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A woman casts her vote at a polling station for the 15th general election, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, November 19, 2022. © 2022 Afif Abd Halim/NurPhoto via AP

(Jakarta) – Malaysia’s November 2022 general elections followed a year of repression, abuses against vulnerable groups, and political instability, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2023.

Under then-Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the authorities aggressively cracked down on free speech and peaceful protests, and increased discrimination and harassment of refugees, migrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

“Malaysia’s new government should use its victory as a jumping-off point to end human rights abuses and undertake durable, rights-respecting reforms,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government should commit to ending the death penalty, lifting restrictions on free speech rights, and stopping abuses against refugees and LGBT people.”

In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights. The world’s mobilization around Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realize their human rights obligations on a global scale. The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights. 

The tightly contested general elections led to a hung parliament and a week of tension before Malaysia’s king swore in Anwar Ibrahim as the country’s 10th prime minister on November 24. Anwar, who spent 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges and three decades in the opposition, has pledged to fight corruption and inequality.

During the year, Malaysian authorities frequently harassed, intimidated, and arbitrarily arrested activists and critics of the government, using a range of overbroad and vaguely worded laws to criminalize free speech. Media freedom remained under attack. Police routinely tortured suspects in custody and detained people without trial under restrictive laws. Although the previous government introduced amendments to abolish legal provisions requiring the mandatory death penalty, none passed before parliament was dissolved for the election.

Approximately 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but Malaysia does not grant them legal status or authorization to work. The government has denied UNHCR access to immigration detention centers since August 2019. From April through October, the immigration department deported more than 2,000 Myanmar nationals, including political activists as well as Myanmar military defectors, without assessing their asylum claims or protection needs. 

State-sponsored discrimination against LGBT people remains pervasive, including the funding of conversion practices that seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The authorities conducted raids targeting transgender people, shut down events and programming designed to promote LGBT rights, and censored content about LGBT people in music and films. 

National and state authorities constructed hydroelectric plants on native customary land, posing threats to local Indigenous communities’ homes and ancestral land, livelihoods, and access to clean water and food. The Sabah state government maintained secrecy over carbon trading deals that were launched without consulting the affected communities.

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