Malaysia Human Rights


The Southeast Asian country, Malaysia, the Land of the Malays, is a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy. August 31, 1957, it became independent from the UK.  King Al-Sultan Abdullah selected Ismail Sabri Yakoob as the prime minister on August 19, 2021, he was the third prime minister in three years.  Malaysia’s capital is Kuala Lumpur. Peninsular Malaysia is bordered by Thailand.  East Malaysia is the two states, Sabah and Sarawak bordered by Brunei and Indonesia located on the island of Borneo.  The South China Sea lies between these land masses. Its geographic coordiinates are 2 30 N, 112 30 E. Ethnic groups are Malay (58%), Chinese (24%), Indian (8%) and others (10%).  The mainly urban population predominantly speaks Bahasa Melayu the official language and English, various Chinese dialects, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Panjabi, and Thai.  Religions are Muslim (official) 61.3%, Buddhist 19.8%, Christian 9.2%, Hindu 6.3%, Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 1.3%, other 0.4%, none 0.8%, unspecified 1% (2010 est.)

In February, the Pakatan Harapan coalition government collapsed after parliamentariansdefected to form Perikatan Nasional under
new Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The country was placed under a Movement Control Order (MCO) from March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prison populations were not significantly reduced despite an outbreak of over 5,000 infections.

Investigations into human rights activists and government critics, mass raids against undocumented migrants and the pushback of refugee boats contributed to a deterioration of human rights. LGBTI people continued to face discrimination while Indigenous communities remained under threat from logging and mining. Human rights reforms, including the formation ofan independent police oversight commission and the abolition of themandatory death penalty, stalled under a new administration.


Human rights defenders faced investigation and prosecution, most commonly under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). In March, activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was investigated for a social media post calling for demonstrations against the change in government. Fadiah and 18 other activists were later investigated for failing to provide notice for a protest.1 In May, 262 sedition investigations were reported since the beginning of the year, while 143 cases were opened under the CMA. In June, opposition MP Xavier Jayakumar was investigated under sedition laws after criticizing the government for not convening a full parliamentary session. Also in June, radio personality Patrick Teohwas charged under sedition laws for a social media post allegedly insulting the royalty.

In July, a man was sentenced to 26 months in jail for social media posts deemed insulting to Islam. Steven Ganof news website Malaysiakini was charged with contempt of court over reader comments. The government also investigated journalists from the Al Jazeera news channel and the South China Morning Post newspaper for separate reports on the treatment of migrants under the COVID-19 lockdown.

The authorities charged five union activists with violating the MCO after they had held a peaceful demonstration protesting unfair labour practices, union busting and insufficient personal protective equipment for hospital workers.2 The charges were later dropped by a court.


The government response to the COVID-19 pandemic was harsh on refugees, asylumseekers and migrant workers. Immigration raids, involving arrests and detentions, were conducted in areas with high migrant populations amid rising xenophobia. A COVID-19 outbreak emerged in immigrationdetention centres,3 with over 600 people infected.

Authorities turned away Rohingya refugees arriving in boats or detained them in overcrowded facilities.4 In April, the navy turned back a boat carrying hundreds, including women and children. That month, another boat with hundreds of Rohingya refugees aboard that was allegedly turned away was accepted by Bangladesh authorities. While the government permitted two boats to land in April and June, the refugees were placed in detention. Somewere charged under immigration law, and238 Amnesty International Report 2020/21 sentenced to prison and caning sentences before the latter punishment was overturned.

Allegations of migrants in forced labour and living in cramped housing hit Malaysia’s rubber glove industry, which experienced elevated demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Infection outbreaks hit glove factories, with one employee fired after raising concerns about overcrowding. Outbreaks also occurred in construction sites.


Human rights defenders faced investigations following the change in government, including the chair of the electoral reform coalition Bersih, Thomas Fann; anticorruption activist Cynthia Gabriel of C4; and Sevan Doraisamyof the human rights organization Suaram.5 In July, police investigated Heidy Quah, founderof the NGO Refuge for the Refugees, after she posted an account of dire conditions in immigration detention centres. Quah also received threats online, highlighting a worrying trend for human rights defenders, especially women, who faced harassment and sometimes had their personal information made public. Authorities rarely investigated violence online.


The government continued to persecute LGBTI people. In July, Minister for Islamic Affairs Zulkifli Mohamad released a statement online that gave “full licence” to religious authorities to arrest and “rehabilitate” LGBTI people.6 In September, one of 11 men charged for “attempted sexual intercourse against the order of nature” in 2019 filed a judicial review against the law which criminalizes same-sex sexual conduct. The case was ongoing at year end.


Indigenous Peoples across the country remained under threat of losing land to development and logging. In February, aproposal to  remove official protection from a forest reserve in Selangor state was met with protests by Indigenous communities, who feared their homes and livelihoods would be affected. In September, Indigenous Peoples in Pahang state protested plans for the development of three rare earth mines.


In August, the government withdrew a bill to establish a police oversight commission tabled by its predecessor in 2019, and presented a new draft bill widely criticized as ineffectual.7 Also in August, the government revealed that from January to June, 23 detainees, including two children, died in immigration detention.8 There were no meaningful investigations into the causes of these deaths. More cases of deaths in custody followed, including Indian national Zeawdeen Kadar Masdanwho died while being held by immigration authorities.


In August the Federal Court declared the mandatory death penalty constitutional. Legislative amendments to repeal the mandatory death penalty, proposed under the former government, had not been introduced in Parliament by the end of the year. A moratorium on executions remained in place.

1. Malaysia: Raft of investigations a blatant attempt to intimidate peaceful protesters (Public statement by Amnesty International
]Malaysia, 4 March)
2. Malaysia: Drop charges against hospital workers’ union activists
(Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia, 15 September)
3. Malaysia: Act urgently to stop COVID-19 surge in detention centres
(Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia 5 June)
4. Malaysia: Hundreds of Rohingya seeking safety by boat at acute risk from coronavirus (News story, 8 April)
5. Malaysia must not return to climate of fear for activists and critics (Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia 12 June)
6. Malaysia: Government must end persecution of transgender people (Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia, 11 July)
7. Malaysia: Proposed IPCC bill a shameful step backwards in ensuring police accountability (Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia, 28 August)
8. Malaysia: Government must be accountable for deaths in detention centres (Public statement by Amnesty International Malaysia, 7 August)

Trafficking in persons:

Malaysia is a destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for women and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation, and men, women, and children for forced labor; Malaysia is mainly a destination country for men, women, and children who migrate willingly from South and Southeast Asia to work, some of whom are subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude by Malaysian employers in the domestic, agricultural, construction, plantation, and industrial sectors; to a lesser extent, some Malaysian women, primarily of Chinese ethnicity, are trafficked abroad for commercial sexual exploitation tier rating: Tier 2 Watch List – Malaysia improved from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List for 2008 when it enacted comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in July 2007; however, it did not take action against exploitative employers or labor traffickers in 2007; the government has not ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol (2008).

Political Situation:

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a population of approximately 33.5 million (July 2021 est.). It has a parliamentary system of government headed by a prime minister selected through periodic, multiparty elections. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), together with a coalition of political parties currently known as the National Front, has held power since independence in 1957.

Universal Periodic Review

Between October 24, 2013 and October 31, 2013 Malaysia undergoes a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. The UPR is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all of the UN Member States. Malaysia underwent its first review in 2009. The UPR is an opportunity for member countries to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their country and to fulfill their human rights obligations. The UPR process is a recent creation of the UN General Assembly, when the Human Rights Council was established on March 15, 2006 by resolution 60/251. Amnesty International’s concerns focus on Malaysia’s inadequate implementation of previous recommendations and accepted by Malaysia in 2009, as well as, the continuing serious violations on the ground in Malaysia.

Amnesty International’s current submission to the UNHRC raises continuing concerns and makes recommendations in regard to ratifications of core human rights treaties; the death penalty; freedom of expression, association and assembly; arbitrary arrest and detention; unlawful killings by security forces; torture, ill-treatment and deaths in custody; exploitation of migrants and non-recognition of refugees. These serious violations continue in the frame of Malaysia’s inadequate action on UPR recommendations it accepted in 2009 relating to accession to core UN human rights treaties and the improvement of migrant worker situations . Malaysia rejected the abolition of the death penalty and the accession to the UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees.

Amnesty International recommendations include:

International standards

  • To ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The death penalty

  • To broaden the review of the death penalty with a view to eliminating mandatory death sentencing for capital offences;
  • To establish a moratorium on executions, beyond the time frame of the review of mandatory death sentencing;
    • To commute all death sentences to terms of imprisonment;
    • To ensure vigorous compliance in all death penalty cases with international standards for fair trials;

Freedom of expression, association and assembly

  • To amend the Peaceful Assembly Act to allow for peaceful street protests, and to accord the right to to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to all people in Malaysia, without discrimination;
  • To amend or repeal the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act, and to ensure that in their amended form, the Communication and Multimedia Act, the Printing and Publications Act, the Evidence Act and the proposed National Harmony Act are in line with international human rights standards, and not used to restrict the right to freedom of expression and information;

Arbitrary arrests and detention

  • To reform the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act to eliminate provisional owing for incommunicado detention and detention without charge and to ensure it meets international human rights standards;
  • To charge the remaining ISA detainees with a recognizable crime, and to ensure that they are tried according to international fair trial standards, and without recourse to the death penalty, or else released immediately.

Unlawful killings, custodial deaths, torture or other ill-treatment by state security forces

  • To ensure that all criminal offences involving human rights violations by state security forces, including unlawful killing, deaths in custody and torture are promptly investigated through the criminal justice system and that those responsible are brought to justice;
  • To establish an independent police complaint and misconduct commission, outside of the Royal Malaysia Police , to ensure that there is a clear, independent and impartial system to deal with complaints of suspected human rights violations by police or security forces, including members of the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat;

For complete details of Amnesty International recommendations for action by Malaysia, see the following report.

More Information

Malaysia Newsroom

February 18, 2016 • Report

Amnesty International State of the World 2015-2016

International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. “Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

January 25, 2016 • Report

Critical Repression: Freedom of Expression Under Attack in Malaysia

Malaysia’s government has launched an unprecedented crackdown through the Sedition Act over the past two years to silence, harass and lock up hundreds of critics, Amnesty International said in a new briefing today.

February 25, 2015 • Report

State of the World 2014/2015

This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians. And yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.

May 21, 2013 • Report

Annual Report: Malaysia 2013

Malaysia Head of state King Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Head of government Najib Tun Razak Colonial-era laws which had allowed for arbitrary detention and restricted freedom of expression were replaced …

July 5, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: Malaysia 2011

Head of state: King Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Head of government: Najib Tun Razak Death penalty: retentionist Population: 27.9 million Life expectancy: 74.7 years Under-5 mortality (m/f): 12/10 per 1,000 …

March 26, 2011 • Report

Malaysia: A blow to humanity: Torture by judicial caning in Malaysia

Malaysia: A blow to humanity: Torture by judicial caning in Malaysia Available in PDF

March 26, 2011 • Report

Malaysia: Trapped: the exploitation of migrant workers in Malaysia

Malaysia: Trapped: the exploitation of migrant workers in Malaysia

March 19, 2011 • Report

Annual Report: Malaysia 2010

Head of state Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Head of government Najib Tun Razak (replaced Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in April) Death penalty retentionist Population 27.5 million Life expectancy …

February 10, 2020 • Press Release

Explainer: Seven ways the coronavirus affects human rights

The outbreak of the coronavirus (2019-nCov) that started in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province) in late 2019 has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). …

August 15, 2018 • Press Release

Malaysia: Convictions of two women sentenced to caning for having sexual relations must be quashed

Responding to yesterday’s sentencing of two women to six strokes of caning and a fine of RM 3,300 after they were convicted of attempting to have sexual relations in Terengganu …