Troubling state of human rights in Malaysia

Mustafa K. Anuar

Malaysia continues to use the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Penal Code and the Minor Offences Act 1987 to restrict the right to peaceful protest, says a report. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, April 26, 2024.

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 (AI), is disconcerting as it is a blot on the country.

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

This scenario suggests that the Madani government has to some extent reneged on its commitments to reforms that were promised to the Malaysian voters.

The good news is, as revealed by the Amnesty International report, 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 abolishing the death penalty completely.

Of concern on both reports are the curbs on freedoms 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.

Such restrictive laws as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 as well as the Peaceful Assembly Act 2019 were said to have been employed by the authorities that had adversely impacted the rights of ordinary citizens.

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 into the filmmakers are still ongoing.

The bureau also mentioned such human rights issues as cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment by government entities; arbitrary arrest or detention; 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 non-governmental organisations.

As a result, such groups as Suaram and Sisters in Islam have had to register as companies, which causes legal and bureaucratic problems when it came to 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 of 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 put 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, losing job, suspension of studies, and last but not least, being accused of antisemitic 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 a risk of being banned.

If being critical of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic (which, incidentally, is a misnomer as Arabs, too, are Semites) as regards its genocidal attack on the Gazans, then, to follow 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 there should be a rule of law observed and respected by every country on this planet so that human rights standards are equally applied for the benefit of all. – April 26, 2024.

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