Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

Detention of individuals without formal charge or trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) continued in Malaysia in 1991. At least seven of those in custody under the ISA were detained for the peaceful expression of their political views. All were associated with a political party that had run afoul of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The ISA enables any police officer to detain without warrant anyone deemed likely to pose a threat to the security of Malaysia. Those newly detained can be held initially for sixty days, and the minister of home affairs has the authority to extend the detention orders for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, all without charge or trial. Prime Minister Mahathir is also home affairs minister.100 A June 1989 amendment passed by the Malaysian Parliament further stripped political detainees of legal recourse by abolishing judicial review of habeas corpus petitions by ISA detainees. A New York City Bar Association report said that "Prime Minister Mahathir has acknowledged that the bill was intended to strengthen the hand of the executive personnel, lest they become too 'wary' of detaining people under the ISA."

After the detention under the ISA of four opposition party members from the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah in 1990, three more individuals were detained in 1991 and accused of participating in a plot "to take Sabah out of the Malaysian Federation." One of the three was released after sixty days; the other six remain in detention.

In January, Deputy Home Minister Megat Junid told the Malaysian Parliament that 142 people were then in detention under the ISA. Reasons for detention included alleged communist activities, religious extremism, and suspected participation in "Operation Talkak," the phrase used to refer to the alleged plot to secede Sabah from Malaysia.

Those detained under the ISA in 1991 were Maximus Johnity Ongkili, detained on January 3 and later released; Vincent Chung, former manager for administration and personnel of the Sabah Foundation, an organization devoted to the economic and social development of Sabah, detained on January 19; and Jeffrey Kitingan, director of the Institute for Development Studies and an outspoken proponent of increased state administrative autonomy, detained on May 13. On July 17, Deputy Home Minister Megat Junid announced to the press that Kitingan's detention order had been extended for two years on instructions from Prime Minister Mahathir.

In addition to Kitingan and Chung, those still in custody since their detention in 1990 are Damit Undikai, detained on May 18, 1990; Benedict Topin and Albinus Yudah, both detained on May 25, 1990; and Abdul Rahman Ahmad, detained on July 7, 1990. Of the two sets of ISA detainees still being held for their peaceful political views, five are in custody in the Kamunting Preventive Detention Camp in Taipin, Perak, while one, Topin, has been transferred to Kuala Lumpur.

The seven Sabah detainees were all connected directly or indirectly with the United Sabah Party (Parti Bersatu Sabah or PBS), a political party dominated by Kadazans, a largely Christian indigenous group. It has been on a collision course with Kuala Lumpur, demanding readjustment of federal-state relations, a greater share of Sabah's revenue, more administrative autonomy, and the expulsion of illegal Filipino and Indonesian immigrants.

Asia Watch was also concerned about the government's threat to curtail the independence of the Malaysian Bar Council, a professional association of 2,600 lawyers which has long been outspoken in promoting human rights and judicial independence in Malaysia. In November, members of the governing political coalition, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which holds over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, announced that the coalition was contemplating amendments to the Legal Profession Act of 1977, which governs the Bar Council. The amendments would have removed a provision of the act that assigns the Bar Council the duty to act in defense of justice, effectively prohibiting the Bar Council from speaking out on issues of public concern, in violation of its members' right to the freedoms of expression and association. Another amendment would have allowed the government, rather than the Bar Council itself, to discipline individual members of the bar. UMNO leaders indicated that the government would use this new power to "blacklist" lawyers who are critical of the government or judiciary. Following considerable domestic and international controversy over the proposed amendments, the government announced that it had never intended to enact them.

Government officials continued to promote an "Asian approach" to human rights as a way of diluting "Western" criticism of human rights violations. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Mahathir asked, "Can only the preachers have the right to interpret democracy, to practice it as they deem fit, and to force their interpretation on others?" He was reacting in particular to a report of the U.N. Development Program, released in May, which contained a "human freedom index" ranking Malaysia on the same level with Haiti and Zambia in terms of protection of human rights. Unfortunately, Mahathir's interpretation of democracy seems to allow arbitrary detention of political opponents and official intolerance for independent institutions like the Bar Council, which seek to defend the rule of law from governmental attack.

The government's treatment of asylum-seekers was also a cause for concern. In October, the government announced its intention to repatriate some two hundred refugees from Aceh, Indonesia, in violation of the international prohibition of refoulement, despite evidence that they face a substantial risk of persecution at home. All two hundred were being held in Malaysian prisons, but the Malaysian government refused to permit representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit them to evaluate their asylum claims. A Malaysian Embassy official said that the government had set up an agency to assess their claims, but refused to release details about individual claims on grounds that it was an "internal matter." In its agreement with Indonesia, the Malaysian government failed to exert pressure for a guarantee of the safety of the returnees, twenty-four of whom already had been sent back by the end of the year. The government also continued to deny Vietnamese boat people permission to land in Malaysia, without any attempt to determine whether they had valid asylum claims or to ensure that they could find alternative refuge.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights advocacy continued to be difficult in Malaysia, where the government persisted in denying a license to a would-be human rights organization. No organization can operate in Malaysia without such a license.

Individual lawyers, and the consumer advocacy organization Aliran, continued to monitor human rights. Lawyers reported occasional harassment. There were no arrests.

U.S. Policy

The Bush Administration issued no public criticism of the Malaysian government's human rights record in 1991. The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur did respond to Asia Watch concerns regarding the status and treatment of the Acehnese detainees, and State Department officials have privately expressed support for Asia Watch appeals. But the U.S. government has refrained from using its own voice in lodging criticisms. For example, a U.S. Embassy official told Asia Watch that the Embassy had not clearly requested UNHCR access to the Acehnese detainees because of the "sensitive nature" of the issue.

The Administration's influence on Malaysia is small. Prime Minister Mahathir has been quoted as calling the United States "racist," and the U.S. government's contribution in foreign and military aid is negligible. The Administration requested $1 million in fiscal year 1991 for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, but the Senate cut the aid to zero as a protest against the Malaysian government's refusal to grant temporary asylum to boat people from Vietnam. The Administration's request for fiscal year 1992 stands at $1.1 million for IMET.

The Administration missed an important opportunity to press for respect for freedom of association in the country's electronics industry, where unions are currently prevented from forming. A petition on labor rights in the electronics sector was filed in May with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Carla Hills by the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, pursuant to Section 502(b)(8) of the Trade Act. The USTR rejected the petition in August, refused to conduct an inquiry, and offered no explanation of her decision. Thus Malaysia, despite its poor labor rights record, escaped scrutiny of its practices, notwithstanding U.S. law specifically requiring that recipients of trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences uphold labor rights standards, including freedom of association.

The Work of Asia Watch

In 1991, Asia Watch documented Malaysia's continuing abuses under the ISA, publishing a newsletter, "Malaysia: Detainees in Sabah," in October. It also pressed the Malaysian government to release the six Sabah detainees, and called on the Malaysian Parliament to review the ISA with a view toward repeal.

In October, Asia Watch met with U.S. State Department and Malaysian Embassy officials to discuss concerns about the possible forcible repatriation of the Acehnese detainees. Asia Watch appealed unsuccessfully to the Malaysian government to allow international parties to visit the detainees to assess their individual asylum pleas.

Asia Watch did receive a reply from the Malaysian government that no Acehnese would be returned against their will, although the government continued to deny access to detainees by the UNHCR which might have verified that this assurance was met.

In November, Asia Watch appealed to the government to halt its effort to restrict the independence of the Bar Council. The effort to silence this leading independent institution was documented in a newsletter, "Malaysian Government Moves to Stifle Independent Bar," published that month.

For a detailed analysis of the ISA, see Beatrice S. Frank et al., The Decline in the Rule of Law in Singapore and Malaysia, (New York: Association of the Bar of the City of New York, 1990).

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