U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Malaysia

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.


Malaysia is a federation of 13 states with a parliamentary system of government based on periodic multiparty elections in which the ruling National Front coalition has held power since 1957. The coalition headed by Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad increased its majority in a 1995 general election. Opposition parties actively contest elections, although they hold only about 12 percent of the seats in the federal Parliament. An opposition party controls one state government. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, however, government-sponsored constitutional amendments and legislation have undermined judicial independence and increased executive influence over the judiciary in sensitive cases. The Royal Malaysian Police have primary responsibility for internal security matters. The police report to and are under the effective control of the Minister of Home Affairs. The Prime Minister also holds the Home Affairs portfolio. There have been instances of abuse by some police officers. Foreign direct investment has played a vital role in economic development. High growth rates in exports of manufactured goods, such as semiconductors, have greatly reduced reliance on traditional commodity exports such as tin, rubber, and palm oil. Consistently strong economic growth has led to significant reductions in poverty, an improved standard of living, and more equal income distribution. In the second half of 1997, the effects of the regional financial crisis, in addition to growing international concerns over economic policy, contributed to a marked depreciation of the ringgit (the national currency) and a substantial decline in the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas. The Government continued to arrest and detain citizens without trial, and prolonged pretrial detention is a problem. The Government sometimes limited judicial independence and freedom of assembly, association, speech, and the press. Partly as a result of these limits, opposition parties could not compete on equal terms with the long-ruling governing coalition. A Western correspondent was sentenced to 3 months' imprisonment for contempt of court in a case that raised questions about freedom of the press and judicial impartiality. A United Nations special rapporteur and a prominent jurist faced libel charges for their criticism of the judiciary. The trial and harassment of a prominent human rights activist on criminal charges under the Publications Act also continued. Religious worship is subject to some restrictions. The Government continued to impose long-term restrictions on movement without due process hearings. Violence against women and child abuse remain problems. Police did not always act on reports of domestic violence. Some discrimination against indigenous people and ethnic minorities, and restrictions on worker rights, persisted.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings. In a June raid on illegal aliens in Johor, soldiers killed one illegal alien. Four soldiers were later charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder; at year's end the case was still pending. Because of this incident, the Defense Minister and Police Inspector General later announced an agreement on guidelines for future raids. Human rights groups also raised questions about several cases of prisoners who died while in police custody. In January the father of a suspect allegedly found hanged in his cell while being detained without trial under the Dangerous Drugs Act (after being acquitted on criminal charges) filed a complaint alleging police abuse. In June a suspected serial rapist being escorted by four policemen was shot and killed after a struggle. In August a handcuffed Indonesian suspected of theft died of severe head wounds after he fell to the ground while being escorted by police officers.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

There continued to be allegations that police officers abused criminal suspects and illegal alien detainees during interrogation and detention. Abuses included strong psychological pressure and sometimes physical mistreatment. In some cases, authorities have investigated police officials for such abuses, but, because the Government does not routinely release information on the results of the investigations, whether those responsible for abuses are punished is not always known. In September police announced the suspension of an officer pending a criminal investigation for the beating of a 14-year-old girl. Criminal law prescribes caning as an additional punishment to imprisonment for those convicted of some nonviolent crimes such as narcotics possession, criminal breach of trust, and alien smuggling. Judges routinely include caning in sentences of those convicted of such crimes as kidnaping, rape, and robbery. The caning, which is carried out with a 1/2-inch-thick wooden cane, commonly causes welts, and sometimes causes scarring. Organizers canceled a planned conference on police abuse in response to a warning of possible prosecution (see Section 1.d.). Over a dozen police officers were detained for alleged involvement in criminal activities (see Section 1.d.). Prison conditions generally meet minimum international standards. Prisons meet basic human needs, including medical care, sanitation, nutrition, and family access. Overcrowding is a problem. In September the Prisons Department said that the total prison population exceeded the facilities' comfortable capacity by 12.3 percent. Prison guards have been accused and convicted of criminal wrongdoing, mostly in nonviolent narcotics cases. Security prisoners (see Section l.d.) are detained in a separate detention center. Conditions there are not significantly different from those for the regular prison population. In April police arrested a gang including officials of the Home Affairs Ministry, lawyers, and a police officer for extorting money from families of prisoners held under the Emergency Ordinance (see Section l.d.). In return for these payments, detainees were allegedly released from restricted residence provisions. Although the Government still holds some illegal aliens under inhuman conditions, conditions of detention for aliens generally improved. The Government has not permitted visits to prisons by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Three laws permit the Government to detain suspects without judicial review or the filing of 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 detention without trial in cases alleged to involve national security (including economic security), as well as in narcotics trafficking and other cases. According to the Home Affairs Ministry, in 1996 there were a total of 2,008 people being detained without trial under these laws, most held under the Dangerous Drugs Act. The Government has not announced the total number of detainees in 1997. Passed more than 30 years ago, when there was an active Communist insurgency, the ISA empowers the police to hold for up to 60 days any person who may act in a manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia. The Minister of Home Affairs may authorize, in writing, further detention for periods of up to 2 years. Those released before the end of their detention period are subject to imposed restricted conditions, for the balance of their detention periods. These conditions limit their rights to freedom of speech, association, and travel outside the country. According to the Government, the goal of the ISA is to control internal subversion. In fact, the act is now used for other purposes. The Government uses the ISA against passport and identity card forgers and against telecommunications fraud. In April the Deputy Home Affairs Minister stated that no one was under detention under the ISA for political reasons. As of April, 189 people were being detained for document forgery. In July the Police Inspector General said that 72 people were detained under the ISA for telecommunications fraud (primarily the illegal cloning of cellular phones). In November 10 people, 2 of whom were over 75 years old, were detained under the ISA for spreading Shi'ite teachings. Two of the prisoners were later released on a technicality, but rearrested (again under the ISA) just minutes after they left the courtroom. Police released two of these detainees in late December (see Section 2.c.). In December police detained three people, including two civil servants, under the ISA for issuing forged identity cards. Also in December, police detained nine Nigerians under the ISA for bank fraud. According to prison officials, at the end of the year, slightly under 200 prisoners were under ISA detention. In 1997 all members of the outlawed Islamic fundamentalist movement Al Arqam who were still in detention after being previously arrested under the ISA were released. Some members remain under restricted residence. Security authorities sometimes wait several days after detention before informing a detainee's family. 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 Affairs Minister, are not made public, and often are not shown to the detainee. In the past, a number of ISA detainees have refused to participate in the review process under these circumstances. Amendments to the ISA severely limit judicial review of detentions. Opposition leaders and human rights organizations continued to call on the Government to repeal the ISA and other legislation that deprive people of the right to defend themselves in court. In December the Bar Council sponsored a seminar on the ISA and called for its repeal. The Government has been reviewing the ISA since May 1995. In April the Deputy Home Minister said that the Government would revise but not abolish it. In May he said that sentencing under the revised ISA would be more flexible and that sentences would sometimes exceed the current limit of 2 years. In early September, after a sharp fall in the ringgit and the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange, the Police Inspector General said that the Government would not hesitate to use the ISA against local economic saboteurs involved in supporting rogue foreign exchange speculators. The Deputy Prime Minister later stated that, although the Government reserved this right in principle, it was not currently necessary to pursue such prosecutions; no one has been prosecuted under the ISA for financial speculation. Organizers canceled a planned January nongovernmental organizations' (NGO's) conference on police abuse after the Government warned that NGO's that baited the Government might be prosecuted under the ISA. Under the 1969 Emergency Ordinance, which was instituted after intercommunal riots in that year, 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 the Home Affairs Ministry, there were 56 people in detention under the Emergency Ordinance in 1996, compared with 447 in 1995. The Government has not disclosed the number of detainees in 1997. Police announced in June that 14 police officers had been detained without trial under the Emergency Ordinance for alleged involvement in criminal activities. Provisions of the 1985 amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act give the Government specific power to detain suspected drug traffickers. The suspects may be held for up to 39 days before the Home Affairs 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 Affairs Minister. However, the review process contains none of the due process rights that a defendant would have in a court proceeding. According to the National Narcotics Agency, from January to September, 1,081 persons were arrested under the amendments that provide for detention without trial, an increase of 24 percent over 1996. The total number of people under detention has not been disclosed. The police frequently rearrest suspected narcotics traffickers and firearms offenders under the preventive measures clauses of the Dangerous Drugs Act after an acquittal in court on formal charges. Immigration laws are used to detain possible illegal aliens without trial or hearing. The detainees are not accorded any administrative or legal hearings and are released only after their employers prove their legal status. Those who can produce legal documents are normally released immediately; those who cannot prove their legal status may be held for extended periods before deportation. Illegal aliens are kept in detention centers that are separate from prisons (see Section l.c.). Law enforcement authorities also used the Restricted Residence Act to restrict movements of criminal suspects for an extended period. The act allows the Home Affairs Ministry to place criminal suspects under restricted residence in a remote district away from home for 2 years--the Ministry is authorized to issue the banishment orders without any judicial or administrative hearings. Human rights activists have questioned the need for this law, which was passed 60 years ago under very different circumstances, and have called for its repeal. The Government continued to justify the act as a necessary tool and in the past has used it primarily against vice and gambling offenses. In June the police proposed extending the act to commercial crimes such as copyright piracy. In August the Deputy Home Minister proposed extending the act to dishonest traders guilty of such crimes as holding illegal sales, manufacturing fake medicine, selling adulterated gasoline, and importing piglets without a license. However, no action has been taken to do so. The Government has not disclosed how many people are subject to the Restricted Residence Act, but human rights activists estimate it to be scores. The Government does not use forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Past government action, constitutional amendments, and legislation restricting judicial review have undermined judicial independence and strengthened executive influence over the judiciary in sensitive cases. A number of high-profile cases continued to cast doubts on judicial impartiality and independence. Members of the bar and other observers continued to express serious concern about this issue. Occasionally, however, courts ruled against the Government. In February, for example, a court voided the victory of a ruling party candidate in Sarawak because of extensive bribery in the election campaign. High courts have original jurisdiction over all criminal cases involving serious crimes and most civil cases. Civil suits involving automobile accidents and landlord-tenant disputes are heard by sessions courts. Magistrate's courts hear criminal cases in which the maximum term of sentence does not exceed 12 months. The Court of Appeal has appellate jurisdiction over high court and session court decisions. The Federal Court hears appeals of Court of Appeal decisions. The legal system is based on English common law. Islamic religious laws administered by state authorities through Islamic courts bind ethnic Malays and other Muslims in some civil matters. The Government announced that it would harmonize Islamic law at the federal level and appoint an Islamic law federal attorney general. Indigenous people in Sarawak and Sabah also have a system of customary law that is sometimes used to resolve matters such as land disputes between tribes. Malaysia also has rarely used penghulu (village head) courts empowered to adjudicate minor civil matters. Most civil and criminal proceedings are fair and open. The accused must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and charges must be levied within 10 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. All criminal trials, including murder trials, are heard by a single judge. Parliament voted in 1994 to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to abolish jury trials in death penalty cases. The defense in both ordinary criminal cases and special security cases is not entitled to a statement of evidence before the trial The Attorney General may restrict the right to a fair trial in criminal cases, by invoking 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 time before making formal charges. The Attorney General 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. There were no cases involving this restriction in 1997. Following a number of high-profile corruption cases, the Government amended the Anticorruption Act in July. The new law removes the presumption of innocence and requires accused persons to prove that their wealth was acquired legally; it is scheduled to come into effect in January 1998. In cases widely thought to be politically motivated, several large Malaysian companies, prominent businessmen, and one prominent lawyer have brought suits for libel and slander against the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Datuk Param Curamaswamy, who is a Malaysian citizen, and against the Malaysian Bar Council's former secretary general Tommy Thomas. The charges stemmed from an article that alleged improprieties in the judiciary. A Malaysian court rejected Param's request to have the suit dismissed before trial based on his claim of immunity as a U.N. rapporteur, a claim supported by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The judge ruled that the case should proceed, but that Param should make this claim in his defense during trial. In early October, Param lost an initial appeal on this issue. In October and December, two more businessmen filed a third and a fourth suit against Param. All the cases are still pending. In September the Malaysian Bar Council expressed concern over 44 prisoners held at the pleasure of the sovereign for inordinate periods, often well exceeding the maximum sentences for their original crimes. In one case a prisoner had been held for 37 years. Most of these forgotten prisoners committed their crimes as minors or while of unsound mind. There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The law provides for these rights and the Government generally respects them. However, provisions in the security legislation (see Section l.d.) 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 some 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. The law permits the Home Affairs Ministry to place criminal suspects under restricted residence in a remote district away from home for a 2-year period (see Section 1.d.). A clause in the new Anticorruption Act empowers the Attorney General to authorize the interception of mail and the tapping of telephones. Such information would be admissible as evidence in a corruption trial.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, some important limitations exist, and over the years the Government has restricted freedom of expression. The Constitution provides that freedom of speech may be restricted by legislation in the interest of security (or) public order. Thus, the Sedition Act prohibits public comment on issues defined as sensitive, such as citizenship rights for non-Malays, the special position of Malays in society, and certain aspects of religion. The Government used the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act to file criminal charges against opposition Member of Parliament Lim Guan Eng before the 1995 general election. The charges stemmed from Lim's public comments about a statutory rape case involving a former chief minister of Malacca. In 1997 Lim was convicted under both acts and fined $5,000 (15,000 ringgit). Lim has kept his parliamentary seat pending appeal, but he would lose his seat if the conviction is upheld. The Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 contains important limitations on press freedom. 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 an atmosphere that inhibits independent or investigative journalism and result in self-censorship of issues that government authorities might consider sensitive. The Government often conveys displeasure with press reporting directly to a newspaper's board of directors. In practice, leading political figures, or companies controlled by leading political figures in the ruling coalition, own most major newspapers and all radio and television stations, thus limiting the range of views. These mass media provide generally laudatory, noncritical coverage of government officials and policies, and give only limited and selective coverage to political views of the opposition or political rivals. Editorial opinion frequently reflects government positions on domestic and international issues. Chinese-language newspapers are generally more free in reporting and commenting on sensitive political and social issues. The Government continued to prosecute human rights activist Irene Fernandez under the Printing Presses and Publications Act for charges that she made in 1995 of mistreatment at illegal alien detention centers. Final judgment is still pending, although Fernandez has lost several procedural motions. The Government called an unusually large number of witnesses (34 as of December 16), which observers say is tying up the time and resources of Fernandez and her NGO. Police raided the offices of Fernandez's NGO in January because it had failed to file financial statements for 3 years. After the NGO paid a fine, the case was withdrawn. In October three additional charges based on information obtained during the raid were filed. The self-censorship of the Malaysian press was glaringly evident during the financial crisis in 1997. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a number of controversial remarks about the crisis. Pertinent information about international reaction to the Prime Minister's remarks appeared in the press of neighboring countries and in the international press. Much of this information went unreported in Malaysia, however. Another example of self-censorship is local cable television companies' frequent elimination of foreign press reports on Israel and Malaysia. The press did report on some sensitive social issues, such as the role of Islam. It also vigorously reported on allegations of corruption against some prominent politicians. The Prime Minister's remarks on the existence of a Jewish agenda to undermine the Malaysian economy, his subsequent statement that he had been misinterpreted, and international reaction to the remarks were well covered in the local press. In past years, the Government has on a few occasions used the defamation clauses of the Penal Code to prosecute newspapers and reporters that publish criticism of government officials. In 1997 the police filed reports for possible defamation charges against a newspaper that reported a survey alleging that officers often did not act on reports of domestic violence. No further action was taken, however. In September Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Murray Hiebert was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 3 months' imprisonment. Hiebert, who is still free pending appeal, had written an article implying that the plaintiff in a civil suit had received preferential treatment in scheduling an early trial date because she was the wife of a prominent judge. This case, the first in which a foreign correspondent has been sentenced to jail for contempt in the ordinary course of his duties, raises serious questions of freedom of the press and of judicial impartiality. In October the police said that they were investigating Asiaweek magazine under the Printing Presses and Publications Act for an article alleging that some foreign diplomats were concerned about the police's indifference to crimes against diplomats. The police interrogated the local correspondent of Asiaweek who had written this story. No further action was taken, however. 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. However, the Government retains significant influence over these publications by requiring annual renewal of publishing permits. There were no cases of denial of renewal requests in 1997. In September the Prime Minister said that he would issue a directive to enforce the (previously ignored) ban on street sales of the opposition party newspaper Harakah. Citing regulations that political parties may only distribute their publications to party members and not sell them publicly, the Prime Minister said since we find the tabloid is libelous, we will enforce the ban immediately. The Prime Minister was referring to reports quoting a religious leader as saying that the Prime Minister and some others in the ruling coalition were apostates. The Government is not vigorously enforcing the ban, however. The Official Secrets Act potentially can also restrict freedom of the press. Pointing out the dangers of abuse, the Bar Council and NGO's have called for a review of certain provisions that grant considerable discretion to the authorities. The government-controlled Malaysian News Agency (Bernama) is by law the sole distributor of foreign news, although the Government has not to date used this law to restrict foreign news coverage or availability. NGO's currently enjoy freedom to speak out against government policies. The Government's case against NGO activist Irene Fernandez under the Printing Presses and Publications Act is being closely monitored as a test case of the Government's willingness to permit public criticism (see Section l.e.). Early in the year, the Government threatened to force NGO's to register under the more restrictive Societies Act rather than the current Companies Act. The Foreign Minister said that the Government's cautious stand against NGO's was necessary to check alien influences. The Primary Industries Minister accused NGO's of having a hidden agenda opposing growth. The Deputy Home Minister said that the Government would study NGO's to ensure that they are not exploited by certain parties. However, no action was taken. The Government generally respects academic freedom in the areas of teaching and publication. Academics are often publicly critical of the Government. However, there is degree of self-censorship among public university academics whose career advancement and funding are prerogatives of the Government. Private institution academics also practice a limited degree of self-censorship for fear that the Government may revoke licenses for their institutions. Legislation also imposes limitations on student associations and student and faculty activity (see Section 2.b.). In November the Government forbade academics from making any public statements or publishing any writings on Malaysia's ongoing air pollution crisis. The Government seems to have feared that unauthorized remarks on the air pollution crisis might harm the country's image and hurt tourism. The gag order was not vigorously enforced, however.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of freedom of peaceful assembly, but there are significant restrictions. These rights may be limited in the interest of security and public order, and the 1967 Police Act requires police permits for all public assemblies except for 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 aftermath of the intercommunal riots in 1969, the Government banned political rallies. The Government continued that policy during the 1995 general election. However, both government and opposition parties held large indoor political gatherings dubbed discussion sessions during the campaign period. The ruling coalition also held several large-scale events that closely resembled political rallies. 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 sessions. In past campaigns some opposition discussion group meetings have been canceled for lack of a police permit, most recently during the 1996 Sarawak state election campaign. Outside the campaign period, a permit also is required, with most applications routinely approved. These restrictions and the ban on political rallies handicap the opposition's ability to campaign effectively. Organizers canceled a planned conference on police abuse in response to a government warning of possible prosecution under the ISA (see Section 1.d.). The Constitution provides for the right of association, but there are significant restrictions. For example, certain statutes limit this right, 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 enforced selectively against political opposition groups. This threat of possible deregistration inhibits political activism by public or special interest organizations. Early in 1997, the Government threatened to force all NGO's to register under the Societies Act rather than the less restrictive Companies Act (see Section 2.a.). Another law that affects freedom of association is the Universities and University Colleges Act. This act mandates government approval for student associations and prohibits student associations, as well as faculty members, from engaging in political activity. A university vice chancellor must approve campus demonstrations. Human rights organizations assert that it inhibits the free flow of ideas and exchange of views and have called for its repeal. In November 1996, youth wings of the ruling coalition parties disrupted an international conference about East Timor. In February four leaders of the youth organizations received a $500 (1,500 ringgit) fine for their role in disrupting the meeting. In April police detained 55 opposition party members who demonstrated in protest of an Israeli team's participation at an international cricket championship. The case against the demonstrators is still pending. In May police detained overnight nine demonstrators at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers meeting, who had protested ASEAN's plan to admit Burma as a member. Judgment of the case against the demonstrators has been postponed until March 1998.

c. Freedom of Religion

Islam is the official religion. Religious minorities, which include large Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Christian communities, generally may worship freely but are subject to some restrictions. Adherence to Islam is considered intrinsic to Malay ethnic identity, and therefore Islamic religious laws administered by state authorities through Islamic courts bind all ethnic Malays in some matters. Government funds support an Islamic religious establishment, and it is official policy to infuse Islamic values into the administration of the country. At the same time, the Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government has refused to accede to pressures to impose Islamic religious law beyond the Muslim community. The Government opposes what it considers deviant interpretations of Islam. In the past, the Government has imposed restrictions on certain Islamic sects. The Government continues to monitor the activities of the Shi'ite minority. In 1997 the Government proposed amending the Constitution to make Sunni Islam Malaysia's official Islamic sect. This would make illegal the practice of other forms of Islam. In November 10 people, 2 of whom were over 75 years old, were detained under the ISA for spreading Shi'ite teachings. Two of the prisoners were later released on a technicality, but rearrested (again under the ISA) just minutes after they left the courtroom. Police released two of these detainees in late December (see Section 1.c.). Some state governments were slow in approving building permits for non-Muslim places of worship or land for cemeteries for non-Muslims. The Government has long discouraged the circulation of a popular Malay-language translation of the Bible and distribution of Christian tapes and printed materials in Malay. Some states have laws prohibiting the use of Malay-language religious terms by Christians, but the authorities have not actively enforced them. The Government permits but discourages conversion to religions other than Islam. Some states have long proscribed by law proselytizing of Muslims, and other parts of the country strongly discouraged it as well. In March the Government proposed creating a federal-level Islamic law attorney general and harmonizing the various states' Islamic law at the federal level. Discussion of this proposal intensified after an incident in July when several Malay women participating in a beauty contest were arrested in the state of Selangor for breaking Islamic law. The proposal has not yet been implemented.

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

Citizens 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 east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have the independent right to control immigration into their territories and to require citizens from peninsular west Malaysia and foreigners to present passports or national identity cards for entry. In December the Sabah state government ordered the expulsion of a West Malaysian attorney who had previously been involved in several lawsuits against the state government. The federal Government regulates the internal movement of provisionally released ISA detainees. It also limits the movement of some released ISA detainees to a designated city or state. The Government also uses the Restricted Residence Act to limit movements of those suspected of some criminal activities (see Section l.d.). The Government generally does not restrict emigration. Citizens are free to travel abroad, although in some cases in the past, the Government has refused to issue or has withheld passports on security grounds or in the belief that the trip would be detrimental to the country's image. The Government usually takes such action because of suspected drug trafficking or other serious crimes. Citizens must apply for the Government's permission to travel to Israel. Travel to Jerusalem for religious purposes is explicitly allowed. About 1.7 million foreign workers are concentrated primarily in low-skill jobs. The Human Resources Ministry estimated that as much as 90 percent of the labor force in the plantation sector is foreign. The majority of foreign workers may be in the country illegally. Some illegal workers eventually are able to regularize their immigration status, others depart voluntarily after a few months, and some are formally deported as illegal migrants. The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of the forced expulsion of persons with a valid claim to refugee status. Over the past 22 years, Malaysia gave first asylum to approximately 254,000 Vietnamese. In 1996 Malaysia closed its last camp for Vietnamese refugees. Only a handful of Vietnamese asylum seekers remain in Malaysia. The rest have returned voluntarily to Vietnam or resettled in third countries.

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

By law citizens have the right to change their government through periodic elections, which are procedurally free and fair, with votes recorded accurately. In practice, however, it is difficult for opposition parties to compete on equal terms with the governing coalition (which has held power at the national level since 1957) because of legal restrictions on campaigning, as well as restrictions on freedom of association and of the press. Nevertheless, opposition candidates campaign actively and agree that the voting and counting of votes are relatively free and fair. The Government coalition controls 12 of 13 states. An Islamic opposition party controls the northern state of Kelantan. Malaysia has a parliamentary system of government. National elections, required at least every 5 years, have been held regularly since independence in 1957. In the 1995 general election the ruling coalition won an overwhelming victory, increasing its percentage of seats in Parliament to 82 percent. Several members of the opposition camp have since joined the coalition, increasing its representation in the Parliament to approximately 88 percent. The Malay-based United Malay National Organization (UMNO) party dominates the ruling National Front coalition. Within the UMNO there is active political debate. The Parliament in 1995 passed amendments to its rules that strengthen the power of the Speaker and curb parliamentary procedures heavily used by the opposition The amendments empowered the Speaker to ban unruly opposition Members of Parliament for up to 10 days, imposed limits on their ability to pose supplementary questions and revisit nongermane issues, and established restrictions on the tabling of questions of public importance. The amendments have restricted the opposition's ability to criticize the Government in Parliament. Nonetheless, government officials often face sharp questioning in Parliament, although this usually is not reported in detail in the press. 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, including two cabinet-level ministers. Women hold 15 of 192 seats in the elected lower house of Parliament and 13 of 69 seats in the appointed upper house. Women also hold high-level judgeships. 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 ethnic Malays hold the most powerful senior leadership positions. Non-Malays fill 9 of the 28 cabinet posts. Ethnic Chinese leaders of component parties of the ruling coalition hold executive power in the states of Penang and Sabah.

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

The National Human Rights Association, a private organization, publicly criticizes the Government, as do other NGO's, although it does not conduct investigations except in response to individual complaints. It seeks repeal of the ISA and is reviewing opposition-controlled Kelantan's efforts to impose Islamic-inspired restrictions in that state. A number of other organizations, including the Bar Council and public interest groups, devote considerable attention to human rights. The Government generally tolerates their activities but rarely responds to their inquiries or occasional press statements. Officials criticize local groups for collaborating with international human rights organizations. NGO's are active and critical of the Government. However, the authorities still accuse some NGO's of painting a negative picture of the country to the outside world. Although the Government did not place any restrictions on their activities, in 1996 it announced that it might require NGO's to register under the more restrictive Societies Act rather than the Companies Act (see Section 2.a.). There was concern among NGO's that the Government's case against prominent NGO activist Irene Fernandez, under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, might inhibit the willingness and ability of NGO's to speak out against the Government (see Section l.e.). NGO organizers of a planned conference on police abuse canceled the meeting after the Government warned of possible prosecution under the ISA (see Section 1.d.). The Government has not acceded to any major international treaty 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 and has blocked registration of a local chapter of Amnesty International. In July the Prime Minister endorsed the suggestion that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be reviewed to reflect different countries' values. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Ministry have since raised this idea with other nations.

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

The Constitution provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits discrimination against citizens on the basis of religion, race, descent, or place of birth. Although neither the Constitution nor laws explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or disabilities, the Government has made efforts to eliminate discrimination against women and the disabled. Government policies include preferences for ethnic Malays in housing, home ownership, the awarding of government contracts, educational scholarships, and other areas.


Government leaders have identified domestic violence as a continuing social ill. In June Minister of National Unity and Social Development Datin Paduka Zaleha Ismail accused police of failing to act on reports of domestic violence. Police officials denied this. The 1994 Domestic Violence Act offers a broad definition of domestic violence, gives powers to the courts to protect victims, and provides for compensation and counseling for victims. Those covered under the bill include a spouse, a former spouse, a child, an incapacitated adult, or any other member of the family. NGO's concerned about women's issues advocate legislative and social reforms to improve the status of women. These groups raise issues such as violence against women, trafficking in women and young girls, employment opportunities with equal pay, and greater participation by women in decisionmaking positions. Women's issues continued to receive prominent coverage in public seminars and the media. The cultural and religious traditions of the major ethnic groups heavily influence the condition of women in society. In family and religious matters, Muslim women are subject to Islamic law. Polygyny is allowed and practiced to a limited degree, and inheritance law favors male offspring and relatives. 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. The small number of women obtaining divorces under the provisions of Islamic law that allow for divorce without the husband's consent is steadily increasing. 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. Government policy supports women's full and equal participation in education and the work force. Women are represented in growing numbers in the professions, but women's groups argue that the level of participation is still disproportionately low. In the scientific and medical fields, women make up more than half of all university graduates and the total intake of women into universities increased from 29 percent in 1970 to one-half of the student population in recent years. The participation of women in the labor force increased from 37 percent in 1970 to almost one-half in 1997. 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 may wear in the workplace. The state government justifies these restrictions as reflecting Islamic values.


The Government is committed to children's rights and welfare; it spends roughly 20 percent of its budget on education. The Government has taken some steps to deal with the problem of child abuse. Parliament passed the Children's Protection Act in 1991, effective in 1993. The Domestic Violence Act, which covers children, provides protection against child abuse. The police proposed tougher measures to deal with the crime of incest. Although statistics are not available, the incidence of child prostitution appears to have decreased in recent years. Women's organizations still highlight the continuing problem of trafficking in underage girls. Police frequently raid brothels and prosecute some brothel owners.

People With Disabilities

The Government does not discriminate against physically disabled persons in employment, education, and provision of other state services. However, public transportation, public buildings, and other facilities are not adapted to the needs of the disabled, and the Government has not mandated accessibility for the disabled. Special education schools exist, but they are not sufficient to meet the needs of the disabled population. The Government and the general public are becoming more sensitive to the needs of the physically disabled. The Government has taken initiatives to make public facilities more accessible to disabled persons, and has increased budgetary allotments for programs aimed at aiding them. New commuter trains, for example, are being made wheelchair accessible. The Government also provides incentives for employers to offer employment opportunities for the disabled.

Indigenous People

Indigenous groups and persons generally enjoy the same constitutional rights as the rest of the population. In practice, federal laws pertaining to indigenous people vest almost total power in the Minister of National Unity and Social Development to protect, control, and otherwise decide issues concerning them. As a result, indigenous people have very little ability to participate in decisions. Under the Aboriginal People's Act, indigenous people (known as Orang Asli) had no right to own land. The law did not permit Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia who had been granted land on a group basis to own land on an individual basis or to receive titles to land. The Social Development Ministry announced in March 1996 that state governments, which make decisions affecting land rights, had agreed to issue titles to Orang Asli. Amendments were drafted to enable Orang Asli to hold titles on an individual basis. Some Orang Asli welcomed this development while others expressed reservations, saying that individual land titles might divide and weaken Orang Asli communities. The indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia, who number fewer than 100,000, are the poorest group in the country; however, according to government officials, Orang Asli are gradually catching up to other citizens in their standard of living, and the percentage of Orang Asli who were still leading a nomadic lifestyle has dropped to less than 40 percent. The Government has said that allowing Orang Asli to own land in peninsular Malaysia would enhance their economic standing. In east Malaysia, although state law recognizes the right of indigenous people to land under native customary rights, the definition and extent of these lands are in dispute. Indigenous people in the state of Sarawak continued to protest the alleged encroachment by state and private logging and plantation companies onto land that they consider theirs because of customary rights. A large project (Bakun dam) in Sarawak that would involve resettlement of a large number of residents in the area has raised several controversial questions regarding land disputes as well as potential environmental problems. NGO's and opposition politicians have called on the Government to address these issues before proceeding with the project. Although economic conditions late in the year forced the indefinite postponement of dam construction, Sarawak officials said in September that resettlement continues.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Government implements extensive preferential programs designed to boost the economic position of the Malay majority, which remains poorer on average than the Chinese minority, despite the former's political dominance. Such preferential programs and policies 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 the country's economic development. According to the Government, these programs have been instrumental in ensuring ethnic harmony and political stability.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

By law most workers have the right to engage in trade union activity, and approximately 10 percent of the work force belongs to trade unions. Exceptions include certain limited categories of workers labeled confidential and managerial and executive, as well as defense and police officials. Within certain limitations, unions may organize workplaces, bargain collectively with employers, and associate with national 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, 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 Director General of Trade Unions 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. The Government justifies its overall labor policies by positing that a social compact exists wherein the 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. Trade unions from different industries may join in national congresses, but must register as societies under the Societies Act (see Section 2.b.). In 1996 the Malaysian Labor Organization, which had split from the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) in 1990, officially merged with it again, thus reunifying the principal labor organizations. Government policy discourages the formation of national unions in the electronics sector; the Government believes that enterprise-level unions are more appropriate for this sector. In May the MTUC dropped its long-standing objection to restricting the electronics sector to enterprise-level unions. The MTUC stated that it would be better for the workers to have the in-house unions than none at all. Unions maintain independence both from the Government and from political parties, but individual union members may belong to political parties. Although union officers may not hold principal offices in political parties, individual trade union leaders have served in Parliament as opposition members. Trade unions are free to associate with national labor societies that exercise many of the responsibilities of national labor unions, although they cannot bargain for local unions. In 1997 long-time labor leader Zainal Rampak applied to join the ruling party. Although strikes are legal, the right to strike is severely restricted. The 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 then may become actively involved in conciliation efforts. If conciliation fails to achieve 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. According to 1994 data, the Industrial Court found for labor in 62 percent of its cases and for management in 14 percent. The remaining 24 percent were settled out of court. Figures for 1995 and 1996 are not available. 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. Although some trade unions question their effectiveness, it is not possible to assess fully whether these provisions are being effectively enforced, given the limited number of cases of alleged retribution. There are two national labor organizations. The MTUC is a federation of mainly private sector unions. CUEPACS is a federation of civil servant and teacher unions. Public servants have the right to organize at the level of ministries and departments. There are three national joint councils representing management and professional civil servants, technical employees, and nontechnical workers. Enterprise unions can associate with international labor bodies and actively do so.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively, and collective bargaining is widespread in those sectors where labor is organized. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers against union members and organizers. Charges 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 say that the Industrial Court is slow in adjudicating worker complaints. Other critics point out, however, that the Industrial Court almost always sides with the workers in disputes. Companies in free trade zones (FTZ's) must observe labor standards identical to those in the rest of the country. Many workers at FTZ companies are organized, especially in the textile and electrical products sectors. During 1993 the Government proposed amendments to the Industrial Relations Act to remove previous restrictions on concluding collective agreements about terms and conditions of service in pioneer industries. Legislation to address this issue was introduced and subsequently withdrawn in late 1994 by the Ministry of Human Resources to take into account other developments in the labor sector. The legislation was not reintroduced. The ILO continues to object to legal restrictions on collective bargaining. Foreign workers are not allowed to join trade unions. The MTUC said in May that foreign workers should be unionized. The Government responded that it did not encourage foreign workers to join unions and that labor laws were adequate to protect foreign workers' interests

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there is no evidence it occurs. In theory, certain 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 renders these laws without effect. The constitutional prohibition applies as well to forced and bonded labor by children, and it is not practiced.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

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 institutions, 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. In December 1994, a Japanese electronics firm was fined $5,400 for violating the Children and Young Persons Act. This was the first time that a large firm had been fined under the act. Child labor is still occurring in certain sectors of the country. A joint report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Asian and Pacific Regional Organization put the child work force at 75,000. However, government officials maintain that this figure is outdated, since it was based on a nationwide survey of child labor undertaken in 1980, which estimated that more than 73,400 children between the ages of 10 and 14 were employed full time. NGO surveys indicate that most child laborers work on agricultural estates, but there are indications that some are being employed in small factories. Government officials do not deny the existence of child labor but maintain that foreign workers have largely replaced child labor and that the Government vigorously enforces child labor provisions. Forced and bonded labor by children (and adults) is constitutionally prohibited, and does not occur (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no 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 that they need the protection of a minimum wage may request that a wage council be established. About 150,000 workers in the labor force of 8 million are covered by minimum wages set by wage councils. Representatives from labor, management, and the Government sit on the wage councils. The minimum wages set by wage councils generally do not provide for a decent standard of living for a worker and family. However, prevailing wages, even in the sectors covered by wage councils, are higher than the minimum wages set by the wage councils and do provide a decent living. Under the Employment Act of 1955, working hours may not exceed 8 hours per day or 48 hours per workweek of 6 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 1993 Parliament adopted a new Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which 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. It 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. Trade unions maintain that relatively few committees have been established and, even in cases where they exist, that they meet infrequently and are generally ineffective. There are no specific statutory or regulatory provisions that provide a right for workers to remove themselves from dangerous workplace conditions without arbitrary dismissal. Employers or employees violating the OSHA are subject to substantial fines or imprisonment for up to 5 years. Significant numbers of contract workers, including numerous illegal immigrants, work on plantations and in other sectors. Working conditions on plantations 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 they are illegal aliens, generally do not have access to the 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, besides 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 the labor laws.

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