Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a criminal offense, as are most forms of domestic violence. Rape is punishable by a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and caning. The law does not recognize marital rape as a crime.
Many government hospitals had crisis centers where victims of rape and domestic abuse could file reports without going to a police station. Women’s groups asserted the courts were inconsistent in punishing rapists.
Although the government and NGOs maintained shelters and offered other assistance to battered spouses, activists asserted that support mechanisms for victims of domestic violence remained inadequate. There is a sexual investigations unit at each police headquarters to help victims of sexual crimes and abuse, and police sometimes assign psychologists or counselors to provide emotional support.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C and it is a common practice, but data on it was very limited. Ministry of Health guidelines allow the practice but only at government health-care facilities. Women’s rights groups said a 2009 fatwa by the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs declaring the practice obligatory made FGM/C more prevalent. According to an investigation published by local media in November, there are no standard procedures for the practice and “in some cases box cutters and stationery store blades are used.” The Ministry of Health has never released guidelines for the procedure. Government officials defended the practice during a UN review in February, with a Ministry of Health official stating that the practice was only performed by medical professionals and compared it to immunization programs for female babies. The UN panel urged the country to abolish the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits a person in authority from using his or her position to intimidate a subordinate to have sexual relations. The law classifies some types of workplace sexual harassment as criminal offenses (see section 7.d.). A government voluntary code of conduct provides a detailed definition of sexual harassment intended to raise public awareness of the problem. Observers noted that authorities took claims seriously, but victims were often reluctant to report sexual harassment because of the difficulty of proving the offense, and a lengthy trial process.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination against citizens based on gender, and gives men and women equal property rights; however, sharia, which deviates from these principles in some areas, was sometimes applied. For instance, Islamic inheritance law generally favors male offspring and male relatives. Sharia also generally requires a husband’s consent for divorce, but a small and steadily increasing number of women obtained divorces under sharia without their husband’s consent. Non-Muslims are not subject to sharia. Civil law gives non-Muslim mothers and fathers equal parental rights, while sharia favors fathers. Nevertheless, four states–Johor, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang–extend equal parental rights to Muslim mothers.
In March a woman reported that Kota Baru Municipal Council officials stopped her from working as a master of ceremonies during a children’s event, claiming that Muslim women cannot speak into microphones because a woman’s voice should not be heard by unrelated men.
The law requires equal pay for male and female workers for work of equal value. Nonetheless, NGOs reported continued discrimination against women in the workplace in terms of promotion and salary (see section 7.d.).
Birth Registration: A child born in the country obtains citizenship if one parent is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth and the parents are married. Parents must register a child within 14 days of birth. Parents applying for late registration must provide proof the child was born in the country. According to UNHCR children born to citizen mothers outside the country may only acquire citizenship at the discretion of the federal government through registration at an overseas Malaysian consulate or at the National Registration Department in country. Authorities do not register children born to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. UNHCR registered children born to refugees (see section 2.d.).
Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through primary school (six years), although there was no mechanism to enforce attendance. Public schools are not open to the children of illegal immigrants or refugees, whether registered with UNHCR or not.
Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is age 18 for men and age 16 for women. Muslim women younger than age 16 may marry with the approval of a sharia court. In some cases authorities treated early marriage as a solution to statutory rape.
In June a Malaysian man, age 41, married a Thai girl, age 11, in Thailand and returned to the country to live with her. Despite public outrage over the matter, the deputy prime minister stated the government was powerless to act because the marriage was legal under Islamic law.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law outlaws pornography and states that a child is considered a victim of sexual abuse if he or she has taken part as a participant or an observer in any activity that is sexual in nature for the purposes of a photograph, recording, film, videotape, or performance. Federal police reported detecting approximately 20,000 internet addresses in the country uploading and downloading child pornography. Under the law the minimum age for consensual, noncommercial sex is age 16 for both boys and girls. A conviction for trafficking in persons involving a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation carries a punishment of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine. In 2017 the government established a special court for sexual crimes against children to speed up trials, many of which took years to conclude. Child prostitution existed and a local NGO estimated in 2015 that 5,000 children were involved in sex work in Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding areas. Authorities, however, often treated children engaged in prostitution as offenders or undocumented immigrants rather than as victims.
The government focused on preventing sexual exploitation of children, including commercial sexual exploitation. The law provides for six to 20 years’ imprisonment and caning for persons convicted of incest. A child’s testimony is acceptable only if there is corroborating evidence, which posed special problems for molestation cases in which the child victim was the only witness.
Displaced Children: Street children were most prevalent in Sabah. Estimates of the street children population ranged from a few thousand to 15,000, many of whom were born in the country to illegal immigrant parents. Authorities deported some of these parents, leaving their children without guardians. Lacking citizenship, access to schooling, ord other government-provided support, these children often resorted to menial labor, criminal activities, and prostitution to survive; those living on the streets were vulnerable to forced labor, including forced begging.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
The country’s Jewish population was estimated at between 100 and 200 persons. Anti-Semitism was a serious problem across the political spectrum and attracted wide support among segments of the population. A 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey found 61 percent of citizens held anti-Jewish attitudes. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad defended his right to be anti-Semitic in interviews with the Associated Press in August, stating “Anti-Semitic is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things,” and the BBC in October repeating his claim from the 1970s that Jews are “hook-nosed” and that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was not six million.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law affords persons with disabilities the right to equal access and use of public facilities, amenities, services, and buildings open or provided to the public. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development is responsible for safeguarding the rights of persons with disabilities.
New government buildings generally had a full range of facilities for persons with disabilities. The government, however, did not mandate accessibility to transportation for persons with disabilities, and authorities retrofitted few older public facilities to provide access to persons with disabilities. Recognizing public transportation was not “disabled friendly,” the government maintained its 50 percent reduction of excise duty on locally made cars and motorcycles adapted for persons with disabilities.
Employment discrimination occurred in relation to persons with disabilities (see section 7.d.).
Students with disabilities attended mainstream schools, but accessibility remained a serious problem. Separate education facilities also existed, but were insufficient to meet the needs of all students with disabilities.
The constitution gives ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, collectively known as “bumiputra,” a “special position” in the country. Government regulations and policies provide extensive preferential programs to boost the economic position of bumiputra, who constitute a majority of the population. Such programs limited opportunities for nonbumiputra (primarily ethnic Chinese and Indians) in higher education and government employment. Many industries were subject to race-based requirements that mandated bumiputra ownership levels. Government procurement and licensing policies favor bumiputra-owned businesses. The government claimed these policies were necessary to attain ethnic harmony and political stability.
The constitution provides indigenous and nonindigenous people with the same civil and political rights, but the government did not effectively protect these rights. Indigenous people, who numbered approximately 200,000, constituted the poorest group in the country.
Indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia, known as Orang Asli, had very little ability to participate in decisions that affected them. A constitutional provision provides for “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak,” but does not refer specifically to the Orang Asli. This ambiguity over the community’s status in the constitution led to selective interpretation by different public institutions.
The courts have ruled that the Orang Asli have rights to their customary lands under the constitution, but NGOs said the government failed to recognize these judicial pronouncements. The government can seize this land if it provides compensation. There were confrontations between indigenous communities and logging companies over land, and uncertainty over their land tenure made indigenous people vulnerable to exploitation.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Adult same-sex acts are illegal regardless of age or consent. The law states that sodomy and oral sex acts are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” While authorities rarely enforced this provision, it was the basis for the controversial case against then-opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (see section 1.e.). Religious and cultural taboos against same-sex sexual conduct were widespread (see section 2.a.). In August two women in Terengganu State were sentenced by a sharia court to RM3,300 ($825) in fines and six strokes of the cane each after they were accused of same-sex sexual activity. Authorities caned the women before an audience of approximately 100 persons, marking the first public caning recorded in the state.
Authorities often charged transgender persons with “indecent behavior” and “importuning for immoral purposes” in public. Those convicted of a first offense faced a maximum fine of RM25 ($6.25) and a maximum sentence of 14 days in jail. The sentences for subsequent convictions may be maximum fines of RM100 ($25) and a maximum three months in jail. Local advocates contended that imprisoned transgender women served their sentences in prisons designated for men and that police and inmates often abused them verbally and sexually.
A survey by a local transgender rights group reported more than two-thirds of transgender women experienced some form of physical or emotional abuse. In August a group of boys repeatedly beat a transgender woman in Negeri Sembilan State. In November police arrested a man for allegedly killing his transgender girlfriend in Perak State.
State religious authorities reportedly forced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTI) persons to participate in “treatment” or “rehabilitation” programs to “cure” them of their sexuality. In August police raided a club in Kuala Lumpur associated with the LGBTI community, detaining 20 men and ordering them to attend counseling for “illicit activities.” Authorities stated the raid was part of an antidrug operation, but a government minister posted on Facebook that he hoped the operation would “mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society.”
LGBTI persons reported discrimination in employment, housing, and access to some government services because of their sexuality.
In August a federal government minister ordered festival organizers in Penang State to remove portraits of two LGBTI activists from a photography exhibition because the government does “not support the promotion of LGBT culture…” One of the activists whose photograph was removed received multiple death threats in the wake of the controversy. Authorities took no action against those making the threats.
Also in August a government minister stated that authorities would monitor social media and other online content in order “to curb LGBT issues, as well as liberal Islam.”