Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Malaysia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Malaysia, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 1 June 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.

Civil society in Malaysia, including those organizations struggling to secure the rights of minorities, continued to experience restrictions on the right to assembly. In September 2011, Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows the authorities to detain people indefinitely without charge or trial. The move was welcomed by a broad range of civil society organizations, but Razak's commitment was questioned as authorities continued to arrest people under the ISA.

Razak proposed two other pieces of legislation. The Race Relations Bill was set to be debated in parliament in 2012 but Malaysian human rights organization Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) argued that the draft law would not adequately protect minorities from hate crimes. At the time of writing, it appeared that the government was going to drop the initiative.

In December, the senate passed the controversial Peaceful Assembly Bill, despite widespread opposition from local civil society and international NGOs. The law bans street protests, prohibits those under 21 years old from assembling peacefully, and provides a wide range of powers to the police.

The new legislation comes after crackdowns on protests throughout 2011, including protests by religious minority organizations. In February, authorities denied a request by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HRAF) to conduct a peaceful anti-discrimination march. HRAF was banned after a peaceful demonstration in 2007 for the rights of religious minorities in Malaysia. Authorities arrested at least 59 members of HRAF and the Hindu Rights Party (HRP) hours before the rally began. All were released on bail, charged with being part of an 'illegal association'.

The HRAF protest was in part sparked by controversy over the novel Interlok, compulsory reading for students in secondary school, that includes racial stereotyping of Indian and Chinese communities. On 15 January, the novel was removed from the syllabus, but the decision was reversed on 28 January. It remains on the syllabus, but sensitive words will be removed. Many in the Indian community and others think the book generates inter-racial conflict.

Shi'a Muslims, listed as a 'deviant' sect by Malaysia's Islamic law in this majority Sunni Muslim state, also continued to face difficulties. In May, in the central state of Selangor, authorities broke up a gathering of Shi'a who were celebrating the birthday of a daughter of the Prophet, on accusations of proselytizing. Four people were reportedly detained.

In August, police raided a Methodist-Christian Church in Selangor, accusing members of attempting to convert Muslims at a charity event, an accusation the group denied. Soon after, rallies against alleged Christian proselytizing were held across the country, organized by Himpun, an ad hoc coalition of Muslim groups pushing for a conservative, pro-Muslim Malay agenda.

In April, Abdul Taib Mahmud was reelected as Chief Minister of Sarawak – a forested state on the island of Borneo – continuing his 30-year reign over a state where 50 per cent of the population are indigenous people, collectively referred to as Dayak or Orang Ulu. Elections were marred by reports of vote-buying and intimidation of indigenous communities. International observers as well as local election monitors were reportedly not allowed into the state, and some indigenous people were not registered to vote because they had been denied national identity cards. At least 480,000 people (one-third of eligible voters), largely from rural areas affected by land-grabbing, are not registered to vote. Members of the Penan community say they have repeatedly sought identity cards but their applications are never processed.

In 2011, accusations of corruption against the Chief Minister gained momentum: the UK government announced it would investigate accusations of money-laundering against him. Taib has notoriously provided business contracts to his family and associates for logging, hydro-electric projects and palm oil plantations in Sarawak. Three Chinese state-owned companies are helping to build a network of as many as 51 controversial dams to spur rapid industrial development. Many of these concessions have been granted in territories contested by indigenous peoples, whose rights are recognized under Malaysian law. Less than 10 per cent of Sarawak's forest is reportedly left intact, a figure hotly contested by the Chief Minister.

In June, the Malaysian national human rights institution, Suhakam, announced its National Inquiry into the land rights of indigenous peoples, and has so far received almost 900 land rights complaints. Suhakam plans to conduct a series of consultations in affected areas and release its report by June 2012.

Indigenous community attempts to enforce their traditional land rights in Malaysian courts have had mixed results. In September, members of indigenous groups lost their decade-long fight against state confiscation of land to construct the controversial 2,400-megawatt Bakun dam in Sarawak. The Federal Court ruled that the state had not violated their native customary rights. However, the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak expressed concern that provisions in the land code seem to give wide powers to ministers to override customary land rights. In October, with the help of Sinohydro and China Export Import Bank, the dam became operational after nearly five decades of delays.

Indigenous groups won a victory in September, when the state government postponed the construction of the Baram dam, set to displace 20,000 people. Strong resistance from affected Kayan, Kenyah and Penan groups is thought to have been the impetus behind the decision. However, the dam will only be delayed for further social impact assessments and until the Baleh dam is complete, a project that will resettle fewer communities. Also in September, the High Court in Sabah and Sarawak ruled that the Forestry Department had issued illegal logging licences for land covered by native customary rights of the Krian people. It is hoped that this ruling will have positive implications for land rights cases pending in lower courts against state confiscation of indigenous ancestral lands; estimates of the number of cases vary from around 200 to over 300.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld