Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Life Expectancy: 73
Religious Groups: Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, other
Ethnic Groups: Malay and other indigenous (58 percent), Chinese (27 percent), Indian (8 percent), other (7 percent)
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the lifting of a ban on political rallies ahead of the 2004 parliamentary elections and a modest trend toward judicial independence.
Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, faced the challenge in 2003 of shoring up support for the ruling coalition in elections that are expected in the first half of 2004. As deputy prime minister, the largely untested Badawi was elevated to the top post in October after Mahathir Mohamad decided to step down as the nation's leader after more than two decades in office.
Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957 and in 1963 merged with the British colonies of Sarawak, Sabah, and Singapore (Singapore left in 1965). The ruling National Front coalition has won at least a two-thirds majority in all 10 general elections since 1957. The Front consists of 14 mainly ethnic-based parties, led by the conservative, Malay-based United Malays' National Organization (UMNO).
UMNO's Mahathir, 77, became prime minister in 1981. During his tenure, Mahathir helped transform Malaysia from a sleepy backwater, dependent on tin, rubber, and palm oil exports, into a hub for multinationals and local firms exporting high-tech goods. However, he also stunted democratic institutions, weakened the rule of law by bullying the press and political opponents, and fostered allegations of cronysim with his state-led industrial development. In addition, he was a polarizing figure at home and abroad, criticizing Malaysia's conservative Muslim leaders for failing to promote a more modern brand of Islam while rankling outsiders with anti-West and anti-Semitic views.
Malaysia's economy grew by more than 8 percent per year, on average, for nearly a decade until 1997, when the regional financial crisis caused growth to slow sharply. By then, poor banking regulation – and, many Malaysians argued, outright cronyism – had left companies saddled with huge debts. As the economy slid into recession in 1998, Mahathir and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim locked horns over how best to revive the economy.
Many felt that beneath this policy dispute was a bitter power struggle between the country's top political leaders. Matters came to a head in September 1998 when Mahathir sacked Anwar, who later was convicted and jailed for 15 years in a trial that international and domestic observers called politically motivated.
Mahathir's jailing of Anwar, on sodomy and corruption charges, divided the majority ethnic Malays and helped the opposition Islamic Pas party make inroads into the Malay heartland in the November 1999 elections. While the National Front kept its two-thirds majority in parliament with 148 out of 193 seats, UMNO itself lost 20 seats and Pas rose to 27 from 7, overtaking the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) as Malaysia's largest opposition party. Many Pas supporters are poor, rural Malays who feel left out of the nation's recent economic boom. The National Justice Party (Keadilan), a new secular party formed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, won 5 seats.
Since the 1999 election, both UMNO and Pas, led by opposition leader Abdul Hadi Awang, have wooed ethnic Malay voters with appeals to Malay unity and their competing visions of the proper role of Islam in a modern nation. Long a champion of Muslim Malay interests but within a secular, religiously tolerant society, Mahathir used the September 11 terror attacks on the United States to link Pas to Islamic extremism. For its part, Pas stridently condemned the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Pas's stance proved too divisive for the DAP, which in 2001 pulled out of a loose electoral alliance with Pas and Keadilan. This move could prove critical in the 2004 elections, because ethnic Chinese and other non-Malays provide crucial swing votes in Malaysia's newly drawn electoral districts, which give non-Malays greater influence in some areas.
While fighting for support in the Malay heartland, Mahathir increasingly used Malaysia's draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) against opponents. In 2001, ten secular opposition activists (most of them senior Keadilan members) were arrested for allegedly planning armed antigovernment protests, and 12 Pas members or supporters were arrested for allegedly planning an Islamic-based revolt. All of the Keadilan activists were freed by June 2003. Anwar apparently is the only political prisoner among the secular dissidents. The government made further arrests under the ISA in 2002, mainly of suspected Islamic militants. In a related development, police in 2003 seized bomb-making materials believed to be linked to Islamic terrorists.
In October 2003, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took over the post of prime minister from Mahatir, who made good on a pledge to leave office. Under Badawi, the National Front is expected to win the 2004 elections, but as always, the size of the opposition vote will be scrutinized as an indication of the government's popularity. On the economic front, Malaysia faces the challenge of finding new economic niches now that low-cost manufacturers in China are increasingly attracting the foreign investment that helped fuel Malaysia's roaring, electronics-led economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Badawi is expected to follow Mahathir's recent policies of emphasizing the role of small firms, rather than corporate heavyweights and megaprojects, in driving economic growth and of scaling back some of the economic privileges long accorded ethnic Malays.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Malaysians choose their leaders in elections that are free but not entirely fair, in part because of restrictions on basic rights that tilt the playing field toward the ruling party. Despite these obstacles, the opposition Pas in 1999 retained control of Kelantan state and captured oil-rich Terengganu for the first time.
Malaysia has a parliamentary government within a federal system. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet. The House of Representatives, which has 193 members, is directly elected for a five-year term, while the 70-seat Senate serves a six-year term. Mahathir Mohamad's 22-year tenure was marked by a steady concentration of power in the prime minister's hands.
The ruling National Front coalition gives itself significant advantages in elections through its selective allocation of state funds to supporters, use of security laws to restrict the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, and partisan use of broadcast media. In a move seen widely as an effort to weaken Pas, Kuala Lumpur began disbursing offshore oil revenues directly to local projects rather than to the Terengganu state government nine months after Pas won control of the state in 1999. In addition, the National Front-controlled states of Malacca and Penang withdrew some state business in 2000 from banks, contractors, and professionals suspected of supporting opposition parties. Moreover, redistricting ahead of the 2004 elections by the supposedly neutral election commission created more districts in certain areas where UMNO, the lynchpin of the coalition, polls well among Malays.
Malaysia's constitution provides for freedom of expression, but gives the government the power to limit this right by legislation for security reasons. In practice, the government restricts freedom of expression both through legislation and by intimidating much of the media into practicing self-censorship. State-run Radio Television Malaysia and the two private television stations offer flattering coverage of the government and rarely air opposition views. Moreover, political news coverage and editorials in Malaysia's main private newspapers strongly support the government line. Most major papers are owned by businessmen, companies, and political figures close to the ruling National Front. Many journalists practice self-censorship.
The government uses the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) to require all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operating permit, which can be withdrawn without judicial review. In practice, this provision has been used to restrict some independent and opposition publications. Authorities in 2000 refused to renew the permits of several opposition political weeklies and forced the Pas newspaper, Harakah, to print only twice-monthly rather than twice-weekly. Officials have also denied a license to an opposition DAP paper in East Malaysia to print in the rest of the country. Following an unprecedented eight-year trial, social activist Irene Fernandez was sentenced to 12 months in jail in 2003 under the PPPA for a report by her organization alleging poor treatment of migrant workers in Malaysian detention camps. She remained free on bail pending an appeal.
In addition to the PPPA, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, the Official Secrets Act, and criminal defamation laws also impose restrictions on freedom of expression. The government uses these laws not only to suppress outspoken publications but also to curb dissent and restrict discussion of several allegedly sensitive issues including ethnicity and religion. While Malaysians often publicly criticize the government, opposition politicians recently have been detained or fined for acts including distributing political leaflets and discussing Malaysia's 1969 race riots during an election speech. In a positive development, fewer defamation suits have been filed in recent years. The government generally has not restricted Internet access or content.
Islam is Malaysia's official religion, but Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and other religious minorities worship freely in this secular country. The government, however, monitors the activities of the Shia minority and periodically detains members of "deviant" Shia sects under the ISA. Partly to prevent the opposition Pas from spreading its political message through mosques, some state governments monitor sermons and have banned certain Muslim clergymen from delivering sermons at state-affiliated mosques.
The government restricts academic freedom by sanctioning faculty and students who take part in antigovernment activities. Authorities recently revoked the scholarship of a university lecturer who was pursuing his doctorate and dismissed several students, apparently based on their political activities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are severely limited. Opposition groups have faced an additional hurdle to reaching supporters ever since the government banned all political rallies in 2001, although late in 2003 authorities again were permitting opposition rallies. Even before the ban, police forcibly broke up many of the dozens of antigovernment demonstrations held in the wake of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's jailing. Many of the hundreds of protesters arrested were acquitted, though some were sentenced to jail terms of between one and three months. Many were accused of violating Malaysia's 1967 Police Act, which requires permits for all public gatherings except those of workers on picket lines.
Malaysia has thousands of active nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but authorities over the years have refused to register some groups. The 1966 Societies Act requires any NGO with more than six members, including political parties, to register with the government. University students are legally barred from being active without their schools' permission in any NGO, political party, or trade union. The Universities and University Colleges Act also bans political rallies and meetings on campuses.
Most Malaysian workers, with the exception of police officers, defense officials, and small numbers of "confidential" and "managerial and executive" workers, can join trade unions. However, the law, by permitting a union to represent only workers in single, or similar, trades, industries, or occupations, prevents the formation of broad-based unions spanning multiple industries. In the export-oriented electronics industry, moreover, the government discourages national unions in favor of factory-level unions. Labor laws restrict strikes by allowing the government to refer labor disputes to the Industrial Court and prohibiting strikes while disputes are before that court. In practice, workers rarely strike. Unions, however, bargain collectively in many industries, although public sector workers lack the right to bargain collectively. Only 8 percent of Malaysian workers are unionized. Employers sometimes abuse, and fail to honor contracts with, their household servants.
Malaysia's secular legal system is based on English common law. In addition to the secular courts, Sharia (Islamic law) courts in each of Malaysia's 13 states have jurisdiction over Muslims in some civil and relatively minor criminal matters. The judiciary apparently has become more impartial under Chief Justice Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah, appointed in 2000. Still, "In recent years, a number of high-profile cases cast doubts on judicial impartiality and independence, and raised questions of arbitrary verdicts, selective prosecution, and preferential treatment of some litigants and lawyers," according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003.
In two recent controversial cases, Ezam Mohamad Noor, youth leader of the Keadilan party, was convicted in 2002 under the Official Secrets Act of leaking state secrets (he was freed early from jail in 2003), and courts rejected appeals by former deputy prime minister Anwar of his 15-year prison term. At the same time, courts recently have ruled against the government in sensitive cases. Judges ordered the release of two opposition leaders detained under the ISA and voided the election of a ruling coalition candidate to the Sabah state assembly because of irregularities in the voting rolls.
The government's use of the ISA and other security laws not only chills political debate but also raises broader civil liberties concerns over detention without trial. Enacted in 1960 under British rule to mop up the remnants of a Communist insurgency, the ISA has been used in recent years to jail mainstream politicians, alleged Islamic militants, trade unionists, suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects, members of "deviant" Muslim sects, and others. The human rights group Amnesty International said in November that 94 alleged Islamic militants currently were being detained without charge or trial under the ISA in the Kamunting Detention Center in northern Malaysia. Amnesty's figures included 13 students who subsequently were released. The lack of trials makes it difficult to assess the government's claims against suspected militants. ISA detainees have reported being physically assaulted, deprived of sleep, food, and water, and told that their families would be harmed, Amnesty said.
Overall, the government detains hundreds of suspects each year under the ISA and two other laws that also permit long-term detention without formal charges – the 1969 Emergency Ordinance and 1985 Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA). Both the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance allow authorities to detain suspects for up to two years, renewable for ISA detainees. The DDA allows the government to detain suspected drug traffickers for successive two-year periods subject to initial court approval, with periodic review by an advisory panel.
In another concern, police in recent years have killed dozens of criminal suspects while apprehending them. Press reports suggest that at least some of the killings may have been appropriate under the circumstances. Authorities have prosecuted officers in some death cases. Police also at times torture, beat, or otherwise abuse detainees and prisoners, according to Amnesty International.
Pas has moved to implement its strict, conservative Islam in the two northeastern states that it controls. The legislature in Terengganu approved a bill in October authorizing stoning, flogging, and amputation for offenses by Muslims including theft, adultery, and consumption of alcohol. Kuala Lumpur says that the law violates Malaysia's secular constitution and, since law enforcement is largely in the hands of the federal government, refuses to enforce the measures. The Pas government in Kelantan has introduced a similar bill in that state's legislature. The two Pas administrations also have imposed some dress, dietary, and cultural restrictions on Muslims. Dozens of Muslim women in Kelantan have been fined for not adhering to the state's new, conservative dress code in state offices. In November, Pas also unveiled a blueprint to make Malaysia an Islamic state should the party come to power nationally.
The government recently has tightened its policies on illegal workers in response to leaner economic times. The immigration law was amended in 2002 to provide for caning, heavy fines, or imprisonment of illegal workers and those who recruit and employ them. Moreover, many illegal workers reportedly were abused during mass deportations from Malaysia in August 2002. Despite some improvements, NGOs and former detainees allege that government camps for illegal immigrants continue to provide detainees with inadequate food and medical care and that some detainees suffer abuse at the hands of guards. Moreover, illegal foreign workers have no legal protection under Malaysia's labor laws and no legal recourse if abused by employers.
Many ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as many Malays, criticized the government's 2001 decision to extend by 10 years a long-standing policy that aims to boost the economic status of the bumiputras – or "sons of the soil," referring to ethnic Malays and indigenous Malaysians – through favored treatment in many areas. These include property ownership, higher education, civil service jobs, and business affairs, although under Mahathir the system was scaled back somewhat. Critics say that any affirmative action should be based on need rather than race. They note that Malaysians of South Asian origin, mainly Tamils, lack both the relative wealth of the Chinese community and the preferred status of the ethnic Malays, and that many individual ethnic Chinese are poor. The government says that the quotas have improved racial harmony by helping to lift many Malays out of poverty. The quotas were introduced in 1970 in response to anti-Chinese riots in 1969 that killed nearly 200 people.
Indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia and the Borneo states generally have little input into government and business policies affecting them. State and private logging and plantation companies continue to encroach on land traditionally held by the Orang Asli and other indigenous groups, particularly in the Borneo states. State governments in peninsular Malaysia are moving slowly in carrying out federal orders to transfer individual land titles to many of the roughly 100,000 indigenous people there, the U.S. State Department report said.
Despite government initiatives and continued gains, women still are under-represented in politics, the professions, and the civil service. The government sponsors many programs to promote women's equality in education and employment. It also has adopted a law against domestic violence and created programs to help victims of spousal abuse and rape. Some convicted rapists receive heavy punishments, including caning, but women's groups say that many others receive sentences that are too light and that, overall, relatively few rape cases are prosecuted. In another concern, some women and girls are trafficked into Malaysia for sexual exploitation, and some Malaysian women are trafficked abroad, though few traffickers are prosecuted, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Islamic courts do not give equal weight to the testimony of women, and activists allege that women sometimes are subject to discriminatory interpretations of Islamic law in divorce and inheritance matters. The interpretation of Islamic inheritance law varies by state but tends to favor male offspring and relatives.
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