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Troubling state of human rights in Malaysia

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The state of human rights in Malaysia, as separately reported recently by the US Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bureau and global rights group Amnesty International, is disconcerting as it is a blot on the country.

Both reports indicated that there was not much human rights improvement in 2023, while in some cases there were alarmingly further restrictions or violations.

This scenario suggests that the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government has to some extent reneged on its commitments to reforms that were promised to Malaysian voters.

The good news is, as revealed by the Amnesty International report, the mandatory death penalty was abolished last year, but the court has discretion to impose the death penalty or long-term imprisonment and whipping. The group, hence, called for the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Of concern in both reports are the curbs on freedom of expression, of assembly and of association, which are the cornerstones of democracy.

The report by the US State Department agency also highlighted what it considered serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, including censorship or enforcement of criminal libel laws to limit expression and serious restrictions on internet freedom.

Restrictive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Sedition Act 1948, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 as well as the Peaceful Assembly Act 2019 were said to have been employed by the authorities, affecting the rights of ordinary people.

For instance, police questioned the director, producer and four others involved in the making of the movie Mentega Terbang, which was banned in September. Police investigations of the filmmakers are ongoing.

The bureau also mentioned human rights issues such as cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment by government entities; arbitrary arrests or detentions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy.

Equally significant in the report was the outstanding issue of human rights-related civil society groups that have not been able to register with the government as NGOs.

As a result, groups like Suaram and Sisters in Islam have had to register as companies, which causes legal and bureaucratic problems in opening bank accounts, paying staff salaries and raising funds.

The Amnesty International report also said the authorities continued to use the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Penal Code and the Minor Offences Act 1987 to restrict the right to peaceful protest.

This included police actions against seven organisers of and participants in the Women’s March that took place in conjunction with International Women’s Day and those who organised Labour Day rallies. This is hardly the way to promote women’s rights and democracy.

In addition, there were allegations of human rights violations that continued to be reported from detention centres where refugees and migrants were indefinitely detained.

To reiterate, the above reports are unsavoury, and the government must address issues that cast its democratic credentials into question.

While these human rights concerns are well placed, they somehow sound hollow when expressed by the State Department, whose state apparatuses have committed gross human rights violations in the wake of the carnage that the Israeli regime has inflicted on Gaza and which has had unflinching US government support.

Let’s take freedom of expression and the right to protest. Protests and dissent have been outlawed by the authorities in the US against groups that have expressed solidarity with the Palestinians on campuses and on the streets of major cities.

Or at the very least, those who protest against Israel’s murderous onslaught on Gaza risk arrest, the loss of their jobs, suspension of studies, and last but not least, being accused of antisemitism, even among Jews, some of whom are members of, say, Jewish Voice for Peace.

The University of Southern California, for example, cancelled a valedictorian speech that was supposed to be delivered by Asna Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian American Muslim, owing to “security risks”.

TikTok, the social media platform that is popular among Americans, is also at risk of being banned.

If being critical of the Israeli government is antisemitic (which, incidentally, is a misnomer as Arabs too are Semites) over its genocidal attack on the Gazans, then, following through to its logical conclusion, a critique of the Malaysian government regarding its alleged human rights violations should be deemed anti-Malaysian, if not Islamophobic.

We, of course, are not suggesting that two wrongs make a right.

What we are saying is that the rule of law should be observed and respected by every country on this planet so that human rights standards are equally applied for the benefit of all. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Mustafa K Anuar
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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