Under then-Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who assumed office in August 2021, the Malaysian government aggressively cracked down on free speech and peaceful protests, harassing, intimidating, and arbitrarily arresting activists and critics of the government. Authorities frequently use hateful rhetoric against refugees and migrants, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people to paint these populations as threats to the country’s security and identity.
Prime Minister Ismail dissolved parliament on October 10, setting the stage for the country’s 15th general elections to be held on November 19. The tightly contested 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. The new parliament opened on December 19, passing a confidence motion for Anwar, who had spent over two decades in the opposition and 10 years in prison on politically motivated charges.
In August, the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, rejected the final appeal of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, sending him to prison for 12 years for his involvement in the embezzlement of billions of dollars from the state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Freedom of Expression and Assembly
The government uses a range of broad and vaguely worded laws to prosecute critical speech, including the 1948 Sedition Act and section 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).
Graphic artist Fahmi Reza faced several investigations and arrests for his political satire. In February, he was charged twice under CMA section 233 for posters shared on social media caricaturing authorities. He was discharged but not acquitted in one of the cases in August. In April, he was arrested under CMA section 233 and the Sedition Act in relation to a cartoon depicting a monkey in clothing similar to that worn by Malaysia’s royalty.
In July, Siti Nuramira Abdullah was charged with causing religious disharmony under penal code section 298A for an open mic comedy performance that was deemed offensive to Islam, during which she had removed her headscarf and baju kurung, a traditional dress. Her boyfriend was charged under CMA section 233 for allegedly uploading the video. Authorities revoked the comedy club’s license and permanently blacklisted its owners from registering any other businesses.
Police have targeted people participating in peaceful protests. In January, dozens of people involved in a series of protests calling for the suspension of the head of the anti-corruption commission were called in for police questioning, including four members of parliament.
Police questioned three members of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Lawyers for Liberty in April after they held a protest outside the Singapore embassy over the Singapore government’s scheduled execution of a Malaysian man with an intellectual disability. The police also investigated members of the Malaysian Bar Council for holding a candlelight vigil on the eve of the execution.
In June, authorities blocked 300 lawyers from marching to parliament to present a memorandum calling on the government to protect judicial independence. The police asserted that the lawyers did not have a police permit for the march, even though a permit is no longer required under Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly Act.
In July, police blocked students and political activists from marching to Independence Square to protest rising living costs. Police opened an investigation into the demonstration and issued summons for 30 protesters.
Media freedom also suffered over the past year. In March, a seven-judge panel of the Federal Court dismissed online news portal Malaysiakini’s application for review of the court’s 2021 finding of contempt of court against the outlet over five online comments posted by readers.
Police Abuse and Impunity
Police routinely torture suspects in custody with impunity. The standard of care for detainees is problematic, with reports of deaths from treatable illnesses. At least 20 detainees had died in police custody centers during the year.
In July, the government took a major step backward on police accountability by pushing a bill through parliament to create a toothless Independent Police Complaints Commission. The new commission will have no powers of search and seizure, limited powers to compel production of evidence, and no ability to hold hearings.
Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Trafficking Victims
Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. About 185,000 refugees and asylum seekers—the majority from Myanmar, including over 100,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims—are registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) but are not granted legal status. They are unable to work or enroll in government schools, forcing many into situations of exploitation and abuse.
The government has denied UNHCR access to immigration detention centers since August 2019, leaving the agency unable to assess whether those in detention are entitled to protection. The director-general of immigration reported in April that over 17,500 asylum seekers were being held in 21 immigration detention centers nationwide, including more than 1,500 children.
From June through October, the immigration department deported over 1,700 Myanmar nationals, including military defectors, without assessing their asylum claims or other protection needs.
In April, over 500 Rohingya refugees escaped from a detention center. Six of them, including two children, were killed crossing a road while fleeing. According to the home minister, the Rohingya had been in detention for more than two years.
Conditions in immigration detention facilities are dire. According to a report by a coalition of Indonesian NGOs, at least 149 Indonesians died in Malaysia’s detention centers between January 2021 and June 2022.
In July, the government initiated a registration scheme, Tracking Refugees Information System (TRIS), requiring all refugees and asylum seekers to register for biometric ID cards. The home minister announced the cards would be recognized as refugees’ sole IDs rather than the UNHCR cards. The system is run by a private for-profit company chaired by the former head of the country’s police intelligence services.
In September, the national security council director-general proposed shutting down UNHCR’s presence in Malaysia in order to manage refugees “without foreign interference.”
Freedom of Religion
Malaysia restricts the rights of followers of any branches of Islam other than Sunni, with those following Shia or other branches subject to arrest for deviancy. In June, the religious affairs minister warned Muslims not to participate in a Japanese festival on the grounds that it contained elements of other religions.
The government announced plans to abolish the mandatory death penalty in June. In October, amendments were tabled in parliament to do so but failed to pass prior to the dissolution of parliament ahead of the general elections.
Malaysia detains individuals without trial under restrictive laws. Both the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act (POCA) and the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act give government-appointed boards the authority to impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely; to order electronic monitoring; and to impose other significant restrictions on freedom of movement and association. In April, the Federal Court voided POCA’s exclusion of judicial review of the grounds for detention.
In July, parliament voted to extend for another five years the provision in the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, that allows for preventive detention of up to 28 days without judicial review, after the extension was originally voted down in March.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
State-sponsored discrimination against LGBT people remains pervasive in Malaysia, including the funding of conversion practices that seek to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” interpreted as adult consensual same-sex conduct, with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping. State and federal territory Sharia (Islamic) laws criminalize both same-sex activity and gender nonconformity, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people.
In March, Google removed a “conversion therapy” app produced by the government in 2016 from its Play store.
In June, Malaysia banned the Disney movie “Lightyear” after the company refused to comply with an order from the Film Censorship Board that it cut scenes “promoting the LGBT lifestyle,” including a same-sex kiss. In July, the movie “Thor: Love and Thunder” was likewise banned after Disney refused to make requested cuts of “LGBT elements.”
In August, the Court of Appeal overturned a 2021 High Court ruling that granted automatic entitlement to Malaysian citizenship to children born overseas to Malaysian mothers and foreign fathers. The decision reinstates a discriminatory practice in which women are denied equal rights as men to confer citizenship to their spouses and children.
In April, a Sharia court ordered Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah to be jailed for seven days on contempt charges for having criticized the court’s sentencing of a woman to jail for rescheduling her ex-husband’s visitation dates with their children in 2019. Maria Chin Abdullah stated at the time that women are discriminated against under the Sharia system. Her challenge of the court’s proceedings was ongoing at time of writing. The woman, Emilia Hanafi, served her 7-day prison sentence in June-July.
Malaysia continues to permit child marriage under both civil and Islamic law. Girls ages 16 and 17 can marry with the permission of their state’s chief minister. For Muslims, most state Islamic laws set a minimum age of 16 for girls and 18 for boys, in violation of Malaysia’s obligations under international human rights law, but also permit marriages below those ages, with no apparent minimum, with the permission of a Sharia court.
In March, the minister of women, family and community development stated in parliament that the government did not intend to ban child marriage.
In March, construction started on the Nenggiri hydropower project in Kelantan, despite concerns from Indigenous communities. An Orang Asli group in Kelantan is protesting the dam, stating it will threaten their homes and ancestral land, livelihoods, culture, and identity, and access to clean water and food, and that affected communities did not receive adequate compensation.
The Sabah state government has maintained secrecy over a carbon trading deal that would hand management of 4.9 million acres of tropical forest to Singapore-based Hoch Standard for up to 200 years. Authorities did not engage in any consultative process with Indigenous or other communities that would be affected. Details surrounding a separate carbon trade deal in Sabah, launched in 2021 but only announced publicly in August 2022, are similarly opaque.
In January, authorities cracked down on people criticizing the government’s role in severe flash floods that took place in December 2021, which many blamed on rampant logging. Fahmi Reza was summoned by police regarding a poster he made modifying the coat of arms of Pahang, which was heavily flooded, with a tree and two axes. The police also summoned for questioning a journalist from Free Malaysia Today over a report critical of the government’s response to the floods.
Key International Actors
Malaysia has been very critical of the failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to make any progress addressing the crisis in Myanmar. Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah urged the bloc to formally engage with the opposition National Unity Government.