Home > South-East Asia >> Malaysia

World Report Malaysia 2007

Human Rights Watch – January 11, 2007

Events in 2006

When he took office three years ago, there were great hopes that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi would make a break with the poor human rights record of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. Badawi raised hopes when he promised good governance and human rights improvement. While there has been a reduction of pressure on human rights groups and lawyers, there has been virtually no institutional reform.

The Badawi administration has failed to dismantle the legal framework that allows security officials to detain persons indefinitely without charge or trial. Recommendations by the government-appointed Royal Commission to Enhance the Royal Malaysia Police to amend and repeal such laws and to set up an independent commission to oversee the Royal Malaysia Police have yet to be implemented. Abuses against refugees and migrants continue to be reported and public discussions on inter-faith issues and religious freedom are restricted.

Detention without Trial

At this writing more than 90 persons were being detained without charge or trial for alleged threats to national security under the 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA). Since 2001 the ISA has been used against suspected Islamist militants, primarily alleged members of the Islamist group Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), and against individuals suspected of involvement in counterfeiting and document forgery. Many of the alleged JI detainees have been held for four years. In 2006, without explanation, the government extended the detention of 25 detainees for another two years. In May the government announced the arrests of 11 persons affiliated with the Islamist group Darul Islam.

Under the Emergency Ordinance (Public Order and Prevention of Crime), enacted in 1969 as a temporary measure to respond to race riots, the government has detained 700 persons indefinitely without charge or trial in Simpang Renggam detention center in Johor state for alleged involvement in criminal activities. Government officials publicly acknowledge that the Emergency Ordinance is used against criminal suspects because the police do not have sufficient evidence to charge them. Detainees are barred by law from challenging the merits of their detention. Some have been detained for eight years. While detainees may raise procedural challenges and on this basis occasionally are ordered released by courts, the government often re-arrests them on the same charges. In June 2006 police re-arrested 11 detainees as they were leaving the Simpang Renggam detention center after a court-ordered release.

Another tactic police use to extend the arbitrary detention of suspects is through what are known as “road shows”: when a pretrial 15-day detention order is due to expire, police seek another order in a different district. Police are known to have used this tactic to hold individuals for as many as 143 days.

In 2006 Prime Minister Badawi joined the near universal call to close the US detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and also urged that the two Malaysian detainees transferred from CIA secret facilities to Guantánamo be given a fair trial. But the prime minister failed to afford similar rights to detainees held under the ISA or the Emergency Ordinance.

Migrant Workers, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers

Malaysian authorities continued to enforce the punitive Immigration Act. Anyone found guilty of being in the country without the appropriate legal documentation faces a mandatory sentence of up to five years imprisonment and up to six strokes of the cane. The amendment also imposes mandatory caning on those convicted of harboring five or more undocumented individuals. Malaysian authorities have continued to round up and deport undocumented migrant workers. The lack of effective screening procedures means that refugees, trafficking victims, abused migrant workers, and other vulnerable groups are at risk of detention and prosecution under the immigration laws.

A volunteer civilian armed corps, the Rela, has been authorized by the government to question and arrest undocumented migrants. The bodies of five migrants were recovered in February in Selayang allegedly as a result of a Rela raid. Later that month more than 60 Indian migrant workers were clubbed by Rela and taken to a detention camp. The workers were waiting outside the Indian High Commission to draw attention to the unpaid wages owed them by Malaysian employers.

In May 2006, Malaysia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Indonesia regarding recruitment and treatment of approximately 300,000 migrant domestic workers. These workers confront a wide range of abuses, including forced confinement in the workplace, excessively long work hours, lack of rest days, unpaid wages, and physical and sexual abuse. The new MOU does little to address exploitative working conditions, and domestic workers continue to be excluded from key provisions of Malaysia’s Employment Act of 1955, which would entitle them to one rest day per week and an eight-hour work day. Their work permits are tied to their employers, making it difficult to report abuse for fear of repatriation. Some positive reforms were still being considered by the government at this writing, including a requirement that domestic workers be paid at least once a month.

Despite hosting a large number of refugees and asylum seekers Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have in place proper procedures to register, document, and protect such people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of May 2006 there were more than 46,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, including 20,000 Achenese from Indonesia, and 11,000 Rohingyas and 11,000 Chins from Myanmar. In July 2005 the minister of home affairs announced plans to allow refugees and asylum seekers to join the work force, but more than a year later there was no evidence the policy was being implemented. Without work permits refugees remain vulnerable to exploitation by employers and the police.

At this writing, the government was drafting new anti-trafficking legislation.

Freedom of Religion

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and ethnic Malays by definition must be Muslim. Faiths of other ethnic groups are protected under article 11 of the constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. For Muslims, marriage, property, and divorce are governed by Sharia courts. Muslims who wish to renounce Islam must seek permission from Sharia courts, although rarely granted, and can be subject to sanctions involving years of rehabilitation.

Lina Joy, who converted to Christianity from Islam, at this writing was awaiting a decision from the Federal Court – the highest court in Malaysia – on whether her conversion should be considered a right under the constitution instead of a religious matter for Sharia courts. Joy’s application to have her religious status on her identification card changed had been rejected by the National Registration Department on grounds she was an ethnic Malay, a decision she challenged in the courts.

Human Rights Defenders

Fora organized around the country by non-governmental organizations to discuss religious freedom were disrupted on several occasions in 2006 by a coalition of Muslim groups calling themselves the Anti-Interfaith Commission. In May a mob forcibly stopped a forum in Penang. Two Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) leaders and a Muslim religious scholar were charged with illegal assembly for allegedly participating in a demonstration against the forum in Penang. A subsequent forum in Johor Bahru was also stopped on the advice of the police due to a demonstration by Islamic groups outside the venue. Instead of taking action against the groups, on July 26 Prime Minister Badawi ordered such public discussions on inter-faith issues to be stopped.

Human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who is outspoken on religious freedom and inter-faith issues and wrote a brief in support of Lina Joy’s case before the Federal Court, received an anonymous death threat in August 2006. The threat entitled “Wanted Dead” was circulated with Sarwar’s picture and text condemning him for his support of Lina Joy.

Key International Actors

Since September 11, 2001, international criticism of Malaysia’s human rights records has decreased. The United States, once a strong critic of Malaysia’s preventive detention laws, is now less critical. Malaysia is the United States tenth largest trading partner and negotiations are underway on a free trade agreement between the two nations. The US and the United Kingdom have strong relations with Malaysia on security issues, cooperating on training and counterterrorism operations and conducting joint exercises.

Malaysia plays a significant role in regional and global issues. It currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference and is facilitating negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

See also:

Home | Site Map | Calendar & Events | News Services | Links & Resources | Contact Us