Malaysia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, although it also provides for restrictions “in the interest of the security of the Federation…[or] public order.” The government regularly enforced restrictions on freedom of expression by media, citing upholding Islam and the special status of ethnic Malays, protection of national security, public order, and friendly relations with other countries as reasons.

Freedom of Speech and 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. Sedition charges often stemmed from comments by vocal civil society or opposition leaders. Civil society groups claimed the government generally failed to investigate and prosecute similar “seditious” statements made by progovernment or pro-Malay persons.

In August judicial authorities sentenced an opposition leader to eight months in prison for a 2015 speech in which he called for the release of Anwar Ibrahim while suggesting politicians controlled the judiciary. The case was pending an appeal. Also in August a court found the president of a pro-Malay NGO guilty of sedition and fined him 2,000 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($450) for an article he wrote calling the country’s ethnic Chinese citizens “intruders.”

Press and Media Freedoms: Political parties and individuals linked to the ruling coalition owned or controlled a majority of shares in almost all print and broadcast media, many of which were actively progovernment in their reporting. Online media outlets were more independent in their ownership and reporting but were often the target of legal action and harassment.

The government exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media; punished publishers of “malicious news,” and 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 February the government blocked popular online news outlet The Malaysian Insider for “violating national laws,” allegedly related to its reporting on a government financial scandal. The site closed a month later.

Authorities sometimes barred online media from covering government press conferences.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to harassment and intimidation due to their reporting. In April online news portal Malaysiakini recalled its journalist from covering state elections in Sarawak after she received online threats over an article she wrote reporting an elected official urged voters to choose the ruling coalition to ensure a Muslim continued to lead the religiously diverse state. Critics also lodged multiple police reports against the reporter and circulated her photo on social media, leading to concerns for her safety. In November a group of progovernment “Red Shirts” protesters gathered in front of Malaysiakini’s offices and threatened to “tear down parts of the building.”

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored media, primarily print and broadcast media. In addition to controlling news content by banning or restricting publications believed to threaten public order, morality, or national security, the government prosecuted journalists for “malicious news,” took little or no action against persons or organizations that abused journalists, and limited circulation of some publications. 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. The government refused to issue printing permits to some online media outlets that were critical of the government. Such policies, together with antidefamation laws, inhibited independent or investigative journalism and resulted in extensive self-censorship in the print and broadcast media.

Despite these restrictions publications of opposition parties, social action groups, unions, internet news sites, and other private groups actively covered opposition parties 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 occasionally censored foreign magazines, foreign newspapers, and foreign-sourced television programming, most often due to sexual content.

The government’s restrictions on radio and television stations mirrored those on print media, and all also predominantly supported the government. News about the opposition in those fora remained restricted and biased. Television stations censored programming to follow government guidelines.

The government generally restricted remarks or publications, including books, it judged might incite racial or religious disharmony. The Ministry of Home Affairs maintained a list of 1,593 banned books. In September the government announced four new banned publications “prejudicial to public order,” including a report on torture in Malaysian prisons and a book criticizing the influence of Islam in the government.

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

National Security: Authorities frequently cited laws protecting national security to restrict media distribution of material critical of government policies and public officials. In January the government blocked access to publishing platform Medium after it refused to remove an article hosted on its site about a financial corruption scandal involving the prime minister. The country’s internet regulator claimed the article would “undermine Malaysia’s social stability.”

Nongovernmental Impact: Progovernment NGOs sought to limit freedom of expression through criminal complaints of allegedly seditious speech. Progovernment NGOs also sometimes attempted to intimidate opposition groups through demonstrations. In September police detained the leader of a progovernment NGO that threatened counterdemonstrations and physical violence against the leader of free and fair election NGO coalition Bersih, after Bersih announced a November mass protest against Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government generally maintained a policy of open and free access to the internet, but authorities monitored the internet for e-mail 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 aggressively pursued charges against those criticizing Islam or the country’s royalty. In June a court sentenced a man to one year in prison after he pleaded guilty to insulting the Sultan of Johor on Facebook. In September an appeals court extended the man’s sentence to three years, to be served in a “reform school.”

Authorities also restricted internet freedom to combat dissenting views online. In January the government blocked two websites publishing documents alleging financial corruption at a state-owned development company, claiming the sites had published “false news,” which threatened national security. Local and international human rights groups claimed the law does not allow the government to block websites unilaterally and it must instead seek a court finding.

Sedition and criminal defamation laws led to some self-censorship by local internet content sources such as bloggers, news providers, and NGO activists.

The law requires certain 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. By regarding users who post content as publishers, the government places the burden of proof on the user in these cases. NGOs and members of the public criticized the law, noting it could cause self-censorship due to liability concerns.

According to the World Bank, approximately 17 million persons (67 percent of the population) had access to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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. Opposition leaders 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 fears the government might revoke the licenses of their institutions. The law imposes limitations on student associations and on student and faculty political activity.

The government regularly censored films, editing out profanity, kissing, sex, and nudity. The government also censored films for certain political and religious content. The government did not allow cinemas to show films in Hebrew, Yiddish, or from Israel. Although the government allowed foreign films at local film festivals, it censored sexual content by blocking screens until the concerned scene was over. Media censorship rules forbid movies and songs that promote acceptance of gay persons (see section 6).

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The constitution provides all citizens “the right to assemble peaceably and without arms;” however, several laws restricted this right. The law does not require groups to obtain a permit for assemblies. Nonetheless, police frequently placed time, location, and manner restrictions on the right to assemble. Authorities generally banned street protests, and police often confronted civil society and opposition demonstrations with water cannons, tear gas, and mass arrests. Protests deemed acceptable by the government usually proceeded without interference. In July police warned civil society coalition Bersih to avoid organizing protests that called for the resignation of PM Najib, later investigating Bersih and other civil society leaders for their roles in organizing an August protest.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

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 conditions when allowing a society to register. The government may revoke the registration of a society for violations of the law governing societies.

In September the government announced it would allow the provisional registration of a new political party formed by former members of the ruling coalition but placed restrictions on the party’s name.

The law prohibits students who hold political posts from conducting political party activities on campus, and universities may ban any organization deemed “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university.” Students also are prohibited from “expressing support or sympathy” for an unlawful society or organization.

Some human rights and civil society organizations had difficulty obtaining government recognition as NGOs. As a result some NGOs registered as companies, which presented legal and bureaucratic obstacles to raising money to support their activities. Authorities frequently cited a lack of registration as grounds to take action against organizations. Some NGOs also reported the government monitored their activities.

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

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. There were some restrictions, however, with respect to the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak in particular.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally did not impede organizations providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Access to those in detention centers, however, was often significantly delayed. Government cooperation with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration was inconsistent, and there were several flashpoints.

In February police conducted a multiday operation checking for undocumented migrants in front of UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur and detained or arrested dozens entering and exiting the building. In July, UNHCR temporarily halted operations in response to a government directive barring UNHCR from issuing refugee cards to “walk-in” applicants. In mid-August, UNHCR reported its operations had returned to normal.

NGOs and international organizations involved with migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers 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. An NGO with access to the detention centers claimed these conditions and lack of medical screening and treatment facilitated the spread of disease and contributed to deaths. NGOs provided most of the medical care and treatment in the detention centers.

In-country Movement: Consistent with the 1963 agreement that incorporated Sabah and Sarawak into the country, these eastern states controlled immigration into their areas and required citizens from peninsular Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. Authorities continued to deny entry to selected national opposition leaders to East Malaysian states.

Foreign Travel: Travel to Israel is subject to approval and limited to religious purposes. The government also sometimes used its powers to restrict travel by its critics. In May immigration authorities prevented Bersih Chair Maria Chin Abdullah from boarding a flight to Seoul, Korea, to accept a human rights award. Government officials did not explain the decision but noted travel abroad by citizens was a privilege not a right.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status; nonetheless, the government generally cooperated with UNHCR and occasionally reported potential persons of concern to UNHCR.

According to UNHCR there were 150,669 persons of concern, including 135,475 of Myanmar origin, as of October 31. During the year UNHCR successfully resettled 7,600 refugees.

Refoulement: The government did not provide legal protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion but generally tolerated the presence of asylum seekers on its territory.

Freedom of movement: The government sometimes detained asylum seekers, in either police jails or immigration detention centers, until UNHCR established the asylum seekers’ bona fides. 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 more. The number detained in these centers was not publicly available.

Employment: Although the government does not legally authorize UNHCR-registered refugees to work, the government typically did not interfere if they performed informal work. UNHCR reported the government brought charges, in a few cases, against employers for hiring them.

Access to Basic Services: For persons with UNHCR cards, the government provided access to health care for refugees at a discounted foreigner’s rate but not to asylum seekers. NGOs operated mobile clinics, but access was 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 30 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: In November the government announced plans to allow another 500 Syrian refugees to enter the country, in addition to the 78 already here. The announcement was in line with a 2015 pledge to provide temporary asylum to 3,000 such refugees over a three-year period.

STATELESS PERSONS

UNHCR estimated there were 11,689 stateless persons in the country, 40 percent of whom were children. National Registration Department officials stated they do not keep records of stateless persons.

A number of local NGOs and SUHAKAM did research, conducted workshops, and ran public awareness campaigns on the problem of stateless children.

Foreigners may qualify for permanent resident status after several years of marriage to a citizen: five years of marriage for foreign women married to citizen men; 10 years for foreign men married to citizen women. After two years of permanent resident status, they are eligible to apply for citizenship. While awaiting permanent resident status, authorities usually granted visas to foreign spouses of citizens to allow them an extended legal stay in the country. A local advocacy group for migrant workers reported that in the last five or six years, procedures improved to include shorter waiting times in the processing of permanent residency petitions and visas. Although nationality laws in the country were not overtly discriminatory due to ethnicity or religion, there was a perception Muslims received preference.

Authorities considered children born out of wedlock to foreign women to have inherited their mother’s citizenship. Authorities allow registration of such births only if the mother produces proof of her citizenship, creating a risk of statelessness because many foreign women were unable to produce a passport or other evidence. According to UNHCR, refugees or asylum seekers often did not have valid proof of citizenship. In such cases authorities entered the child’s citizenship as “unknown” on the birth certificate. UNHCR deemed this a widespread problem and reported in November there was a population of approximately 80,000 Filipino Muslim refugees in the eastern state of Sabah. Of these an estimated 10,000 were children without birth documentation and thus technically stateless.

Although children born in the country of illegal migrant mothers married to citizen men are eligible for citizenship, the mother may have difficulty registering the marriage and subsequently the child’s citizenship because of inability to provide a valid passport or identification document. 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.

Persons who lacked proof of citizenship were not able to attend school, access government services such as reduced cost health care, or own property. UNHCR may provide birth registration or other documentation in some cases.

By law authorities consider illegal anyone entering the country without appropriate documentation. Such persons face a mandatory maximum five years’ imprisonment, a maximum fine of 10,000 RM ($2,250), or both, and mandatory caning of not more than six strokes.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future