HUMAN RIGHTS IN MALAYSIA

HUMAN RIGHTS IN MALAYSIA

According to Human Rights Watch: In Malaysia, human rights are partially enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Among others, the Constitution guarantees the right to life; freedom of movement; freedom of speech, assembly and association; freedom of religion; and rights in respect of education. Every Malaysian citizen should be aware of his or her rights as enshrined in the Constitution. The lead agency in the education and advocacy of human rights, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) was established by Parliament under Act 597, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999. [Source: Malaysian Government]

Despite government promises of reform and relaxation of controls in some areas, human rights in Malaysia remain tightly constrained. On September 15, 2011, Prime Minister Seri Najib Tun Razak announced the government’s intention to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA), revoke three emergency proclamations that underpin many of Malaysia’s most repressive laws, and review the Restricted Residence Act. In the same speech, however, he committed to introducing two new laws under article 149 (“Special Laws against Subversion”) of the Federal Constitution, which allows parliament to enact sweeping security provisions that deny basic freedoms. [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

On July 9, police in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, broke up a peaceful rally organized by Bersih 2.0, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, arresting nearly 1,700 demonstrators demanding electoral reforms. Police fired teargas at close range at protesters in an underground tunnel, injuring several, and into the Tung Shin and Chinese Maternity hospital courtyard. Detention without Charge or Trial

The ISA permits indefinite detention without charge or trial of any person that officials deem a threat to national security or public order. While use of the ISA has declined over the years, government figures released in connection with Najib’s speech said 37 people were in ISA detention. The government continues to detain thousands under the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance (EO) and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act. However, in October parliament repealed the Restricted Residence Act and 125 people previously confined under the act were released.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention singled out the EO for criticism in its February 2011 report, noting the law permits indefinite detention “without the need to sustain evidence or probe penal responsibility.” Malaysian authorities arbitrarily applied the ISA in October 2010 against immigration officers allegedly involved in human trafficking despite the availability of Malaysia’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, but abruptly released all but one of the accused in August 2011. The last detainee was released on November 10. On July 2, police used the EO to detain six leaders of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) on the bogus charge that they were responsible for planning the Bersih rally and, until their July 29 release, subjected them to lengthy interrogations, isolation, and blindfolding.

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Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Association

According to Human Rights Watch: Rights of expression, peaceful public assembly, and association —guaranteed in Malaysia’s Constitution—continued to be violated in 2011. On May 21 Bersih announced a July 9 “Walk for Democracy” to call for reform of the electoral system. In mid-June the police announced that no police permit, required by section 27 of the Police Act, would be issued for the march. Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar threatened that “stern action” would be taken against anyone involved in an “illegal rally.” [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

Throughout June police mounted repeated shows of force, arresting activists distributing leaflets, wearing yellow Bersih shirts, or coordinating gatherings to promote the rally. On June 29 a plainclothes police unit without a warrant raided Bersih’s secretariat, confiscating Bersih materials and detaining some of those present for questioning; on July 1 the Home Ministry declared Bersih an illegal organization under the Societies Act. On the day before the march police obtained a court order prohibiting 91 rally leaders from entering downtown Kuala Lumpur. Although the thousands who eluded police blockades were peaceful and well-disciplined, but police broke up the rally using baton charges, chemically infused water cannons, and teargas barrages. Nearly 1,700 people were arrested. Journalists and ordinary citizens released photographs and video documenting much of the abuse.

On June 25, police stopped a bus carrying PSM activists to a planned rally, detaining 30 on suspicion of “preparing to wage war against the king.” They were released from pre-trial detention on July 2, but police immediately re-detained six of their leaders under the EO. All 30 were charged under the Societies Act and a section of the ISA outlawing possession of subversive documents. On September 19 the attorney general released them and on October 10, a court affirmed the release as a “discharge not amounting to an acquittal,” which makes them subject to future prosecution. On October 28, six PSM leaders were granted the same discharge

Trial of Anwar Ibrahim

According to Human Rights Watch: The trial of Anwar Ibrahim, parliamentary leader of Malaysia’s political opposition, has raised serious human rights concerns. Anwar is charged with “sodomy” for allegedly engaging in consensual homosexual conduct on June 26, 2008. Court rulings have denied Anwar’s legal team access to the prosecution’s witness list, critical forensic samples needed for independent examination, and medical examiners’ notes from hospital examinations of the accuser, in violation of international fair trial standards. In a September 23, 2011, affidavit to the court, Prime Minister Najib affirmed he had met Saiful, the accuser, two days before the alleged incident of sodomy. [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

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Migrant Workers and Refugees in Malaysia

The Malaysian Immigration Act 1959/1963 fails to differentiate between refugees, asylum seekers, trafficking victims, and undocumented migrants. The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and lacks domestic refugee law and asylum procedures. A 2011 program to register all migrant workers lacked transparency regarding which migrant workers will be permitted to remain in Malaysia.[Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

Some 300,000 migrant domestic workers are excluded from key protections under Malaysia's Employment Act, including limits on working hours, a mandatory day off per week, annual and sick leave, maternity protections, and fair termination of contracts. NGOs and embassies of labor-sending countries handle hundreds of complaints involving unpaid wages, physical and sexual abuse, and forced confinement. Indonesia and Malaysia signed a Memorandum of Understanding that guarantees a weekly day off and allows domestic workers to keep their passports rather than surrendering them to employers. However, the agreement perpetuates recruitment fee structures that leave workers deeply indebted. Malaysia is one of only nine states that did not vote for International Labour Organization Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

See Foreign Workers in Malaysia

Human Rights Under Mahathir

The Mahathir government of the 1980s and 90s banned rallies, took police away from their normal jobs and used them to intimidate members of the opposition, and had people arrested on trumped up charges of terrorism, murder and robbery. asked about the American concept of freedom and human rights," Mahathir Mohamad roared, "Free for whom? For rogue speculators. For anarchists wanting to destroy weak countries in their crusade for open societies."

Under Mahathir many ordinary Malaysians were afraid of openly criticizing the government out of fear of what might happen to them. Civil servants were forced to sign “good behavior” document that makes it easier for the government to fire them if the criticize the government. Students have been kicked out of university and a lecturer was fired and 47 other were disciplined. for engaging in “anti-government” activities.

Human rights abuses haven’t been such an issue under the new leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who took office in October 2003. And in any case, most Malaysians try to avoid trouble and don’t care that much anyway about the issue.

Internal Security Act

The Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act are used to imprison people without charge for an indefinite length of time. The ISA allows for arrest without warrant and detention without trial for individuals deemed to be a threat to national security for a term of two years renewable indefinitely. The laws are holdovers from British colonial days. They were originally intended to deal with armed communist insurrection during the Malayan Emergency of 1948- 60. This law permitted the indefinite detention by executive order of any person suspected of leftist or procommunist activity. They were originally brought back into widespread use after the 1969 riots to crack down on racially-motivated unrest and Communist insurgencies.

The ISA essentially allows the government to arrest people for whatever reason it likes and hold them as long as it wants. It has been utilized by the Malaysian government to round up people it deemed to be threats to national security, which has included opposition parliamentarians, academics and journalists. For this, the Malaysian government had been subjected to repeated calls to abolish the ISA. Another law, the Emergency Ordinance (EO), was introduced in Malaysia following race riots in 1969, allowing suspects to be detained for up to two years with consent of a minister. The government has used it against opposition politicians.

Opposition leaders including Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng and Karpal Singh have been held under the ISI law. The same regulation remains in neighboring Singapore, another former British colony. Political prisoners have complained that while they were imprisoned under the Internal Security Act they were not allowed to call a lawyer and were kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell. Soem have said they were blindfolded and handcuffed and subject to long hours of interrogation. One man told the Washington Post he was not tortured but he said he “broke down” and “cried.”

Lim Guan Eng, a top official in the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) served 12 months in jail in 1998 and 1999 on sedition charges for distributing a pamphlet that criticized the government. Opposition activist Nagapan Gobalkrishnan was arrested shortly after giving a vitriolic ant-Mahathir speech and detained for 51 days. under the internal security law.

After the elections in 1999, authorities arrested three top opposition figures. They were Karpal Singh, a leader in the opposition DAP and Anwar’s lawyer; Marinia Yuffoff, a member of the Keadilan Party; and Zulkifli Sulong, editor of an outspokenly anti-government newspaper. They were all charged withe sedition.

History of Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA)

Dante Pastrana wrote in World Socialist Web Site, “Onerous laws such as the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act have underpinned the Malaysian police state. The ISA was particularly dreaded. Its provisions included indefinite detention without trial or judicial review and the suppression of dissident publications. A “danger zone” could also be proclaimed, where security forces could “take such measures, including means dangerous or fatal to human life” deemed necessary to clear the zone of prohibited persons. The ISA, enacted in 1960, codified the repressive measures used by Britain to suppress a rural insurgency led by the Communist Party of Malaysia. UMNO-led governments have ruled since independence and utilised the ISI to suppress political opposition and social unrest. In the course of 52 years, over 10,800 persons, including labor activists, student leaders, and trade unionists, were detained without trial under the ISI and another 2,066 placed on restriction orders dictating their activities and residence. [Source: Dante Pastrana, World Socialist Web Site, May 4, 2012]

According to the International Federation for Human Rights: “Since its enactment in 1960, succeeding emergency laws aimed at combating the communist insurgency during the 1940s and 1950s, the ISA has facilitated serious human rights abuses, including torture and ill-treatment, and has therefore been repeatedly denounced, including by local human rights groups in Malaysia and again recently, in June, by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention during its mission to Malaysia. [Source: International Federation for Human Rights, August 1, 2010]

The ISA, in clear violation of internationally recognised human rights standards relating to fair trials, has been invoked against those who commit acts deemed to be "prejudicial to the security of Malaysia", or threatening to the "maintenance of essential services" or "economic life". These vaguely defined security notions have led to the frequent use of the law against citizens peacefully expressing their religious and political beliefs, as well as a number of human rights defenders.

In 2009, the authorities made some welcoming moves, including the release of 40 ISA detainees from Kamunting detention camp (of which at least five were human rights defenders and the announcement that the law will be amended based on feedback obtained from various stakeholders. However, at the same time, new arrests under the ISA have been documented by SUARAM ( Suara Rakyat Malaysia, (Malay for "Voice of the Malaysian People"). As of 2010, 16 individuals were detained under the ISA in Malaysia – among which 14 were detained after the Government had announced its review of the legislation. SUARAM has also expressed gravest concerns over other existing emergency and anti-subversion laws which also provide for indefinite detention without trial, namely the Emergency Ordinance 1969 (EO) and the Dangerous Drugs Act 1985 (DDA). As of February 2010, 819 individuals were detained without trial under the EO, while 412 were incarcerated under the DDA – giving a total of more than 1,200 individuals detained without trial in Malaysia.

Bersih 2.0 Protests: Thousands Rally in Malaysia for Fairer Election Laws in 2011

In July 2011, police in Kuala Lumpur fired tear gas and detained hundreds of activists as more than 20,000 demonstrators massed across Malaysia's main city demanding electoral reforms in the country's biggest political rally in years. The rally was organized by Bersih 2.0, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, who were demanding electoral reforms. Police fired teargas at close range at protesters in an underground tunnel, injuring several, and into the Tung Shin and Chinese Maternity hospital courtyard. More than 1,700 demonstrators were arrested.

The election protests were held by group of more than 60 non-governmental organizations, known as Bersih 2.0, which has the support of opposition political parties. Bersih wants electoral changes, such as lengthening campaign periods to at least 21 days and using indelible ink on fingers to prevent people from voting more than once.

Associated Press reported: “The opposition-backed rally was the culmination of weeks of intense pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition to make election laws fairer and more transparent ahead of national polls. Demonstrators marched in defiance of Najib's administration, which declared the rally illegal and warned people repeatedly to avoid it. Officials insisted it was merely an opposition attempt to trigger chaos and stir anti-government sentiment, while activists accused authorities of being afraid of any large display of dissent that could undermine their authority. [Source: AP, July 9, 2011 <<<]

“Authorities took extraordinary security measures to deter the rally by sealing off roads, closing train stations and deploying trucks with water cannons near the Independence Stadium in downtown Kuala Lumpur where activists sought to gather. Police said in a statement that they detained 1,667 people in a clampdown called "Operation Erase Bersih," referring to the Bersih coalition of civic groups that organized the rally. Those arrested included several senior opposition officials. Some were released after several hours, with police indicating that most would not be held overnight. <<<

“Thousands tried to reach the stadium from various parts of Kuala Lumpur, chanting "Long live the people" and carrying yellow balloons and flowers as they marched. Police fired numerous rounds of tear gas and chemical-laced water in repeated attempts to disperse the crowds, causing demonstrators to scatter into nearby buildings and alleys before they regrouped. Police helicopters flew overhead as a brief downpour failed to deter the protesters. The demonstrators dispersed after a five-hour standoff with police. Only several hundred reached the stadium. <<<

“Witnesses said riot police armed with batons charged at some protesters and dragged them into trucks. Some were seen bleeding, but police could not confirm any injuries. Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's top opposition figure, said on Twitter that he sustained a "minor injury" when his group was hit by tear gas. The Malaysiakini news website said he had a knee injury. Najib insisted Saturday the protesters only represent a minority, and that most Malaysians support his administration. "If there are people who want to hold the illegal rally, there are even more who are against their plan," the prime minister was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama. <<<

“Organizers said 50,000 took part in the rally, but police claimed there were only up to 6,000. Other observers and participants said the total was between 20,000 and 30,000, noting that it was highly unlikely that police could have arrested a quarter of the demonstrators. An accurate count was impossible because they were scattered in various areas. The rally has galvanized the opposition and has been credited for a surge in political awareness among the public in recent weeks. Opposition leaders accuse Najib's National Front coalition of relying on fraud to preserve its 54-year grip on power, which has been eroded in recent years amid mounting complaints about corruption and racial discrimination. The government insists the current electoral policies are evenhanded. The activists' demands include an overhaul of voter registration lists, tougher measures to curb fraud and fairer opportunities for opposition politicians to campaign in government-linked media. The National Front's mandate expires in mid-2013 but many analysts expect elections to be called by next year.” <<<

Malaysia Abolishes the Internal Security Act

In September 2011, it. Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia announced that his country’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) would be abolished, to be replaced by two new anti-terrorism laws. Gan Yen Kuan of Businessweek wrote: Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Malaysia’s biggest political reforms since independence in 1957, two months after street protests that led to the arrest of more than 1,600 people. Najib said he would abolish the Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance to ensure that people in future can’t be held for their political affiliations. The government will also loosen restrictions on the media and public assembly, he said in a speech broadcast in Malay language on national television today. [Source: Gan Yen Kuan, Businessweek, September 15, 2011]

“The abolition of the ISA, and the other historic changes, underline my commitment to making Malaysia a modern, progressive democracy that can be proud to take its place at the top table of international leadership,” Najib said. “Many will question whether I am moving too far, too fast. There may be short-term pain for me politically, but in the long term the changes I am announcing will ensure a brighter, more prosperous future.” Najib, 58, vowed to improve democratic freedoms before national elections in 2013 after a backlash against the country’s response to a July 9 rally demanding an overhaul of electoral laws. Groups such as Amnesty International condemned the use of force to detain the peaceful activists for defying a government ban to march on the capital.

“It’s geared toward the election,” Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, said of Najib’s speech. “It’s a positive development that opens up space for freedom of speech, rule of law and transparency,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at Merdeka Center said in a telephone interview. “The proof lies in the implementation of these statements and the nature of the laws meant to replace the ISA.” The Internal Security Act will be replaced by a law that would incorporate more judicial oversight and limit police powers to detain people for preventative reasons, Najib said.

New Draconian Security Bill Passed in Malaysia

In May 2012, the Malaysian Parliament, passed a draconian new security bill touted as a more democratic alternative to the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) but still grants far reaching powers to the police. According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, the legislation allows “an arrest without a warrant if the officer merely ‘has reason to believe’ that the person may be involved in security offenses, many of which are vaguely defined. It would give the police broad powers to conduct searches and intercept communications without judicial warrant. And it would permit the police unilaterally to impose electronic monitoring devices on individuals released from detention, a serious infringement of personal liberty.” [Source: Dante Pastrana, World Socialist Web Site, May 4, 2012 /=/]

Dante Pastrana wrote in World Socialist Web Site, “The legislation denies bail to those arrested under its provisions and “sets the stage for trials with secret witnesses, unlawfully obtained evidence, and continued detention of those found not guilty.” As aptly described by the Malaysian human rights organisation, Lawyers for Liberty, the preventive detention without a trial under the ISA has been replaced with preventive detention with a sham trial under the new security bill. /=/

“The Najib government has also tabled amendments to the Penal Code, the Evidence Act and the Criminal Procedure Code. The amendments to the Penal Code define as crimes “activities or attempts to conduct activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy”—a sweeping definition that could be used against virtually any political opposition. The provision in the ISA against the publication of dissent and possession of dissident publications is now in the Penal Code. Punishment for these “crimes” ranges from a minimum of five years’ jail, to a maximum of life imprisonment. /=/

“Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code will provide the police with expanded powers to intercept communications and seize electronic data without warrants. An amendment to the Evidence Act is directed at forcing internet websites to divulge the identity of anonymous writers and bloggers accused of security offenses. A Freedom of Assembly Act was also approved last year. It bans street protests and allows security forces to forcibly disperse any assembly that “disturbs public tranquillity.” /=/

Malaysia Repeals Sedition Law

In July 2012, Malaysia announced plans to repeal the Seditions Act—a colonial-era law curbing free speech—in the latest political reform ahead of general elections. Associated Press reported: “Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the Sedition Act represented a "bygone era" and will be replaced with a new law to prevent incitement of religious or racial hatred. It will be the latest repressive law to be annulled as part of his pledge to protect civil liberties. Opposition leaders claim the reforms are a ploy to gain public support ahead of polls that must be called next year at the latest. [Source: AP, July 12, 2012]

"We mark another step forward in Malaysia's development. The new National Harmony Act will balance the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution, while at the same time ensuring that all races and religions are protected," Najib said. The government earlier this year revoked a draconian security law allowing detention without trial and eased public assembly rules in a massive overhaul of strict security laws. Critics said the reforms were a sham as the laws were replaced with legislation that is just as repressive.

"The replacement legislation has been as bad or worse from a rights perspective," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. "The government should realize that change for change's sake is not enough." Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of opposition-ruled Penang state, said the sedition law has long been used as a convenient political tool to silence opposition voices. Lim himself was jailed for 18 months under the law in 1998 for allegedly making seditious remarks in his defense of a rape victim.

Use Tear Gas and Water Cannons to Break Up Protests in Malaysia

Malaysia has also experienced periodic protests and riots, for several reasons. Governmental limits on freedom of expression and political participation have contributed to such events. Perhaps even more troubling is that after these events there has been some evidence of increased ethnic divisiveness, including a rise in support for political parties with specific ethnic or religious constituencies. However, other evidence suggests that Malaysia has managed ethnic differences better than other pluralistic societies in Asia.

Describing a crack down on a protest in the summer of 2009, AFP reported: “Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannons, and arrested dozens of demonstrators in an attempt to disperse a mass street protest against draconian internal security laws. Thousands of police backed by riot squad officers and helicopters cracked down at three rallying points in Kuala Lumpur - two major mosques and a popular shopping district. Online news portal Malaysiakini said some 200 people had been arrested as police tried to disperse crowds at the rallying points and scupper their plans to march to the royal palace or the city's Independence Square. [Source: AFP, August 1, 2009]

At least 50 rounds of tear gas were fired and water cannons were directed at a crowd of around 10,000 people who gathered at the Sogo shopping complex in downtown Kuala Lumpur. An AFP reporter saw at least 25 people arrested there before the huge group began marching down a main thoroughfare towards the royal palace, triggering the police offensive.

At the national mosque, where an AFP reporter saw at least 50 detained, opposition legislator Siti Mariah Mahmud, from the Islamic PAS party, criticised the arrests of protesters as they attempted to enter the mosque. "This is not reasonable. It's prayer time and this action is a breach of our religious freedom and duty," she said. When prayers were completed, those who had managed to enter the mosque streamed out, joining a crowd of at least 5,000 which began marching towards Independence Square before being confronted by tear gas and water cannons.

Malaysia Court Rules Against Student Politics Ban

In October 2011, a Malaysian court ruled that a law banning college students from political activities was unconstitutional, in a move hailed by the ban's opponents as a landmark decision. AFP reported: “Students have long campaigned for a repeal of the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which bars them from joining political parties and trade unions, saying the ban violates human rights and free speech. [Source: AFP, October 31, 2011]

“Malaysia's Court of Appeal ruled that the law contravened constitutionally protected freedom of expression. "This is a landmark decision... the net effect is that students are free to participate in political activities now," lawyer Ashok Kandiah, who represented four former political science students in challenging the ban, told AFP. However, a lawyer representing Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (the International University of Malaysia), which the four students had attended, told the court the decision would be appealed to the Federal Court, Malaysia's highest. The Kuala Lumpur High Court had earlier upheld the ban's constitutionality.

“The students launched the court challenge last year following university threats to take disciplinary action against them after they were accused of campaigning for the opposition in a local by-election. The students were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. Ahmad Syukri Abdul Razab, who heads the student organisation umbrella group SMM, told AFP the ruling validated the long fight against the act. "The decision shows to the people, to the government, that whatever the students have been fighting for for a long time is relevant. The government should pay attention to the students' demands," he said.

The UUCA, which deals mainly with administrative matters, was amended in 1975 to add the student politics ban following large demonstrations the previous year by university students protesting government economic policies. The section that was found unconstitutional says that no student "shall express... support for or sympathy with or opposition to any political party, whether in or outside Malaysia."

Freedom of the Press on the Internet in Malaysia

According to AFP: “Malaysia's media operates under a publishing permit system, which allows the government to shut down outlets at will. However, in 1996 it pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector and make Malaysia be a high-tech center. Despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism, the online media remain relatively free.

However, Leading members of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) have suggested making amendments to its media laws, such as to punish bloggers who publish materials that are deemed controversial and "anti-government". In 2008, Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of Committee to Protect Journalists, noted in a special report, "Malaysia's Risk-Takers," that the government had not lived up to its promise not to censor the Internet. Three years after Shawn's analysis, and eight years after the end of strongman Prime Minster Mahathir Mohammed's 22-year authoritarian rule, Malaysia has yet to emerge as a country with a truly free press.

According to Freedom House: “The internet remained the one bright spot in the media landscape in 2011, as the country was formally committed to a policy of refraining from online censorship, enshrined in Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Multimedia Bill of Guarantees. With around 61 percent of the population accessing the internet in 2011, Malaysia is home to many websites and blogs that offer competing points of view. Although not all of these internet news organizations are politically independent—many have suspected affiliations with politicians from either the opposition or the ruling coalition—they nevertheless offer an array of political opinions that cannot be found in the traditional media, and play a growing role in the media landscape. Social-networking sites such as Facebook continued to flourish in 2011, hosting vigorous debates on political issues and government policies. The internet has also been a place to challenge corruption and other human rights concerns, but bloggers are still required to tread carefully. In 2011, a Malaysian subsidiary of the manufacturer Asahi Kosei Japan brought a defamation lawsuit for 10 million ringgits ($3.3 million) against Malaysian activist Charles Hector over blog posts in which he criticized the company’s treatment of Burmese migrant workers. The firm dropped the lawsuit after Hector agreed to retract his statements. [Source: Freedom House ==]

“Media observers have voiced concern about an announcement from the Home Ministry that a new law would be introduced to govern sedition in cyberspace. Although this had not occurred by the end of 2011, advocacy groups such as the Centre for Independent Journalism continued to view it as a threat to free expression online. Temporary blocking and censoring of internet content was reported during the year; several opposition and news websites were inaccessible in the days leading up to the April state elections in Sarawak, and a few months later, another episode of “denial of service” occurred surrounding the Bersih 2.0 demonstrations. ==

Censorship and Freedom of the Press in Malaysia

Malaysia does not have a free and independent press, especially when compared to other countries in the region. In the 1980s, Mahathir muzzled the free press and promoted the notion of “developmental journalism”—the idea that the press should help him in his quest to develop the nation. Reporters printed verbatim what he said. Newspapers that dared to criticize him risked losing their operating licenses. Reporters Without Border ranked Malaysia at 105 out of 166 countries in terms of press freedom.

Newspapers need an annual license to publish. This license can be taken away if the government so deems it. Editors of newspapers that have been overly critical of the government have been arrested and the newspapers themselves, in some cases, have been taken over by groups more friendly to the government. At one point disillusionment with the state-sponsored media became so great the circulation of the main newspaper dropped from 200,000 to 130,000.

According to Freedom House: The constitution guarantees freedom of expression under Article 10, but allows for a host of limitations to this right. The Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act (ISA), and harsh criminal defamation laws are used regularly to impose restrictions on the press and other critics of the government. Violations of these laws are punishable by several years in prison, in many cases without trial. Although the opposition-controlled states of Selangor and Penang passed freedom of information laws in April and November 2011, respectively, Malaysia has no federal freedom of information legislation, and officials remain reluctant to share controversial data with journalists for fear of being charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. [Source: Freedom House ==]

“In July 2011, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in the “Bersih 2.0” rally to demand changes to the voting process, including free and fair access to mainstream media during campaigns. They were forcibly dispersed by police, prompting an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. In the wake of the rally, Prime Minister Najib Razak in September pledged to repeal the ISA and called for a review of existing media censorship laws, stating that they were no longer “effective.” He said he would also eliminate a provision in the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) that requires all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operations permit, but would leave all other restrictions in place, including the government’s authority to grant or deny license applications and to revoke licenses at any time without judicial review. Despite these promises, official action to reform the media laws had not occurred by year’s end, and a new Peaceful Assembly Act passed by Parliament in late 2011 was considered more draconian than its predecessor. ==

“Also during 2011, the Home Ministry continued to deny the online news website Malaysiakini a print publishing license, stating that such a permit is “a privilege,” not a right. Malaysiakini’s challenge to this decision was expected to be reviewed by the High Court in 2012. The Home Ministry may issue “show cause” letters, which require newspapers to explain certain articles or face suspension or revocation of their permits. In August, the Star newspaper was asked to explain a food supplement called “Ramadan Delights” that included non-halal eateries. Although the paper twice issued public apologies, Star editors were summoned to the Home Ministry on two separate occasions and asked to account for the error. ==

“The 1988 Broadcasting Act allows the Information Ministry to decide who can own a broadcast station and what type of television service is suitable for the Malaysian public, leading to considerable self-censorship among broadcast journalists. In September 2011, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) issued a directive banning the broadcast of a four-minute video clip aimed at increasing voter registration. The video featured prominent BN lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh as well as other Malaysian politicians and celebrities. ==

“Physical harassment and intimidation are less of a danger for journalists in Malaysia than arbitrary arrest or threats of legal action. However, several instances of extralegal harassment were noted in 2011, including a case of police intimidation of a Malaysiakini reporter in August. The perils of journalistic independence were evident in an April guilty verdict against National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Mohamed Ha’ta Wahari, who was convicted of tarnishing his employers’ image and revealing their “secrets.” In September 2010, Ha’ta, a senior journalist with the Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia, had publically criticized the paper for its lack of independence from its owner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party at the core of the BN. ==

“Although the media industry is for the most part privately owned, the majority of both print and broadcast outlets are controlled either by political parties in the ruling coalition or by businesses with political connections. The largest media conglomerate is Media Prima, which owns half of the Malay and English newspapers as well as many television channels, and is believed to be closely linked to UMNO. Huaren Management—which is associated with another BN member, the Malaysian Chinese Association—monopolizes Chinese newspapers. Despite the BN’s insistence that mainstream newspapers are impartial, owners’ political and business interests often lead to self-censorship by journalists. Foreign print media are occasionally censored or banned. For example, a July Economist piece on the Bersih 2.0 demonstration was censored, with parts of the report blotted out by the Home Ministry.

Crackdowns on Malay Editors and Foreign Journalists

According to Human Rights Watch: “In his September speech, Prime Minister Najib promised to amend the Printing Presses and Publications Act but only to end the mandatory annual licensing requirement. The minister of home affairs would retain broad authority, without judicial review, to refuse permission to publish anything he determines “likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security … or national interest.” On July 14 the High Court in Kuala Lumpur upheld the ban on seven books by Malaysiakini cartoonist Zunar and threatened revocation of printers’ licenses if they produced his books. In September the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission ordered broadcasters not to show a non-partisan voter education public service announcement created by well-known film producer and musician Peter Teo. [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

In November 2003, the editor-in-chief of Malaysia’s New Straits Times group said he has lost his job after publishing comments that upset the Saudi royal family. Reuters reported: “The New Straits Times, the country’s oldest newspaper group and one of the biggest, is linked to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s said the company was issuing a statement later today to say that “his term has ended.” He said the move was linked to his November 12 article about the Saudis. Media executives said the story, which criticised the kingdom’s royal family, had sparked a strong but previously unpublicised protest from the Saudi government. NST executives said the decision came after the Prime Minister, who is currently acting party president, met senior UMNO leaders yesterday. They said there were several grounds for the sacking, the main one being the Saudi protest, which has soured otherwise warm ties and embarrassed Malaysia’s new administration. [Source: Reuters, November 21, 2003]

In 1994, Mahathir placed sanction on British companies after British newspapers ran stories about bribery among high officials. The Economist was criticized by the Malaysian government for running an article critical of the government’s policies against foreign workers.

Murray Hilbert, a correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review, was imprisoned for four weeks for contempt of court for an article he wrote in 1997 that criticized way the Malaysian justice system handled the case of 17-year-old boy dropped from his school debating team that also happened to be the son of a judge.

HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN MALAYSIA

Malaysia is a destination, and to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for men, women, and children who are subjected to conditions of forced labor, and women and children subjected to sex trafficking. A small number of Malaysian citizens are reportedly trafficked internally and abroad to Singapore, China, and Japan for commercial sexual exploitation. Malaysians from rural and indigenous communities tend to be more vulnerable to trafficking.[Source: humantrafficking.org]

Malaysia is mainly a destination country for men, women, and children who migrate willingly from countries including Indonesia, Nepal, India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Vietnam to work, some of whom are subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude by Malaysian employers in the domestic, agricultural, construction, plantation, and industrial sectors; a small number of Malaysian citizens were reportedly trafficked internally and abroad to Singapore, China, and Japan for commercial sexual exploitation

The United States lists Malaysia on the Tier 2 Watch List of Human Trafficking. The Government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so; while the government increased the number of convictions obtained under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act during the year and continued public awareness efforts on trafficking, it did not effectively investigate and prosecute labor trafficking cases, and failed to address problems of government complicity in trafficking and lack of effective victim care and counseling by authorities (2009)

Human Trafficking Victims in Malaysia

The overwhelming majority of trafficking victims are among the two million documented and 1.9 million undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia from various countries. Many victims migrate willingly to Malaysia seeking employment opportunities but subsequently encounter forced labor or debt bondage at the hands of their employers, employment agents, or informal labor recruiters. While many of Malaysia’s trafficking offenders are individual business people, large organized crime syndicates are also behind trafficking.

A significant number of young foreign women are recruited for work in Malaysian restaurants and hotels, some of whom migrate through the use of “Guest Relations Officer” visas, but subsequently are coerced into Malaysia’s commercial sex trade. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable. Local NGOs estimate that for every domestic servant legally employed in Malaysia there is one working in the country illegally and many may be trafficked. Ninety percent of these domestic servants are from Indonesia. This is concerning, as a 2006 MOU between Indonesia and Malaysia allows for Malaysian employers to confiscate passports of domestic employees, which is widely recognized as increasing a migrant’s vulnerability.

Statelessness, a recognized human trafficking vulnerability factor, remains an issue in Malaysia. Citizenship is derived from one's parents; however, many children are stateless because the government refuses to register their birth due to inadequate proof of their parents' marriage. Interfaith marriages are also not recognized by the government which sometimes results in undocumented, de facto stateless children. One NGO estimates that the number of stateless persons ranges from several thousand to as many as 30,000. Without birth certificates, government officials deny stateless persons access to education, health care, and the right to own property.5 This puts them at risk of seeking unofficial employment opportunities, thus putting these people at risk of trafficking.

See Sex Trafficking Under Sex

Malaysian Government and Human Trafficking

The Malaysian Government was placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a second consecutive year in the 2011 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. However, the US Government recognizes that the Malaysian Government is making significant efforts to do so. [Source: humantrafficking.org]

The government has increased the number of convictions obtained under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act during 2010 and continues public awareness efforts on trafficking. However, it has not effectively investigated and prosecuted labor trafficking cases, has failed to address problems of government complicity in trafficking, and lacks provision of effective victim care and counseling by authorities. There remain many serious concerns regarding trafficking in Malaysia, including the detention of trafficking victims in government facilities.

Malaysian law prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, which was amended in November 2010 to broaden the definition of trafficking to include all actions involved in acquiring or maintaining the labor or services of a person through coercion. Authorities reported initiating 174 charges against 51 individuals under the anti-trafficking law in 2010. The government convicted 11 sex trafficking offenders and three individuals involved in labor trafficking, sentencing them to three to eight years’ imprisonment; this is compared to seven trafficking offenders convicted during the previous year. The government also reported that 141 trafficking cases remain pending in Malaysian courts.

The acquittal rate of alleged trafficking offenders was 68 percent during 2010, a rate attributed by observers to the lack of adequate victim-witness protection, victim assistance incentives, and poor judicial training on human trafficking. NGOs have reported that the police often fail or refuse to investigate complaints of confiscation of passports and travel documents or withholding of wages – especially with regards to domestic workers – as possible trafficking offenses. The government did not report in 2010 any criminal prosecutions of employers who subjected workers to conditions of forced labor or labor recruiters who used deceptive practices and debt bondage to compel migrant workers into involuntary servitude. Nor were any government officials convicted of trafficking-related complicity in 2010, even though there are reports of collusion between police and trafficking offenders.

Human Trafficking Prevention and Protection in Malaysia

Victim protection efforts remain inadequate in Malaysia. Victims identified by Malaysian authorities are adjudicated under a “protective order” that triggers their forcible detention in “shelters,” where some are isolated, unable to work or earn income, and have little or no access to legal or psychological assistance provided by the government or NGOs. [Source: humantrafficking.org]

Furthermore, the government treats victims of trafficking as illegal aliens and turns them over to immigration authorities for deportation after they provide evidence to prosecutors, usually after a 90-day stay at a trafficking in persons “shelter.” While the government reports that it encourages victims to assist in the prosecution of their traffickers, it does not make available any alternatives to repatriation for victims who may face harm or retribution upon return to their home country. Nor does it provide any incentives for victim cooperation. In fact, during trial proceedings, authorities often do not make adequate efforts to separate victims from their traffickers, which may result in threats to the victims and their families if they cooperate with police and prosecutors.

The November 2010, amendments to the anti-trafficking law included the Labor Department within the Ministry of Human Resources as an enforcement agency. The Ministry has since reported that it now requires foreign domestic workers and their employers to attend a compulsory half-day seminar on workers’ rights and that a portion of a domestic worker’s salary must be placed into a bank account in the employee’s name in order to provide a record of payment.

The Malaysian Home Ministry reported investigating the 277 outsourcing companies that recruit foreign workers into Malaysia and placed 42 on a watchlist for engaging in suspicious activities. The Women’s Ministry continues to produce pamphlets about indicators of trafficking, which are distributed at border checkpoints. The government also continues to implement an anti-trafficking public awareness campaign in print media, on the radio, and on television.14

However, international organizations and NGOs report that the lack of understanding of human trafficking by many Malaysian front-line officers, such as police and immigration officers, continue to hinder the identification and proper investigation of trafficking cases and identification and assistance to trafficking victims.

The Indonesian Government has been negotiating with the Malaysian Government to amend the 2006 MOU which allows employers to confiscate passports from migrant workers. However, talks were stalled in 2010 reportedly due to an impasse on the issue of a minimum wage and a weekly day off, which the government of Indonesia is demanding for domestic workers.16

The U.S. Department of State recommends that the Malay Government enact the following measures in its 2011 TIP Report: 1) Increase law enforcement actions under the anti-trafficking law, particularly labor trafficking cases; 2) Apply stringent criminal penalties to those involved in fraudulent labor recruitment or forced labor; 3) Increase efforts to prosecute and convict public officials who profit from or are involved in trafficking, or who exploit victims; 4) Develop and implement procedures to identify labor trafficking victims among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and refer them to available protection services; 5) Improve victim protection in government facilities by providing victims legal assistance, and providing effective counseling and care to the victims of trafficking; 6) Develop and implement mechanisms to allow adult foreign trafficking victims to travel, work, and reside outside of government shelters; 7) Provide legal alternatives to the removal of trafficking victims to countries in which they would face retribution or hardship; ensure that victims of trafficking are not threatened or punished for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked; 8) Make greater efforts to educate migrant workers on their rights, legal recourses available, and how to seek remedies against traffickers or employers who fail to meet their legal obligations; 9) Re-negotiate MOUs with source countries to incorporate victim protection and remove authorizations for employers to confiscate passports or travel documents; Continue to train officials on the effective handling of sex and labor trafficking cases, with a particular emphasis on victim protection and the identification of labor trafficking victims; Make efforts to reduce the demand for both sex and labor trafficking; and Expand the anti-trafficking awareness campaign to encompass both labor and sex trafficking.

Human Trafficking Arrests in Malaysia

In February 2013, PTI reported: “Ten boys and 11 girls were rescued after police launched a simultaneous operation in seven states yesterday, Star online said today. "We are also working closely with Interpol on a few of the children believed to have been taken to neighbouring countries," Penang state police chief Deputy Comm Abdul Rahim Hanafi told a press conference. The case is being investigated under the country's of Anti-Human Trafficking Act, which carries a jail term of not less than three years and not exceeding 20 years upon conviction. [Source: PTI, February 22, 2013]

In July 2009, AFP reported: “Two men were charged with the trafficking of two Myanmar refugees, it was reported Saturday, Malaysia's first such cases of people smuggling for the purposes of "forced labor". Second-hand goods trader Azhar Yusof, 32, and self-employed Mohamad Nazeri Mat Hussein, 50, appeared separately in court on Friday, according to the New Straits Times. The two Malaysians, who allegedly made 1,500 Ringgit (419 dollars) in each deal, face up to 20 years in jail and a fine of 500,000 Ringgit if convicted. Both denied the charges. Prosecutor Mohamad Dusuki Mokhtar said they were believed to be part of a human trafficking syndicate. [Source: Agence France Presse, July 11, 2009]

“Malaysian marine police said 93 migrants, of different nationalities, have been arrested in the treacherous Malacca Strait since January as they tried to sail to Australia via Indonesia. Malaysian premier Najib Razak has admitted that his country was being used as a transit point for illegal immigrants, as human trafficking and drug smuggling replaced piracy as the main crime threat off its long coastline.

See Refugees, Rohingya

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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