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Malaysia's newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attends a news conference in Pataling Jaya, Malaysia, May 12, 2018.  © 2018 REUTERS/Stringer

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government’s proposed new law to protect the monarchy from “insults” is its latest backtracking on human rights promises, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 10, 2019, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Liew Vui Keong, announced that the government was considering enacting new laws with heavier punishments to protect the country’s hereditary rulers from insult by “irresponsible” people.

Since November 2018, the government has delayed ratifying the international convention against racial discrimination, restored the use of the draconian Sedition Act, and backtracked on pledges to abolish laws that allow for detention without trial.

“Malaysia’s government is not only delaying revoking abusive laws, but is even considering enacting new laws that curtail human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The proposed law on the monarchy would add to the laws already restricting free expression in Malaysia.”

The manifesto of Pakatan Harapan, the coalition elected in May, promised sweeping reforms to abolish oppressive laws and repeal draconian provisions in other laws. However, certain reforms have faced opposition from groups led by opposition parties purporting to protect the position of Islam as well as that of the majority Malay ethnic group.

Opposition to abolishing oppressive laws has focused on protecting the hereditary Malay rulers from insult and criticism. Malaysia’s former monarch, Sultan Muhammad V, was recently the subject of local and international scrutiny following his resignation as Yang di-Pertuan Agong (head of state) less than two years into his five-year term. On January 9, Malaysian authorities arrested three people under the Sedition Act for allegedly insulting the former monarch on social media.

A law imposing criminal penalties for criticizing the monarchy would violate international standards for freedom of expression. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that the mere fact that language is considered insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify imposing criminal penalties. All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority, “are legitimately subject to criticism,” said the committee.

Moreover, a law to protect the royalty from mere insults would appear to violate Malaysia’s own Constitution. Malaysia’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, and case law has found that any laws that restrict such guaranteed rights have to be reasonable and proportionate.

“Malaysia’s government should stand firm on the promises of its reform agenda and ensure that all new laws meet international human rights standards,” Robertson said. “The proposed law is not the way to make Malaysia’s human rights record ‘respected by the world,’ as the government promised.”

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