Malaysia

 

  • ‘People invested in wanting a change’ – civil society and the Malaysia elections

    Malaysia’s May election saw the ruling party defeated for the first time in 61 years, amid widespread public anger about corruption. CIVICUS asked Gayathry Venkiteswaran, media activist and Assistant Professor of media and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, for her perspective on recent events, and what these meant for civil society.

    KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: A Malaysian voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Kuala Lumpur 
    on May 9, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Radu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    1. Given that the same party had been in power since independence, what factors do you think led to their defeat this time?

    I think it’s too early to tell, but I will say that the electorate certainly rejected the kinds of politics and corruption practised by the previous government. The transgressions were too obvious, and it was a matter of how big the loss would be for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - but we didn't expect the fall to be this big. This election was significant because despite the challenges and obstacles placed in terms of the electoral processes, people were determined to reject the propaganda of the BN and insisted on change.

    2. In what ways was civil society active in the run up to the elections, and what challenges did civil society encounter?

    Civil society work to build political awareness and participation has been ongoing but it took a significant turn after the emergence of the Reformasi (reform) movement in 1998, and then the Bersih movement’s protests for electoral reforms. Bersih provided a focus for the change, even though various interest groups also brought their particular concerns such as anti-corruption, environment and indigenous rights. This mobilisation, together with exposés by independent and citizen media on the corrupt practices of the previous government, raised the stakes for citizens to demand change.

    During this election, voters demonstrated commitment, including outstation and overseas voters, and people participated by being monitors at polling stations and provided other forms of checks and support to prevent cheating or malpractice on polling day. These are indications of people invested in wanting a change. The use of social media to share information, especially on voting practices, and the post-election vigilance of the newly elected government also shows a society that wants governments - whether at the federal of state levels - to be accountable.

    While there was momentum for change and a number of initiatives that saw civil society coalitions or collaborations focused on the outcomes of the elections - for example, by issuing alternative manifestos - there was little real discussion on the possible scenarios, given the uncertainties and concerns that unlawful methods would be used to resist this change. It wasn't clear what civil society's stance would have been had the outcomes been different, and how it proposes to move forward in this environment.

    3. What are civil society’s main hopes and fears now following the change of government?

    Certainly, it is an environment filled with hopes. There are opportunities to carry out real institutional reforms, and hopes that the government will be more open to engaging with human rights-based civil society organisations (CSOs). The results showed a rejection of fear-mongering and bribery, and a willingness to bridge race/religion narratives as the main reference point for electing parties.

    It is hoped that there will be room for a more inclusive and liberal approach in addressing the real concerns of citizens about their identities, needs and expectations. Having said that, there were and may still be fears that the BN coalition, especially members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and organisations associated with them, use provocations to destabilise the situation, and that Malay/Muslim electorates are pressed hard to become more fundamentalist in response to a multiracial narrative. At the same time, there are concerns that the ruling coalition could backtrack on its promises in order to accommodate the opposition and resistance from among BN and UMNO supporters.

    4. What three things could the new administration do to most improve the conditions for civil society in Malaysia?

    The main step is to respect the rights of civil society members on their freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This can be done by refraining from using existing laws to curb their activities - among them, the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Immigration Act, Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Law, and announce plans on reforming these restrictions.

    Given the newly formed Institutional Reform Committee, it is hoped that the government will institute mechanisms for engagement with civil society, particularly in the areas of policy making and law making. Among others, there should be meaningful consultations before the drafting of policies and laws at the executive level, by departments and ministries, and at the legislative level, in select committees or parliamentary hearings. The public should have access to information on these processes and be given the rights to submit inputs and feedback.

    5. What should Malaysian civil society do next to make the most of the opportunity presented by the change in government, and what support does civil society need now?

    I think it is urgent for civil society to sit down and come up with a road map of action plans, which can include recommendations and mechanisms to check on the government's actions. Civil society can pool its resources to build its own monitoring platforms and processes for engaging with the government. But most importantly, there should be leadership and commitment to ensure that change is for the long term, irrespective of which political parties come into power. We've done this in the past, after the 2008 elections, with the setting up of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) for the state of Selangor, and the Penang Forum. The CGG didn't last, but these are worth considering as a model, with adequate fine-tuning so that there is clear focus, accountability systems and sustainability plans.

     

  • As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism, finds new report

    New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor examines the crackdown of environmental activism and profiles important victories civil society has scored in the fight for climate justice.

    • Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents
    • State authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms
    • Despite the risks and restrictions, activist groups continue to score important victories to advance climate justice.

    As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Negotiations (COP26), peaceful environmental activists are being threatened, silenced and criminalised around the world. The host of this year's meeting is one of many countries where activists are regularly facing rights violations.

    New research from the CIVICUS Monitor looks at the common tactics and restrictions being used by governments and private companies to suppress environmental movements. The research brief “Defenders of our planet: Resilience in the face of restrictions” focuses on three worrying trends: Bans and restrictions on protests; Judicial harassment and legal persecution; and the use of violence, including targeted killings.

    As the climate crisis intensifies, activists and civil society groups continue to mobilise to hold policymakers and corporate leaders to account. From Brazil to South Africa, activists are putting their lives on the line to protect lands and to halt the activities of high-polluting industries. The most severe rights abuses are often experienced by civil society groups that are standing up to the logging, mining and energy giants who are exploiting natural resources and fueling global warming.

    As people take to the streets, governments have been instituting bans that criminalise environmental protests. Recently governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to disrupt and break up demonstrations. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities are becoming more prevalent.

    In Cambodia in May 2021, three environmental defenders were sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison for planning a protest  against the filling of a lake in the capital. While in Finland this past June, over 100 activists were arrested for participating in a protest calling for the government to take urgent action on climate change. From authoritarian countries to  mature democracies, the research also profiles those who have been put behind bars for peacefully protesting.

    “Silencing activists and denying them of their fundamental civic rights is another tactic being used by leaders to evade and delay action on climate change” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor. “Criminalising nonviolent protests has become a troubling indicator that governments are not committed to saving the planet .”

    The report shows that many of the measures being deployed by governments to restrict rights are not compatible with international law. Examples of courts and legislative bodies reversing attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protests are few and far between.

    Despite the increased risks and restrictions facing environmental campaigners, the report also shows that a wide range of campaigns have scored important victories, including the closure of mines and numerous hazardous construction projects. Equally significant has been the rise of climate litigation by activist groups. Ironically, as authorities take activists to court for exercising their fundamental right to protest, activist groups have successfully filed lawsuits against governments and companies in over 25 countries for failing to act on climate change.


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  • Attacks on women’s day march in Malaysia inconsistent with the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms

    Amnesty International, Article 19 and CIVICUS strongly condemn the government backlash against the International Women’s Day march held in Malaysia on 9 March 2019. A few days after the event, the country’s Home Minister announced that police were investigating the organisers of the march for allegedly conducting an illegal assembly, while the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs criticized the march as “a misuse of democratic space.” On 14 March 2019, the organisers were also informed that they were being investigated under the Sedition Act. These actions undermine the rights to freedom of expression and assembly and are inconsistent with human rights commitments made by the Pakatan Harapan government in its election manifesto and at the UN Human Rights Council.

     

  • CIVICUS interview with Malaysia electoral reform coalition, Bersih 2.0

    In the lead up to the 14th general elections in Malaysia on 9 May, CIVICUS interviewed the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0 which means "clean" in Malay). The coalition - made up of like-minded civil society organisations - was officially launched in 2006 with the objective of campaigning for clean and fair elections in Malaysia.

    Among its eights demands include: cleaning the electoral roll; reforming postal balloting; the use of indelible ink; a minimum 21 days campaign period; free and fair access to media for all political parties; strengthening public institutions to act independently and impartially in upholding the rule of law and democracy and halting corruption and dirty politics.

    Since 2007, it has organized five massive street protests to the have drawn tens of thousands of people to protest on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country calling for electoral and national reform. Smallers protests have also been held in different countries across the world. Ahead of these mass rallies Bersih 2.0 organisers have been arrested or harassed by the authorities and authorities have seized their computers, mobile phones and documents.

    Over the last month, Bersih 2.0 raised concerns about the redelineation of constituencies which was done in haste in favour of the ruling government, highlighted problems with the overseas postal voting system, publicized vote buying by candidates and the manipulation and abuse of power by the Election Commission (EC) on Nomination Day

    More information on Bersih 2.0 can be found at https://www.bersih.org

     

  • CIVICUS UN Universal Periodic Review submissions on civil society space

    CIVICUS and its partners have submitted joint and stand-alone UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on eight countries to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of the 31st UPR session (November 2018). The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the second UPR cycle over 4-years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations.

    Countries examined: Chad, China, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Senegal

    Chad EN or FR -CIVICUS and Réseau Des Défenseurs Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) examine ongoing attacks on and intimidation, harassment and judicial persecution of HRDs, leaders of citizen movements and CSO representatives. We further discuss restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and association in Chad including through lengthy bans and violent repression of protests and the targeting of unions which protest against austerity measures or the reduction of salaries for workers.

    China - CIVICUS and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) outline serious concerns related to the escalation of repression against human rights defenders, particularly since 2015, which Chinese activists described as one of the worst years in the ongoing crackdown on peaceful activism. The submission also describes unlawful restrictions on the freedom of association, including through the Charity Law and the Law on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations. CIVICUS and AHRC call on the government of China to immediately release all HRDs arrested as part of the “709 crackdown” and repeal all laws restricting civic space in China.

    Jordan -CIVICUS, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and Phenix Center highlight the lack of implementation of recommendations on the right to freedom of association. Current legislation governing the formation and operation of civil society organisations (CSOs), including trade unions, imposes severe restrictions on the establishment and operation of CSOs. We are also concerned by the restrictive legal framework that regulates the right to freedom of expression and the authorities’ routine use of these laws to silent critical voices.

    Malaysia - CIVICUS and Pusat KOMAS highlight a range of restrictive laws used to constrain freedom of association and to investigate and prosecute government critics and peaceful protesters, in their exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. We also raise concerns about the harassment of and threats against HRDs as well as the increasing use of arbitrary travel bans by the government to deter their freedom of movement.

    Mexico (ES) - CIVICUS and the Front for the Freedom of Expression and Social Protest (Frente por la Libertad de Expresión y la Protesta Social - FLEPS) address concerns regarding the threats, attacks and extrajudicial killings of HRDs and journalists for undertaking their legitimate work. The submission further examines the multiple ways in which dissent is stifled through stigmatisation, criminalisation and violent suppression of social protests and restrictions on freedom of expression and independent media.

    Nigeria - CIVICUS and the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNGO) examine the difficult operating environment for journalists who are routinely harassed, beaten and sometime killed for carrying out their journalistic work. CIVICUS and the NNGO are concerned by the actions of some officers of the Department of State Services who are at the forefront of persecuting human rights defenders.

    Saudi Arabia - CIVICUS, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) address Saudi Arabia’s continued targeting and criminalization of civil society and human rights activists, particularly under the auspices of its counter-terror laws, which severely undermine the freedoms of association, expression and assembly.

    Senegal - CIVICUS and the Coalition Sénégalaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (COSEDDH) document a number of violations of the freedom of expression and restrictions on media outlets. In particular we discuss the continued criminalisation of press offences in the new Press Code, including criminal defamation, among other restrictive provisions. Since its last UPR examination, implementation gaps were found with regard to the rights to the freedom of expression and issues relating to the freedom of peaceful assembly.

     

  • Civil society and democratisation in Malaysia: between resistance and co-optation

    Guest article by Khoo Ying Hooi

     

  • In Diverse Southeast Asia, Growing Ethnic & Religious Intolerance Pose Serious Threat to Stability

     

    By Josef Benedict Civic Space Researcher, CIVICUS

    This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which will be the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW). 

     When the one-year anniversary of Malaysia’s historic presidential election outcome rolls around in early May, the wave of euphoria that followed it will be all but a wistful memory.

    The surprise outcome that ended 61 years of interrupted rule by the Barisan Nasional coalition party, brought with it fresh hope that winning Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) party would bring the “New Malaysia” – as it became known – the positive change many yearned for.

    Read on: Inter Press Service

     

  • Malaysia: Government should respect human rights as it seeks UN Human Rights Council membership

    YAB Dato Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob
    Prime Minister of Malaysia
    Pejabat Perdana Menteri, Blok Utama, Bangunan Perdana Putra, Pusat Pentadbiran Kerajaan Persekutuan, 62502 Putrajaya, Malaysia

    Dear Prime Minister,

    We, the undersigned international human rights organisations—ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation—call on the new government of Malaysia to implement a comprehensive program of reform to strengthen human rights in Malaysia, especially the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as a prospective member of the UN Human Rights Council. Malaysia must also sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and demonstrate that it is committed to protect human rights.

    During the Human Rights Council pledging session on 8 September 2021, organised by Amnesty International and International Service for Human Rights, H.E. Dr Ahmad Faisal Muhamad expressed Malaysia’s unequivocal commitment to advancing human rights for all, noting the domestic legislation in place to enable citizens to “exercise rights and freedoms responsible and not to suppress them.” However, over the last two years there has been a deterioration in the state of human rights and fundamental freedoms under the former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government. This has included violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, the failure to ratify key international human rights treaties, including the ICCPR, together with the government’s dismal record of cooperating with the UN human rights system.

    As the government seeks membership to the UN Human Rights Council and has made public pledges to uphold human rights, it is imperative that the new government takes sincere and concrete action to improve its rights record at home. The new government has a unique opportunity to reverse the rights-violating actions of its predecessors and shift to a new rights-respecting approach. Legal and policy reform are pivotal to attain this and would demonstrate a genuine intention from the new government to meet its international human rights obligations.

    Without overhauling the violations and abuse of human rights in its country, Malaysia cannot be a valuable and effective member of the Human Rights Council.

    Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association
    Several laws in Malaysia unduly fetter the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. In order to fulfil its pledges made to the Human Rights Council, Malaysia must repeal or substantially revise the following laws:

    • The Sedition Act 1948 – Despite the former government’s commitment to conduct a study and a review of the security laws, including the Sedition Act, the authorities aggressively applied the law, primarily against government critics. Between January and August 2021, NGOs documented the investigation of 17 cases involving 37 individuals under the Sedition Act. The recent investigation of the #Lawan protest organisers under the Sedition Act is worrying and runs contrary to Malaysia’s international human rights obligations. The new government must follow-through with its pledge to review this archaic colonial law and should ultimately repeal it, noting that it has no place in a rights-respecting democracy.

    • The Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 – Under the former government, the Communications and Multimedia Act continued to be used as the primary tool to censor human rights defenders, journalists, artists, political opponents, and ordinary members of the public who have been critical of government officials or Malaysian royalty or shared opinions about issues deemed sensitive, such as race and religion. We are encouraged to hear H.E. Dr Ahmad Faisal Muhamad state during the Human Rights Council pledging session on 8 September 2021 that, “the government is in the midst of amending the Communications and Multimedia Act.” The new government must ensure the Act is adequately reformed in consultation with stakeholders so it can no longer be used by authorities as a weapon to silence expression.

    • The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 – In its pledges to the Human Rights Council, the government committed to a review of the problematic Peaceful Assembly Act. It is imperative that this review leads to legislative reform of this law, which authorities have used to target protest organisers and discourage assemblies. The space for peaceful protests shrank considerably under the previous administration, who disrupted gatherings critical of authorities and arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters under the guise of dealing with the pandemic. We urge the new government to reverse this approach and ensure adequate protection for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

    • The Societies Act 1966 – Muhyiddin’s government utilised the broad powers of the Societies Act to delay and even rejectthe formation of new political parties, undermining the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a functioning democracy. While not included in its written pledges, we encourage the government to substantively revise this law, ceasing its use as a barrier to the exercise of the freedom of association.

    • Other legislation routinely used to silence dissent includes Sections 504 and 505b of the Penal Code, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Film Censorship Act 2002, Section 114 of the Evidence Act 1950, and the Official Secrets Act 1972. Wholesale reform of these laws is required to ensure that the right to freedom of expression can be exercised in the country without fear.

    The reform or repeal of the aforementioned laws have been repeatedly raised by the Malaysian human rights commission, human rights groups, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteurs, and other States as essential to safeguarding human rights in the country. Encouragingly, during the pledging session, H.E. Dr Ahmad Faisal Muhamad stated that “the government is cognizant of the need to continuously review these acts to make sure that they continue to be efficient, continue to be relevant, and in line with international standards.” To demonstrate that this commitment is sincere, the government must prioritise meaningful legislative reform of all laws impeding on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

    Undermining accountability mechanisms
    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS are further concerned that domestic accountability mechanisms have been weakened in Malaysia. While the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) retains its “A” status as a National Human Rights Institution, SUHAKAM’s yearly reports have been largely ignored by the government. Although SUHAKAM’s 2018 report was debated for the first time in parliament after 19 years under the previous Pakatan Harapan government in December 2019, there was a lack of follow-through by Muhyiddin’s government.

    Concerningly, on 8 August 2021 SUHAKAM announced that its commissioners have been called in for police questioning over their attendance as monitors at the #Lawan protest. Two SUHAKAM commissioners, Jerald Joseph and Dato Mah Weng Kai, were investigated on 5 August at the Dang Wangi District Police Headquarters under Section 21A of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Peaceful Assembly Act.

    In presenting its candidacy for membership of the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia made the voluntary commitment to “[c]ontinue to strengthen human rights institutions and mechanisms in Malaysia.” The government pledged funding support, law review, and more government agency engagement with SUHAKAM. A crucial requirement for fulfilling this pledge is for the government to meaningfully engage with SUHAKAM, viewing them as a key partner in upholding human rights.

    Discrimination
    In its pledges to the Human Rights Council, the government stated that it would “continue to promote diversity,” and that it “firmly embraces the values of inclusivity, acceptance, and understanding in ensuring harmony and peaceful coexistence.” The government asserted that it will take a “whole-of-society approach in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.”

    Despite legislative protections in Malaysia, namely Article 8(2) of the Malaysian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender, systemic discrimination against minorities persists. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS are concerned about homophobic and discriminatory language and actions directed at LGBTQI communities, refugees, migrants, and religious minorities in Malaysia. Any form of national unity must include the rights of minorities, and there is a crucial need for more inclusive and non-discriminatory policies in place.

    Police reform
    While the government made no reference to police reform in its pledges to the Human Rights Council, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS note that it is a pivotal aspect of improving rights protection in Malaysia. Police reform should be prioritised alongside legal reform, as the arbitrary implementation of rights-respecting laws can still lead to human rights violations.

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS have recorded dozens of incidents of harassment and intimidation by police against activists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens because of the exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Without police reform, existing restrictive legal provisions will continue to be used to intimidate vocal critics and to shrink civic space in Malaysia.

    The new government must reform the Royal Malaysia Police and establish a dedicated Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) with a mandate to receive and investigate complaints about police misconduct and abuse. The IPCMC should be given the necessary powers to investigate abuses, compel cooperation from witnesses and government agencies, subpoena documents, and submit cases for prosecution.

    Commitments to the UN human rights mechanisms
    It is encouraging to hear Malaysia’s pledge to assess, monitor and implement its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations. The government has committed to work closely with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN in Malaysia to jointly develop a UPR “Monitoring Matrix” to measure the implementation of UPR recommendations that Malaysia has accepted. It has also committed to a “multi-stakeholder biannual consultation” with involvement from civil society and the UN to follow up on UPR recommendations. If adequately acted upon, these commitments could give rise to far-reaching improvements to human rights in Malaysia.

    Despite this, the government’s cooperation with mechanisms of the UN Human Rights Council has historically been incredibly poor. Civil society groups working on the UPR process in Malaysia, in their 2021 midterm UPR report, concluded that steps towards ratifying the core human rights instruments, including the ICCPR, have progressed extremely slowly despite commitments made since the first UPR cycle in 2009. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS hope the new administration will speed up the process of ratification to illustrate its commitment to human rights as it seeks Human Rights Council membership.

    In 2019, the Pakatan Harapan government implemented a policy of standing open invitations for visits by the UN Special Procedures. Malaysia has previously hosted various Special Rapporteurs including on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, and on extreme poverty and human rights. The new government should uphold this policy of open invitations, and in particular extend invitations to the Special Rapporteurs on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and on Freedom of Religion or Belief. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the new government to respond to individual communications from Special Procedures and enter into meaningful dialogues with UN experts rather than deny allegations outright as previous governments have.

    Recommendations
    To demonstrate its commitment to human rights as a prospective member of the UN Human Rights Council, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS make the following recommendations to the Malaysian government:

    • Ratify the core human rights instruments and their optional protocols, including the ICCPR, and rescind reservations to existing treaties that are contrary to their objectives and principles;
    • Extend a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures, and act swiftly to facilitate visits by the mandates on freedom of expression and on freedom of peaceful assembly and association;
    • Implement all recommendations made by UN Member States during the previous cycle of Malaysia’s UPR, in particular those relating to civic space;
    • Repeal the Sedition Act 1948, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Official Secrets Act 1972, and the Film Censorship Act 1998;
    • Reform the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, in particular Section 233(1)(a), to ensure it fully complies with international freedom of expression law and standards;
    • Reform the Penal Code, including Sections 504 and 505b, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, Section 114 of the Evidence Act, and the Societies Act 1966 in accordance with international law and standards;
    • Drop all investigations and charges against those exercising their right to freedom of expression, including social media users;
    • Ensure authorities do not harass or instigate arbitrary criminal investigations and proceedings against human rights defenders, protesters, activists, media workers, or opposition political figures;
    • Consult with civil society organisations on the shortcomings of Malaysia’s legal framework as they relate to freedom of expression and access to information;
    • Establish an IPCMC to investigate police abuses as per the recommendations of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia;
    • Should Malaysia be granted membership to the Human Rights Council, ensure it exercises earnest efforts to defend and enhance international human rights standards and ensure accountability for human rights violations and abuses in other countries in Southeast Asia and worldwide.

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS express sincere hope that the new government will take these steps to address the human rights concerns highlighted above and stand ready to engage in constructive dialogue to support such efforts. We hope to hear from you regarding this matter as soon as possible.

    Yours sincerely,

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS.

    Cc. Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva
    International Center Cointrin
    Bloc H
    Route de Pré-Bois 20
    1215 Geneva 15

    For more information, contact:

    David Diaz-Jogeix, ARTICLE 19 Senior Director of Programmes, , or
    Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher, .

    Civic space in Malaysia is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated during the pandemic’

    Adrian PereiCIVICUS speaks to Adrian Pereira, the Executive Director ofNorth South Initiative (NSI), about the situation of migrant workers in Malaysia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    NSI helps build advocacy and leadership capacities among migrants, refugees and stateless persons, both documented and undocumented, so they can claim their rights. It also monitors labour and immigration-related abuses by authorities, employers and local workers and ensures that migrant organisations are connected to a strong solidarity network and are able to cooperate with other civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions.

    There are estimated to be somewhere between three and six millionmigrant workers in Malaysia. Migrant workers are set up for exploitation by a combination of unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers, harsh immigration policies, unmonitored supply chains and a lack of enforcement of labour protections. They are subjected to passport confiscation, low pay in violation of minimum wage laws, poor living conditions, punishment by fines, high recruitment fees and debts to recruitment agencies and employers, forced labour, human trafficking and salary deductions. Areport on the ability of migrants and refugees to access civic freedoms, produced by CIVICUS and Solidarity Center in collaboration with NSI, showed that the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Malaysia are severely restricted for these vulnerable minorities.

     

    What was the situation of migrant workers’ access to healthcare prior to the pandemic?

    Malaysia removed subsidies for migrant workers to access public healthcare in 2016. Given that migrants rely mostly on public medical services, this measure resulted in declining quality and access to healthcare by migrants, both documented and undocumented, as the high cost of private alternatives usually deters them from getting any healthcare. Despite migrants and their employers and agents paying billions of Malaysian Ringgit per year in levies, taxes and other payments, they are not getting their money’s worth in healthcare.

    Those who are undocumented are only able to access private healthcare, because if they try to access public healthcare, immigration authorities will be informed, and they will come to arrest them. Over the years, brutal enforcement by police, immigration and customs forces and the People’s Volunteer Corps towards undocumented migrants has made them even more fearful of seeking medical treatment.

    There are also cultural competency gaps between medical practitioners and migrants, which make it difficult for them to get proper healthcare. Domestic workers who don’t have days off and are locked indoors have an even more difficult time in accessing healthcare.

    One positive step in 2019 was the inclusion of documented migrants into the national social security system, ensuring much higher compensation and better healthcare in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses. But for non-work-related accidents and injuries, private insurance offers minimal coverage. 

    What additional challenges have migrant workers faced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Many migrant workers, and especially undocumented and informal ones, have lost their source of income. As a result, they can’t pay for food, rent and medicines, unless they have tested positive for COVID-19, in which case their quarantine and care is covered by the government. Only migrants who provide government-sanctioned ‘essential services’ are able to work. But their safety really depends on whether the companies permitted to operate comply with rules set by the government. The rules are meant to ensure workers are safe from the risk of COVID-19 infection and can continue to work. But there is almost no one to monitor this consistently.

    The government has announced an economic stimulus package that sadly has marginalised migrant workers. There is a worker’s salary subsidy to ensure companies don’t have to retrench workers, but this does not apply to migrant workers. Previously, migrant workers were also excluded from the Workers Insurance Scheme under the national social security body, which would ensure a safety net for workers who were retrenched. The Movement Control Orders (MCOs) imposed by the government to restrict travel that came into force on 18 March have made it difficult for migrants to travel to access basic services, food, banking and other essentials. In Enhanced MCO areas, service providers can’t even enter. Informal sectors are sacking and abandoning the migrants who worked for them, particularly undocumented migrants and refugees. 

    Employers are forcing migrant employees to resign or take unpaid leave. Employers are taking advantage of the MCOs to not pay their workers. NSI received reports of at least two cases of unpaid salaries way before the MCOs were imposed. One had been unpaid since December 2019 and another since February 2020.

    There is also fearmongering going on, with fake messages and misinformation online putting migrants at risk of backlash from Malaysians. The government pledged not to arrest and detain migrants who come forward for COVID-19 testing. But there is still a lot of fear among migrants and hence many are not coming forward. Some sectors that are very economically aggressive are forcing the government to allow them to reopen so workers can go back to work. We have seen this in the Sabah state palm oil sector.

    The European Union (EU) is also putting both migrant and Malaysian workers at risk of forced labour by asking Malaysian personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers to ensure production continues during the pandemic. The EU has offered tax incentives to Malaysian companies to supply PPE. Further, small and medium enterprises that have been hiring undocumented workers for many years have abandoned their workers, claiming they are short on cash. 

    How have you and other CSOs responded to the situation?

    We are coaching migrant leaders to ensure their communities have access to networks that provide services and can provide accurate information about needs to those who are providing services. Some public networks, such as the ‘Care Mongering Malaysia’ group, are proving a platform for Malaysians to reach out to help migrants and refugees in need. This is an online platform that links those who need help with those who can afford to provide the service. Also, Sikh temples are providing groceries and packed lunches. 

    Other CSOs working hard on the ground to provide groceries include BERSIH2.0, Beyond Borders, Dapur Jalanan, Engage, Geutanyoe Foundation, HOPE, Liga Rakyat Demokratik, Malaysian Trades Union Congress, Our Journey, The Patani, Refuge for the Refugees, Tenaganita and also migrant and refugee community organisations.  Migrant workers can call them when they need assistance with food.

    We are forming a network to ensure services can be delivered in the long term, as we foresee the problems continuing for many months to come. Many migrant workers will remain and will need aid, so we are developing a supply chain to support them.

    We are ensuring migrants receive accurate information from global bodies such as the International Organization for Migration, United Nations (UN) Development Programme and UN Refugee Agency and also from the various government agencies related to health, labour, security and welfare. This includes providing information via infographics on counselling services and on health issues in different languages. 

    We are also fighting misinformation related to migrant workers and refugees. There has been a lot of fearmongering blaming them for the spread of the virus.

    We are also encouraging migrants to seek medical treatment if they are sick and monitoring employers who are taking advantage of the current situation and committing labour offences, particularly as the MCOs have partly restricted lawyers from providing legal representation and legal aid.

    Other CSOs are providing counselling, delivering groceries, doing fundraising, monitoring human trafficking, providing gender-sensitive and maternity-related services and catering to women’s needs.

    What further support does Malaysian civil society need at this time?

    We need cash to support migrants’ needs, including to pay for groceries, bills, rentals and safe repatriation home after the MCOs. We are also seeking funding opportunities because as long as the MCOs apply, we are unable to conduct physical meetings, and most fundraising is based on this. We also need legal aid services for those who are being retrenched unfairly and detained unjustly.

    What lessons have you learned so far from the pandemic?

    We have seen that the government has barely consulted CSOs before implementing policies and this is not in line with good governance principles. Also, there is overkill in punishing those who violate MCOs, including people who are forced to breach the MCOs due to livelihood issues. Further, the over-securitisation of migration over the years has now caused a backlash against migrants, who have been neglected.

    Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated against during the pandemic as they are neglected and don’t have strong safety nets. A capitalist system that operates on the basis of mega global supply chains and mega businesses does not have a proper risk-management plan that ensures accountability and transparency. Malaysia also has a problem with statistics, as it has been doctoring the numbers of those in poverty and has failed to address the problems resulting from the huge number of undocumented workers due to the meddling of the deep state.

    The civic rights of migrants have been suspended under the MCOs and Enhanced MCOs, and this in turn has weakened their bargaining power to gain their rights. There has also not been enough cooperation between migrants’ countries of origin and Malaysia to ensure the safe repatriation of those who want to return home, which poses a high risk of infection for everyone. We have received reports that under the MCOs, migrants are forced to use irregular passages to travel home. Embassies have turned to Malaysians for assistance for their citizens.

    CSOs are also not as united as I had assumed in building consensus in dealing with the problems, as they have struggled to cope with this. At the same time, some Malaysians who may have been biased against migrants have, in this time of need, showed compassion and responded in solidarity to migrants’ struggles. As has become clear, in the long term, the economic contributions of migrants ended up benefitting everyone except migrants themselves.

    Civic space inMalaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the North South Initiative through itswebsite and Facebook page, and follow@nsinitiative11 on Twitter.

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘The government should have assisted refugees under the pandemic’

    Htoon Htoon OoCIVICUS speaks to Htoon Htoon Oo, a refugee and activist from Myanmar, currently based in Malaysia. In 2007, he was a chemistry student in East Yangon University and an activist who took part in what was described as the Saffron Revolution, a series of protests unleashed by a hike in fuel prices, which were harshly repressed. He was also active during Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government in 2010.

    Aware of being under state surveillance and fearing that his family members and loved ones would experience reprisals and harassment due to his activism, he fled Myanmar in 2011 and has lived as a refugee in Malaysia ever since.

     

    What is the situation of refugees in Malaysia?

    The life of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia continues to be difficult, as it involves various struggles and suffering. We often feel helpless, hopeless, and unprotected. As of May 2021, there were an estimated 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. The majority – a total of 154,840 – were from Myanmar, including 102,950 Rohingya people, 22,490 ethnic Chins, and 29,400 from other ethnic groups fleeing persecution or conflict-affected areas.

    Malaysia has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The absence of a legal framework for recognising refugees and asylum seekers has created problematic and exploitative conditions for refugees and asylum seekers because we lack formal rights to work, we do not have legal status, we do not benefit from any legal protection and we continue to remain at risk of arrest, detention, and refoulement.

    We also have limited civic freedoms. Although there are many different organisations of refugees from various backgrounds, when it comes to expressing our concerns and organising our struggles, the reality is that we are not able to do it freely. There is common fear among refugees regarding the consequences of speaking up about our struggle, expressing our concerns, and claiming our rights.

    For example, under the Peaceful Assembly Act, Section 4(a), the right to assemble peacefully is reserved exclusively for Malaysian citizens. Moreover, there are many laws in Malaysia that create a chilling effect for refugees who want to speak up, such as the Immigration Act, which criminalises undocumented migrants as well as refugees, given that we are not recognised by law. The Immigration Act also exposes refugees to severe forms of punishment, such as caning. The lack of recognition of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia exposes us to arrest, imprisonment, and various abuses.

    What additional challenges have refugees faced under the pandemic?

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Malaysia in March 2020, refugees have faced several issues and struggles. The lockdown, known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was applied to the whole nation, has had a huge impact on refugees.

    Refugees cannot work under Malaysian law, but some do seek informal work to survive. Under the pandemic, we have seen cases of employers forcing refugees to work for salaries below the normal wage or to take unpaid leave or resign just because of their refugee status. Many refugees lost their jobs due to the pandemic. There is nothing to protect us from these abuses.

    We also fear for our safety during the pandemic because there have been several cases of refugees being targeted by the police and immigration officers due to a lack of clear policies and awareness among law enforcement officials on what a refugee is. Some refugees were fined by the police, and some were even detained at police stations for several days.

    Some people also label us as illegal immigrants even if we hold complete and authentic UNHCR refugee cards or documents.

    Most of the refugees who face these struggles are also dealing with depression and are mentally exhausted through thinking of ways just to survive and remain safe.

    Have refugees received any support from the Malaysian government or the UNHCR during the pandemic?

    Refugees have received no support from the Malaysian government; rather we experienced more raids and increasing restrictions. This is the opposite of what should have happened: they should have provided us with access to information on COVID-19 treatment and testing and there should have been other support programmes for refugees during the pandemic.

    Instead, in May 2020, Malaysia’s immigration department and police force carried out immigration raids in Kuala Lumpur. While those registered with the UNHCR were largely spared arrest, unregistered asylum seekers were swept up along with undocumented migrant workers. Some were also stuck in areas under strict lockdown surrounded by barbed wire, with residents forbidden from leaving their homes, which made it very difficult. Many of us have not recovered from this.

    There has also been a wave of online hate speech towards refugees, and particularly towards Rohingya people, during the pandemic, accompanied by government announcements and policies that are hostile towards migrants and refugees.

    The UNHCR sent direct messages to refugees whose documents expired informing them that they would remain valid until the UNHCR could resume its normal operations, which were disrupted by the pandemic. This, however, made no difference to law enforcement, and many people have been fined and arrested.

    What is the status of refugees regarding access to the COVID-19 vaccine?

    The Malaysian government has encouraged refugees to come forward to register for vaccination but has not provided clear information, and the existing systems are not accessible for refugees.

    For example, there is a requirement for specific documents to register for vaccines. The system requires refugees and asylum seekers to input an ID card or passport number, two documents that we do not have access to.

    The system should be more inclusive of all persons living in Malaysia, including refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants because vaccinations should be the first barrier against the creation of COVID-19 clusters. Arresting us will only make things worse because fatal clusters are known to have been formed in detention centres. The criminalisation of immigration is at the root of this problem.

    What are the demands of refugee communities towards the Malaysian government and the international community?

    We would like the Malaysian government to raise public awareness on the status of refugees as refugees, rather than as illegal immigrants, ‘risk’ groups or criminals. There has been a negative perception of refugees as only benefiting from society and not contributing to it, which is false.

    In reality, we want to contribute to Malaysia in every way that we can. We urge the Malaysian government to give refugees legal access to work and to acknowledge their legal status. We are currently unable to find formal work, and lack of recognition exposes us to exploitation. We hope the government will raise awareness of the true reasons why refugees are here.

    I hope that the government can work hand in hand with the UNHCR and civil society to settle refugee issues in more appropriate and effective ways and not deport any Myanmar detainees back to Myanmar, which is currently under a military regime. Instead, we should find solutions such as a resettlement programme. There should also be clear policies and information on vaccines accessible to all refugees.

    Civic space inMalaysiais rated as ‘obstructedby theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘We need global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights’

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.

    Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.

    The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.

    Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?

    In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.

    At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.

    We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.

    As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.

    Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?

    The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.

    There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.

    So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.

    Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.

    There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.

    There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.

    Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.

    Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.

    How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?

    Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.

    The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.

    When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.

    How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?

    After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.

    We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.

    How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?

    In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.

    LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?

    We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.

    Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.

    Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Justice for Sisters through itswebsite andFacebook page, orfollow@justice_sisters on Twitter.

     

  • Malaysia: A year after elections, fundamental freedoms still restricted

     

    A year after the electoral victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, authorities have failed to reform repressive legislation or expand civic space, and continue to restrict fundamental freedoms and silence dissent, a new briefing from ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS said today.

    The briefing, New Government, Old Tactics: Lack of progress on reform commitments undermines fundamental freedoms and democracy in Malaysia”, concludes that, despite some encouraging early steps by Malaysia’s new political leaders, broader reform processes to protect human rights have ground to a halt. The Pakatan Harapan coalition has not followed through on commitments in its campaign manifesto to reform repressive legislation, including the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. Instead, authorities have used these laws to harass and prosecute activists, government critics and others exercising fundamental freedoms.

    “The Pakatan Harapan government came to power on the back of promises to reform repressive laws and open up public spaces that have long been restricted by the previous regime. Instead, authorities have used the same old laws to silence critics, stifle unpopular opinions and control public discourse. These retrogressive tactics blemish the supposed reformist credentials of Malaysia’s new leaders, and impede the democratic transition that they promised to bring about,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer.

    While welcoming steps to establish a self-governing media council, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS are concerned about that the lack of progress in reforming restrictive laws that impede press freedom and the ability of journalists to report without fear of judicial harassment and criminal penalties. Further, there has been a lack of transparency in legislative and institutional reform processes, with limited opportunities for meaningful participation by civil society and other stakeholders. The decision by authorities to place the report of the Institutional Reform Committee under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), preventing its release to the public, underscores these concerns.  

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS’s review of the government’s record during its first year in office reveals continued restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. Those involved in peaceful protests, including students, women’s rights activists and indigenous activists have been arbitrarily detained, threatened or investigated, while the Peaceful Assembly Act has yet to be amended in line with international law and standards. Further, the government has failed to follow through on manifesto promises to create an enabling environment for civil society and to review laws and policies that restrict the registration and operations of NGOs.

    “The government must halt the judicial harassment of demonstrators for exercising their right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and instruct police officers that it is their duty to facilitate peaceful assemblies, rather than hinder them,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher. “Immediate steps must also be taken to review the Societies Act to guarantee that undue restrictions on the freedom of association are removed,” Benedict added. 

    The Pakatan Harapan government faces tremendous challenges in dismantling the repressive legal and institutional framework built during 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS understand that opposition forces are determined to undermine progressive reforms in Malaysia. Nevertheless, we urge the government to follow through on its promises and undertake a comprehensive, transparent and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. Failure to act with urgency, resolve and principle in this regard will lead to the entrenchment of restrictions on civic space and call into the question the government’s commitments to fundamental freedoms.

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Malaysia as ‘Obstructed

     

  • Malaysia: Acquittal of individuals charged for sedition a positive move for free speech

    • A Malaysian court has acquitted three government critics charged under the draconian Sedition Act
    • A renown political cartoonist, a human rights lawyer and a parliamentarian were on trial for criticism of the government and judiciary’s political-motivated prosecution of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim
    • CIVICUS calls for sedition charges against others for their activism, to be dropped
    • The government must also repeal the Sedition Act ahead of the UN human rights review in November

       

    • Malaysia: Adoption of Universal Periodic Review Report

       

      UN Human Rights Council – 40th Session
      15 March 2019
      Oral Statement

      Pusat Komas and CIVICUS welcome the government of Malaysia’s engagement with the UPR process.

      While we welcome the commitments of the Malaysian government to ratify all core UN human rights treaties during the UPR review, we regret the decision of the government in November 2018 not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We are concerned by the lack of a clear timetable to ratify the other core treaties.

      We note commitments made during the UPR review to repeal the draconian Sedition Act and other laws that restrict fundamental freedoms. However, since the review we regret that a moratorium on the use of these laws has been lifted and there have been arrests of individuals under the Sedition Act for exercising their right to expression. We are also concerned that the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act have been used by the police to interrogate human rights defenders, including human rights lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Sevan Doraisamy, the director of rights group SUARAM, simply for expressing their opinions. The government has also failed to denounce racism and bigotry by opposition political leaders.

      We note that recommendations were made to respect freedom of assembly, including to review the Peaceful Assembly Act which contains provisions inconsistent with international law. However, we are concerned that activists continue to face arrests for their involvement in demonstrations. Student activists Asheeq Ali and Siti Nurizzah were arrested for a peaceful sit-in at the Ministry of Education in September 2018.

      Mr President, we call on Malaysia to implement the recommendations it accepted on protecting fundamental freedoms and immediately review or repeal all restrictive laws that undermine civic space, immediately halt their use against government critics, and to create an enabling environment for CSOs and human rights defenders.


      Civic space in Malaysia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

      See our joint submission on Malaysia for the UN Universal Periodic Review 

       

    • Malaysia: Authorities reverting to repressive tactics of former governments to throttle expression online

       

    • Malaysia: Drop contempt proceedings against online news outlet Malaysiakini

      Joint statement by Article 19 and CIVICUS

       

    • Malaysia: End harassment and intimidation of media workers and critics

      Joint Statement with Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists

      The Malaysian authorities must immediately put an end to their increasing attacks on freedom of expression, especially the media, international non-governmental organisations Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said today. Laws incompatible with international human rights law and standards, including the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998, are being used to limit free speech and press freedom and should be repealed by the legislature.

      In the latest move in the ongoing clampdown on criticism and other expression, authorities have targeted those involved in making the documentary “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown,” by news broadcaster Al Jazeera and its 101 East series – which reported on the authorities’ arrests of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Al-Jazeera is being investigated for sedition and defamation, and has also been accused of breaching the Communications and Multimedia Act by the Malaysian authorities.

      On 3 July 2020, Al Jazeera on its 101 East Stream published a documentary that investigated the arrests, detention, and ill-treatment of refugees and undocumented migrant workers during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Malaysia. The documentary highlighted raids conducted by authorities; the inhumane conditions of detention; and the situation of migrant workers who fear arrest. Those detained were found to be held in cramped facilities, while migrant workers at risk of detention suffered from a severe lack of adequate food. The documentary also highlighted the chilling effect the government crackdown has had on the migrant worker community, who fear for their lives and safety.

      Rather than addressing the concerns raised in the documentary, the government has instead sought to question the reporters involved, and pursue migrant workers who spoke with Al Jazeera. By initiating a public campaign against migrants and refugees and publishing personal details of the migrant workers who were featured in the report, the authorities have also placed the lives and safety of those interviewed in jeopardy.

      The government’s subsequent threats to revoke the visas of foreign workers appears intended to intimidate other migrant workers from speaking up about human rights violations, including mistreatment. These actions have contributed to a worrying rise in intolerance towards freedom of expression, including critical views.

      Amnesty International, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) consider these actions as forms of harassment and intimidation of the media, migrant workers, and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, including criticism or dissent.

      The use of the Sedition Act 1948, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, and criminal investigations against the media set a dangerous precedent and are incompatible with international law and standards. These laws place restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression that are overly broad, unnecessary and disproportionate, and inconsistent with rule of law and human rights principles.

      We reiterate their our previous calls on the Government of Malaysia to abolish both laws, which have historically been used to silence voices of those challenging government policy.

      Background

      Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year, the Malaysian government has launched a crackdown on refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers, carrying out a series of raids on settlements in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Most notably, raids were carried out as Labour Day operations on 1 May 2020, but also continued afterwards.

      In response to these raids, the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) denounced the crackdowns on migrant workers and journalists on 21 May. Migrant workers fear for their safety and there have been reports of suicide amongst them.

      Amid growing concerns about the crackdown, the government has increasingly sought to silence criticism.

      On 7 July, refugee aid worker Heidy Quah was questioned by police for posting a statement on the raids and the treatment of migrant and refugee children on social media. Her lawyer confirmed that she is being investigated under the Penal Code for criminal defamation and the Communications and Multimedia Act for the ‘improper use of network facilities or network service’.

      Since the Perikatan Nasional government assumed power, numerous investigations have been launched against individuals who have criticized government actions. Since February 2020, a journalist has been investigated by police for reporting on immigration raids; a member of parliament was investigated for criticising the May parliamentary session for not permitting debates; and a large number of ordinary Malaysians have been convicted for a variety of social media postings, including for criticising the enforcement of quarantine orders under the Movement Control Order (MCO).

      In another recent attack on media freedom, on 2 July 2020, contempt of court charges were filed against Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of online news outlet Malaysiakini, over comments that were posted by readers that were allegedly critical of the judiciary. The Federal Court will next hear the case on 13 July. If convicted, Gan faces an unlimited prison sentence or fine.


      Civic space in Malaysia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

       

    • Malaysia: Fundamental freedoms in decline under Perikatan Nasional government

      Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

      The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

      The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

      “The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

      Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

      Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

      In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

      The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

      The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

      The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

      “The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

      ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

      Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

      For further information:

      • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
      • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

      More information

      The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.

       

    • Malaysia: IPCC bill is a step backwards for police accountability

      Today, we—Amnesty International Malaysia, ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Human Rights Watch—call on Members of Parliament in Malaysia to reject the deeply flawed Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) bill and move quickly to table a bill to establish a police accountability mechanism that is truly independent and capable of ensuring adequate police oversight.

      The IPCC bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament during this Parliamentary sitting for its second reading. While there is little doubt that Malaysia desperately needs an independent oversight commission for the police, the IPCC bill, first tabled in August 2020, further weakens the already anaemic oversight mechanism currently in place and must be rejected.

      The bill fails to address widespread public concerns about police misconduct, ongoing misuse of power against government critics, and custodial deaths. If passed, the bill would not, as the government states, promote accountability, but rather shield police officers from scrutiny and independent oversight.

      Police abuse of power in Malaysia

      Malaysia has a long history of police abuse, including the excessive use of force, torture, ill-treatment, harassment, and deaths in custody. Human rights violations by police officers have been documented by both national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

      The police have also abused their power to restrict freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia. The space for peaceful protests has shrunk considerably. Police personnel continue to harass those criticising governmentofficials and have arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters under the guise of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

      The aggressive application of the Sedition Act 1948, in particular against government critics, is another abuse of police power frequently witnessed. Between January and August 2021, NGOs documented investigations under the Sedition Act being opened by police in 17 cases involving 37 individuals in total. The recent investigations of the #Lawan protest organisers under the Sedition Act are another worrying example of police overstep to the detriment of human rights.

      The Communications and Multimedia Act is also frequently used by the police to censor human rights defenders, journalists, artists, political opponents, and ordinary members of the public who have been critical of the police, government officials or Malaysian royalty, or shared opinions about issues deemed sensitive by the government, such as race and religion.

      Police misconduct and violence

      This year alone we have seen multiple alarming custodial deaths. In January, former police volunteer reservist Mohd Afis Ahmad died from blunt force trauma to the head just a day after he was arrested. In another case in April, milk trader A Ganapathy was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit upon his release following 12 days in police custody, where he later died. Autopsy results revealed he died from complications arising from injuries on his legs and shoulders, believed to have been sustained while in police custody. In May, security guard S Sivabalan died about 70 minutes after he was arrested by police, allegedly of a heart attack. Promised investigations into each of the above cases appear not to have made any progress.

      Police misconduct is not limited to deaths in custody. Allegations of corruption, abuse of power and links to criminal elements have also been raised in recent years. In March this year we were alarmed by allegations from the former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Abdul Hamid Bador that there is a movement of corrupt young police officers or ‘cartels’ within the police force whose ambition is to dominate the police force enabling them to carry out ‘dirty work’ for their own personal interests.

      The allegations from the former IGP have shocked the public and highlighted how crucial it is to establish an independent body to investigate these claims and to reform the police force. An independent and effective oversight commission is not going to solve all these problems, but it is an important first step, given the lack of accountability within the police force in Malaysia.

      Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC)

      Despite these concerns, the tabled IPCC bill is not a move towards police accountability but the opposite. The bill further weakens the limited police oversight provided by the current system under the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC). Our key concerns with the bill are as follows:

      1. No powers of search and seizure- The EAIC, for all its weaknesses, has the power to perform searches and seizures in its investigations of wrongdoing, including custodial deaths. The IPCC does not and as such would weaken the ability to conduct meaningful and effective investigations into police misconduct.
      1. Limited powers to compel documents and no provisions for hearingsUnder the IPCC, documents or evidence can be withheld if deemed ‘prejudicial to national security or national interest,’ a vaguely defined clause that is open to abuse. Unlike the EAIC, the IPCC does not provide for a hearing. Hearings would allow commissioners to fully explore and examine complaints, ensure greater transparency to victims of abuses and their families, and inform the public and decision makers around police procedures and policies.
      1. Prior notice requirement for site visits- The IPCC commissioners cannot visit police premises, lockups, or places of detention without prior notice to the head of department. Experience from the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) shows that authorities may treat early notice requirements as permission requirements, diluting the power of site visits.
      1. Limited investigation power - Even if the IPCC commissioners are able to successfully carry out investigations despite the above limitations, its powers are limited to making recommendations to a relevant body such as the Police Force Commission, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission or other relevant authorities. Given how recommendations by bodies such as the EAIC and SUHAKAM have been consistently ignored, it is not unreasonable to expect the IPCC will face the same blue brick wall. The IPCC is also exempt from investigating any act provided for in the Inspector-General Standing Orders (IGSO) (Sections 96 and 97 of the Police Act 1967). The standing orders generally govern issues such as the conduct of arrests, the treatment of detainees, and on matters related to permissible use of weapons, amongst others.
      1. Appointment process lacks independence and is unclear- Under the IPCC, as with the EAIC, members of the Commission will be appointed and dismissed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister, calling into question the independence of the body. Moreover, appointed members may themselves be police officers. The Chief Executive Officer of the Commission is appointed by the Minister of Home Affairs, which further undermines the principle of independence and impartiality.

      The need for an independent police oversight body

      The idea of an independent police oversight body was first proposed in 2005, as part of 125 recommendations made by the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police. The commission was composed of prominent public figures, including a former IGP. The police force also made its submissions as did the Retired Senior Police Officers' Association of Malaysia.

      A key recommendation was the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to investigate police abuses and discipline those responsible. A proposed bill was drafted as part of the report. Yet, more than 16 years later, Malaysia seems to be moving ever further away from meaningful police reform.

      Police leadership has resisted independent oversight and the IPCMC has not yet been established, despite vigorous and sustained campaigning from civil society and human rights organisations. The previous Pakatan Harapan government tabledan IPCMC bill in July 2019 although it was criticised by human rights groups for being insufficient.

      Malaysia needs an independent oversight body that is truly independent and impartial from the State and the police, to avoid a conflict of interests. To be effective, the oversight body must possess real powers and responsibilities to investigate and take concrete action against police officers responsible for serious abuses. It is long overdue for the Malaysian government to treat the matter of custodial deaths and other police misconduct with the urgency it warrants. The families of those who have died while in police detention deserve answers and justice for their loved ones. People in Malaysia need to be assured that these deaths will not continue to occur with impunity and that those who abuse their positions of power and responsibility will be held accountable.

      Therefore, we urge the government to drop the IPCC bill and instead urgently table a bill that establishes an oversight commission that is truly independent, with sufficient powers to effectively investigate and take action against police misconduct. The rule of law applies to all, even the police.

      Endorsed by

      1. Amnesty International Malaysia
      2. ARTICLE 19
      3. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
      4. Human Rights Watch

      Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

       

    • Malaysia: Migrants and refugees excluded from poverty figures and neglected by policymakers

      Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

      Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty


      Thank you, Madame President; Special Rapporteur.

      CIVICUS and North South Initiative welcome the strong report of the Special Rapporteur on his country visit to Malaysia, which highlights the plight of millions of people including migrants, refugees and stateless people who are systematically excluded from official poverty figures and neglected by policymakers.

      We share his concern that migrant workers in Malaysia are set up for exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers, a harsh immigration policy and a lack of enforcement of labour protections. Refugees and asylum seekers exist in extremely precarious conditions unable to work or enroll in government schools. Civil society groups have been calling for a single entity to manage migrant workers to ensure better protection of their rights and reduce the risks of them becoming victims of corruption. 

      CIVICUS research has shown has that migrants and refugees in Malaysia want to participate in the societies they call home. But they continue to face barriers and restrictions in exercising their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, all but ensuring ongoing perilous and precarious conditions.

      Migrant workers and refugees say that among the challenges they face in speaking out include, a lack of access to information, fear of being fired, detained or deported and harassment or intimidation. The right to assemble in the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act does not extend to foreigners including migrant workers and refugees – in contravention of international human rights law and standards. Refugee and migrant workers also face various restrictions in exercising their freedom of association.

      Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged earlier this year there has been a crackdown on migrant workers. The UN has noted increased xenophobia and hate speech against them by individuals affiliated with the government and human rights defenders have been threatened for supporting migrants. 

      We call on the government of Malaysia to immediately take steps to implement the recommendation of the special rapporteur for a comprehensive new approach to migrant and refugee policies that provides them protection, guarantees their civic freedoms and enables a route out of poverty and precarity. We also urge the government to make public the final report and recommendations by the Special Committee on Foreign Worker Management setup by the government.

       

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