Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 10:39 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Malaysia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Malaysia, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Malaysia is a federation of 13 states with a parliamentary system of government based on periodic multiparty elections. The ruling National Front Coalition has held power since 1957. There is political competition within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the major partner in the coalition, and opposition parties actively contest elections, currently controlling two state governments.

The Government justifies internal security laws allowing preventive detention (and arrests under such laws) by citing the long-defunct Communist insurgency, the need to ensure that the peace and stability of the country are protected, and concern about longstanding racial tensions and endemic narcotics trafficking problems. However, the Government also has used these laws more broadly to detain persons when available evidence is insufficient to bring formal charges under the Criminal Code, as well as to detain political opponents. The existence of these laws therefore serves to inhibit active opposition to government policies.

The Royal Malaysian Police has primary responsibility for internal security matters; it reports to the Minister of Home Affairs. Prime Minister Mahathir also holds the Home Affairs portfolio. Credible reports of mistreatment of prisoners and detainees by the police and prison officials continued in 1993. Such mistreatment was not widespread.

Rapidly expanding exports of manufactured goods, especially in the electronics sector, are a major source of the country's vibrant economic growth. Crude oil exports and traditional commodities (tropical logs, palm oil, rubber) add to Malaysia's trade revenues. Malaysia's strong economic performance in recent years has led to dramatic reductions in poverty, a rise in the standard of living, and more equal income distribution.

There is an effective system of justice based on common law principles. The Government, however, continues arbitrarily to arrest and detain citizens without trial. The Government also limits judicial independence and restricts freedom of association and of the press.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings by the Government or any other political organization.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearance attributable to the Government or any other political organization.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Credible reports of abuses by police officers interrogating criminal suspects continued during 1993, including strong psychological pressure and instances of physical abuse. In some cases, police officials have been investigated for such abuses. However, information on whether the investigations led to further action is unavailable. For example, three police officers were charged with "culpable homicide not amounting to murder" after a burglary suspect died in police custody. In another case, police set up a special team to investigate the death, apparently while in police custody, of an alleged drug addict suspected of burglary.

Malaysian criminal law prescribes caning as an additional punishment to imprisonment for those convicted of crimes such as narcotics possession. Judges routinely include caning in sentencing those convicted of such crimes as kidnaping, rape, and robbery. The caning, which is normally carried out with a 1/2-inch thick wooden cane, commonly causes welts and scarring.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Three laws permit the Government to detain suspects without judicial review or filing formal charges: the 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA), the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance of 1969, and the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1985. The Government continued to use long-term detentions without trial in cases alleged to involve national security, as well as in narcotics trafficking and other cases. According to the Home Affairs Ministry, as of July, there were 1,947 people in Malaysia being detained without trial; most of those detainees are being held under the Dangerous Drugs Act.

Passed more than 30 years ago when there was an active Communist insurgency, the ISA empowers the police to hold any person who may act "in a manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia" for up to 60 days. According to the Government, the goal of the ISA is to control internal subversion, although there is now no serious threat to national stability in Malaysia. The Government also uses the ISA against passport and identity card forgers, 37 of whom were being held as of July 21. Security authorities sometimes wait several days after a detention before informing the detainee's family. The Minister of Home Affairs may authorize, in writing, further detention for periods up to 2 years. Even when there are no formal charges, the authorities must inform detainees of the accusations against them and permit them to appeal to an advisory board for review every 6 months. Advisory board decisions and recommendations, however, are not binding on the Home Minister, are not made public, and are often not shown to the detainee. A number of ISA detainees have refused to participate in the review process under these circumstances.

In response to a question from an opposition Member of Parliament (M.P.), the Home Ministry reported in December that there were 51 ISA detainees at that time, down from 128 as of December 1992. Approximately 27 former detainees have been released subject to "imposed restricted conditions," which will be in effect for the balance of their detention periods. Most of these ISA detainees were released subject to conditions limiting their rights to freedom of speech, association, and travel outside the country.

During 1990 and 1991 the Government detained under the ISA seven Malaysians from the east Malaysian state of Sabah, including the brother of the chief minister, for alleged involvement in a secessionist plot. The Government released one detainee in March 1991 upon expiration of the intitial order. The remaining six were released in 1993 when their detention orders were suspended. There are conditions attached to their freedom, however.

Amendments to the ISA severely limit judicial review of detentions, contravening international standards of due process. During 1993 opposition leaders and human rights organizations called on the Government to repeal the ISA and other legislation that deprives individuals of the right to defend themselves in court. Senior government officials explain that the ISA in its present form continues to be necessary to preserve peace and harmony in a multiracial society. The Government did not detain anyone in 1993 for political activities. However, the threat of detention remains and serves to constrain participation in political activities.

The Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance was instituted after intercommunal riots in 1969. Although Parliament regained its legislative power in 1971, the state of emergency declared at the time of the riots has never been lifted. The Home Affairs Minister can issue a detention order for up to 2 years against a person if he deems it necessary to protect public order or for the "suppression of violence or the prevention of crimes involving violence." According to figures released by the Home Ministry, as of July 21, 93 people were in detention under the Emergency Ordinance, down from 114 people in 1992.

Drug suspects are detained under provisions of the 1985 amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, which give the Government specific power to detain suspected drug traffickers. Many of these detainees are suspected members of organized crime gangs or secret societies. The suspects may be held up to 39 days before the Home Minister must issue a detention order. Once the ministry has issued an order, the detainee is entitled to a habeas corpus hearing before a court. In some instances, the judge may order the detainee's release. Suspects may be held without charge for successive 2-year intervals, with periodic review by an advisory board, whose opinion is binding on the Home Minister. However, the review process contains none of the due process rights that a defendant would have in a court proceeding. As of July 21, approximately 1,750 drug suspects remained under detention or under restrictions equivalent to house arrest under this statute. Suspected narcotics traffickers and firearms offenders are frequently rearrested under the preventive measures clauses of the Dangerous Drugs Act or the ISA after an acquittal in court on formal charges under separate provisions of those acts.

A 1989 peace agreement allows members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to return to Malaysia. According to the Government, the agreement stipulates that they satisfy certain conditions, including taking a loyalty oath "to king and country" and renouncing the CPM in writing. Since 1989 at least 608 former CPM members have applied for return to Malaysia under the agreement. Sixty-six subsequently withdrew their applications because they objected to the conditions on their repatriation imposed by the Government. The Government has rejected an unknown number of applications by former CPM members to return to Malaysia. Since December 1989, 338 former Communists and 50 dependents have been "rehabilitated" by the Malaysian security authorities and resettled in Malaysia. A credible report indicates that this rehabilitation consists of detention without trial under the ISA at the Kamunting detention center in Perak state. In addition, rehabilitated former CPM members who have reintegrated into Malaysian society are subject to being restricted to certain areas where security authorities watch them carefully for up to 6 years. These rehabilitated persons cannot resume full participation in Malaysia's political life until this period of surveillance demonstrates that they have abandoned their former ideology.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Most civil and criminal cases are fair and open. The accused must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and charges must be levied within 14 days. Defendants have the right to counsel, bail is available, and strict rules of evidence apply in court. Defendants may appeal court decisions to higher courts and, in criminal cases, may also appeal for clemency to the King or local state rulers as appropriate. Criminal trials are heard by a single judge without a jury, except in murder trials where juries are the norm. The defense in both ordinary criminal cases and the special security cases described above is not entitled to a statement of evidence before the trial.

The right to a fair trial is restricted in criminal cases where the Attorney General invokes the Essential (Security Cases) Regulations of 1975. These regulations governing trial procedure normally apply only in firearms cases. In cases tried under these regulations, the standards for accepting self-incriminating statements by defendants as evidence are less stringent than in normal criminal cases. Also, the authorities may hold the accused for an unspecified period of time before making formal charges. The Attorney General also has the authority to invoke these regulations in other criminal cases if the Government determines that the crime involves national security considerations, but such cases are rare.

The public and the legal community have long regarded the Malaysian judiciary as committed to the rule of law. The judicial system traditionally exhibited a high degree of independence, seldom hesitating to rule against the Government in criminal, civil, or occasionally even politically sensitive cases. For example, the High Court ruled in February 1988 that the dominant party in the Government coalition was illegally constituted. However, the Government's dismissal of the Supreme Court Lord President and two other justices in 1988, along with a Constitutional amendment and legislation restricting judicial review, resulted in less judicial independence and stronger executive influence over the judiciary in politically sensitive cases. These developments created the possibility that Malaysians who might otherwise seek legal remedies against government actions would be reluctant to do so. The 1988 changes have also resulted in less willingness by the courts to challenge the Government's legal interpretations in politically sensitive cases.

The Government, following criticism of some of its policies by the Malaysian Bar Council, attempted to gain greater control over the Council in 1991 and early 1992. Although there was concern that the Bar Council's freedom of expression and independence were being threatened, government criticism of the Bar Council has since ebbed.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

These rights are normally respected and protected by law. Provisions in the security legislation (see Section 1.d.), however, allow the police to enter and search without a warrant the homes of persons suspected of threatening national security. Police may also confiscate evidence under these acts. In a limited number of cases each year, police have used this legal authority to search homes and offices, seize books and papers, monitor conversations, and take people into custody without a warrant.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, some important limitations exist, and over the years the Government has restricted freedom of expression of media organizations and individuals. For example, the Constitution provides that freedom of speech may be restricted by legislation "in the interest of security...(or) public order." Thus, the Sedition Act amendments of 1970 prohibit public comment on issues defined as sensitive, such as citizenship rights for non-Malays and the special position of Malays in society. The Government has not brought charges under the Sedition Act since 1986, when a trial court acquitted a former president of the Bar Council.

Press freedom is subject to important limitations in the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, under which domestic and foreign publications must apply annually to the Government for a permit. The act was amended in 1987 to make the publication of "malicious news" a punishable offense, expand the Government's power to ban or restrict publications, and prohibit court challenges to suspension or revocation of publication permits. Government policies create a chilling atmosphere for independent journalism and result in self-censorship of issues the Government might consider sensitive.

In practice, press freedom is also limited by the fact that leading political figures or companies controlled by the leading political figures in the ruling coalition own all the major newspapers and all radio and television stations. These mass media provide generally laudatory, noncritical coverage of government officials and government policies, and give only limited and selective coverage to political views of the opposition or political rivals. Editorial opinion in these mass media frequently reflects government positions on domestic and international issues. Because they can be read only by a minority of Malaysians (chiefly ethnic Chinese), Chinese-language newspapers are generally more free in reporting and commenting on sensitive political and social issues.

Despite strong political influence on the editorial decisions of major publications, small-circulation publications of opposition parties, social action groups, unions, and other private groups actively cover opposition parties and frequently print views critical of government policies. The Government does retain significant influence over these publications by requiring annual renewal of publishing permits. During 1992 the Government acted to revoke the permits of at least two newspapers. In one case, credible allegations suggest that the Government revoked the newspaper's permit because it printed articles critical of the Prime Minister and government policies. In the other case, a tabloid weekly's permit was revoked evidently for publishing embarrassing gossip about members of several of Malaysia's royal families. The Government continued to withhold a publishing permit for those papers in 1993. In addition, a newspaper editor in the east Malaysian state of Sabah was charged in 1992 with printing "malicious news" about an alleged ISA detention of a Roman Catholic clergyman. The editor challenged the charges on constitutional grounds. In August the Supreme Court ruled that the Printing Presses and Publications Act is valid although it imposes restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression conferred by the Constitution. The Supreme Court decided that in this case Parliament could impose such restrictions under another constitutional clause that permits certain restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression. The editor still faces trial.

Since 1991 the Government has warned two newspapers published by opposition parties that the terms of their licenses limited distribution to party members only. A legal challenge to quash enforcement of the license limitation failed, resulting in limiting circulation of these publications during 1992 and 1993. In 1993 the Home Affairs Ministry sent a final warning to one opposition party regarding the distribution and sales to the public of its paper, informing the permit holder that the Ministry would take stern action for any future violation of the rules. The paper has since disappeared from newsstands.

In June 1990, Parliament enacted legislation making the Government-controlled Malaysian News Agency (BERNAMA) the sole distributor of foreign news in Malaysia, formalizing previous practice. The parliamentary opposition opposed the bill, arguing that it would increase government control over foreign news. Although the Government has not to date used this law to restrict foreign news coverage or availability, in the past the Government has banned under separate legislation individual editions of foreign publications. In 1993 the Government censored portions of photographs and a text in issues of foreign news magazines.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, but there are significant restrictions. These rights can be limited in the interest of security and public order, and the 1967 Police Act requires police permits for all public assemblies with the exception of workers on picket lines. Spontaneous demonstrations occur periodically without permission, but they are limited in scope and generally occur with the tacit consent of the police. In the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, groups of indigenous people have held peaceful demonstrations to protest government policies and actions.

In the aftermath of the intercommunal riots in 1969, the Government banned political rallies. While the formal ban has not been rescinded, both government and opposition parties have held large indoor political gatherings dubbed "discussion sessions." Government and opposition candidates campaign actively. There are, however, some restrictions on freedom of assembly during campaigns. During the actual campaign period, political parties submit lists of times and places for their "discussion groups." Although theoretically no police permit is required, some opposition discussion group meetings in past campaigns have been canceled for lack of a police permit. Outside of the campaign period, a permit is required, with most applications routinely approved.

Other statutes limit the right of association, such as the Societies Act of 1966, under which any association of seven or more members must register with the Government as a society. The Government may refuse to register a new society or may impose conditions when allowing a society to register. The Government also has the power to revoke the registration of an existing society for violations of the act, a power it has selectively enforced against political opposition groups. In 1993 the Registrar of Societies deregistered a political party of long standing in the east Malaysian state of Sabah when it formed a coalition with the ruling opposition party, and threatened to do the same to the national opposition party Semangat '46 if it continued to claim that it was the legitimate successor to the original UMNO party. The threat of possible deregistration inhibits political activism by public or special interest organizations. Another law affecting freedom of association is the Universities and University Colleges Act; it mandates government approval for student associations and prohibits student associations, as well as faculty members, from engaging in political activity. Campus demonstrations must be approved by a university vice chancellor.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the official religion. Religious minorities, which include large Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Christian communities, generally are permitted to worship freely but are subject to some restrictions. Ethnic Malays are legally bound in some civil matters, such as family relations and diet, by Islamic religious laws administered by state authorities through Islamic courts. An Islamic religious establishment is supported with government funds, and it is official policy to "infuse Islamic values" into the administration of Malaysia. At the same time, the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government has refused to accede to pressures for the imposition of Islamic religious law beyond the Muslim community.

The Government opposes what it considers extremist or deviant interpretations of Islam. In the past the Government has imposed restrictions on certain Islamic sects. It continues to monitor activities of the Shi'ite minority.

There are persistent allegations that some state governments are slow in approving building permits for non-Muslim places of worship. In one instance, a municipal council had approved the construction of a Catholic church headquarters. In August 1993, after a public outcry by the predominantly Muslim local community, the state government rescinded its approval. The Government has limited the circulation of a popular Malay-language translation of the Bible, and some states restrict the use of religious terms by Christians in the Malay language.

Conversion to religions other than Islam is permitted but discouraged. Proselytizing of Muslims has long been proscribed by law in some states and strongly discouraged in other parts of the country. In a March 1990 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the primacy of the Constitution over inconsistent state laws by ruling that parents have the right to determine the religion of their minor children under the age of 18. The decision eased fears of the non-Muslim community over state laws that in religious conversion cases set the age of majority at puberty based on Islamic law.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Malaysians generally have the right to travel within the country and live and work where they please, but the Government restricts these rights in some circumstances. The states of Sabah and Sarawak have the independent right to control immigration into their territories; Malaysians from peninsular west Malaysia and foreigners are required to present passports for entry. The power to regulate internal movement is exercised for provisionally released ISA detainees. The Government limits the movement of some released ISA detainees to a designated city or state. As of December 1993, approximately 27 former ISA detainees were under "imposed restricted conditions," which will last for the remainder of their detention periods.

Malaysians generally are free to travel abroad, although in some cases the Government has refused to issue or has withheld passports on security grounds or in the belief that the trip will be detrimental to the country's image. Most government action is taken because of drug trafficking offenses or involvement in serious crimes. In July, immigration authorities withdrew the passport of a lawyer and poet allegedly to prevent him from reading his poems, which supported antilogging activities. Immigration authorities returned his passport in late August. The Immigration Department in the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, on instructions from the Home Ministry, in August confiscated the passport of a Sarawak native who was on his way to an international conference of indigenous peoples. Two other Sarawak natives who planned to attend conferences had their passports confiscated in 1992; government authorities still have not returned their passports. In 1992 the Government began confiscating the passports of returning Malaysians who had overstayed their visitors' visas when abroad, on the grounds that violating the immigration laws of foreign countries is an embarrassment to Malaysia. Malaysians are not permitted to travel to Israel. Former restrictions on travel to South Africa and to several Communist countries, including China, were eliminated in 1990 and 1991. Generally, the Government does not restrict emigration.

There are estimates of up to 1 million foreign workers in Malaysia, many "illegals," who work in low-skill jobs in the plantation and construction sectors of the economy. Although some illegal workers ultimately are able to regularize their immigration status, others depart voluntarily after a few months, while some are formally deported as illegal migrants. In 1992 the Government conducted a registration program designed to regularize the immigration status of illegal workers. After the registration program ended, however, the Government launched combined police and military operations to enforce immigration and passport laws. According to government officials, by April 1993, 50,000 illegal immigrants had returned voluntarily to their countries of origin, while 40,000 others had been arrested and repatriated. In 1993 at least 3,000 people deemed to be illegal foreign workers were detained. There have been some credible reports of inadequate rations in the temporary camps. In 1991 and 1992, separate groups of asylum seekers from the Indonesian province of Aceh (totaling approximately 300) arrived in northwestern Malaysia, allegedly fleeing violence stemming from a separatist rebellion in Indonesia. These asylum seekers requested refugee status. Despite expressions of concern by local and international human rights organizations and foreign governments, the Government denied their requests, ruling that the asylum seekers were "illegal immigrants" subject to deportation. According to government sources, approximately 163 Acehnese asylum seekers had returned home voluntarily as of June 1993. The Government is holding 131 Acehnese in immigration detention facilities.

Although there are credible reports of mistreatment of the Acehnese detainees, the Government has denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others access to visit the immigration detention sites. Government officials continued to stress during 1993 that Malaysia would not force Acehnese asylum seekers to return against their will but would encourage them to repatriate voluntarily. In June 1992, a group of 48 asylum seekers claiming to be Acehnese took refuge in the compound outside the UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur, demanding refugee status; 45 still live there. While it regards this group as illegal immigrants, the Government declared its readiness to assist in their repatriation to Indonesia if they wish to return and said the Indonesian Government had provided assurances that the group would face no government oppression if they chose to return home. Members of the group living in the UNHCR compound come and go freely.

Having provided first asylum to more than 254,000 Vietnamese boat refugees since 1975, the Government began to deny first asylum to virtually all arriving Vietnamese in May 1989, in contravention of its commitments under the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) on Indochinese refugees adopted in 1989. Since May 1989, Malaysia denied first asylum to 10,495, of which all but 145 arrived in 1989-90. Credible reports indicate that Malaysian authorities put back to sea a vessel bearing 23 Vietnamese asylum seekers in May 1993. Historically, Malaysian authorities allow Vietnamese boats to land and normally hold asylum seekers in temporary camps closed to observers. The Government provides life jackets, boats, and essential supplies to asylum seekers put back to sea. Interviews with asylum seekers indicate that the Government takes positive steps to safeguard the lives and welfare of those denied first asylum and disciplines personnel involved in abusive behavior. Recently, however, there are indications that Malaysia has ceased its policy of redirecting boats.

In accordance with the CPA, Malaysia continued to screen Vietnamese boat people in its first-asylum camps. Malaysian military officers do the screening, with legal consultants from the UNHCR present during each interview. As of December 1993, about 7,500 Vietnamese remained in camps in Malaysia. The Government has reiterated that it will not forcibly return screened-out asylum seekers but will continue to urge voluntary repatriation.

The Malaysian screeners and UNHCR consultants make every effort to develop the asylum seekers' claims to refugee status. The Government discusses all disputed cases with the UNHCR before announcing a decision. An administrative appeal is available to denied cases. UNHCR officials have praised the Government's treatment of Vietnamese asylum seekers in Malaysia under provisions of the CPA.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

By law Malaysians have the right to change their government through periodic elections. Malaysian elections are procedurally free and fair, with votes recorded accurately. However, electoral irregularities detract from the overall fairness of the electoral process. Legal restrictions on campaigning and government influence over the media contribute to UMNO's continuing political dominance. Malaysia has a Westminster-style parliamentary system of government. National elections, required at least every 5 years, have been held regularly since independence in 1957. Through UMNO, Malays dominate the ruling national front coalition of ethnic-based parties that has controlled Parliament since independence. Within UMNO there is active political debate.

Non-Malays fill 8 of the 25 cabinet posts. The government coalition currently controls 11 of 13 states. Ethnic Chinese leaders of a member party of the government coalition hold executive power in the state of Penang. In opposition-ruled Sabah the party in power is controlled by Sabah's predominant indigenous ethnic group and headed by a Christian. An Islamic opposition party controls the northern state of Kelantan.

Women face no legal limits on participation in government and politics, but there are practical impediments. Women are represented in senior leadership positions in the Government in small numbers. Women comprise approximately 6 percent (holding 11 seats out of 180) in the elected lower house of Parliament and approximately 19 percent (holding 13 seats out of 68) of the appointed upper house. They also hold high-level judgeships.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

After a 2-year struggle for registration, the National Human Rights Association, a local human rights society of prominent Malaysians, began operating in 1991. This association publicly criticizes the Government, although it does not investigate the Government except in response to individual complaints. Currently, it is pushing hard against the ISA and it is also reviewing Kelantan's efforts to impose Islamic restrictions in that state. A number of other organizations, including the Bar Council and public interest groups, devote attention to human rights activities. The Government tolerates their activities but rarely responds to their inquiries or occasional press statements. Malaysian officials criticize local groups for collaborating with international human rights organizations, representatives of which have visited and traveled in Malaysia but rarely are given access to government officials. In 1992 a group seeking to form a local chapter of a prominent international human rights organization appealed a government rejection of their application under the Societies Act. In 1993 the Government rejected the appeal.

The Government has not acceded to any of the major international covenants on human rights, generally maintaining that such issues are internal matters. It rejects criticism of its human rights record by international human rights organizations and foreign governments. However, during 1992 and 1993 the Prime Minister and other Cabinet officials were vocal advocates of human rights with respect to Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the plight of the Rohingyas in Burma.

Foreign government officials have discussed human rights with their Malaysian counterparts, and private groups occasionally have done so.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


The cultural and religious traditions of Malaysia's major ethnic groups heavily influence the condition of women in Malaysian society. In family and religious matters, Muslim women are subject to Islamic law. Polygyny is allowed and practiced, and inheritance law favors male offspring and relatives. Some Malay families practice a modified form of female genital mutilation (circumcision) involving the removal of a small piece of the prepuce. The Government has not commented publicly on this practice. The Islamic family law was revised in 1989 to provide better protection for the property rights of married Muslim women and to make more equitable a Muslim woman's right to divorce.

Non-Muslim women are subject to civil law. Changes in the Civil Marriage and Divorce Act in the early 1980's increased protection of married women's rights, especially those married under customary rites.

Many government-sanctioned nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) push for legislative and social reforms to improve the status of women in Malaysia. Statistics on domestic violence in Malaysia are sketchy, but both the Government and women's organizations agree that the problem is growing. With no specific laws in force on domestic violence, cases of wife beating or child abuse normally are tried under provisions of the Penal Code governing assault and battery, which carry penalties of 3 months to 1 year in prison and fines up to $750. Women's groups have collaborated in lobbying for a domestic violence bill since 1985 but have had no success to date. Women's issues were the subject of a number of public seminars and media specials in the government-dominated media during 1993.

There are no national laws or regulations restricting the economic rights of women. Government policy supports women's full and equal participation in education and the work force. Women are represented in the professions, although their participation as of 1990 in the administrative and managerial occupations was less than 1 percent, and they generally receive lower wages. In the opposition-controlled state of Kelantan, the state government has imposed restrictions on all female workers, including non-Muslims. Female workers cannot work at night and are restricted in the dress they must wear in the workplace. The state government justifies these restrictions as reflecting Islamic values. Given Malaysia's federal structure of government, there are no legal means by which the central Government can overturn such state laws.


The Government is committed to children's human rights and welfare; it spends 23 percent of its current budget on education. According to statistics publicized by the National Unity and Social Development Ministry, there were 588 cases of child abuse from January to October 1993. The Government has taken some steps to deal with abuse directed against children. Parliament passed the Children's Protection Act in 1991 which went into force in 1993 after the Attorney General prepared implementing regulations. Since 1992 public attention and debate on child abuse have increased significantly. In 1993 Malaysian news media featured regular reports, commentary, and graphic public service announcements on these social problems, and public symposia sponsored by social and political organizations discussed their policy implications.

Statistics on the extent of child prostitution are not available. The Health Ministry announced that it would work closely with the police to stamp out child prostitution. Although there are no official statistics about child labor, the Government has regulations governing child labor (see Section 6 Worker Rights).

Indigenous People

In theory indigenous groups and persons are accorded the same

Constitutional protection of their civil and political rights, along with the same limitations. In practice, federal laws pertaining to indigenous people vest almost total power in the Minister of Rural Development to protect, control, and otherwise decide issues concerning indigenous people. Decisions affecting land rights of the indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia are left to the state governments. In east Malaysia, although state law recognizes indigenous people's right to land under "native customary rights," the definition and extent of these lands are in dispute. Indigenous people in the state of Sarawak continue to protest the alleged encroachment by the state or private logging companies onto land that they consider customary territory. In 1992 the Government arrested 95 indigenous people in Sarawak who protested these alleged encroachments. The protests and arrests continued in 1993. According to government figures, the indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia, who number fewer than 100,000, are the poorest group in Malaysia.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic minorities are represented in cabinet-level positions in government, as well as in senior civil service positions. Nevertheless, the political dominance of the Malay majority means in practice that the most powerful senior leadership positions in government will be held by ethnic Malays.

The Government implements extensive "affirmative action" programs designed to boost the economic position of the ethnic Malay majority, which remains poorer, on average, than the Chinese minority despite the former's political dominance. Such government affirmative action programs and policies do, however, limit opportunities for non-Malays in higher education, government employment, business permits and licenses, and ownership of newly developed agricultural lands. Indian Malaysians continue to lag behind in Malaysia's economic development, although the national economic policies target less advantaged populations regardless of ethnicity. These programs, which have operated since the 1969 riots, are widely credited with helping assure the generally strife-free ethnic balance.

People with Disabilities

While physically disabled persons are not subject to legal discrimination in employment, education, and provision of other state services, governmental budgetary allotments for people with disabilities are very small. Public transportation is not adapted to the needs of the disabled. Special education schools exist, but they are not sufficient to meet needs. Disabled persons work in all sectors of the economy, but the prevalent feeling in society remains that disabled people cannot work. A campaign through the government-

dominated Malaysian news media encouraged businesses and private individuals to increase their understanding and volunteer activities to assist disabled people. The Government allocates money for the administrative expenses of rehabilitation centers for the handicapped across Malaysia. The Government has not mandated accessibility for the disabled, either legislatively or otherwise.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

By law workers have the right to engage in trade union activity, and tens of thousands of workers in both the public and private sector are members of trade unions, including at least 14 national unions. Within certain limitations, unions may organize workplaces, bargain collectively with employers, and form federations.

The Industrial Relations Act prohibits interfering with, restraining, or coercing a worker in the exercise of the right to form trade unions or in participating in lawful trade union activities. The Trade Unions Act, administered by the Director General of Trade Unions (DGTU), sets rules for the organization of unions, recognition of unions in the workplace, the content of union constitutions, election of officers, and financial reporting. The act's definition of a trade union, however, restricts a union to representing workers in a "particular establishment, trade, occupation, or industry or within any similar trades, occupations, or industries," contrary to International Labor Organization (ILO) guidelines.

The DGTU may refuse to register a trade union and, in some circumstances, may also withdraw the registration of a trade union. When registration has been refused, withdrawn, or canceled, a trade union is considered an unlawful association. Nationwide congresses of trade unions from different industries are required by law to register as societies under the Societies Act rather than as trade unions under the Trade Unions Act. During 1993, acting on complaints by private parties alleging electoral and constitutional irregularities, the Registrar of Societies required both major trade union congresses, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) and the Malaysian Labor Organization (MLO), to show cause why they should not be deregistered. In their answers, both groups admitted not having followed their own constitutional procedures and agreed to correct the irregularities. Having done so, both bodies retained their registrations.

Government policy discourages the formation of national unions. The Government posits a social compact where in each sector, government, employer, and worker are part of an overall effort to create jobs, train workers, boost productivity and profitability, and ultimately provide the resources necessary to fund human resource development and a national social safety net. The Government has used its power to prevent the Electrical Industry Workers Union, an MTUC affiliate, from organizing national unions in the American and Japanese dominated electronics industry on the grounds that electrical industry workers and electronics industry workers are not "similar" as required by the Trade Union Act. The Government permits only "in-house unions" in the electronics industry. At year's end, there were six such unions registered in the electronics industry, of which four were recognized by the companies involved, and two had collective bargaining agreements negotiated with their employers. All members of one of these unions were dismissed in 1990 following reorganization of its American-owned company's structure. The union charged the company with union-busting and wrongful dismissal. The case was filed in September 1990; an appeal from an Industrial Court decision is pending in the High Court. Malaysia's restrictions on freedom of association in the electronics industry have been the subject of complaints in the ILO.

Unions maintain independence both from the Government and from the political parties, but individual union members may belong to political parties. Although union officers are forbidden to hold principal offices in political parties, individual trade union leaders have served and currently serve in Parliament as opposition politicians. Malaysian trade unions are free to associate with international labor bodies and actively do so. Although strikes are legal, the right to strike is severely restricted in practice. Malaysian law contains a list of "essential services" in which unions must give advance notice of any industrial action. The list includes sectors not normally deemed "essential" under ILO definitions. The Industrial Relations Act of 1967 requires the parties to notify the Ministry of Human Resources that a dispute exists before any industrial action (strike or lockout) may be taken. The Ministry's Industrial Relations Department may then become actively involved in conciliation efforts. If conciliation fails to achieve a settlement, the Minister has the power to refer the dispute to the Industrial Court. Strikes or lockouts are prohibited while the dispute is before the industrial court. The result, in effect, is compulsory arbitration. The Industrial Relations Act prohibits employers from taking retribution against a worker for participating in the lawful activities of a trade union. Where a strike is legal, these provisions would prohibit employer retribution against strikers and leaders. However, as there are no reports of such cases alleging employer retribution against strikers, it is impossible to assess the effectiveness of government enforcement.

By law federations of trade unions may represent only a single trade or industry or similar trades or industries. Only three national labor federations are currently registered: one for public servants, one for teachers, and one consisting of state-based textile and garment workers unions.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Malaysian workers have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively, and collective bargaining is widespread in those sectors where labor is organized. About 860,000 workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, representing 12 percent of the total work force. Designed to curb strikes, amendments in 1980 to Malaysia's Labor Law contain provisions that the MTUC believes erode the basic rights of workers, restrict union activities, and result in government and employer interference in the internal administration of unions. Despite subsequent amendments, the MTUC charges that the Labor Law does not meet ILO standards. Many union leaders also believe that the creation of the Industrial Court further weakened their collective bargaining rights. Malaysian law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers against union members and organizers. Complaints of discrimination may be filed with the Ministry of Human Resources or the Industrial Court. When conciliation efforts by the Ministry of Human Resources fail, critics note that the Industrial Court is slow in adjudicating worker complaints.

Companies in free trade zones (FTZ's) must observe labor standards identical to those elsewhere in Malaysia. Many workers at FTZ companies are organized, especially in the textile and electrical products sectors. Workers in FTZ companies in the electronics sector are limited by government policy to forming in-house unions. During 1993, amendments to the Industrial Relations Act removed previous restrictions on concluding collective agreements about terms and conditions of service in "pioneer industries." Workers in industries granted pioneer status may now conclude collective agreements on all issues permitted to workers in other industries. The Government took these measures in part to respond to ILO criticism of its previous policy with respect to pioneer industries. The ILO continues to object to other legal restrictions on collective bargaining.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

In theory, certain Malaysian laws allow the use of imprisonment with compulsory labor as a punishment for persons expressing views opposed to the established order or who participate in strikes. The Government maintains that the constitutional prohibition on forced or compulsory labor renders these laws without effect. In practice, there is no evidence that forced or compulsory labor occurs in Malaysia, for either Malaysian or foreign workers.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act of 1966 prohibits the employment of children younger than the age of 14. The act permits some exceptions, such as light work in a family enterprise, work in public entertainment, work performed for the Government in a school or training institution, or work as an approved apprentice. In no case may children work more than 6 hours per day, more than 6 days per week, or at night. Ministry of Human Resources inspectors enforce these legal provisions. However, according to credible reports, the Government still needs to take further steps to regulate child labor. There is no evidence that child labor is used in industries that export to the United States.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Malaysia lacks a national minimum wage, but the Wage Councils Act provides for a minimum wage in those sectors or regions of the country where a need exists. Under the law, workers in an industry who believe they need the protection of a minimum wage may request that a "wage council" be established. About 140,000 workers, or 2 percent of the over 7 million-member labor force, are covered by minimum wages set by wage councils. Representatives from labor, management and government sit on the wage councils. Not having been revised for many years, the minimum wages set by wage councils generally do not provide for an adequate standard of living for a worker and family. Minimum monthly wages for workers covered by wage councils in urban areas range from $70 to $90; for workers in rural areas, the minimum monthly "council" wage is $60 to $80. However, prevailing wages in Malaysia, even in the sectors covered by wage councils, are higher than the minimum wages set by the wage councils and do provide an adequate living.

Under the Employment Act of 1955, working hours may not exceed 8 hours per day or 44 hours per workweek of 5 1/2 days. Each workweek must include one 24-hour rest period. The act also sets overtime rates and mandates public holidays, annual leave, sick leave, and maternity allowances. The Labor Department of the Ministry of Human Resources enforces these standards, but a shortage of inspectors precludes strict enforcement. In October, Parliament adopted a new Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which replaced the Factories and Machinery Act of 1967. The new OSHA covers all sectors of the economy, except the maritime sector and the military. The act established a National Occupational Safety and Health Council composed of workers, employers, and government representatives, to set policy and coordinate occupational safety and health measures. The act requires employers to identify risks and take precautions, including providing safety training to workers, and compels companies having more than 40 workers to establish joint management-employee safety committees. The act requires workers to use safety equipment and to cooperate with employers to create a safe, healthy workplace. There are currently no specific statutory or regulatory provisions which create a positive right for a worker to remove himself or herself from dangerous workplace conditions without arbitrary dismissal. Employers or employees violating the act are subject to substantial fines or imprisonment for up to 5 years.

Significant numbers of contract workers, including numerous illegal immigrants from Indonesia, work on plantations. Working conditions for these laborers compare poorly with those of direct hire plantation workers, many of whom belong to the National Union of Plantation Workers. Moreover, immigrant workers in the construction and other sectors, particularly if illegal entrants, may not have access to Malaysia's system of labor adjudication. Government investigations into this problem have resulted in a number of steps to eliminate the abuse of contract labor. For example, in addition to expanding programs to regularize the status of immigrant workers, the Government investigates complaints of abuses, endeavors to inform workers of their rights, encourages workers to come forward with their complaints, and warns employers to end abuses. Like other employers, labor contractors may be prosecuted for violating Malaysia's labor laws. The Government has taken action against labor contractors who violate the law, and has assessed fines. The minimum fine currently assessed by law is $4,000. Effective April 1, 1994, the minimum fine will increase five-fold. In principle, serious violators can be jailed, but, in practice, such punishments are rare.

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