Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Malaysia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Malaysia, 6 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e16d369c.html [accessed 19 September 2014]
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 faced continuing challenges in uniting its multi-ethnic society. The year began with heightened tensions following a 31 December 2009 court ruling that overturned the government's ban on the use of the word 'Allah' in Malay-language Christian publications. That decision angered some in the Muslim community and led to a series of attacks on Christian churches around the country. Days later, Malaysia's High Court issued a stay on enforcement of its ruling after the government argued it could cause 'racial conflict'. The attacks were not restricted to churches. In late January, severed pigs' heads were discovered at two mosques. In response, the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) issued a statement condemning 'people trying to inflame religious emotions in the country'.

Questions continued to be raised about the country's Islamic Syariah (Sharia) courts, which run parallel to Malaysia's judicial system. The courts do not have direct jurisdiction over non-Muslims, however there have been cases in which religious minorities have been affected by Syariah court rulings. In March, a civil court found in favour of a Hindu woman after a Syariah court had earlier awarded custody of her children to her husband, a Muslim convert. The case was seen as a potential landmark in defining the legal rights of religious minorities in the majority Muslim nation.

In February, three women were caned under Islamic law after they were convicted of committing adultery. It was believed to be the first ever case in which such punishment had been handed down to women, as the country's civil law prohibits caning sentences against women. The news raised questions in the media over the balance between the secular and the religious in Malaysia's dual-track legal system.

Local NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) has called cases of caning ordered against women an example of how female Muslims face discrimination in Malaysia. The organization has reportedly faced retaliation from conservative Islamic groups over its promotion of gender equality. For example, a member of parliament urged the National Fatwa Council to investigate the group. In March, after SIS issued a press release questioning the caning of the three women convicted of adultery, police took statements from employees of the NGO. According to the US State Department, the questioning was part of an investigation into 'alleged violation of the penal code for causing disharmony, disunity, feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill-will, or prejudicing the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion'. Malaysia also appointed its first female judges in Islamic courts in August, a move critics said was 'long overdue'.

Amnesty International last year called for a moratorium on canings. A report released late in the year estimated that 10,000 people are caned each year, including many marginalized foreign migrants. These include asylum-seekers caned for 'immigration violations'.

In August, a report by TV network Al Jazeera claimed that indigenous peoples in Pahang state were being offered development aid only in exchange for converting to Islam. Yusri Bin Ahon, an indigenous rights campaigner, told Al Jazeera, 'Government officials visited my people and tried to convert us. They said, "If you want facilities and easy access into the village, you have to be a Muslim."' The government rejected all allegations of pressured conversion.

While the Malaysian Constitution permits freedom of religion, Shi'a Islam is among a number of religious sects considered 'deviant'. In December, Shi'a Muslims urged the government to let them worship legally. Earlier in the month, authorities had detained more than 200 Shi'ites at a prayer meeting in what media reports described as one of the largest mass arrests of its kind.

Malaysia continued to face questions over the treatment of foreign domestic workers, most of whom are female. It is common for Malaysians to hire live-in maids from neighbouring countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia, and it is estimated that there are at least 300,000 migrant domestic workers in the in the country. Critics say they lack crucial protections afforded to Malaysian citizens. Migrant live-in domestic workers, for example, are excluded from basic labour protection covering maximum work hours, days off and sick leave. Rights groups have documented numerous cases in which foreign workers claim to have been abused by their employers, leading some critics to dub the worst examples as cases of 'modern-day slavery'.

Indigenous peoples in Malaysia continued to be affected by the government's push toward large-scale hydropower projects. The controversial Bakun Dam in Sarawak state was completed during 2010 and is expected to start supplying power in mid-2011. Thousands of indigenous villagers were relocated to make way for the project. Critics have warned that a series of new hydropower projects planned for the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah will further threaten indigenous communities. Sixteen dams have reportedly been planned for Sabah along with another 23 for Sarawak.

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