Back to top

Country in Focus: Malaysia

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
31,529,000 11,239 Kuala Lumpur Freedom of Expression: 0.40
ICCPR not signed or ratified Malaysia was an XpA Advancer over each of our four key timeframes (2017-2018, 2015-2018, 2013-2018, and 2008-2018). Civic Space: 0.35
Constitution of Malaysia 1957 (revised 2007), PART II, 10,1

  1. Subject to Clauses (2), (3) and (4)-  (a) every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression; […]
  2. Parliament may by law impose  (a) on the rights conferred by paragraph (a) of Clause (1), such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence;
Digital: 0.39
Media: 0.38
Protection: 0.56
Transparency: 0.41


The XpA data shows that Malaysia (3rd quartile) was the third-biggest overall Advancer in the world between 2017 and 2018, showing particular improvements in its Media scores.

Malaysia has risen more than 20 XpA positions (moving from the 4th to the 3rd quartile) since 2017, but optimism must be cautious: the promised democratic opening of the new regime has faltered, and progress has yet to be consolidated.

Figure 24: 

Figure 25:


On 9 May, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional party that had ruled Malaysia for 60 years. Outrage over 1MDB – a massive corruption scandal implicating numerous leading political figures – turned the electorate against the ruling party. There was an 80% turnout.

The opposition ran on a campaign of promises of clean government, transparency, review of restrictive laws, and even commitment to freedom of expression. The win came despite all odds; the ruling party had made numerous attempts to tip the scale, from holding the shortest possible campaigning period to redrawing constituencies and rushing through a ‘fake news’ law, under which they immediately launched an investigation against opposition leader, Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

New hopes of democratic opening

Several journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) facing trial under the Sedition Act and the Peacefully Assembly Act were acquitted or had their charges dropped.[1]

On 17 May, news sites began to be unblocked, including Sarawak Report and Medium. There was also a renewed interest in print media after the elections; following years of declining sales and readerships, newspapers were sold out at newsstands, and local broadcast news seemed to be regaining legitimacy.[2] Media representatives also began to discuss forming a media council.

Certain corrupt politicians were arrested, including former Prime Minister Najib Razak himself, who was arrested and charged shortly after the new government formed.[3] He had allegedly channelled almost $700 million (USD) from a state-run corporation into his personal accounts.[4]

The courts acquitted political cartoonist Zunar (real name Zulkiflee Anwar Haque) of his nine sedition charges in July and lifted his travel ban, along with human rights lawyer N. Surendran and parliamentarian Sivarasa Rasiah.

The government set up the Institutional Reform Committee to recommend legal and institutional reforms, which was an opportunity for civil society groups to raise their concerns and give recommendations. The committee has now completed its mandate and forwarded its conclusions to the government. Unfortunately, the report is classified, and was not made available for public discussion or scrutiny.

Backslide and broken promises are cause for concern

The new government’s commitment to transparency and reform seems to have waned since it took power, and the period since the election has been marked by broken promises and echoes of old tactics.

In August, the new government backslid on its commitment to repeal the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which allows detention without charge for up to 28 days, and has historically been used to suppress critical voices.

In a blow for transparency in the same month, it was revealed that the government would not be repealing the Official Secrets Act either, instead committing only to review it and to introduce a freedom of information law. They did not provide a timeline.

Furthermore, the government has failed to reform repressive legislation, including the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. Given the lack of transparency around the government’s legislative reform efforts, little is known about current plans to amend or repeal these laws.

In November, the government announced it would not ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, following pressure from conservative groups. This is particularly concerning given that the privileging of the Bumiputera people is currently written into the country’s constitution.[5] The new government has also failed to take concrete steps towards ratifying other human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But rather than simply failing to repeal repressive laws, authorities in Malaysia have utilised them to harass, investigate, and prosecute human rights defenders (HRDs), activists, and communicators for exercising fundamental freedoms.[6]

Lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was investigated under the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act after writing an article perceived to be disrespectful to the monarchy. She was subsequently called in for questioning under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, following her participation in a solidarity gathering outside the Brickfields police station in Kuala Lumpur on 11 July.[7]

As the year went on, protesters began to be arrested again, and charges were brought for insulting the new Prime Minister on social media.

On 16 September, eight student activists were arrested during a Malaysia Day protest rally in Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah. Protesters made ten demands of the state and federal government, including equal education rights, better public transportation services, and job opportunities for Sabahans.[8]

Reports also emerged of the police harassing HRDs for carrying out their work.[9] In August, indigenous Orang Asli activists faced threats and intimidation for protests and blockades against loggers and durian plantation farmers encroaching on their land. Over 300 agents from federal and Kelantan enforcement agencies reportedly carried out the operation, including the police, Federal Reserve Unit, and Forestry Department.[10]

Traditional values and oppression of minorities

The environment for minorities, including the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community, remains largely unchanged. In August, a Minister in the Department for Religious Affairs ordered the removal of portraits of two LGBTQ+ activists in an exhibit showcasing the diversity of the people of Malaysia. Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he had to order the removal of the portraits because they promote LGBTQ+ activities.[11]

HRDs supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ persons have been subjected to doxxing (dissemination of personal information or photos without consent), hateful and violent messages and threats, and vilification and demonisation in the media.[12]

The Malaysian government refused to accept numerous recommendations concerning the rights of the LGBTQ+ community during its Universal Periodic Review at the UN in March, citing religious belief and ‘moral consensus’ in Malaysia. On 22 September 2018, Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad dismissed LGBTQ+ culture and same-sex marriage as ‘Western values’ that are unacceptable in Malaysia.[13]



[1] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at

[2] Gayathry Venkiteswaran, ‘Malaysia: Promise of a change’, IFEX, 14 June 2018, available at

[3] Transparency International, Asia Pacific: Little to No Progress on Anti-Corruption, 29 January 2019, available at; see also Rosalind Mathieson, Anuradha Raghu and Anisah Shukry, ‘New Malaysian leader tightens net around ousted Najib over 1MDB’, Bloomberg, 12 May 2019, available at

[4] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[5] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at

[6] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at

[7] ARTICLE 19, Malaysia: Lack of Progress on Human Rights Commitments During Government’s First 100 days, 16 August 2018, available at

[8] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at

[9] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[10] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at

[11] Malay Mail, ‘Stop censoring us: LGBT people are part of the Malaysian picture — 47 civil society organisations’, 9 August 2018, available at

[12] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at

[13] ARTICLE 19 and Civicus, New Government, Old Tactics, 6 May 2019, available at