Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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. The new ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition has shown a propensity to curb freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press.
Freedom of Speech: 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. The law prohibits speech “with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person.”
In June police questioned anticorruption activist Cynthia Gabriel while investigating a letter she and her NGO C4 published in an online media outlet criticizing the ruling coalition government. Gabriel told media that the policy action was “harassment and intimidation,” adding, “they are trying to keep us from expressing critical views as politicians focus on grabbing power.” In June police also called in lawyer and human rights activist Siti Kassim for questioning after she posted a Facebook comment critical of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, part of the ruling coalition, a post police said was “intended to disrupt peace.” Also in June a sessions court charged Malaysian Crime Watch Task Force (MyWatch) chairperson R. Sri Sanjeevan with “spreading false information about the police on social media with the intent to annoy.”
In July the Department of Immigration detained a Bangladeshi national, Md Rayhan Kabir, after he spoke in an al-Jazeera documentary about the treatment of illegal immigrants by the authorities during implementation of the movement control order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Rayhan was deported in August. The immigration authorities investigated six of the Qatar-based al-Jazeera’s Malaysia-based reporters and staff for alleged sedition and defamation, subsequently declining to renew the visas of reporters Drew Ambrose and Jenni Henderson, both Australian nationals.
The new government imposed limits on public gatherings, which slowed the spread of COVID-19, garnering some public support, but it also prevented protests and minimized opportunities for opponents to mobilize against it. While there was backlash against the government’s tight controls from opposition parties, civil society groups, and members of the public, the government’s successful handling of the epidemic and its curbs on criticism largely silenced those voices.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Political parties and individuals linked to the 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 progovernment. Online media outlets were more independent but were often the target of legal action and harassment.
The previous Pakatan Harapan coalition had opened the space for dissenting views, and journalists and bloggers expressed views and reported stories critical of the government without reprisal. With the change to the Perikatan Nasional government, however, there was a sharp decline in press freedom. One reporter said a communications officer from the prime minister’s office regularly convened journalists in Putrajaya to align messaging and “make the government look as good as possible.”
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 it considered 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.
The government used the COVID-19 pandemic to clamp down on media freedom and freedom of expression. On April 11, the National Security Council instructed police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (communications commission) “to take stern action on news portals that broadcast and publish confusing, inaccurate news,” purportedly to stop the spread of misinformation about the virus. In response the International Federation of Journalists stated: “The government’s ‘stern action’ will hinder the media’s oversight of the government and decrease transparency, ultimately endangering society amid the global [COVID-19] pandemic.”
In June, Attorney General Idrus Harun initiated contempt of court proceedings against online media outlet Malaysiakini and its editor in chief, Steven Gan, because of readers’ comments posted to a June 9 Malaysiakini article. The attorney general stated Malaysiakini facilitated the publication of comments that wrongfully alleged “the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice, and compromised its integrity.” Gan went on trial July 13 facing a possible jail term and fine set at the discretion of the courts. Judgment on the case was deferred to an unspecified date.
In a June 3 news release, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had seen a further tightening of censorship in Malaysia, along with reported arrests for spreading discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media. The press release cited the investigation of Tashny Sukumaran, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent for the South China Morning Post, “for alleged improper use of network facilities or services and alleged intentional insult with the intent to provoke a breach of peace for reporting on the detention of undocumented migrants, reportedly despite Ministerial instructions not to act against the correspondent.” The release added that according to official estimates, the communications commission had opened “at least 265 investigation papers in connection with the dissemination of alleged fake news on COVID-19, with 29 individuals reportedly charged in court.”
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation. In response to a documentary on the government’s mistreatment of undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 lockdown, al-Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur offices were raided and their computers were seized. The government also announced it was investigating the outlet for sedition, defamation, and other violations of the law.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government maintained the ability to censor media. 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.
The new ruling coalition rolled back progress in press freedoms. One commentary in ASEAN Today concluded in August, “The recent crackdown on prominent journalists and media outlets is meant to send a clear message to others in the field: fall in line or face the consequences.”
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 more than 1,700 banned publications as of November. In May the ministry banned the book Rebirth: Reform, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia for purportedly insulting the national coat of arms. The cover of the book bore artwork that resembled the national coat of arms but which displayed a naked child, two human-faced tigers, and a crocodile at the bottom in place of the national motto.
In February the court of appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books by the Islamic Renaissance Front, an organization promoting Islamic reform. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017, a decision the high court upheld in 2019.
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.
In May police probed former minister Xavier Jayakumar over a video clip of his assertion that the one-day parliamentary sitting in May was “worthless” and “rubbish” as it was “a charade being played by a bunch of traitors and pirates” to safeguard the government’s interest. In July social activist Heidy Quah was investigated for defamation over a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. Neither investigation resulted in criminal charges. Also in July a retiree was fined for posting “insulting” comments about the health minister on social media, even though the court noted that the criticism “was not overboard or malicious in nature.”
National Security: Authorities often cited national security laws to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. The government used the COVID-19 pandemic to further this practice.
Nongovernmental Impact: NGOs sympathetic to the current 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.
In August, the NGO Gagasan Pulau Pinang (Penang Ideas) filed police reports alleging contempt of court against opposition leaders Tony Pua and Liew Chin Tong over their remarks, quoted by an online news portal, on a corruption case involving former finance minister Lim Guan Eng. In September several NGO leaders lodged a police report against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for claiming the Perikatan Nasional government had fallen after losing majority support from members of parliament. Mohamad Riduwan Md Amin of Penggerak Komuniti Negara Kota Melaka (Malacca Community Movers) said Anwar’s claims were seditious in nature and could instigate disharmony and political instability in the country.
The government restricted access to the internet. Curtailing internet freedom to combat dissenting political views online, authorities blocked some websites and monitored the internet for messages and blog postings deemed a threat to public security or order.
The government warned internet users to avoid offensive or indecent content and sensitive matters such as religion and race, and it aggressively pursued charges against those criticizing Islam, the country’s royalty, or its political leaders. In March federal police arrested at least three individuals for separate social media posts insulting the king.
In June federal police questioned parliamentarian and former deputy minister of women, family, and community development Hannah Yeoh for a post on Twitter questioning the prospects for the national roadmap to fight child marriage under her successor from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. Commenting on police action against her, Yeoh posted, “Nowadays even asking questions is not allowed …during the Parliament sitting in May we were also not allowed to ask questions.”
Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to self-censorship by local internet content sources, including bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.
The law requires internet and other network service providers to obtain a license and permits punishment of the owner of a website or blog for allowing offensive racial, religious, or political content. The government regards those who post content as publishers, thereby placing the burden of proof on the poster. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.
The government placed some restrictions on academic freedom, particularly the expression of unapproved political views, and enforced restrictions on teachers and students who expressed dissenting views. The government requires all civil servants, university faculty, and students to sign a pledge of loyalty to the king and government. Some politicians and human rights activists claimed the government used the loyalty pledge to restrain political activity among these groups. Although faculty members sometimes publicly criticized the government, public university academics whose career advancement and funding depended on the government practiced self-censorship. Self-censorship took place among academics at private institutions as well, spurred by fear the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity. Students remain prohibited from “expressing support or sympathy” for an unlawful society or organization.
The authorities arrested two student leaders of the Universiti Malaya Association of New Youth for sedition and misuse of network facilities regarding a post on social media discussing the scope of the king’s powers. Police orchestrated a raid on the home of the student group’s president and summoned six committee members to police headquarters for further questioning. According to the lawyer representing the student leaders, police also questioned the background, organizational structure, and operations of the student group as a student body of University Malaya. Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia Katrina Maliamauy commented, “It is a violation of their right to freedom of expression, especially considering that the Facebook post they made was intended to be part of an academic debate.”
The government censored films for certain political and religious content, not allowing, for example, screening of films in Hebrew or Yiddish, or from Israel. Although the government allowed foreign films at local film festivals, it sometimes censored content by physically blocking screens until the objectionable scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6). In February the National Art Gallery, under government orders, responded to public criticism and reinstated artworks previously pulled from Ahmad Fuad Osman’s At the End of The Day Even Art Is Not Important exhibition that featured nudity and political content. The National Art Gallery maintained its right to take down works that touch on the “dignity of any individual, religion, politics, race, culture, and country.”
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.
The constitution provides citizens “the right to assemble peaceably and without arms”; however, several laws restricted this right. Although the law does not require groups to obtain a permit for assemblies, police frequently placed time, location, and other restrictions on the right to assemble. Authorities banned street protests, and police sometimes confronted civil society and opposition demonstrations with mass arrests.
Protests deemed acceptable by the government usually proceeded without interference. The government restricted the right to freedom of assembly due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, as well as temporarily closing businesses, schools, and other public places.
On March 1, the day after the appointment of Perikatan Nasional leader Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, approximately 100 protesters defied police warnings and rallied against what they termed Muhyiddin’s “backdoor” government. Police were present but did not stop the protest. Activist lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said she was later “singled out” by police for posting a video of the protest and was being investigated for sedition and improper use of network facilities.
The constitution provides for the right of association; however, the government placed significant restrictions on this right, and certain statutes limit it. By law only registered organizations of seven or more persons may legally function. The government often resisted registering organizations deemed particularly unfriendly to the government or imposed strict preconditions. The government may revoke registrations for violations of the law governing societies.
The government bans membership in unregistered political parties and organizations.
Many human rights and civil society organizations had difficulty obtaining government recognition as NGOs. As a result, many NGOs registered as companies, which created legal and bureaucratic obstacles to raising money to support their activities. Authorities frequently cited a lack of registration as grounds for action against organizations. Some NGOs also reported the government monitored their activities to intimidate them.
c. Freedom of Religion
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 foreigners and citizens from peninsular Malaysia 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. There were some restrictions on in-country movement by refugees and asylum seekers (see section 2.f.) and some internal travel restrictions related to COVID-19.
Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes.
In March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government placed restrictions on entering the country; citizens were required to quarantine upon returning, and there were restrictions on any foreigners entering the country.
In September the country implemented entry and movement restrictions on all foreign nationals from countries reporting more than 150,000 COVID-19 cases at that time through December 31 in response to the pandemic outbreak. Affected travelers include short-term visitors, permanent residents, students, foreign workers, and long-term residents. Foreign nationals were permitted to depart the country.
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 UNHCR 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.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of August 31, there were 178,140 refugees and asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in the country, of whom 153,430 were from Burma. Of those from Burma, 101,530 were Rohingyas. There were some 24,700 refugees and asylum seekers from 50 countries, including Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Somalis, Afghans, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and others. There were some 46,500 children younger than age 18.
Most migrants, refugees, and stateless persons lived in private accommodations and survived on support from UNHCR, NGOs, community-based organizations, refugee support networks, or illegal or informal labor. The government held thousands of individuals in immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited.
Between April and July, with the rise in public hostility toward migrant foreigners, particularly Rohingyas, over fears they were a burden on public resources and a COVID-19 vector, the government arrested undocumented migrant workers, including children, and held thousands in confined and congested cells at immigration detention centers and other facilities. Access to those in detention centers was often significantly limited. NGOs called the crackdown an “appalling violation of human rights” and noted the mass detention could further spread COVID-19 cases within detention facilities, stressing also that the roundups could discourage many from coming forward voluntarily for testing or treatment. On May 27, the NGO Lawyers for Liberty stated: “Undocumented migrants are not ‘acceptable casualties’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.” In February, UNHCR said that since August 2019, authorities had disallowed visits by its staff to detention centers to meet refugees and asylum seekers, determine those in need of international protection, and advocate for their release.
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 August the Indonesian civil society organization Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers accused Malaysian immigration officials of subjecting detained Indonesian migrant workers in Sabah to “systematic torture on an immense scale” in inhuman conditions and without adequate food and water. The group claimed detainees who disobeyed the guards were punched and kicked, then expected to say “thank you, teacher” to the officers; if they did not say thank you when they were hit, they would be hit again. They were also punished by being forced to squat on the floor all day long.
Local and international NGOs estimated most of the country’s 17 immigration detention centers were 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.
The government on several occasions forcibly expelled boats with refugees and asylum seekers from a country where their lives or freedom could be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The NGO Fortify Rights reported that on April 16, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 396 Rohingya from a boat that was adrift for weeks, sustaining up to 60 fatalities; earlier Malaysian authorities had forced it back out to sea. They also reported that on April 16, the Royal Malaysian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Navy forced another boat with more than 200 Rohingya back to sea. On June 8, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob reported that authorities had blocked the arrival of 22 boats with foreigners, excluding the boats carrying Rohingya refugees, since May 1.
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, or both, and mandatory caning with a maximum six strokes if convicted of immigration-law violations. In June, 40 Rohingya refugees were sentenced to seven months in jail for arriving in the country by boat without a valid permit. Of them, 27 men were also sentenced to three strokes with a cane. The high court later set aside the caning following an outcry from human rights defenders.
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 refugees. 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 it must be renewed annually. The migrant rights NGO Tenaganita, however, said the Syrian refugees often were unable fully to access the rights awarded to them through this permit and experienced difficulty accessing health care and academic institutions.
The National Registration Department did not maintain records of stateless persons. In 2019 UNHCR estimated there were 12,400 stateless persons residing in peninsular Malaysia and 450,000 in Sabah. Baseline figures of stateless persons and persons “at risk” of statelessness in the eastern state of Sabah, where approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees reside, were unavailable.
Citizenship law and birth registration rules and procedures created a large class of stateless children in the migrant and refugee population. When mothers did not have valid proof of citizenship, authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem.
Even if the father is a citizen, the marriage may be considered invalid and the children illegitimate if the mother lacks proof of citizenship; such children were also considered stateless.
Some observers indicated that children born to Muslim refugees and asylum seekers often had an easier time obtaining citizenship than non-Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. For refugees in Muslim marriages, the observers claimed authorities often accepted a UNHCR document or other documentation in lieu of a passport as proof of citizenship.
Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to access government services, such as reduced-cost health care, or own property. The federal government continued, however, to permit stateless children to enroll in public schools if parents were able to prove the child’s father was Malaysian. The minister of education stated there were 2,635 undocumented children in schools nationwide as of October 2019.
On August 5, the Home Ministry granted a prominent 20-year-old e-sports gamer, Muhammad Aiman Hafizi Ahmad, citizenship after taking three years to refuse the first application made on his behalf by his adoptive parents when he was 12 and taking three more years to consider a second application. Born in country to an Indonesian mother and unknown father, Aiman was legally adopted by a Malaysian couple, but his documents described him as stateless. While the constitution allows the government to register anyone younger than age 21 as a citizen, Aiman’s lawyer said the process is “opaque and takes a very long time…the government often rejects applications without reasons,” adding that there were many other stateless persons who were treated as “invisible” and that without publicity Aiman’s case would have been much more difficult.