***Updated in September 2013. Since Human Rights Watch submitted its analysis of Malaysia’s adherence to international human rights standards in March 2013, the rights atmosphere in Malaysia has deteriorated in several key areas. Updates are in bold.***
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Expression, and Association
Despite rights-protecting rhetoric, the Malaysian government has continued to curtail the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression.
In early 2010 a coalition of civil society groups organized Bersih 2.0, a social movement demanding clean and fair elections. In May 2011, its steering committee authorized a major public rallyfor July 9. In response, the minister of home affairs announced that a required police permit would not be granted and declared Bersih an illegal organization under the Societies Act, an order overturned in court a year later. Police raided the Bersih secretariat office, arresting staff and confiscating equipment, and on the streets harassed and arbitrarily arrestedBersihsupporters.On July 9, police broke up the event, using excessive force, beatings, tear gas, water cannon and arbitrary arrests. Less than a year later, at anotherBersih-organized rally held in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2012, police again respondedwith widespread excessive use of force.
The Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA), hastily passed by parliament in November 2012 over the objections of the Malaysian Bar Association and other civil society groups, formally revoked the provision in article 27 of the Police Act requiring police permission for public rallies. But in practice the PAA has been used to severelyrestrict rights. It forbids so-called “moving” assemblies, allows the police to impose broad and arbitrary conditions on proposed events, and sostrictly limits appropriate rally sites that organizing a legal gathering in an urban setting is difficult. The law makes it an offense for children under 15 to attend rallies and for adults to bring children to assemblies, effectively restrictingboth children and caregivers from exercising their rights to assembly.
At the People’s Uprising Rally on January 12, 2013, the first organized under the PAA, the police set 27 conditions and followed up by investigating rule violationsthat were either trivial or protected under international law, such as carrying placardswith “inappropriate slogans.”In Sabah, police ordered organizers of aFebruary 22 “Idle No More Long March” for indigenous rights and fair electionsto apply for a permitbecausepolice claimed it was not an “ordinary” march.
Following Malaysia’s May 5, 2013 national election, the government resorted to the flawed Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) to single out and prosecute organizers of peaceful “Black 505” opposition rallies called to protest alleged electoral fraud. Most of those charged were rally organizers who authorities claimed had violated the 10-day advance police notification requirement. Along with the PAA’s ban on “moving assemblies,” the limited number of legal sites available, and the need for organizers to negotiate assembly conditions with the police, the notification requirement severely limited the right to peaceful assembly.
Police called in other political activists to “discuss” their allegedly seditious statements that were sharply critical of the government’s conduct of the national election. Of particular note were the five activists who spoke at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall during a May 13, 2013 forum. One of the five, student activist Adam Adli Abd Halim, arrested for allegedly engaging in seditious speech, was remanded for five days. He has pleaded not guilty.
Following a May 22 vigil for Halim, police called in for questioning four leading opposition figures who had spoken to a crowd estimated at 1,000. The police had broken up the otherwise peaceful event and arrested 18 participants. Lawyers called to represent those arrested were initially denied contact with their clients and were not present when the 18 detainees gave their statements.
Police also filed sedition charges against the four others who spoke on May 13: PKR vice-president Tian Chua, nongovernmental organization leader Haris Ibrahim, PAS member Mohd Tamrin Abdul Ghafar, and social activist Hishamuddin Rais. All four claimed trial. Their cases were still pending at the time of this update.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pledge, first announced on July 12, 2012 and reiterated on July 2, 2013, to repeal the rights repressing, overly broad, and outdated Sedition Act has not made progress. In fact, the government has launched innumerable investigations of alleged seditious insults to Islam, including the so-called Alvivi (Alvin-Vivian) Facebook posting, Maznah Mohd Yusof’s dog washing video, and Syed Ahmad’s willingness to permit Buddhists to use a suara for prayers.
Freedom of Expression
The government employs a number of methods to limit the right to free expression.The print and broadcast media remain dominated by media companies with close ties to political parties aligned with the ruling coalition.
Government regulation of printed publications through the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) impedes access to information. An April 2012 amendment to the PPPA is less of a reform than the government has touted. It ends a yearly renewal requirement for publication licenses and provides for court review of the home minister’s previously unlimited power to arbitrarily approve or revoke publishing permits. However, the law still imposes a three-year prison term for “maliciously published false news” and places the legal burden on the accused to disprove guilt. The PPPA has been used to block printing of publications that the government considers hostile, such as books by Zunar, apolitical cartoonist, and it has succeeded in limiting distribution of opposition party newspapers.After the Kuala Lumpur High Court's Appellate and Special Powers division ruled in October 2012that there was no legitimate reason for the minister to reject on-line news portal Malaysiakini’sapplication to produce a print edition, the government immediately appealed. The case is still pending.
Amendments to theEvidence Actin August 2012 mark the government’s first overt attempt to censor the Internet. They tighten restraints by classifying computer owners and operators of computer networks as publishers, responsible for whatever is displayed on their screens. Unless those accused can prove they had nothing to do with the offending content, they can be convicted, raising serious concerns about presumption of innocence as well as the right to free expression.
In addition, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act provides that “no content applications service provider, or other person using a content applications service shall provide content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person,”a broad definition permittingthe government to block a wide array of websites.
The Sedition Actand the Penal Code control public expression by criminalizing speech that the government allegestocontain a “seditious tendency,” such as “to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Malaysia,” or to “promote feelings of ill will…between different races or classes.”
In July 2012 the government announced that the Sedition Act would be replaced by a National Harmony Actthat would permit criticism of the government,but draw the line against speech or actions that could create tensions in a multi-ethnic society.
Freedom of Association
The Malaysian government compromises the right to freedom of association by regulations requiring that any society (other than trade unions, cooperative societies, and school committees) comprisingseven or more peoplebe registeredby the Registrar of Societies. Such societies shall “in conducting its affairs,” uphold democratic government and Islam as the religion of Malaysia. The home affairs minister has “absolute discretion” to declare a society unlawful if he believes it would prejudice the “security of Malaysia” or “public order or morality.” The Registrar of Societies may refuse or cancel the registration of a society on similar grounds.
Beginning in July 2012 at least six government agencies alleged that Suaram, a leading nongovernmental organization, had illegally circumvented registration. Accusations included“hiding its true agenda,” undermining the government of Malaysia, seeking foreign funds, and engaging in a series of “highly suspicious” financialtransactions.In late January 2013, the investigationby the Registrar of Societies was terminated with no charges filed.
The right to free association also remained under attack. In August 2013, the leading human rights NGO Suaram again came under hostile scrutiny by the police. Citing the Sedition Act, the police called in Cynthia Gabriel, a member of Suaram’s secretariat, to allegedly examine statements made by speakers at a July fundraising dinner in support of its anti-corruption work. In yet another threat to free association, the Registrar of Societies used his power to insist that the DAP, an opposition political party, hold new elections for its Central Executive Committee. Under threat of termination, the DAP complied.
In a positive step, the government permitted the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance 1969, which had been regularly used to hold criminal suspects without charge or trial, to expire in June 2012.
While the government’s revocation of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) promised an end to the use of abusive administrative detention in Malaysia, the replacement Security Offenses (Special Measures) 2012 Act (SOSMA) provides only marginal improvements. SOSMA reducespreviously unlimited administrative detention to 28days, curtails the unchecked power of the home affairs minister to decide cases, mandates judicial oversight and a fair trial, and provides immediate access to relatives and legal counsel. However, the definition of a security offense is overbroad, police rather than judgesmay authorize communicationintercepts, and prosecutors may utilize secret witnesses and unsourcedinformation as evidence.Acquitteddefendants may be held indefinitely while their cases are on appeal.
The first SOSMA detentions demonstrated the police’s ability to circumvent the law. After MohdHilmiHasim was arrested under the law on February 7, 2013, he was detained more than a week without access to a family member or a lawyer while police attempted to convince him to become a state witness against two others. He was finally charged with abetment on February 21. His mother, whom police had attempted to enlist in their efforts, reportedthat the police subjected her to threats and intimidation.
Recent government decisions backtrack on promised reforms to eliminate preventive detention, to support suspects’ due process rights, and to rein in a police force prone to excessive use of force during demonstrations when apprehending alleged criminals and in handling suspects in police lockups. In 2013, according to public records, at least 12 people in police custody died under suspicious circumstances.
The government proposed three initiatives in August 2013 to stem an alleged upsurge in criminal activity, fueled it said by those released when the Emergency Ordinance 1969 was rescinded. One features reintroduction of the Emergency Ordinance, which would again permit unlimited detention without judicial review.
The second proposal, already in effect, relies on using the long-neglected Prevention of Crime Act 1959, which permits suspects to be held without charge in pre-trial detention for up to 72 days. Although some legal safeguards, such as oversight by a magistrate, are in place apparently to protect those apprehended and detained for further investigation, the proposed implementation of the law has raised further concerns. For example, those who have violated a specific list of offenses, such as membership in a secret society or human trafficking, would be sent to remote locations where police would monitor compliance with restrictions on their movement and activities. Restriction could last as long as five years and could be reinstated by the home minister for another five.
The third initiative, use of electronic monitoring devices on those released after serving their sentences, violates an internationally accepted norm that once sentences are served, unless early release or parole are involved, the former prisoners have full restoration of their rights, including freedom of movement.
Since Malaysia’s first UPR review, the Royal Malaysia Police have continued to use unnecessary or excessive force to shut down protests, obtain coerced confessions, and mistreat persons in custody. Suspicious deaths in police custody, including three in January 2013 alone, are frequently attributed to suspects’ pre-existing medical conditions or drug use. Post mortem inquiries, which must be conducted at a government facility, are often delayed and inadequate. Second inquiries require judicial approval and costs must be paid by those seeking the inquest.
The government continues to reject the establishment of an independent and impartial police complaints commission in accordance with therecommendations of the Royal Commission on police reform. A weaker substitute, the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission (EAIC), which focuses on not just the police but a total of 19 government agencies, has blamed a lack of adequate staff and budget to explain the delays in investigating complaints filed with it.
Lack of accountability for custodial deaths is exemplified by the case of GunasegaramRajasundrum, who died in police custody in July 2009. Despitewitnesses who testified topolice abuseand identified officers responsible, the coroner stated he could not reach a conclusion as to whether death resulted from drug use or police beatings. In 2013, Gunasegaram’s family brought a civil suit against the government, the police, and the hospital. The proceedings revealed police threats to witnesses and claims by police that ‘special rules’ existedfor late night interrogations.To date, there is no available police report on the case and the civil suit is ongoing.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
In violation of international standards against discrimination, Malaysian leaders continue to denigratelesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak gave speeches in June and July 2012 in which he asserted that the activities of LGBT people do not “have a place in the country.” In November2011, police closed down the SeksualitiMerdeka (“Sexual Diversity”) Festival, stated the event was a threat to national security, and harassed and threatened organizers. The festival wasorganized tocelebrate“unity in diversity,”and planned to feature talks, workshops, literary events, stage performances, and an art exhibition.
Malaysia still criminalizes what it terms “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” under article 377 B of the penal code. Those convicted face penalties includingfines, whippings, and imprisonment for up to 20 years. Transsexuals are refused the right to change their gender classification on their national identity cards and cross dressing is prohibited.
Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Migrants, and Trafficked Persons
Malaysia has not signed or ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no refugee law or asylum procedure. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) exercises its protection mandate in Malaysia by conducting refugee status determinations, but there is no guarantee that UNHCR-recognized refugees or asylum seekers with refugee claims pending will not be forcibly returned to their countries, thus violating the internationally protected prohibition against refoulement.
Twice in 2012-2013 the Malaysian authorities forcibly returned ethnic Uighurs with pending asylum claims to China, and in 2012 forcibly returned a Saudi national facing severe punishment for statements he made on his Twitter account.
Refugeesand asylum seekers in Malaysia face extortion and abuse from law enforcement officers. They are refused legal authorization to work, which increases their risk of exploitation, particularly as they often wait years for resettlement. Refugees’ children have little or no access to education, and basic medical care is often beyond their financial reach.
Malaysia has not signed the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and has acted to stall adoption of a regional framework (pursuant to the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers) that would protect and promote the rights of all migrant workers in the ASEAN region.
In 2009 migrant domestic workers were excluded from key provisions of Malaysia’s labor law. Although the government said it would take measures to bring the law into compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which has been ratified by Malaysia, little has changed. A 2011 memorandum of understanding with Indonesia allowsIndonesian domestic workers to keep their passports and guarantees a weekly rest day, but it has weakenforcement mechanisms. Malaysia still permits deduction of workers’ wages to pay exploitive recruitment fees. Migrant workers remain subject to excessively long hours, lack of rest days, unpaid wages, restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and physical and sexual abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor or trafficking.
Malaysia has failed to effectively combat human trafficking, preferring to focus on the criminal aspect of cases without permitting victims access to necessary social services. Trafficking victims are often locked away for extended periods in government-run shelters. Amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act conflate people smuggling with human trafficking and create similarly harsh penalties for both acts, creating difficulties for effective and timely identification of trafficking victims, and extension of protection to them.
Human Rights Treaties
Human Rights Watch reiterates its concerns that Malaysia has not ratified core UN instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Malaysia’s failure to ratify core UN instruments was raised by many states during its UPR review in 2009. Malaysia has not fully acted to bring national law into compliance with international human rights standards, despite pledges made to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Recommendations to the Government of Malaysia
On Rights to Peaceful Assembly, and Free Expression and Association:
Criminal Justice and Administrative Detention:
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity:
Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants, and Trafficked Persons:
Human Rights Treaties: