BANGKOK, Thailand--The annual Washington based Freedom House survey and country ranking of countries civil liberties and political rights labelled Malaysia as “partly free” again this year. The ranking is based upon a number of numerical ratings and descriptive texts for each country. The 2022 edition covers developments in 195 countries and 15 territories from January 1, 2021, through December 31, 2021.
The seven categories covered include; political rights, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights.
Malaysia scored 50/100, with 20/40 for political rights and 30/60 for civil liberties. This according to the Freedom House scale places Malaysia as a partly free nation.
A. Electoral Process
The prime minister is the head of government and chief executive. Though formally appointed by the monarch, the authority of the prime minister and cabinet is based on the support of a majority in the lower house of Parliament. In August 2021, the monarch appointed Ismail Sabri Yaakob of the UMNO to succeed Muhyiddin Yassin of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party as prime minister. The UMNO, the largest party in the PN, had withdrawn its support of Muhyiddin in July, prompting his mid-August resignation.
The monarch, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is elected for five-year terms by and from the hereditary rulers of 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states. Sultan Abdullah of Pahang was chosen as head of state in 2019, following the abdication of his predecessor.
The upper house of the bicameral Parliament, the Senate or Dewan Negara, consists of 44 members appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister and 26 members elected by the 13 state legislatures, serving three-year terms. The Senate has limited power to amend or block legislation passed by the lower house. The House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat, has 222 directly elected seats for single-member constituencies.
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the 2018 elections despite lopsided electoral conditions that gave the BN significant advantages, such as gerrymandered and malapportioned voting districts, weak campaign-spending regulation, and legal constraints on media independence. Parliament has since realigned; the PN took power in 2020 with the same lower house that had been won by the PH in 2018, while Prime Minister Ismail Sabri gained the support of 114 lawmakers to assume his post in August 2021.
Elections were held in Melaka State in November 2021, after the UMNO chief minister lost a majority in the state assembly. The UMNO and its allies won 21 seats, while the PH won 5. Voters participated in state assembly elections in Sarawak in December. The Sarawak Parties Alliance, which backs the UMNO-led national government, won 75 of the assembly’s 82 seats.
The Election Commission (EC), which administers elections and is responsible for voter rolls and the delineation of electoral boundaries, was seen as subservient to BN, with members appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister.
In December 2021, constitutional amendments lowering the voting age to 18 and establishing automatic voter registration took effect. The amendments were originally approved by Parliament in 2019.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation
The Malaysian party system is diverse and competitive, but groups that challenged BN rule prior to 2018 often faced obstacles such as unequal access to the media, restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly, and politicized prosecutions. The entrenched culture of political interference has persisted since the BN’s defeat.
The Registrar of Societies (ROS), which is overseen by the home minister, manages the registration of political parties and has issued partisan decisions under BN, PH, and PN governments. The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance applied for ROS recognition in 2020, but its registration was rejected in January 2021 and its appeal was denied in August. In December, however, the High Court ordered the home minister to register the party. In May, the Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Fighters of the Nation Party), which is led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, accused the ROS of ignoring its appeal for registration. The ROS approved its application in July.
Although opposition parties have long governed in a number of Malaysia’s states, the 2018 elections that brought the PH to power represented the country’s first democratic transfer of power between rival political groups at the federal level since independence.
In 2020, coalitional realignment led to the formation of the PN, while the PH returned to opposition status. In August 2021, the PN’s prime minister, Muhyiddin, resigned after losing his parliamentary majority. While the PH came close to returning to power, Ismail Sabri of the UMNO succeeded Muhyiddin with a majority that largely resembled the status quo.
The PH maintains significant influence despite its status, owing to the Ismail Sabri government’s slim majority. Under a September 2021 agreement between the two sides, the PH vowed not to oppose a negotiated budget, while the government agreed to enact measures including lowering the voting age.
The military is not active in politics, and foreign powers do not directly meddle in domestic political affairs. However, the BN maintained close ties with China while it was in power.
During its decades in power, the BN built strong connections with Malaysia’s business elites and used these relationships to influence electoral outcomes. The PN used government-linked companies, official monopolies for certain goods and services, and state investment vehicles for political purposes.
Suffrage is universal for adult citizens. However, social and legal restrictions limit political participation among some minority groups. The UMNO and the Islamic Party are defenders of long-standing policies that favor the ethnic Malay and Muslim majority. The Malaysian Chinese Association has attracted support from among the ethnic Chinese community—which represents 21 percent of the country’s population—and has in the past supported the BN. Ethnic Indians represent 6 percent of the population; 16 ethnic Indian lawmakers were elected in 2018. The PN featured minimal representation and participation of Chinese and Indian minorities but did include representatives of ethnic groups from Sabah and Sarawak states, which are located on the island of Borneo. Indigenous representation is poor; the first lawmaker from one of the Indigenous Orang Asli groups, which together include 180,000 people, took office in 2019.
Women remain significantly underrepresented in politics, with women holding only 14 percent of Parliament’s lower-house seats. Women held 5 of the Ismail Sabri cabinet’s 31 ministerial posts and 4 of its 38 deputy ministerial posts when it was formed in August 2021.
C. Functioning of Government
While elected officials determine and implement government policy, an unfair electoral framework has historically weakened their legitimacy. Decision-making power has typically been concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his close advisers.
Elected lawmakers were unable to fulfill their functions for much of 2021. In January, Muhyiddin announced a COVID-19-related state of emergency that allowed him to rule by decree. Parliament and state legislatures were suspended, as were elections. Opposition lawmakers derided the announcement, accusing Muhyiddin of failing to manage the pandemic while using it to avoid a no-confidence vote. Parliament was reconvened in late July for a special session, while the state of emergency expired on August 1.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due the government’s initiation of a state of emergency that had the effect of suspending Parliament for seven months and suppressing scrutiny and criticism from lawmakers.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, which replaced another agency in 2009, is responsible for fighting corruption. Corruption-related convictions against civil servants have been on the rise in recent years; 99 were attained within the first 11 months of 2021, while 55 were attained in 2015. Despite the rising number of convictions and the PH government’s 2019–23 action plan, corruption in government and state-owned enterprises is still considered endemic.
High-level corruption was a critical weakness of the BN, and former prime minister Najib Razak’s efforts to avoid accountability for the 1MDB embezzlement scandal damaged the country’s anti corruption mechanisms. Najib and his successor as UMNO leader, former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, were arrested in 2018 and indicted for numerous corruption-related offenses. Najib was convicted on counts including money laundering and abuse of power in 2020, receiving a concurrent 12-year prison sentence. The Court of Appeal upheld Najib’s conviction in December 2021, though he remained free on bail as he continued to appeal.
The Malaysian justice system resolved other high-profile corruption cases during 2021. Former Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) chairman Mohd Isa Abdul Samad received a six-year prison term and a fine for graft in February. Isa posted bail and filed an appeal, which remained under consideration at year’s end. In May, prosecutors withdrew bribery charges against FELDA board member Noor Ehsanuddin Mohd Harun Narrashi, and a court acquitted Noor Ehsanuddin in September. In July, the Court of Appeal overturned a 2020 corruption conviction against former UMNO secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor.
A lack of independent oversight regarding state-affiliated companies and investment funds has long created conditions conducive to corruption. Efforts towards enacting a freedom of information act and other reforms stalled after the PN took power. Government operations were not transparently carried out while Parliament was suspended for part of 2021.
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief
Prior to the 2018 elections, most private news publications and television stations were controlled by political parties or businesses allied with the BN, and state news outlets similarly reflected government views. The market liberalized after the PH took power, as independent outlets benefited from a reduction in political pressure and harassment. The PH pledged to reform restrictive media laws, and successfully repealed the 2018 Anti-Fake News Act in 2019, but several problematic laws remained in force when that government fell. The PN placed more pressure on private media after taking power in 2020, with officials excluding independent outlets from events of public interest, including parliamentary sessions and pandemic briefings. The Ismail Sabri government also prohibited some media outlets from attending parliamentary sessions in September 2021.
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. In 2020, news site Malaysiakini was charged with criminal contempt after several users posted comments criticizing the judiciary. In February 2021, the Federal Court found Malaysiakini guilty of violating the amended Evidence Act and issued a 500,000-ringgit ($120,000) fine. Later that month, Malaysiakini editor in chief Steven Gan faced a sedition investigation after he publicly criticized the verdict.
Malaysiakini faced pressure on other matters during 2021. In May, police summoned two of the outlet’s journalists after it reported on a man who died after being held in police custody in February. In July, the Federal Court dismissed Malaysiakini’s appeal of a 2018 defamation ruling stemming from a report on possible pollution emanating from a mine.
While Malaysia is religiously diverse, legal provisions restrict religious freedom. Ethnic Malays are constitutionally defined as Muslim and are not entitled to renounce their faith. Individuals seeking to convert from Islam have sometimes faced apostasy charges. Those seeking to leave the faith also risk discrimination and threats; Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman, a transgender ethnic Malay, received death threats after renouncing Islam on social media in March 2021.
The powerful Malaysian Islamic Development Department has played a central role in shaping and enforcing the practice of Islam in Malaysia, and state-level authorities perform their own enforcement functions. Muslim children and civil servants are required to receive religious education using government-approved curriculums and instructors. Practicing a version of Islam other than Sunni Islam is prohibited, and Shiites and other sects face discrimination.
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.
Strict regulations were established for places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, and foreigners were not allowed to attend services.
There is some degree of academic freedom in Malaysia. However, under the BN government, instructors and students who espoused anti government views or engaged in political activity were subject to disciplinary action under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971. In 2018, the PH government amended the UUCA to allow students to engage in political activity on campus. The PH ultimately sought to abolish the UUCA, but the PN announced that the law would remain in force after entering government. Post-BN governments have continued to control appointments of top officials at public universities.
While private discussion is robust, individual expression on sensitive political and religious topics is impeded by the penal code and legislation including the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). In April 2021, for example, graphic artist Fahmi Reza was arrested and investigated under the Sedition Act for creating a music playlist satirizing the queen. In December, a woman was convicted under the CMA and the penal code for making offensive statements about the king and Muhyiddin in 2020.
Discussion was also impeded by COVID-19 emergency measures. In March 2021, the Muhyiddin government used its emergency powers to prohibit the creation or dissemination of purportedly false news. Offenders faced prison sentences of up to six years and fines of up to 500,000 ringgits ($120,000).
E. Associational and Organizational Rights
Freedom of assembly can be limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. In 2019, Parliament amended the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act (PPA), reducing the mandatory police notification period from 10 days to 7 days before the planned event, among other changes. However, the law still imposed criminal penalties for violations, lacked provisions to allow spontaneous assemblies, banned those under age 21 from organizing an assembly, and prohibited participation by minors and noncitizens. While demonstrations are often held in practice, police continue to enforce such restrictions and investigate participants in allegedly illegal protests.
Gatherings were prohibited during the COVID-19 state of emergency and again in December. However, protesters continued to hold events while the state of emergency was in effect. In April 2021, protesters rallied over the arrest of graphic artist Fahmi Reza but were later investigated for violating the PPA. In May, 27 protesters who held a flash mob under the Kerajaan Gagal (Failed Government) banner in Batu Pahat were arrested. In late July, just before the state of emergency expired, several hundred people rallied in Kuala Lumpur under the Kerajaan Gagal banner. One of its organizers was arrested for violating the Sedition Act ahead of the event.
A wide array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Malaysia and have a strong record of campaigning for electoral, anticorruption, and other reforms. However, NGOs must be approved and registered by the government, which has refused or revoked registrations for political reasons in the past. Some international human rights organizations have been forbidden from forming local branches. Numerous activists were subjected to police harassment and criminal charges—particularly for speech-related offenses—under both the PH and PN governments.
In July 2021, Heidy Quah Gaik Li, the founder of an NGO supporting refugees, was charged with violating the CMA for criticizing the treatment of refugees in 2020. In August 2021, Quah sued to invalidate Section 233 of the CMA.
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 rights are limited, particularly in designated high-priority industries, as is the right to strike. A labor law passed in 2019 shifted some discretionary powers from the minister for human resources to the director general of industrial relations and replaced the penalty of imprisonment for illegal strikes with higher fines, among other changes.
In July 2021, junior doctors staged a walkout from several hospitals over pay and contract grievances. Police officers intimidated some of the participants.
F. Rule of Law
Judicial independence has historically been compromised by extensive executive influence, with courts frequently issuing arbitrary or politically motivated verdicts in high-profile cases. However, a series of judicial appointments in 2018 and 2019 improved confidence in the independence of the higher courts and prospects for reform. In 2019, Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat became the first woman to become the Federal Court’s chief justice, and she subsequently initiated anticorruption and efficiency-enhancing reforms.
The 2020 guilty verdict in former prime minister Najib’s corruption trial signaled a degree of judicial independence, though high-profile corruption trials notably ended with acquittals during 2021.
Several existing laws undermine due process guarantees. 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. It was renewed for another five years in 2017. Also that year, lawmakers amended the Prevention of Crime Act—a law ostensibly aimed at combating organized crime—to revoke detainees’ right to address the government-appointed Prevention of Crime Board, which is empowered 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, together with that year’s National Security Council (NSC) Act, 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 in the context of countering terrorism.
Malaysia’s secular legal system is based on English common law. However, Muslims are subject to Sharia (Islamic law), the interpretation of which varies by state, and the constitution’s Article 121 stipulates that all matters related to Islam should be heard in Sharia courts. This results in different treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims in “moral” and family law cases.
A number of criminal offenses can be punished with caning, including immigration violations. Torture and abuse in police custody remain problems, and prisons are often overcrowded and unsafe.
In recent years, prisoners and detainees have died in unclear circumstances while in custody. In July 2021, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) launched an investigation after several such deaths occurred in May and June. In October, SUHAKAM reported that 456 people died in custody in 2020, most of them prisoners.
The death penalty can be applied in Malaysia for numerous offenses; most of the roughly 1,300 people facing execution in Malaysian prisons were convicted under the country’s harsh laws on drug trafficking.
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.
Women are placed at a disadvantage by a number of laws, particularly Sharia-related provisions. They are legally barred from certain occupations and work schedules, and they suffer from de facto employment discrimination.
LGBT+ Malaysians face widespread discrimination and harassment. Same-sex sexual relations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison under the penal code, though this is generally not enforced. Some states apply their own penalties to Muslims under Sharia statutes. Transgender people can also be punished under state-level Sharia laws. Nur Sajat faced charges in a Selangor State Sharia court in January 2021, having been accused of showing contempt for Islam for donning women’s attire at a 2018 event. Nur Sajat fled the country soon after, eventually receiving asylum in Australia in October.
Migrant workers and refugees do not enjoy effective legal protections, and individuals in these communities experienced discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees are regularly mistreated. In February 2021, the government deported nearly 1,100 Myanmar nationals to that country, defying a court order, though the government refrained from deporting Rohingya.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights
Citizens are generally free to travel within and outside of Malaysia, as well as to change residence and employment. However, professional opportunities and access to higher education are affected by regulations and practices that favor bumiputera and those with connections to political elites. Although the practice is illegal, employers of migrant workers commonly hold their passports, preventing them from leaving abusive situations. Freedom of movement was also restricted by COVID-19 measures during 2021, with travel between states and districts restricted for much of the year.
Malaysia has a vibrant private sector. Bribery, however, is common in the business world, and the close nexus between political and economic elites distorts normal business activity and fair competition. Some laws pertaining to property and business differentiate between bumiputera and non-bumiputera, and Sharia-based inheritance rules for Muslims often favor men over women.
While some personal social freedoms are protected, Muslims face legal restrictions on marriage partners and other social choices. All non-Muslims who wish to marry Muslim partners must convert to Islam to receive the recognition of a Sharia court. Societal pressures may also regulate dress and appearance, especially among Malay women. Sharia courts often favor men in matters of divorce and child custody. The minimum age for marriage is generally 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but Sharia courts in some states allow younger people to marry, and child marriage is a common occurrence.
In September 2021, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur ruled that children born to Malaysian mothers overseas must receive Malaysian citizenship. The Court of Appeal dismissed the government’s attempt to stay the ruling in December and ordered it to produce citizenship documents.
Rural residents and foreign workers, especially those working illegally, are vulnerable to exploitative or abusive working conditions, including forced labor or debt bondage. Foreign workers make up over a fifth of the country’s workforce; about two million are documented, and estimates of the undocumented range from two million to more than four million. The authorities’ periodic crackdowns on illegal foreign workers can result in punishment rather than protection for victims of human trafficking.
In June 2021, electronics manufacturer ATA Industrial was accused of forcing migrant workers to live in poor housing and work excessively long schedules. That same month, the Industrial Court ruled that US tiremaker Goodyear underpaid migrant workers.