222 seats; its members are elected by popular vote at least every five years.
The ruling National Front (BN) coalition won the 2013 parliamentary elections, capturing 133 seats in the lower house despite receiving only 47 percent of the overall popular vote. The opposition and observers accused the BN of electoral fraud, citing irregularities such as phantom voting and power outages in vote-tallying centers in a number of constituencies that opposition parties hoped to win. The Election Commission 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. Although a government committee issued recommendations for electoral reforms in 2012, there is continuing skepticism over their implementation.
The BN and its pre-1973 predecessor organization have governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. Most of its constituent parties have an ethnic or regional base, including the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the United Traditional Bumiputera Party, whose stronghold is in Sarawak. The delineation of electoral districts gives uneven voting power to ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, especially those in rural areas, at the expense of groups considered more likely to vote for the opposition, such as city dwellers and ethnic minorities.
In addition to the skewed electoral system, opposition parties face obstacles such as unequal access to the media, restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, and politicized prosecutions. In recent years, politicians and political activists have increasingly been charged with sedition and other criminal offenses for criticizing the government or organizing demonstrations. In November 2016, 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, a ruling condemned by human rights groups. People’s Justice Party (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim has been dogged by claims that he “sodomized” a male aide in 2008, a charge seen as politically motivated. He was acquitted in 2012, but the Court of Appeal reversed that verdict and sentenced him to five years in prison in 2014. The Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest court, confirmed the sentence in 2015, and in December 2016 a five-judge panel denied his appeal for a review.
Elected officials determine and implement government policy, but the unfair electoral framework weakens their legitimacy, and corruption provides a strong incentive to serve partisan patronage networks rather than the public interest.
Government favoritism and blurred distinctions between public and private enterprises create conditions conducive to corruption. Officials regularly move back and forth between the private and public sectors, fostering opportunities for collusion and graft. Political parties are allowed to own or have financial holdings in corporate enterprises. Several government-affiliated organizations have been involved in scandals.
The corruption scandal involving the state-owned 1MDB development fund is ongoing. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in July 2016 that it would seize U.S. assets amounting to more than $1 billion from people connected to Prime Minister Razak in a move intended to stem illicit finance and money laundering.
Meanwhile, Najib worked to suppress scrutiny within the government and his own party. In 2015, he replaced the attorney general and fired cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been critical of Najib’s handling of the scandal. Najib then promoted four members of a parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB to his cabinet, temporarily halting the committee’s work.
Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but restricted in practice. A 2012 amendment to the Printing Presses and Publications Act retains the home minister’s authority to suspend or revoke publishing licenses but allows judicial review of such decisions. Most private publications are controlled by parties or businesses allied with the BN, as are most private television stations, which generally censor programming according to government guidelines. State outlets reflect government views. Books and films are directly censored or banned for profanity, violence, and political and religious content.
The internet is an outlet for some free discussion and the exposure of political corruption, but the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) monitors websites and can order the removal of material considered provocative or subversive. A 2012 amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act holds owners and editors of websites, providers of web-hosting services, and owners of computers or mobile devices accountable for information published through their services or property. The government engages in legal harassment of critical voices, charging them under defamation laws, the Official Secrets Act, and the Sedition Act—all of which include imprisonment as a possible penalty. In March 2016, an independent Malaysian news site, The Malaysian Insider, shut down. Though officially for administrative reason, the closure came just after the MCMC ordered the site blocked in response to a report it published claiming that the local antigraft agency had sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Razak.
Political satire is also heavily regulated by the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), and transgressors may face imprisonment and/or large fines for communication that is “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.” In June 2016, Malaysian artist Fahmi Reza was charged under the CMA and investigated for sedition after he posted a caricature of Razak online. The editors and cofounders of the news website Malaysiakini were charged in November under the CMA, with a pending sentence of up to one year in jail.
While some members of the BN government continue to articulate the need for a tolerant and inclusive form of Islam in Malaysia, religious freedom is restricted. Ethnic Malays are defined under the constitution as Muslims. Practicing a version of Islam other than Sunni Islam is prohibited, and Shiites face discrimination. 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 Federal Court effectively made it impossible for Muslims to have their conversions to other faiths recognized by the state. 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.
Teachers and students espousing antigovernment views or engaging in political activity are subject to disciplinary action under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971.
Open and free private discussion has been undermined in recent years by increasing use of sedition and other charges to suppress critical speech, the ban on non-Muslims’ use of the word “Allah,” and growing state enforcement of conservative social norms.
Freedoms of assembly and association are limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. Street protests are prohibited, with high fines for noncompliance. The law delineates 21 public places where assemblies cannot be held—including within 50 meters of houses of worship, schools, and hospitals—and prohibits persons under the age of 15 from attending any public assembly.
Leading up to the Bersih 5.0 rally in November in Kuala Lumpur and other cities that pushed for electoral and anticorruption reforms, the government intensified its previous crackdown on Bersih activists, raiding the offices of the organizers and arresting the chairperson and secretariat manager. The police also seized computers, mobile phones, and other documents. Other activists were arrested under Penal Code provisions criminalizing rioting. The government banned Bersih in 2015 after it organized similar mass demonstrations.
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 (NGOs) operate in Malaysia, but some international human rights organizations are forbidden from forming local branches. The government is investigating many NGOs, including Bersih 2.0, for accepting foreign funds on the grounds that foreign intervention might destabilize democracy.
Most Malaysian 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. Collective bargaining is limited, as is the right to strike.
Judicial independence is compromised by extensive executive influence. Arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts are common, as seen in the convictions of Anwar Ibrahim in 1999, 2000, and 2014 on charges of corruption and sodomy. 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 heard in Sharia courts. This results in vastly different treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims regarding “moral” and family law issues.
Allegations of torture and abuse, including deaths, in police custody continue to be reported, and a number of criminal offenses can be punished with caning. The 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act allows police to detain anyone for up to 28 days without judicial review for broadly defined “security offenses,” and suspects may be held for 48 hours before being granted access to a lawyer. The government used the act to briefly detain the leader of Bersih 2.0 in November 2016. A 2013 amendment to the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA), a law ostensibly aimed at combating organized crime, allows a five-member board to order the detention of individuals listed by the Home Ministry for renewable two-year terms without trial or legal representation. The 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) together with the National Security Council (NSC) Act from the same year gives the NSC—led by the prime minister—wide powers of arrest, search, and seizure without a warrant in areas deemed as security risks and within the pretext of countering terrorism. The NSC Act entered into force in August 2016. Government critics and opposition members argue that these laws widen government’s power to reintroduce indefinite detention without trial and could be misused to undermine human rights and democracy.
Although the constitution provides for equal treatment of all citizens, it grants a “special position” to ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, known collectively as bumiputera. The government maintains programs intended to boost the economic status of bumiputera, who receive preferential treatment in areas including property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, business affairs, and government contracts.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Malaysians face widespread discrimination and harassment. Same-sex sexual relations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison under the penal code, and some states apply their own penalties to Muslims under Sharia statutes. The Ministries of Health and Education conduct campaigns to “prevent, overcome, and correct” symptoms of homosexuality in children, while the Ministry of Information has banned television and radio shows depicting gay characters. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department operates camps to “rehabilitate” transgender Muslims. In July 2016, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the National Registration Department (NRD) to update a transgender man’s identity card to reflect his gender identity and chosen name. The decision has been lauded by LGBT activists as it “gives new hope” for the trans community in the country.
Citizens are generally free to travel within and outside of Malaysia, as well as to change residence and employment. Malaysia is recognized as having a vibrant private business sector. However, professional and business opportunities and access to higher education are affected by regulations and practices favoring ethnic Malays and those with connections to political elites. Bribery is common in the private sector, and Malaysia ranks second on the Economist’s list of countries with the most crony capitalism.
Women are underrepresented in politics, the civil service, and professional fields such as law, medicine, banking, and business. 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 including inheritance and divorce, and women’s testimony is not given equal weight.
Foreign household workers are often subject to exploitation and abuse by employers. An estimated two million foreigners work illegally in various industries and are vulnerable to forced labor and sexual abuse. If arrested and found guilty of immigration offenses, they can be caned and detained indefinitely pending deportation. Legislation passed in 2015 granted greater rights and protections to human trafficking victims, but implementation remains problematic.