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Malaysia

Executive Summary

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. It has a parliamentary system of government selected through regular, multiparty elections and is headed by a prime minister. The king is the head of state, serves a largely ceremonial role, and has a five-year term. Sultan Muhammad V resigned as king on January 6 after serving two years; Sultan Abdullah succeeded him that month. The kingship rotates among the sultans of the nine states with hereditary rulers. In 2018 parliamentary elections, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, resulting in the first transfer of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Before and during the campaign, then opposition politicians and civil society organizations alleged electoral irregularities and systemic disadvantages for opposition groups due to lack of media access and malapportioned districts favoring the then ruling coalition.

The Royal Malaysian Police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers have authority to enforce some criminal aspects of sharia. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; reports of torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; reports of problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, censorship, site blocking, and abuse of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on and intolerance of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against transgender persons; criminalization of consensual adult same-sex sexual activities; and child labor.

The government arrested and prosecuted some officials engaged in corruption, malfeasance, and human rights abuses, although civil-society groups alleged continued impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution allows restrictions on the freedom of expression “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly restricted freedom of expression for members of the public, media, and civil society, citing reasons such as upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protecting national security, maintaining public order, and preserving friendly relations with other countries.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits sedition and public comment on issues defined as sensitive, including racial and religious matters or criticism of the king or ruling sultans.

In July a sessions court upheld the sedition conviction of Wan Ji, an Islamic preacher and former political aide, for insulting the sultan of Selangor State in 2012, and sentenced him to three months in jail in addition to the nine-month sentence a lower court imposed. Upon his release from custody pending appeal, Wan Ji said a police warden punched him three times while he was detained; he speculated that the attack was politically motivated but said he could not be sure. Following the session court’s decision, Amnesty International Malaysia stated, “The restrictions on the right to freedom of expression imposed in the Sedition Act are phrased in an excessively broad and vague manner, potentially resulting in both an overreach of the law and potential for abusive application of the law. The law should have been abolished by now, as per Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto.”

In August police banned Islamic preacher Zakir Naik from speaking in public and posting on social media after he made comments insulting ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups. Zakir Naik was banned from preaching in several other countries under antihate laws. The Inspector General of Police said the ban “is only temporary,” adding that “if the situation doesn’t change, the order will remain.” Police said they “ordered” law enforcement officers to “advise” organizers of any events involving Naik to cancel his participation. Police justified their action citing a law authorizing them to maintain “law and order” and preserve “peace and security.” Some lawyers argued police did not have the authority to ban someone from speaking in public under such a provision. Referring to the section of law cited by police, one lawyer told media, “That section is just to identify the role of the police force. It does not give explicit power to do anything specific.”

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Political parties and individuals linked to the former Barisan Nasional ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all English and Malay language print and broadcast media, many of which were overtly pro-opposition. Online media outlets were more independent but were often the target of legal action and harassment.

Despite many restrictions and official pressure, opposition parties, social action groups, unions, internet news sites, and other private groups actively covered opposition activity and frequently printed views critical of government policies. Online media and blogs provided views and reported stories not featured in the mainstream press.

The government maintained and at times exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media. The government banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications believed a threat to public order, morality, or national security. The government has the power to suspend publication for these reasons and retained effective control over the licensing process.

In October parliament repealed the law against “fake news,” which criminalized the “malicious” production or dissemination of “any news, information, data or reports, which is or are wholly or partly false.” Parliamentarians voted to repeal the law in August 2018, but the opposition-controlled Senate overturned the decision, postponing the law’s repeal.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation. In September police summoned Dennis Ignatius, a columnist and former Malaysian diplomat, as they investigated his August 16 column in Free Malaysia Today criticizing Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher. Referring to India’s attempt to extradite Naik, an Indian national, and Naik’s police report against him for defamation, Ignatius told reporters, “I think it’s so ironic that in this era of Malaysia Baru (New), I am now being summoned to the police to give a statement because of a report filed by a fugitive.” In August police detained a foreign journalist who had been taking photographs of a blockade set up by indigenous-rights activists in Perak state. The journalist was released after the intervention of the state’s chief minister.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government maintained the ability to censor media but did not use this power as frequently as did its predecessor. The law requires a permit to own a printing press, and printers often were reluctant to print publications critical of the government due to fear of reprisal. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in self-censorship in the print and broadcast media.

According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders, “The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically, and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints, including support for the new ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and support for the old ruling coalition, now in the opposition.” Reporters Without Borders said the lack of progress amending or annulling controversial legislation that limited freedom of expression continued to “pose a constant threat to media personnel, who still cannot express themselves with complete freedom, despite all the progress.”

The government occasionally censored foreign magazines, newspapers, and news programming, most often due to sexual content.

Government restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and the electronic media predominantly supported the government. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.

The government generally restricted publications it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,715 banned publications as of November. In April the high court upheld a previous ban on three books by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) because the books “are likely to be prejudicial to public order and interest and likely to alarm public opinion.” IRF’s director, Farouk Musa, said, “It seems to me the minister of home affairs has the absolute discretion in banning books that do not conform” to the version of Islam preferred by Islamic authorities. The same month, the high court lifted the previous government’s ban on the book, Breaking Silence: Voices of ModerationIslam in a Constitutional Democracy, by the NGO G25.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law includes sections on civil and criminal defamation. Criminal defamation is punishable by a maximum two years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. True statements can be considered defamatory if they contravene the “public good.” The government and its supporters used these laws, along with provisions against sedition, to punish and suppress publication of material critical of government officials and policies.

National Security: Authorities under the former government occasionally cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. The current government maintained the ability to impose these restrictions.

Nongovernmental Impact: NGOs sympathetic to the former government sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Such NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association but allows restrictions deemed necessary or expedient in the interest of security, public order, or (in the case of association) morality. Abiding by the government’s restrictions did not protect some protesters from harassment or arrest.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, but these rights were often restricted by federal and state government officials, particularly in eastern Sabah and Sarawak States.

In-country Movement: Sabah and Sarawak States controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. State authorities continued to deny entry to certain national leaders to these states. Sarawak maintained its ban on Zakir Naik, a controversial Islamic preacher; Mandeep Karpal Singh, formerly of the fair-election NGO coalition Bersih; current Bersih chair Thomas Fann; former chairs Maria Chin and Ambiga Sreenevasan; Wong Chin Huat, an academic and Bersih resource chair; Jerald Joseph, a SUHAKAM commissioner; and activists Colin Nicholas and Jannie Lasimbang, among others. The Sabah state government lifted its ban on political activists.

Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes.

In May the Immigration Department lifted travel restrictions on former attorney general Apandi Ali after Apandi challenged them, arguing that he had not been charged with any criminal offense and did not face any pending legal actions. In 2016, while attorney general with the previous government, Apandi cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of any wrongdoing in a corruption scandal.

f. Protection of Refugees

As of August, 177,690 refugees and asylum seekers were registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, of whom more than 153,000 were from Burma.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to migrants, refugees, and stateless persons, most of whom lived intermingled with the general public. The government cooperated to a limited extent with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. As there is no legal framework for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers in the country, UNHCR conducted all activities related to protection, including registration and status determination. Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR, NGOs, or illegal casual labor. The government held thousands in immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited.

NGOs and international organizations involved with these populations made credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding in the immigration detention centers. In July the Philippine civil society organization Migrante International accused Malaysian immigration officials of keeping detained migrants in inhumane conditions, with inadequate food and water and subject to verbal abuse. The group claimed one detainee showing signs of psychosis was tied to the wall and forced to stand for long periods. NGOs provided most medical care and treatment in the detention centers.

Local and international NGOs estimated the population at most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers was at or beyond capacity, with some detainees held for a year or longer. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.

Human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about the lack of access to fair legal process and adequate representation during immigration court hearings. The Malaysian Bar Council strongly criticized the immigration courts in detention centers as facilitating a legal process where migrant workers were not provided with a clear understanding of the charges against them in their own language and were effectively denied the right to legal counsel. At court hearings, 15 to 20 migrants were often tried together, grouped by the offense with which they were charged. If found guilty, the cost of deportation generally fell to the detainee, which led to prolonged detention for those unable to pay.

Refoulement: The government at times forcibly returned refugees to countries where their lives or freedom were at risk. In May Malaysian authorities forcibly returned Praphan Pipithnamporn, a Thai national registered as an asylum seeker with UNHCR and considered a “person of concern,” to Thailand at the request of Thai authorities. According to media, the Thai government issued a warrant for her arrest in January, “accusing her of sedition and organized crime for her involvement with the Organization for Thai Federation, a peaceful antimonarchy group.” In a statement, Human Rights Watch said, “Malaysia’s flouting of international law has placed a Thai activist at grave risk of arbitrary detention and an unjust prosecution in Thailand.”

The wife of Abdallah Mahmoud Hisham, deported to Egypt in March, said her husband had gone missing after returning to Egypt. Human Rights Watch stated that Abdallah Mahmoud Hisham, along with Abdelrahman Abdelaziz Ahmed, Mohamed Fathy Eid, and Azmy al-Sayed Mohamed, who were deported at the same time for their alleged membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, were at “serious risk of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt.”

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Migrants, refugees, and stateless persons receive no government support. The government allows UNHCR and NGOs to work with these populations, but government cooperation with UNHCR was inconsistent.

As “illegal immigrants,” refugees and others are subject to deportation at any time. They also face a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of RM10,000 ($2,400), or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration-law violations.

Freedom of Movement: The government generally tolerated the presence of undocumented refugees and asylum seekers but sometimes detained them for a variety of causes in police jails or immigration detention centers until they could be deported or UNHCR established their bona fides. Some refugees holding UNHCR identification cards nonetheless reported limited ability to move throughout the country because authorities sometimes did not recognize the UNHCR card.

Employment: Although the government does not authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, it typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them. Refugees employed in the informal sector were paid lower wages than comparable employees and were vulnerable to exploitation.

Access to Basic Services: The government provided access to health care at a discounted foreigner’s rate of 50 percent to UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to persons without UNHCR registration cards. NGOs operated static and mobile clinics, but their number and access were limited. Refugees did not have access to the public education system. Access to education was limited to schools run by NGOs and ethnic communities, and UNHCR estimated no more than 40 percent of refugee children attended school. A lack of resources and qualified teachers limited opportunities for the majority of school-age refugee children. UNHCR staff members conducted numerous visits to prisons and immigration detention centers to provide counseling, support, and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, renewable residence permits to a group of Syrian refugees. The permit allows for legal residency and conveys work rights, but must be renewed annually.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In 2018 the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition unseated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in general elections, marking the first federal transition of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Prior to the elections, then opposition political parties were disadvantaged due to government control over traditional media outlets and malapportionment of constituencies, among other issues.

While authorities generally recorded votes accurately, there were irregularities perpetrated by the former government that affected the fairness of elections. A special election court ruled on August 16 that there were serious breaches in the Kimanis parliamentary district in Sabah State during the May 2018 general election, including “manipulation” of ballot boxes and more than 300 “improperly cast” ballots. Former foreign minister Anifah Aman, who has held the Kimanis seat since 1999, won in 2018 by 156 votes; he appealed the court’s decision.

The constitution fixes the number of seats in parliament assigned to each state to the advantage of rural states and regardless of population shifts over time. Moreover, it does not require equal populations in electoral constituencies in any given state. Each constituency elects one member of parliament. The Electoral Commission has established constituencies with widely varying populations, further to the advantage of rural populations. For example, the rural district of Igan had 18,000 registered voters, while the urban district of Kapar had more than 144,000 registered voters. Local and municipal officials are appointed at the state or federal level.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; prior to the 2018 change of government, however, enforcement generally focused on relatively small-scale, low-level crime. After the change, the government charged several former government officials with corruption, including the former prime minister, although there remained a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism in government institutions. Media outlets reported numerous cases of alleged official corruption.

The Malaysian Anticorruption Commission is responsible for investigating corruption in both private and public bodies but does not have prosecutorial authority. An auditor general is responsible, per the constitution, for auditing the accounts of the federal and state governments, government agencies, and other public authorities.

Responding to questions in parliament on March 28, a deputy minister confirmed that the report on governance and the economy drafted by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), an advisory body established by Prime Minister Mahathir, would remain classified because it contained confidential information. Civil society criticized the decision, as did some members of parliament. According to the Center for Independent Journalism, “any document can be classified secret once it has been certified as such by a public officer” and “the courts have no jurisdiction to review whether or not the document should be considered secret.”

Corruption: Corruption was a key campaign issue in the 2018 general elections.

Suits filed in 2018 against former prime minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, remained ongoing. Najib was charged with criminal breach of trust, abuse of power as a public officer, and money laundering; Rosmah was charged with 19 counts of money laundering and tax evasion.

According to the federal government, authorities arrested 418 civil servants for bribery in 2018; as of April, 140 had been charged. In January Prime Minister Mahathir said reports of alleged corruption were increasing because individuals no longer feared filing complaints with the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission, adding that most of the reports were linked to the previous government.

The federal government launched a national anticorruption plan in January. The plan is composed of 115 initiatives, including sweeping changes to how government officials are appointed and to the procurement process; requirements that legislators publicly declare their assets; and new laws regulating political financing and lobbying.

Financial Disclosure: Cabinet members must declare their assets to the prime minister. Senior civil servants are required to declare their assets to the chief secretary of the government. Junior civil servants must declare their assets to the head of their department. The assets, liabilities, and interests public officials must declare are clearly defined and do not include the assets and incomes of spouses and dependent children, except in the case of members of parliament. Public officials must declare their assets annually, but not upon entering or leaving office. Those who refuse or fail to declare their assets face disciplinary actions and are ineligible for promotion. The government did not make public these declarations.

In a unanimous voice vote, lawmakers passed a regulation on July 1 compelling all members of parliament, their immediate family members, and trustees to declare their assets by October 1. Those who did not abide by the requirement could be held in contempt of parliamentary regulations, while those found to have provided false information could be subject to criminal proceedings. Prime Minister Mahathir said the initiative would deter members of parliament from abusing their positions. Although opposition members did not vote against it, the deputy president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party claimed the measure is unnecessary and against Islam, arguing, “If God gives us wealth, you do not reveal it to the public, because it will create attention and envy.” Former prime minister Najib Razak said the decision was “unfair” because many parliamentarians derive income from sources in addition to their government salary.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups operated subject to varying levels of government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases; however, the government was not always cooperative or responsive to their views. In October Michelle Bachelet became the first UN high commissioner for human rights to visit Malaysia, at the invitation of the Malaysian government.

In April police summoned Numan Afifi, an LGBTI activist and president of the NGO PELANGI Campaign, to question him about statements he made during Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations in Geneva in March. Numan said the police action was “designed to intimidate and harass human rights defenders.”

Outside the political and human rights fields, the government generally allowed NGOs to function independently, met with representatives from some NGOs, and responded to some NGO requests. The government, however, also took action against some NGOs. In an August 27 ruling, the high court dismissed the argument by the NGO Sisters in Islam that a 2014 Selangor state fatwa deeming the organization “deviant” represented an infringement on the group’s and members’ constitutional rights. The fatwa stated that Sisters in Islam deviated from the teachings of Islam because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism, ruling that its books and materials could be seized, although the court did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” At a press conference outside the courtroom the NGO’s executive director said she was “very disappointed” in the decision, adding, “We are looking at really dark hours ahead for Malaysia.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: Created by an act of parliament, the official human rights commission SUHAKAM is headed by a chairperson and commissioners appointed by the king on the recommendation of the prime minister. Observers generally considered SUHAKAM a credible human rights monitor. It conducted training, undertook investigations, issued reports, and made recommendations to the government. SUHAKAM may not investigate court cases in progress and must cease its inquiries if a case becomes the subject of judicial action.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for limited freedom of association and for some categories of workers to form and join trade unions, subject to a variety of legal and practical restrictions. The law provides for the right to strike and to bargain collectively, but both were severely restricted. The law prohibits employers from interfering with trade union activities, including union formation. It prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for legal union activities and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law prohibits defense and police officials, retired or dismissed workers, or workers categorized as “confidential, managerial, and executive” from joining a union. The law also restricts the formation of unions to workers in “similar” trades, occupations, or industries. Foreign workers may join a trade union but cannot hold union office unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Human Resources. In view of the absence of a direct employment relationship with owners of a workplace, contract workers may not form a union and cannot negotiate or benefit from collective bargaining agreements.

The director general of trade unions and the minister of human resources may refuse to register or withdraw registration from some unions without judicial oversight. The time needed for a union to be recognized remained long and unpredictable. Union officials expressed frustration about delays in the settlement of union recognition disputes; such applications were often refused. If a union’s recognition request was approved, the employer sometimes challenged the decision in court, leading to multi-year delays in recognizing unions.

Most private-sector workers have the right to bargain collectively, although these negotiations cannot include issues of transfer, promotion, appointments, dismissal, or reinstatement. The law restricts collective bargaining in “pioneer” industries the government has identified as growth priorities, including various high-technology fields. Public-sector workers have some collective bargaining rights, although some could only express opinions on wages and working conditions instead of actively negotiating. Long delays continued in the treatment of union claims to obtain recognition for collective bargaining purposes. The government also had the right to compel arbitration in the case of failed collective bargaining negotiations.

Private-sector strikes are severely restricted. The law provides for penal sanctions for peaceful strikes. The law prohibits general strikes, and trade unions may not strike over disputes related to trade-union registration or illegal dismissals. Workers may not strike in a broad range of industries deemed “essential,” nor may they hold strikes when a dispute is under consideration by the Industrial Court. Union officials claimed legal requirements for strikes were almost impossible to meet; the last major strike occurred in 1962.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting employers from seeking retribution for legal union activities and requiring reinstatement of workers fired for trade union activity. Penalties included fines but were seldom assessed and generally not sufficient to deter violations. In July the Federal Court upheld a lower-court ruling that two banks had promoted clerical staff to executive positions without giving them any executive powers in order to exclude the employees from the National Union of Bank Employees (Nube). The union’s lawyer called the decision “groundbreaking.”

Freedom of association and collective bargaining were not fully respected. National-level unions are prohibited; the government allows three regional territorial federations of unions–peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak–to operate. They exercised many of the responsibilities of national-level labor unions, although they could not bargain on behalf of local unions. The Malaysian Trade Unions Congress is a registered “society” of trade unions in both the private and government sectors that does not have the right to bargain collectively or strike but may provide technical support to affiliated members. Some workers’ organizations were independent of government, political parties, and employers, but employer-dominated or “yellow” unions were reportedly a concern.

The inability of unions to provide more than limited protection for workers, particularly foreign workers who continued to face the threat of deportation, and the prevalence of antiunion discrimination created a disincentive to unionize. In some instances, companies reportedly harassed leaders of unions that sought recognition. Some trade unions reported the government detained or restricted the movement of some union members under laws allowing temporary detention without charging the detainee with a crime. Trade unions asserted some workers had wages withheld or were terminated because of union-related activity.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Five agencies, including the Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources, have enforcement powers under the law, but their officers performed a variety of functions and did not always actively search for indications of forced labor. NGOs continued to criticize the lack of resources dedicated to enforcement of the law.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting forced labor in some cases, and large fines as penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. In July a court overruled an earlier labor department ruling that there was no remedy for undocumented domestic workers to pursue claims of unpaid wages and ordered an Indonesian domestic worker’s case against her employer to receive a full hearing. The Indonesian employee, filing her case under the pseudonym “Nona,” claimed her employer failed to pay her for five years. The executive director of the NGO Tenaganita stated, “with this precedent, there is hope for undocumented workers to seek redress in court.”

In 2018 the government established an Independent Committee on Foreign Workers to provide comprehensive reform plans to the government regarding foreign-worker management and labor policy. The committee presented its final report to cabinet in July with recommendations on streamlining policies related to foreign workers, but the report was not made public.

A variety of sources reported occurrences of forced labor or conditions indicative of forced labor in plantation agriculture, the fishing industry, electronics factories, garment production, construction, restaurants, and domestic service among both adults and children (also see section 7.c.).

Employers, employment agents, and labor recruiters subjected some migrants to forced labor or debt bondage. Many companies hired foreign workers using recruiting or outsourcing companies, creating uncertainty about the legal relationship between the worker, the outsourcing company, and the owner of the workplace, making workers more vulnerable to exploitation and complicating dispute resolution. Labor union representatives noted that recruiting agents in the countries of origin and in Malaysia sometimes imposed high fees, making migrant workers vulnerable to debt bondage.

In August three nonprofit organizations filed a formal complaint with a foreign government urging it to ban imports of products from FGV Holdings Berhad, a Malaysian palm oil company, due to reports of forced labor at FGV plantations. Another petition filed earlier in the year accused FGV of using child labor. An FGV spokesperson told media in August, “We are committed to ensure respect for human rights. We are very serious in handling this.” The trial of former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi for his role in a fraudulent scheme involving hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers seeking jobs in the country continued as of November. Private companies linked to the then deputy prime minister’s brother and brother-in-law reportedly charged Nepali workers more than RM185 million ($46.3 million) for medical tests and to submit visa applications during the prior five years. These medical and visa processing services increased the cost tenfold without offering additional protections or benefits. Zahid denied involvement in or knowledge of the scam, but the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission charged him in October 2018 with 45 counts of corruption, bribery, and money laundering, three of which concern RM3 million ($750,000) he allegedly received in bribes from a company that ran a visa center for Nepali workers. Critics of the former government had long characterized the foreign-worker recruitment system as corrupt.

Nonpayment of wages remained a concern. Passport confiscation by employers increased migrant workers’ vulnerability to forced labor; the practice was illegal but widespread and generally went unpunished. Migrant workers without access to their passports were more vulnerable to harsh working conditions, lower wages than promised, unexpected wage deductions, and poor housing. NGOs reported that agents or employers in some cases drafted contracts that included a provision for employees to sign over the right to hold their passports to the employer or an agent. Some employers and migrant workers reported that workers sometimes requested employers keep their passports, since replacing lost or stolen passports could cost several months’ wages and leave foreign workers open to questions about their legal status.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 14 but permits some exceptions, such as light work in a family enterprise, work in public entertainment, work performed for the government in a school or in training institutions, or work as an approved apprentice. There is no minimum age for engaging in light work. For children between the ages of 14 and 18, there was no list clarifying specific occupations or sectors considered hazardous and therefore prohibited.

The government did not effectively enforce laws prohibiting child labor. Those found contravening child labor laws faced penalties that were not sufficient to deter violations.

Child labor occurred in some family businesses. Child labor in urban areas was common in the informal economy, including family food businesses and night markets, and in small-scale industry. Child labor was also evident among migrant domestic workers.

NGOs reported that stateless children in Sabah were especially vulnerable to labor exploitation in palm oil production, forced begging, and work in service industries, including restaurants. Although the National Union of Plantation Workers reported it was rare to find children involved in plantation work in peninsular Malaysia, others reported instances of child labor on palm oil plantations across the country. Commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred (see section 6, Children).

Also, see the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to hiring; the director general of labor may investigate discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment for both foreign and local employees. The director general may issue necessary directives to an employer to resolve allegations of discrimination in employment, although there were no penalties under the law for such discrimination.

Employers are obligated to inquire into most sexual harassment complaints in a prescribed manner. Advocacy groups such as the Association of Women Lawyers stated these provisions were not comprehensive enough to provide adequate help to victims.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to women; members of national, racial, and ethnic minorities; and persons with disabilities. A code of practice guides all government agencies, employers, employee associations, employees, and others with respect to placement of persons with disabilities in private-sector jobs. Disability-rights NGOs reported that employers were reluctant to hire persons with disabilities. A regulation reserves 1 percent of public-sector jobs for persons with disabilities.

Migrant workers must undergo mandatory testing for more than 16 illnesses as well as pregnancy. Employers may immediately deport pregnant or ill workers. Migrant workers also faced employment discrimination (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.). Employers were unilaterally able to terminate work permits, subjecting migrant workers to immediate deportation.

Women experienced some economic discrimination in access to employment. Employers routinely asked women their marital status during job interviews. The Association of Women Lawyers advocated for passage of a separate sexual harassment bill making it compulsory for employers to formulate sexual harassment policies. The law prohibits women from working underground, such as in sewers, and restricts employers from requiring female employees to work in industrial or agricultural work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. or to commence work for the day without having 11 consecutive hours of rest since the end of the last work period.

The government reserved large quotas for the bumiputra majority for positions in the federal civil service as well as for vocational permits and licenses in a wide range of industries, which greatly reduced economic opportunity for minority groups (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage applied to both citizen and foreign workers in most sectors, with the exception of domestic service (see below). The minimum wage rates were less than Ministry of Finance-published poverty income levels in Sabah and Sarawak.

Working hours may not exceed eight per day or 48 per week, unless workers receive overtime pay. The law specifies limits on overtime, which vary by sector, but it allows for exceptions. The law protects foreign domestic workers only with regard to wages and contract termination. The law excludes them from provisions that would otherwise stipulate one rest day per week, an eight-hour workday, and a 48-hour workweek. Instead, bilateral agreements or memoranda of understanding between the government and some source countries for migrant workers include provisions for rest periods, compensation, and other conditions of employment for migrant domestic workers, including prohibitions on passport retention.

In January 2018 employers became responsible for paying a levy for their foreign workers, a move designed to better protect low-wage foreign workers and to encourage the hiring of local employees. Previously, employers regularly passed the costs on to employees and withheld as much as 20 percent of a worker’s annual salary to cover the levy.

The Ministry of Human Resources began enforcing amendments to the Private Employment Agencies Act (PEAA) in 2018. The measure aims to make the cost of business too high for small-scale recruiting agencies that have been sources of abuses in the past. Employment agencies must now pay as much as RM250,000 ($62,500) to operate a business that recruits foreign workers, a significant increase from the RM1,000 ($250) required under the original PEAA. In addition, agencies must secure a guaranteed bank note for as much as RM250,000 ($62,500) that would be liquidated (and used for victim repatriation costs) if they are found to be in violation of the law. Under a new amendment, agencies found operating without a license face tough new penalties, including a RM200,000 ($50,000) fine and a maximum three years in prison, an increase from the previous RM5,000 ($1,250) fine.

Migrant workers often worked in sectors where violations were common, performed hazardous duties, and had no meaningful access to legal counsel in cases of contract violations and abuse. Some workers alleged their employers subjected them to inhuman living conditions and physically assaulted them. Employers of domestic workers sometimes failed to honor the terms of employment and subjected workers to abuse. Employers reportedly restricted workers’ movement and use of mobile telephones; provided substandard food; did not provide sufficient time off; sexually assaulted workers; and harassed and threatened workers, including with deportation.

Occupational health and safety laws cover all sectors of the economy except the maritime sector and the armed forces. The law requires workers to use safety equipment and cooperate with employers to create a safe, healthy workplace, but it does not specify a right to remove oneself from a hazardous or dangerous situation without penalty. Laws on worker’s compensation cover both local and migrant workers but provide no protection for migrant domestic workers.

The National Occupational Safety and Health Council–composed of workers, employers, and government representatives–creates and coordinates implementation of occupational health and safety measures. It requires employers to identify risks and take precautions, including providing safety training to workers, and compels companies with more than 40 workers to establish joint management-employee safety committees.

The Department of Labor of the Ministry of Human Resources enforces wage, working condition, and occupational safety and health standards. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of labor enforcement officers was insufficient to enforce compliance in businesses and households that employ domestic help. Department of Labor officials reported they sought to conduct labor inspections as frequently as possible. Nevertheless, many businesses could operate for years without an inspection.

Penalties for employers who fail to follow the law begin with a fine assessed per employee and can rise to imprisonment. Employers can be required to pay back wages plus the fine. If they refuse to comply, employers face additional fines per day that wages are not paid. Employers or employees who violate occupational health and safety laws are subject to fines, imprisonment, or both. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Employers did not respect laws on wages and working hours. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress reported that 12-, 14-, and 18-hour days were common in food and other service industries.

According Department of Occupational Safety and Health statistics, 127 workers died, 3,491 acquired a nonpermanent disability, and 131 acquired permanent disability in work-related incidents in the first half of the year.

Singapore

Executive Summary

Singapore is a parliamentary republic where the People’s Action Party (PAP), in power since 1959, overwhelmingly dominated the political scene. The Elections Department declared Halimah Yacob president in 2017; she was the only candidate who qualified for the ballot, which was reserved that year for an ethnic Malay. Observers considered the 2015 general election free and open. The PAP won 83 of 89 parliamentary seats with 70 percent of the vote. The president subsequently reappointed PAP leader Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister.

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, maintains internal security. The Singapore Armed Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, have trained for deployment alongside the Home Affairs Ministry for certain homeland security operations, including joint deterrence patrols with SPF in instances of heightened terrorism alerts. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: preventive detention by the government under various laws that dispense with regular judicial due process; monitoring private electronic or telephone conversations without a warrant; significant restrictions on the press and internet, including criminal libel laws; significant legal and regulatory limitations on the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and a law criminalizing sexual activities between men, although this was not enforced.

The government prosecuted officials who committed human rights abuses in previous years. There were no reports of impunity for such abuses in the year to November.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression but allows parliament to impose such restrictions on freedom of speech as it “considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the country or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.”

Freedom of Expression: The government significantly restricted any public statements that it contended would undermine social or religious harmony, or that did not safeguard national or public interest. Government pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among some journalists and users of the internet.

In August police issued warnings to YouTube star Preeti Nair and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, for promoting racial disharmony through a rap video in which they criticized the ethnic Chinese community. The siblings’ video mocked a recent “Brownface” advertisement in which an ethnic Chinese actor played four different characters, including an Indian man with artificially darkened skin, and a Malay Muslim woman wearing a hijab. Four ministers criticized the siblings’ “offensive” video, which included vulgarities, and the government issued a takedown notice for it to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

In April activist Jolovan Wham and opposition politician John Tan Liang Joo, of the Singapore Democratic Party, were each fined S$5,000 ($3,630) plus legal costs for contempt of court. They were convicted in October 2018 after Wham posted on Facebook that “Malaysia’s judges are more independent than Singapore’s for cases with political implications” and, when Wham was prosecuted, Tan commented that the case “only confirms that what he said is true.”

In April the Court of Appeal ruled that papers for contempt of court proceedings were properly served on Li Shengwu, a nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in 2017. Li had posted private Facebook comments in 2017 criticizing the “litigious” nature of the government and the “pliant court system.” The case was ongoing as of November. While media and internet users have shared the facts of the case, many have been circumspect in commenting further because publishing material that prejudges a pending issue in court proceedings may constitute contempt of court.

The law gives the minister for home affairs discretion to authorize special police powers if a “serious incident” such as a terrorist attack is occurring or there is a threat that it could. These powers allow the commissioner of police to prohibit anyone from taking or transmitting photographs or videos in a defined area, or from making text or audio messages about police operations. A breach of the order may lead to imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to S$20,000 ($14,500), or both. Some civil society groups expressed concern that authorities could use the law to stop activists documenting the abuse of police powers, such as in the instance that authorities used force to break up a large but peaceful demonstration.

The law prohibits the public display of any foreign national emblems, including flags or symbols of political organizations or leaders. The law restricts the use of the coat of arms, flag, and national anthem.

The government-approved Speakers’ Corner was the only outdoor venue where citizens could give public speeches without a Public Entertainment License. Speakers’ Corner may be used for exhibitions, performances, assemblies and processions, and citizens do not need a police permit to hold these events. All event organizers must, however, preregister online with the National Parks Board and must provide the topic of their event. Regulations state that the event should not be religious in nature or cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups. The commissioner of parks and recreation has the right to cancel or disallow any event or activity that he or she believes may endanger, cause discomfort to, or inconvenience other park users or the general public.

Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to the ISA, the government may restrict or place conditions on publications that incite violence, counsel disobedience to the law, have the potential to arouse tensions in the country’s diverse population, or threaten national interests, national security, or public order.

Government leaders openly urged news media to support its goals and help maintain social and religious harmony. The government enforced strict defamation and press laws, including in what it considered personal attacks on officials, resulting in journalists and editors moderating or limiting what was published. The government sued journalists or online bloggers for defamation or for stories that authorities believed undermined racial and religious harmony.

There were no legal bans on owning or operating private press outlets, although in practice government managerial and financial control strongly influenced all print and some electronic media. Two companies, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) and MediaCorp, owned all general circulation newspapers in the four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. SPH is a publicly listed company with close ties to the government, which must approve (and may remove) the holders of management shares, who appoint or dismiss SPH management. The government investment company Temasek Holdings wholly owned MediaCorp. As a result, coverage of domestic events and reporting of sensitive foreign relations topics usually closely reflected official government policies and views.

Government-linked companies and organizations operated all domestic broadcast television channels and almost all radio stations. Only one radio station, the BBC’s World Service, was completely independent of the government. Residents could receive some Malaysian and Indonesian television and radio programming, but with a few exceptions authorities prohibited satellite dishes. Cable television was widespread, and subscribers had access to numerous foreign television shows and a wide array of international news and entertainment channels. The government did not censor international news channels but did censor entertainment programs to remove or edit representations of intimate gay and lesbian relationships. Residents routinely accessed uncensored international radio and television content via the internet.

The government may limit broadcasts or the circulation of publications by “gazetting” (listing) them under the Broadcasting Act and may ban the circulation of domestic and foreign publications. The law empowers the minister for communications and information to gazette or place formal restrictions on any foreign broadcaster deemed to be engaging in domestic politics.

The government may require a gazetted broadcaster to obtain express permission from the minister to continue broadcasting in the country. The government may impose restrictions on the number of households receiving a broadcaster’s programming and may fine a broadcaster up to S$100,000 ($72,500) for failing to comply.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) under the Ministry of Communications and Information regulates broadcast, print, and other media, including movies, video materials, computer games, and music. Most banned publications were sexually oriented materials but also included some religious and political publications. The IMDA develops censorship standards including age appropriate classification of media content with the help of various citizen advisory panels. The law allows the banning, seizure, censorship, or restriction of written, visual, or musical materials if authorities determine that such materials threaten the stability of the state, contravene moral norms, are pornographic, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorize or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. The law gives IMDA officers power to enter and search premises and seize evidence without a warrant for “serious offenses,” such as those involving films prohibited on public interest grounds or the unlicensed public exhibition of a film. The IMDA has the power to sanction broadcasters for transmitting what it believed to be inappropriate content. All content shown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. must be suitable for viewers of all ages.

Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, and conviction on criminal defamation charges may result in a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine, or both. Critics charged that government leaders used defamation lawsuits or threats of such actions to discourage public criticism, coerce the press, and intimidate opposition politicians.

In September, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Terry Xu, editor of the sociopolitical website The Online Citizen, for defamation following Xu’s refusal to take down and apologize for an article about a dispute between Lee and his two siblings. In a separate case, Xu was charged in December 2018 for criminal defamation after he published a reader’s letter in which the author accused the PAP leadership of “corruption at the highest echelons.” The letter’s author, Daniel De Costa, was also charged with criminal defamation. De Costa lodged a constitutional challenge against the charge, with hearings scheduled for November.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although it limited them in certain circumstances.

In-country Movement: The ISA permits authorities to restrict a person’s movement, and they did so in the case of some former ISA detainees. Several dozen suspected terrorists were subject to such restrictions.

Foreign Travel: The government may refuse to issue a passport; in practice this was done primarily on security grounds.

Persons with national service reserve obligations (male citizens and permanent residents between ages 18 and 40 (for enlisted men) or 50 (for officers)) are required to advise the Ministry of Defense of plans to travel abroad. Men and boys age 13 and older who have not completed national service obligations are required to obtain exit permits for international travel if they intend to be away for three months or more.

In June a permanent resident, Thirumal Pavithran (an Indian national), was jailed for 10 weeks after he remained outside the country for more than five years after his exit permit expired. Those convicted of remaining outside the country without a valid exit permit can be jailed for up to three years and fined up to S$10,000 ($7,250) for each charge.

The law allows the government to deprive naturalized citizens of citizenship if they have resided outside of the country for more than five consecutive years or have engaged in activities deemed harmful to public safety and order.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. The government may, on a case-by-case basis, cooperate with organizations such as UN High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate or send refugees to a third country.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in open and free periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In five decades of continuous rule, however, the PAP has employed a variety of measures that effectively limited the ability of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to its hold on power. In recent years, the opposition won additional seats, although it still held a small fraction of seats in parliament.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government implemented these laws effectively.

Corruption: Media reported one new case of serious public sector corruption during the year. In October, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority customer service officer Lucy Teo was charged with receiving bribes from a Malaysian national who applied to become a permanent resident. Teo was charged with two counts of engaging in a conspiracy to obtain corruptly S$1,500 ($1,090) from the Malaysian. Two other individuals, including the Malaysian, were also charged with corruption-related offenses.

In September the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau reported that of the 112 persons prosecuted for corruption in court in 2018, five were public sector employees. In one case, former general manager of the Ang Mo Kio town council Victor Wong Chee Meng, who was charged in 2018 with 55 counts of corruption, pleaded guilty in March to receiving S$86,000 ($62,400) in inducements from the directors of two building and repair companies, and was sentenced to 27 months’ imprisonment.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires civil servants to declare their investments, properties, and indebtedness to their respective permanent secretaries. According to the code of conduct for ministers, ministers make financial disclosures to the prime minister. Declarations are not made public. If evidence surfaces that a declaration is fraudulent, administrative “disciplinary measures” may be imposed. The salaries of ministers and senior officials were public information.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction and these organizations investigated and published their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. NGOs were subject to registration according to the Societies Act or the Companies Act.

Some international human rights NGOs criticized the government’s policies in areas such as capital punishment, migrant workers’ rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. They charged that the government generally ignored such criticisms or published rebuttals.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Parliament passed the Criminal Law Reform Act in May. The law has been formally gazetted (published), but implementation was pending as of December. Under the new law, individuals convicted under the Penal Code for any offenses committed against vulnerable victims–children below the age of 14, persons with mental or physical disabilities, and domestic workers–will be liable to up to twice the maximum penalty. The law will abolish marital immunity for rape, expand the definition of rape to make it gender neutral, increase the penalties for offenses committed against unmarried partners, and introduce new criminal offenses for technology-related crimes such as voyeurism. These and other provisions of the new law will significantly change many of the legal provisions reported below.

The Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Act became law in June–implementation was pending as of December–makes doxing an offense and improves judicial procedures for victims of online harassment.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join trade unions. Workers have the legal right to strike and to bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination.

Parliament may impose restrictions on the right of association based on security, public order, or morality grounds. The Ministry of Manpower also has broad powers to refuse to register a union or to cancel a union’s registration. Laws and regulations restrict freedom of association by requiring any group of 10 or more persons to register with the government. The law also restricts the right of uniformed personnel and government employees to organize, although the president may grant exemptions. Foreigners and those with criminal convictions generally may not hold union office or become employees of unions, but the ministry may grant exemptions.

The law requires more than 50 percent of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to 51 percent of those participating in the vote. Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before striking, and there is a prohibition on strikes by workers in the water, gas, and electricity sectors.

Unions were unable to carry out their work without interference from the government or political parties. The law limits how unions may spend their funds, prohibiting, for example, payments to political parties or the use of funds for political purposes, and restricts the right of trade unions to elect their officers and choose their employees.

Almost all unions were affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), an umbrella organization with a close relationship with the government and the ruling PAP. The NTUC secretary-general was a cabinet minister and four PAP members of parliament were in NTUC leadership positions. NTUC policy prohibited union members who supported opposition parties from holding office in its affiliated unions.

Collective bargaining was a routine part of labor-management relations in all sectors. Because nearly all unions were its affiliates, the NTUC had almost exclusive authority to exercise collective bargaining power on behalf of employees. Union members may not reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and an employer. Although transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, employers consulted with unions on both issues.

Foreign workers constituted approximately 15 percent of union members. Labor NGOs also filled an important function by providing support for migrant workers, including legal aid and medical care, especially for those in the informal sector.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law does not define “forced labor,” but the government used the definition found in International Labor Organization Convention 29. Under the law, destitute persons can be compelled to work.

The government enforced the law, although it was more likely to prosecute employers for less serious employment infringements than those of domestic servitude or bonded labor. Penalties included prison terms and fines, which were usually sufficient to deter violations. The government took law enforcement action against employers for workplace violations, including for nonpayment of salaries, serious safety violations, and abuse or mistreatment of foreign domestic workers. It also investigated and imposed fines on some employment agencies for committing other illegal practices. The Ministry of Manpower reported, for example, that in March an employment agency lost its license and was fined S$48,000 ($34,800) for advertising 49 foreign domestic workers on an online marketplace in an undignified light, as if they were commodities. Given the number of low-paid foreign workers in the country, however, outside observers believe that many cases of abuse were undetected.

Practices indicative of forced labor, including the withholding of wages and passports, occurred. Migrant workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors such as domestic work, hospitality, and construction were vulnerable to labor exploitation.

The law caps the fees payable by foreign domestic workers to employment agencies in the country at one month’s salary per year of the employment contract not to exceed two months’ salary, irrespective of the duration of the contract. Observers noted that unscrupulous agencies in migrant workers’ countries of origin could charge exorbitant fees.

Some observers also noted that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor because there are limited circumstances in which they may change employers without the consent of their employer.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 13 years. A child age 13 or older may engage in light work in a nonindustrial undertaking, subject to medical clearance. Exceptions include work in family enterprises; a child 13 or older may only work in an industrial undertaking that employs members of his or her family. Ministry of Manpower regulations prohibit night employment of children and restrict industrial work for children between 15 and 16. Children younger than 15 may not work on commercial vessels, with moving machinery, on live electrical apparatus lacking effective insulation, or in any underground job, and normally they are prohibited from employment in the industrial sector.

The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced these laws and regulations. Employers who violated laws related to child labor were subject to fines, imprisonment, or both, penalties that were sufficient to deter violations. Government officials asserted that child labor was not a significant problem.

The incidence of children in formal employment was low, although some children worked in family enterprises.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution provides for equality in employment. No specific antidiscrimination legislation exists, although some statutes prohibit certain forms of discrimination. For example, employers may not dismiss female employees during pregnancy or maternity leave, and employers may not dismiss employees solely due to age, gender, race, religion, nationality, marital status, family responsibilities, disability, or medical condition.

The Ministry of Manpower’s Fair Consideration Framework requires all companies to comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices and have employment practices that are open, merit based, and nondiscriminatory. These guidelines call for eliminating language referring to age, race, gender, religion, marital status, family responsibilities, and disability in employment advertisements. Employers are required to provide explanations for putting requirements such as specific language skills in the job advertisement. Penalties for violation of government guidelines are at the discretion of the ministry. There were no similar government guidelines with respect to political opinion, sexual orientation, or HIV or other communicable disease status.

The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices received complaints of employment discrimination, largely due to the preference to hire foreigners over citizens.

In January, President Halimah Yacob announced the formation of a Council for Board Diversity, which aims to increase the proportion of women on the boards of listed companies, public sector entities, nongovernmental organizations and charities. The council replaced a committee that focused on women’s representation on large listed companies. As of June the council reported that women’s representation on boards of the largest 100 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange was 15.7 percent, while women filled 24.5 percent of positions on statutory boards, and 27.4 percent of those on registered nongovernment organizations and charities.

Some ethnic Malays and Indians reported that discrimination limited their employment and promotion opportunities. There were also some reports of discrimination based on disability, pregnancy, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Pregnancy is a breach of the standard work permit conditions for foreign workers, and the government cancels work permits and requires repatriation of foreign domestic workers who become pregnant.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law does not specify a national minimum wage for all sectors of the economy. The government has set minimum wages in the cleaning, landscaping, elevator maintenance, and security services sectors as a requirement to obtain a business license. The majority of these wages were below the unofficial poverty line determined by the National University of Singapore’s Social Service Research Center.

The law sets the standard legal workweek at 44 hours, and requires employers to apply for an overtime exception from the Ministry of Manpower for employees to work more than 72 hours of overtime per month. Workplace protection including paid sick leave, mandatory annual leave, and protection against wrongful dismissal is available to all private sector employees, except domestic workers and seafarers who are covered under separate laws. The law also mandates benefits for part-time employees, defined as those working 35 hours or less.

The law establishes a framework for workplaces to comply with occupational safety and health standards, and regular inspections enforced the standards. Officials encouraged workers to report situations that endanger health or safety to the ministry, but the law does not specifically protect the right of workers to remove themselves from a hazardous working environment.

The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health regulations. Penalties for violating these regulations–fines and stop-work orders–were sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was sufficient to deter violations. During the year, the ministry continued to promote training to reduce the frequency of job-related accidents in high-risk sectors such as construction, and authorities provided tax incentives to firms who introduced hazard control measures. Workplace fatalities in the first six months of the year were the lowest since 2006, when statistics first became publicly available. This continues a downward trend in the number of workplace fatalities, although the number of reported injuries has been relatively constant. The government also enforced requirements for employers to provide one rest day per week or compensation for foreign domestic workers.

In September, Ong Chin Chong, the sole proprietor of a transport firm, was fined S$140,000 ($102,000) for a fatal accident resulting from unsafe lifting operations that he supervised. Authorities found that Ong used unsafe equipment and had not provided training for the men on how to perform their roles. Authorities also issued a S$60,000 ($43,500) fine to Unipac, the firm for which Ong was a contractor, and a S$160,000 ($116,000) fine to Sunway, the occupier of the worksite, for failing to ensure that lifting operations were properly conducted on its premises. Ong’s fine was the highest imposed on an individual prosecuted for unsafe working conditions, for which the maximum sentence is a S$200,000 ($145,000) fine, up to two years’ imprisonment, or both.

In September parliament passed the Work Injury Compensation Act, which will take full effect in September 2020. The new law incentivizes companies to prevent workplace injuries by permitting employers with better safety records to pay lower premiums, expedites the benefit claim process for workers, and increases the size of benefit payouts to injured workers.

The Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, which includes the Ministry of Manpower, unions, and the employers’ federation, offers advice and mediation services to help employees and employers to manage employment disputes. The Labor Relations and Workplaces Division of the Ministry of Manpower provided free advisory services to both foreign and local workers who experienced problems with employers; it provided mediation services for a fee. The ministry operated a hotline for foreign domestic workers.

The majority of foreign workers were concentrated in low-wage, low-skill jobs and were often required to work long hours in construction, shipbuilding, services, and domestic work.

The majority of foreign domestic workers, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, worked under clearly outlined contracts. Any employer of a foreign domestic worker or a member of the employer’s family, if convicted of certain offenses against the worker, such as causing hurt or insulting the modesty of the worker, is liable to a maximum penalty of one and one-half times the mandated penalty when the victim is not a domestic worker. Nevertheless, there were reports of employers abusing or mistreating such workers (see section 7.b.).

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future