Malaysia

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MALAYSIA 2021

Human rights defenders, journalists, opposition leaders and others were investigated, arrested and prosecuted for criticizing the government. The government used Covid-19 measures to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Further custodial deaths were recorded but no one was held to account. Immigration raids, detention and other forms of persecution against refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers continued. LGBTI people faced increased discrimination.

Background

The government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic caused public protest and political instability. A state of emergency was imposed from January to 1 August 2021 in response to the pandemic under which the national parliament and state legislative assemblies were suspended. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned on 16 August after losing majority support. His replacement, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, was sworn in one week later.

Freedom of expression

In February, news outlet Malaysiakini was fined RM500,000 (approximately US$119,000) for contempt of court for comments posted by its readers criticizing a court judgment. The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and Sedition Act were used to criminalize dissenting voices. In March, the government enacted an ordinance to combat “fake news” in relation to Covid-19, which expired with the lifting of the state of emergency in August.1

Activists, journalists and others faced investigation, prosecution and harassment for criticizing the authorities. In July, refugee rights activist Heidy Quah was charged under the CMA for a comment posted on social media in 2020 highlighting poor conditions at an immigration detention centre.

In July, police raided the offices of the makers of an animated film on police violence. On 29 July student activist Sarah Irdina Arif was detained under the Sedition Act and questioned for social media posts supporting “Lawan”, a movement protesting against the government’s handling of Covid-19.

Freedom of assembly

The Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) and Covid-19 control laws and regulations were used to prevent and disperse peaceful protests. In March, police interrogated demonstrators following a protest calling for the voting age to be lowered to 18.2 In May, protesters calling for parliament to be reconvened were investigated under the PAA. In July, police threatened to arrest doctors at one medical facility who were participating in a nationwide hour-long strike in support of better job security. The strike was called off as a result.

In the weeks preceding the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the crackdown on the right to peaceful assembly intensified.3 Dozens of people were investigated in relation to a “Lawan” protest in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on 31 July. Many others reported being harassed by police in their homes.

On 2 August riot police blocked 107 opposition members of parliament (MPs) from entering the parliament building, which had been sealed off after the government said Covid-19 cases had been detected. Police called in for questioning MPs who were part of the protest that led to the blockade and fined them for violating Covid-19 control laws.

On 19 August, police dispersed a “Lawan” vigil for Covid-19 victims and arrested and fined 13 people for violating Covid-19 control laws. Two participants were charged under the Police Act for behaving in “a riotous, indecent, disorderly or insulting manner.” Organizers cancelled a subsequent “Lawan” protest. The police nevertheless obtained a court order barring 34 activists from entering Kuala Lumpur and blocked roads leading to the city.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

The harsh treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers continued with immigration raids, arrests, detentions and deportations to countries where returnees were at real risk of human rights violations. In February, the government deported 1,086 migrants and asylum seekers to Myanmar in defiance of a court order and despite increased violence and threats of persecution following the military coup there.

In June, hundreds of people were detained during a series of raids on areas with high numbers of undocumented migrants. Crowded immigration detention facilities placed those detained at increased risk of contracting Covid-19.4 The government also disseminated anti-Rohingya posters and other anti-migrant messages online.

In May, the Canadian government announced that it was investigating allegations of forced labour in palm oil plantations and glove factories in Malaysia.

Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

At least 19 people died in police custody or shortly after release during the year. A 40-year-old man died in April after being hospitalized on release from police detention the previous month. According to media reports, the autopsy found that A Ganapathy’s death was due to injuries sustained while in police detention. The government claimed that investigations were ongoing, but no one was charged. According to government figures, 105 people died in police custody, prisons and immigration detention centres between January 2020 and September 2021.

LGBTI people’s rights

The persecution of LGBTI people and activists continued. In January, the government said it was considering increased penalties for “wrongdoings” by LGBTI people. In June, the government’s “anti-LGBTI task force” warned of action against those “promoting the LGBTI lifestyle.” As of June, 1,733 individuals had been sent to government “rehabilitation” camps run by the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) with the aim of changing the “lifestyle” and “sexual orientation” of LGBTI people. In October, Nur Sajat, a transgender woman, successfully claimed asylum in Australia. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted while in police detention in January.

Indigenous peoples’ rights

Indigenous people in Kelantan state protested plans to build a dam, with community leaders alleging lack of free, prior and informed consent. In July, an Indigenous community filed a judicial review against the Selangor state government challenging a notice to evict them from their land to make way for a tourism project.

Death penalty

Progress towards the abolition of the death penalty stalled although a moratorium on executions remained in place. Mandatory death sentences continued to be imposed, including for drug-related offences.


  1. “Malaysia: Government must immediately withdraw draconian fake news ordinance”, 15 March
  2. “Malaysia: Drop investigations into the Undi18 protest”, 30 March
  3. “Malaysia: PM’s resignation must restore respect for freedom of expression and assembly”, 17 August
  4. “Malaysia: Immigration raids on migrant workers during lockdown 3.0”, 3 June