Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were scattered reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, mostly in the prison system. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together stated that Dhan Bahdur, a 26-year-old Nepali citizen, died on May 31, five days after he was detained in Kuala Lumpur. The NGO declared police did not properly notify the coroner of the death as required by law, and called on authorities to make details of the case public. In August, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin revealed that 23 detainees, including two children, died in immigration detention centers from January to June. In a 2018 report on custodial deaths, the NGO Lawyers for Liberty described a “broken system that abets the perpetrators of these crimes.”
Investigation by the Criminal Investigation Division within the Royal Malaysian Police into the use of deadly force by a police officer occurs only if the attorney general initiates the investigation or approves an application for an investigation by family members of the deceased. When the attorney general orders an official inquiry, a coroner’s court convenes, and the hearing is open to the public. In such cases, courts generally issued an “open verdict,” meaning that there would be no further action against police.
In July the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) urged the release of a September 2019 government report on the Wang Kelian mass grave site found along the Thai border in 2015, in which according to NGOs that investigated, a transnational crime syndicate committed murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and rape as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against Rohingya migrants.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of Christian converts Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu. Police continued to make little progress in their investigation, citing a lack of information in the case. One witness testified that Pastor Hilmy had previously told him “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his Christian faith, although he had not been threatened. Another testified the couple received threats by phone before their disappearance. SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19. In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, who disappeared in 2017, initiated civil action against the government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
No law specifically prohibits torture; however, laws that prohibit “committing grievous hurt” encompass torture. More than 60 offenses are subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, and judges routinely mandated caning as punishment for crimes, including kidnapping, rape, and robbery, and nonviolent offenses, such as narcotics possession, criminal breach of trust, migrant smuggling, immigration offenses, and others.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces. Police abuse of suspects in custody and a lack of accountability for such offenses remained a serious problem.
In August the Perikatan Nasional administration withdrew a bill the Pakatan Harapan government had introduced in July 2019 to create an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission with the power to discipline police misconduct and instead introduced a bill for an Independent Police Conduct Commission lacking enforcement powers. The NGO Transparency International Malaysia described the new proposal as a watered-down version of the original, “with no bite.”
According to SUHAKAM, 15 persons died in police lockups and prison from 2019 through September, while more than 55 individuals died in immigration detention centers. The government claimed that deaths caused by police were rare, but civil-society activists disputed this claim.
Civil and criminal law exempt men older than 50, unless convicted of rape, and all women from caning. Male children between the ages of 10 and 18 may receive a maximum of 10 strokes of a “light cane” in a public courtroom.
Some states’ sharia provisions, which govern family issues and certain crimes under Islam and apply to all Muslims, also prescribe caning for certain offenses. Women are not exempt from caning under sharia, and national courts have not resolved conflicts between the constitution, the penal code, and sharia.
Kelantan and Terengganu states allow courts to sentence individuals to public caning for certain civil offenses, although there were no reports of such punishment.
In February, Jasnih Ali, an auxiliary police officer at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, accused police of torturing him for two weeks while in custody following his arrest in 2018 for trafficking in illegal immigrants. His lawyer said police assaulted Ali to elicit a confession, and that the abuse stopped only after Ali agreed to give a “cautioned statement” mentioning the facts on which he intended to rely for his defense at trial. Ali said authorities hit him on the face, head and body, kicked him in the stomach and back, spat into his mouth, shoved a mop into his mouth, and applied electricity to his feet, all done while his eyes were blindfolded, his hands handcuffed behind his back, and his pants pulled down to his knees.
In July a high court judge set aside a lower-court decision adding caning to a jail sentence for 27 Rohingya men, six of them teenagers, for arriving in the country without valid permits. The judge declared that because the defendants were not habitual offenders and had not committed any acts of violence, it was “inhumane” to impose caning and that their refugee status afforded them international protection from persecution. Earlier, human rights groups had called on the court to drop the caning sentence, calling the punishment cruel and inhumane.
In October the Malaysian Insight internet news site, citing accounts from former inmates and watchdogs, reported that “torture by prison staff is rampant” in jails and that prisoners are subjected to sexual attacks. “It’s not like you are punished for some mistake. They will beat you for no reason…they will use batons and their favorite spots are at the stomach, feet, and back,” a former prisoner told media. A transgender former prisoner termed her community the most vulnerable group inside the prison system, forced to provide sex to prison guards in return for safety: “Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. They will ask you to perform all sorts of sex acts. Sometimes it happens three times a day. If we go out and lodge a report, who will believe our stories?” Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the human rights NGO Suaram, declared that the government must take such complaints more seriously and allow independent investigators from SUHAKAM and the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission to conduct immediate investigations.
Conditions in prisons and detention centers could be harsh and life threatening.
The government as part of its restrictions on movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cracked down on migrants, particularly Rohingya, who were put into detention centers for “quarantine.” In May media and human rights groups reported mass arrests and rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the centers.
In August, Suaram reported that custodial deaths in immigration detention “remained serious,” increasing from 24 in 2018 to 55 in 2019.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding in prisons and immigration detention centers, particularly in facilities near major cities, remained a serious problem. According to the Home Ministry, 20 of the country’s 37 prisons were overcrowded. In Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, and Kelantan, prisons were overcrowded by 45 to 50 percent. According to World Prison Brief, as of December 2019 the country had 75,000 inmates in 52 prisons designed to hold only 52,000.
On May 29, Suaram listed a “notably higher number” of deaths in immigration detention facilities, with most deaths reported to be attributable to health and medical reasons.
As of October, 8 percent of Malaysia’s COVID-19 positive cases were prison inmates and prison staff. Former deputy defense minister Liew Chin Tong stated that the COVID-19 outbreak was turning prisons into “death traps” exacerbated by overcrowding problems. A Sabah state prison recorded more than 60 percent of inmates testing positive for COVID-19.
Administration: The law allows for investigations into allegations of mistreatment; however, this did not always function in practice. Officers found responsible for deaths in custody did not generally face punishment.
Authorities restricted rights to religious observance for members of all non-Sunni practices of Islam, which the government bans as “deviant.”
Independent Monitoring: Authorities generally did not permit NGOs and media to monitor prison conditions; the law allows judges to visit prisons to examine conditions and ask prisoners and prison officials about conditions. The government’s Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and SUHAKAM monitored prisons on a case-by-case basis.
In August the new government abandoned a 2019 bill to establish an Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission, and instead submitted a much weaker bill. Civil society organizations viewed this as a sign the government was not serious about an independent commission.
The new government did not grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to detention facilities where migrant laborers and refugees were being held.
Improvements: Police announced in January a pilot project establishing custodial medical units in five detention facilities as part of an effort to prevent deaths in custody.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.
Police may use certain preventive detention laws to detain persons suspected of terrorism, organized crime, gang activity, and trafficking in drugs or persons without a warrant or judicial review for two-year terms, renewable indefinitely. Within seven days of the initial detention, however, police must present the case for detention to a public prosecutor. If the prosecutor agrees “sufficient evidence exists to justify” continued detention and further investigation, a fact-finding inquiry officer appointed by the minister of home affairs must report within 59 days to a detention board appointed by the king. The board may renew the detention order or impose an order to restrict, for a maximum of five years, a suspect’s place of residence, travel, access to communications facilities, and use of the internet. In other cases the law allows investigative detention for up to 28 days to prevent a criminal suspect from fleeing or destroying evidence during an investigation. In August, Suaram reported that 1,032 individuals were detained without trial under security laws.
In November, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin reported to parliament that 756 children were detained in immigration detention centers. Of these children, 405 were being held without guardians, including 326 children of Burmese nationality. Lawyers for Liberty coordinator Zaid Malek decried the continued detention of children as “inhumane,” stating it was “unfathomable as to why the authorities deem it fit and proper to detain hundreds of migrant and refugee children…in overcrowded detention centers during a worldwide health pandemic.” Immigration law allows authorities to arrest and detain noncitizens for 30 days, pending a deportation decision.
In November student activist Wong Yan Ke was arrested for “obstructing the police from carrying out their duties” by recording a Facebook live video of a raid on the residence of a Universiti Malaya student, in connection with a sedition investigation into a statement made by a student group questioning the role of the king. After being held overnight in a police lockup, Wong was transferred to a detention center and released that day. Wong criticized police for his “arbitrary arrest and detention.” The NGO Lawyers for Liberty expressed concern about the arrest, contending that the law “must not be used as a blanket provision to simply arrest anyone who records police conduct.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of one month’s jail, a fine, or both. A court date was set for February 2021.
The law permits police to arrest and detain individuals for some offenses without a warrant, even outside situations of a crime in progress or other urgent circumstances. To facilitate investigations, police can hold a suspect for 24 hours, which can be extended for a maximum of 14 days by court order under general criminal law provisions. NGOs reported a police practice of releasing suspects and then quickly rearresting them to continue investigative custody without seeking judicial authorization.
Some NGOs asserted that a police approach of “arrest first, investigate later” was prevalent, particularly in cases involving allegations of terrorism. By law a person must be informed of the grounds for arrest by the arresting officer.
Bail is usually available for persons accused of crimes not punishable by life imprisonment or death. The amount and availability of bail is at the judge’s discretion. Persons granted bail usually must surrender their passports to the court.
Police must inform detainees of the rights to contact family members and consult a lawyer of their choice. Nonetheless, police often denied detainees’ access to legal counsel and questioned suspects without allowing a lawyer to be present. Police justified this practice as necessary to prevent interference in investigations in progress, and the courts generally upheld the practice.
While authorities generally treated attorney-client communications as privileged, Malaysian Anticorruption Commission officials may question lawyers who accompanied their clients to nonjudicial commission hearings about their interaction with their clients and the content of their discussions.
Police sometimes did not allow detainees prompt access to family members or other visitors.
The law allows the detention of a material witness in a criminal case if that person is likely to flee.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities sometimes used their powers to intimidate and punish opponents of the government. Activists and government critics were often subjected to late-night arrests, long hours of questioning, and lengthy remand periods, even if they were not ultimately charged with an offense. In July, according to the NGO Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4), police carried out a late-night arrest of anticorruption and social activist K. Sudhagaran Stanley at his home, which C4 labelled a “chilling” action “aimed at instilling fear and silencing voices that are critical of the administration of this country.”
Pretrial Detention: The International Center for Prison Studies reported that pretrial detainees comprised approximately 27 percent of the prison population in 2018. Crowded and understaffed courts often resulted in lengthy pretrial detention, sometimes lasting several years.
Three constitutional articles provide the basis for an independent judiciary; however, other constitutional provisions, legislation restricting judicial review, and executive influence over judicial appointments limited judicial independence and strengthened executive influence over the judiciary. The judiciary frequently deferred to police or executive authority in cases those parties deemed as affecting their interests.
Members of the Malaysian Bar Council, NGO representatives, and other observers expressed serious concern about significant limitations on judicial independence, citing a number of high-profile instances of arbitrary verdicts, selective prosecution, and preferential treatment of some litigants and lawyers. Representatives of these groups argued that the lines between the executive, the judiciary, and the state were very blurred and that the judiciary needed to exert more independence and objectivity.
In August, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat issued a show-cause notice to court of appeal judge Hamid Sultan Abu Backer requiring that he explain an affidavit he filed in February 2019 as part of a lawsuit against then chief justice Richard Malanjum. In the affidavit Hamid alleged government interference in previous judicial decisions and complicity by judges in sham cases designed to reward government supporters with large settlements. Hamid’s request for an open hearing was rejected, which caused Suaram to further question the independence of the judiciary; the hearing has been postponed due to COVID-19 measures.
Many viewed the July 28 conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak, whose government reportedly misappropriated at least $4.5 billion of the country’s state investment fund, in the first of his corruption trials as a victory (see section 4.). NGO leaders stated, however, that the verdict could not be seen as a positive sign of judicial independence. Suaram asserted, “The High Court is the worst place to determine judicial independence as there are very different extremes of judges and everything can be dismantled upon appeal.”
The constitution provides for a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The civil law system is based on British common law and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of the charges against them, to a timely trial, and to be present at their trial. Defendants have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice or to have counsel appointed at public expense if they face charges that carry the death penalty. Defendants also may apply for a public defender in certain other cases.
According to the Malaysian Bar Council, defendants generally had adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense if they had the means to engage private counsel. Otherwise, defendants must rely on legal aid and the amount of time to prepare for trial is at the discretion of the judge. Authorities provide defendants free interpretation in Mandarin, Tamil, and some other commonly used dialects from the moment charged through all appeals. The right to confront witnesses is limited by provisions allowing the identity of prosecution witnesses to be kept secret from the defense before a trial, which inhibits cross-examination of those witnesses. Defendants may present witnesses and evidence on their behalf. Limited pretrial discovery in criminal cases also impeded the defense. Strict rules of evidence apply in court. Defendants cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt.
Defendants may appeal court decisions to higher courts, but only if the appeal raises a question of law or if material circumstances raise a reasonable doubt regarding conviction or sentencing. The Malaysian Bar Council claimed these restrictions were excessive.
In cases related to terrorism or national security, the law allows police to hold persons, even after acquittal, against the possibility of appeal by the prosecution.
Many NGOs complained women did not receive fair treatment from sharia courts, especially in divorce and child custody cases (see section 6).
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Individuals or organizations may sue the government and officials in court for alleged violations of human rights; however, a large case backlog often resulted in delays in civil actions, to the disadvantage of plaintiffs. The courts have increasingly encouraged the use of mediation and arbitration to speed settlements.
Laws prohibit such actions; nevertheless, authorities sometimes infringed on citizens’ privacy. Under national security laws, police may enter and search the homes of persons suspected of threatening national security without a warrant. The government monitored the internet and threatened to detain anyone sending or posting content the government deemed a threat to public order or security (see section 2.a.).
Islamic authorities may enter private premises without a warrant to apprehend Muslims suspected of engaging in offenses such as gambling, consumption of alcohol, and sexual relations outside marriage.
The government does not recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considers children born of such unions illegitimate.
In February the Federal Court held that the National Registration Department was not bound by an edict issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a government body responsible for issuing fatwas on issues of national interest, regarding a case in the state of Johor, as that state had not yet gazetted (published) the national fatwa forbidding registration of the father’s last name for a Muslim child born or conceived less than six months after the parents’ marriage. The Federal Court also held that in this instance the department could decide not to record a surname instead of using the last names “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” names commonly applied to children declared to be illegitimate, removing a longstanding source of social stigma.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men is a criminal offense, as are most forms of domestic violence. Rape is punishable by a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and caning. The law does not recognize marital rape as a crime.
Women’s groups asserted the courts were inconsistent in punishing rapists. According to the latest statistics from the NGO Women’s Aid Organization, there were 1,582 recorded rape cases in 2017, and 5,421 recorded cases of gender-based violence in 2018. There was a lack of investigation into accusations of rape and gender-based violence, and little accountability. After the movement control order to combat COVID-19 was implemented in March, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development experienced a 57 percent spike in calls from women in distress.
In April a police inspector was arrested and suspended for abducting and raping two Mongolian women in Petaling Jaya. He reportedly stopped their taxi at a COVID-19 movement control order roadblock and, finding that they had no valid travel documents, took them forcibly to a hotel where he raped them. He was charged with eight counts of rape, carrying a maximum term of 30 years’ imprisonment and caning. He was separately charged with trafficking in persons for the purpose of exploitation through the abuse of power, with a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine. Initially set for July hearings, both cases were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the government and NGOs maintained shelters and offered other assistance to victims of domestic violence, activists asserted that support mechanisms remained inadequate. Many government hospitals had crisis centers where victims of rape and domestic abuse could file reports without going to a police station. There is also a sexual investigations unit at each police headquarters to help victims of sexual crimes and abuse, and police sometimes assign psychologists or counselors to provide emotional support. NGOs reported that the government does not take action in cases of domestic violence; victims must keep evidence, gather witness testimony, and ensure their own safety.
The NGO Women’s Aid Organization reported that 9 percent of women who have ever been in a relationship experience domestic violence and that such violence was “symptomatic of a deeper problem: gender inequality.” In June the NGO stated that inquiries to its domestic-violence hotline had spiked to more than three times levels since February, before the COVID-19 movement control order was carried out. The NGO’s executive director, Sumitra Visvanathan, termed the sharp rise “extremely concerning,” noting that survivors in isolation with their abusers faced circumstances “where it is even easier for the abuser to exert control physically, emotionally, and socially.” In July, SUHAKAM cited the increased risk of violence faced by domestic workers, who were primarily migrant women, “exacerbated by restrictions on their travel and mobility, as well as by language barriers and xenophobia.”
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C, and it was a common practice. While recent data was very limited, a 2012 study by a professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Malaya, found that more than 93 percent of approximately 1,000 Muslim women surveyed in three of the country’s 13 states had undergone the procedure. Ministry of Health guidelines allow the practice in general but only at government health-care facilities, which was not always the case. Advocates and the international medical community remained concerned that the Health Ministry endorsement legitimizes the harmful practice and contributes to the “medicalization” of FGM. Women’s rights groups said a 2009 fatwa by the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs declaring the practice obligatory made FGM/C more prevalent. According to an investigation published by local media in 2018, there are no standard procedures for the practice and “in some cases box cutters and stationery store blades are used.” Government officials defended the practice during a UN review in 2018, when a Ministry of Health official stated that the practice was performed only by medical professionals and compared it to immunization programs for female babies. The UN panel urged the country to abolish the practice.
Sisters in Islam reaffirmed its concern with a 2009 fatwa from the Malaysian Islamic Development Department requiring Muslim girls to be circumcised. In conjunction with the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation in February, Sisters in Islam stated: “Even though this fatwa was not gazetted, the reality is that in general, fatwas have a strong influence over individuals and communities in their personal decision-making.” Azrul Mohd Khalib of the Galen Center for Health and Social Policy called on the government to ban the practice. “We should prohibit and criminalize the act of female circumcision to protect our infant daughters and girls from harm,” he said.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits a person in authority from using his or her position to intimidate a subordinate by any conduct that is sexual in nature. The law classifies some types of workplace sexual harassment as criminal offenses (see section 7.d.). A government voluntary code of conduct provides a detailed definition of sexual harassment intended to raise public awareness of the problem. Observers noted that authorities took claims seriously, but victims were often reluctant to report sexual harassment because of the difficulty of proving the offense and the lengthy trial process.
Reproductive Rights: Married couples have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, but they did not always have the information and means to do so. Family planning services and programs were provided by the Ministry of Health, the National Population and Family Development Board under the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development, and the Federation of Reproduction Health Associations.
Sexual and reproductive health services were available at health ministry primary, secondary, and tertiary health care facilities, and included contraception, pregnancy tests, subfertility treatment, pap smears, screening and treatment for sexually transmittable diseases, HPV vaccination, and counseling. Government-run family planning clinics often did not provide contraceptive services to unmarried young people. Birth control pills were available at private pharmacies without prescription but at higher prices than at government clinics.
One-Stop Crisis Centers, an integrated multiagency service in the emergency department of most major public hospitals, provided support to victims of sexual violence.
Sexual health education remained a sensitive topic, with a majority of the population viewing abstinence as the only permissible form of contraception. Reproductive awareness activists and NGOs that provided sexual health education were frequently accused of encouraging sin and eliciting sexual behaviors.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination against citizens based on gender and gives men and women equal property rights although sharia, which deviates from these principles in some areas, was sometimes applied. For instance, Islamic inheritance law generally favors male offspring and male relatives. Sharia also generally requires a husband’s consent for divorce, but a small and steadily increasing number of women obtained divorces under sharia without their husband’s consent. Non-Muslims are not subject to sharia. Civil law gives non-Muslim mothers and fathers equal parental rights, while sharia favors fathers. Nevertheless, four states–Johor, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang–extend equal parental rights to Muslim mothers.
The law requires equal pay for male and female workers for work of equal value. Nonetheless, NGOs reported continued discrimination against women in the workplace in terms of promotion and salary (see section 7.d.).
The law does not permit mothers to transmit citizenship automatically to children born overseas. Children born overseas can only be registered as citizens if the father of the child is a citizen.
Birth Registration: A child born in the country obtains citizenship if one parent is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth and the parents are married. Parents must register a child within 14 days of birth. Parents applying for late registration must provide proof the child was born in the country. According to UNHCR, children born to citizen mothers outside the country may only acquire citizenship at the discretion of the federal government through registration at an overseas Malaysian consulate or at the National Registration Department in country. Authorities do not register children born to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. UNHCR registered children born to refugees (see section 2.d.).
Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through primary school (six years) for citizens and permanent residents, although there was no mechanism to enforce attendance. Public schools are not open to the children of illegal immigrants or refugees, whether registered with UNHCR or not.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18 for men and 16 for women. Muslim women younger than 16 may marry with the approval of a sharia court. Indigenous persons are governed by customary laws with no fixed minimum age for marriage. In some cases authorities treated early marriage as a solution to statutory rape. Advocates remained concerned that Rohingya refugee families were resorting to child marriage for their girls to cope with economic hardship.
The federal government launched a national five-year roadmap in January targeting the issue of child marriage. The plan outlined policies to increase access to education and attendance in schools, increase access to health education, address stigma and social norms on child marriage, and ensure laws and guidelines on child marriages are in line with government policies guarding the well-being of children.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law outlaws child pornography and states that a child is considered a victim of sexual abuse if he or she has taken part as a participant or an observer in any activity that is sexual in nature for the purposes of a photograph, recording, film, videotape, or performance. Federal police reported approximately 20,000 internet addresses in the country uploading and downloading child pornography. Under the law the minimum age for consensual, noncommercial sex is 16 for both boys and girls. The involvement in making or producing child pornography carries a penalty of up to 30 years’ imprisonment and not less than six strokes of a cane; conviction for accessing or possessing child pornography carries a punishment of five years’ imprisonment or a fine; conviction for trafficking in persons involving a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation carries a punishment of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
There is a special court for sexual crimes against children, established to speed up trials that often took years to conclude. Child prostitution existed, and a local NGO estimated in 2015, the last year with reported data, that 5,000 children were involved in sex work in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas. Authorities, however, often treated children engaged in prostitution as offenders or undocumented immigrants rather than as victims.
The government focused on preventing sexual exploitation of children, including commercial sexual exploitation.
The law provides for six to 20 years’ imprisonment and caning for persons convicted of incest.
As of October federal police recorded 1,721 sexual crime cases involving children, while 813 cases were with the special court handling sexual crimes against children.
A child’s testimony is acceptable only if there is corroborating evidence, which posed special problems for molestation cases in which the child victim was the only witness.
Displaced Children: Street children were most prevalent in Sabah. Estimates of the street-child population ranged from a few thousand to 15,000, many of whom were born in the country to illegal immigrant parents. Authorities deported some of these parents, leaving their children without guardians. Lacking citizenship, access to schooling, or other government-provided support, these children often resorted to menial labor, criminal activities, and prostitution to survive; those living on the streets were vulnerable to forced labor, including forced begging.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The country’s Jewish population was estimated at between 100 and 200 persons, consisting mostly of expatriates and foreigners. Anti-Semitism was a serious problem across the political spectrum and attracted wide support among segments of the population.
A 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey found 61 percent of citizens held anti-Jewish attitudes. A newspaper reported in April 2019 the statement in parliament of the then home minister that the number of Israelis entering Malaysia for business and technology-related events dwindled from 33 in 2016 to only three in 2019. Former prime minister Mahathir defended his right to be anti-Semitic in interviews. Restrictions on Israeli citizens from entering Malaysia remain.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law affords persons with disabilities the right to equal access and use of public facilities, amenities, services, and buildings open or provided to the public. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development is responsible for safeguarding the rights of persons with disabilities.
New government buildings generally had a full range of facilities for persons with disabilities. The government, however, did not mandate accessibility to transportation for persons with disabilities, and authorities retrofitted few older public facilities to provide access to persons with disabilities. Recognizing public transportation was not “disabled friendly,” the government maintained its 50 percent reduction of excise duty on locally made cars and motorcycles adapted for persons with disabilities.
Employment discrimination occurred against persons with disabilities (see section 7.d.).
Students with disabilities attended mainstream schools, but accessibility remained a serious problem. Separate education facilities also existed but were insufficient to meet the needs of all students with disabilities.
The constitution gives ethnic Malays and indigenous groups, collectively known as bumiputra, a “special position” in the country. Government regulations and policies provided extensive preferential programs to boost the economic position of bumiputra, who constituted a majority of the population. Such programs limited opportunities for non-bumiputra (primarily ethnic Chinese and Indians) in higher education and government employment. Many industries were subject to race-based requirements that mandated bumiputra ownership levels. Government procurement and licensing policies favored bumiputra-owned businesses. The government claimed these policies were necessary to attain ethnic harmony and political stability.
The constitution provides indigenous and nonindigenous people with the same civil and political rights, but the government did not effectively protect these rights.
Indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia, known as Orang Asli, who number approximately 200,000, constitute the poorest group in the country and had very little ability to participate in decisions that affected them. A constitutional provision provides for “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak” but does not refer specifically to the Orang Asli. This ambiguity over the community’s status in the constitution led to selective interpretation by different public institutions.
The courts have ruled that the Orang Asli have rights to their customary lands under the constitution, but NGOs said the government failed to recognize these judicial pronouncements. The government can seize this land if it provides compensation. There were confrontations between indigenous communities and logging companies over land, and uncertainty over their land tenure made indigenous persons vulnerable to exploitation.
In June, two Orang Asli communities set up blockades at the entrances to their villages in Kelantan and Perak States to protest logging activities in the area. In a police report, villagers claimed their village had been “pawned away” by the Kelantan government.
In September the Federal Court ordered the Johor state government to pay RM 5.2 million ($1.2 million) to the residents of Orang Laut Seletar village as compensation for their ancestral land, after villagers were forced to relocate in 1993 to make way for development. The court also ordered that a separate land area which the villagers now occupied be registered as an Orang Asli settlement. Lawyer Tan Poh Lai, representing the villagers, termed the settlement a “great victory” for the Orang Asli, stating, “This is a recognition that the land they were made to move from was indeed native customary land. This result is an encouragement for all Orang Asli in Malaysia.”
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
All same-sex sexual conduct is illegal. The law states that sodomy and oral sex acts are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In November 2019 the Selangor State sharia court sentenced five men to six to seven months in jail, six strokes of the cane, and a fine for “attempting to have intercourse against the order of nature.” Numan Afifi, an activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights told media the ruling was “a gross injustice” and would cause a “culture of fear.” Religious and cultural taboos against same-sex sexual conduct were widespread (see section 2.a.).
Authorities often charged transgender persons with “indecent behavior” and “importuning for immoral purposes” in public. Those convicted of a first offense face a token fine and a maximum sentence of 14 days in jail. The sentences for subsequent convictions are fines and up to three months in jail. Local advocates contended that imprisoned transgender women served their sentences in prisons designated for men and that police and inmates often abused them verbally and sexually.
In February, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, then the minister for Islamic affairs in the Pakatan Harapan government, said he would ask the communications commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself on pilgrimage in Mecca. The minister called Nur Sajat’s actions an “offense” that could compromise bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. Noting that photos and videos of Nur Sajat wearing women’s garments in Mecca had gone viral on social media, causing “discomfort among Muslims,” Mujahid told media he would take “firm steps.” The communications commission said it would study the matter but did not announce any action. Images of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents, however, spread on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety.
A 2018 survey by a local transgender rights group reported more than two-thirds of transgender women experienced some form of physical or emotional abuse. The local rock band Bunkface released a song in February with the lyric “LGBT can go and die.” Facing public criticism, the band defended the line, stating it did not target specific individuals but was responding to the growing LGBTI movement in the country.
State religious authorities reportedly forced LGBTI persons to participate in “treatment” or “rehabilitation” programs to “cure” them of their sexuality. In July, Minister of Religious Affairs Zulkifli Mohamad announced he had given “full license” to Islamic authorities to arrest and “educate” transgender persons to ensure they came “back to the right path.”
LGBTI persons reported discrimination in employment, housing, and access to some government services because of their sexuality.