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10 Major Things That Shaped Human Rights In Malaysia

Human rights in Malaysia are sanctioned in the Federal Constitution. The Constitution guarantees the right to life, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and rights to education. Despite this declaration, there are pockets of the community that remain marginalised, cast aside from the total enforcement of human rights. However, some changes have occurred since Malaysia’s independence that marks the human rights landscape in Malaysia.

#1: May 1969 Riot

Source: CiliSos

Following the 1969 riot, tensions had mounted in the years leading up to the general election. The conflict that arose from racially slanted messages from political parties led to an eruption and bloodshed on the streets of Kuala Lumpur[1].

As the lead changed hands from Tunku Abdul Rahman to Tun Razak, the New Economic Policy drawn by the new premiership asserts Malay nationalism and protects the rights of the majority population, Malays. Arguably, this had set precedence for the discrimination faced by both Indians and Chinese along with other minority groups in Malaysia[1].

#2: Bersih Rally, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections

In 2007, the Bersih rally was held on the 10th of November. It was organised by several non-governmental organisations and opposition political parties demanding electoral reform in Malaysia with 50,000 people taking to the streets. Subsequently, a few more Bersih rallies took place in the following years.

Even so, the rights of expression and peaceful public assembly that are guaranteed in the Constitution continue to be violated. Often, the rallies are broken up by police citing reasoning such as no police permit required by section 27 of the Police Act[2].

In 2018, the Peaceful Assembly Act was amended, reducing the notice period from 10 days to 7 days and rally participants are now allowed to march from one place to another. But, the law still permits criminal prosecution of those organising the rallies and those participating in peaceful assemblies[3].

#3: 2010 Amendments of Anti-Trafficking in Person Act

Malaysian law prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. The legislation was amended in November 2010. The amendment included charges against all actions in acquiring or maintaining the labour or services of a person through coercion[4].

Human Rights Watch however commented the changes in legislation would label trafficking victims as undocumented migrants leading them to deportation. This practice often hampers anti-trafficking efforts[4].

Source: Bernama

However, in 2021, Malaysia was downgraded to Tier 3 from Tier 2 on the US Watch List of Human Trafficking indicating there’s more to be done when it comes to law enforcement[5].

#4: Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act

The Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act were established in the early days of the Malayan Emergency to imprison people without charge for an indefinite length of time.

However, on 15th September 2011, former Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak intended to repeal the ISA. In its place, two new laws under article 149 (“Special Laws against Subversion”) of the Federal Constitution allow parliament to enact provisions that deny basic freedoms[2].

#5: Lifting The Ruling Against Students’ Involvement In Politics

Following the May 1969 riot, the University and University College Act 1971 was augmented and forbade university students from participating in political activities[1].

The Malaysian court amended the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) in 1975 to add the student politics ban following large demonstrations against that law banning college students.

However, in 2011, a Malaysian court ruled that the previous law was unconstitutional resulting in a landmark decision that allows students’ involvement in political activities outside campus grounds[6].

#6: Anti-Fake News Law


In 2018, under the leadership of Dato Seri’ Najib Tun Razak, the Anti-Fake News law was passed. The law criminalises the dissemination of fake information with a maximum imprisonment of up to 6 years and to remove the content immediately if found guilty[7].

However, it is seen as a violation of free expression by Human Rights Watch.

In 2019, the Act was scrapped by Tun Mahathir Mohammad during Pakatan Harapan’s ruling period[8].

#7: SUHAKAM’s Report Debated In Parliament

In 1999, The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) was established by the Parliament under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, Act 597. The agency works on different human rights violations and preventions through working on the ground and policy recommendations.

Despite the numerous reports and recommendations by the body, it has fallen on the deaf of lawmakers. 20 years after its establishment, the Parliament finally debated SUHAKAM’s annual report on the 5th of December 2019. A move to ensure violations of human rights can be prevented or improved[9].

#8: Death Penalty Moratorium

Malaysia is one of the 51 countries that still utilise capital punishments for 33 offences and has been mostly used for murder and drug trafficking [10].

In July 2018, the Pakatan Harapan government established an immediate moratorium resulting in zero executions in the following year. There were talks to fully abolish the mandatory death penalty for 11 offences with a bill being drafted in 2019. However, the changing premiership during the pandemic raises questions about when the bill will be tabled[11].


#9: Amendments Of The Industrial Relations Acts 1967

In the Pakatan Harapan short 22-month ruling, the Industrial Relations Act is the only act that was passed in the parliament. The labour law reform includes abolishing punishments for picketing and strikes run by the trade union community. At the same time, it also allows workers next-of-kin to continue Industrial Court proceedings.

The previously elected government also made public the proposed amendments to Trade Union Act 1959, Industrial Relations Act 1967 and Employment Act 1955. However, in the past two years with changing leadership, the gazetted legislation has partially enforced in January 2021[12].

#10: Automatic Citizenship Conferment Of Overseas-Born Children

As it currently stands, only Malaysian fathers can automatically confer their citizenship to their overseas-born children. On 9th September 2021, through the works of Family Frontiers, the High Court confirmed Malaysian mothers’ equal rights to automatically confer citizenship to their overseas-born children[12].

However, the implementation has been halted with the government filing an appeal against the decision. The Court of Appeal is set to decide on the 22nd of June on the automatic conferment of citizenships[12].

Cover Photo: Yusof Mat Isa/ Malay Mail

Explore our sources:

  1. Z.K.Johari. (2017). The story of Malaysia through its constitution. New Mandala. Link
  2. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia. Link
  3. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019: Malaysia. Link
  4. Human Rights Watch. (2010). Malaysia: Revised Law Threatens Anti-Trafficking Efforts. Link
  5. J.Loh. (2021). Malaysia’s downgrade to Tier 3 on human trafficking – inevitable? Astro Awani. Link
  6. Malaysia-Today. (2011). Students Allowed To Join Political Parties. Link
  7. Library of Congress. Malaysia: Anti-Fake News Act Comes into Force. Link
  8. The Straits Times. (2020). Malaysia to discuss the revival of Anti-Fake News Act in Parliament. Link
  9. K.Kaur. (2019). Malaysia’s Human Rights Violations That We Keep Ignoring. The Rakyat Post. Link
  10. FMT Reporters. (2021).Abolish death penalty, suspend pending executions, say groups, MP. Free Malaysia Today. Link
  11. The Star. (2020). Amendments to Industrial Relations Act to come into force on Jan 1, says Saravanan. Link
  12. The Star. (2022). Appeals Court: June 22 verdict for govt’s appeal on citizenship for children born abroad to M’sian mothers. Link

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