ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Malaysia / Adilla Jamaludin

As of 9th June 2020, there are 8,336 confirmed cases, with 14.9% undergoing treatment, 83.7% recovered, and 1.4% deaths. In order to protect the public, the Malaysian government has taken steps to contain the spread of the virus. Despite the relative success of government efforts to curb the pandemic, there have been concerns regarding the unnecessary limitation of democratic participation and serious disregard for human rights. The latter specifically concerns the mistreatment of refugees and migrants, and the lack of attention given to domestic violence.



Malaysia has a population of 32.6 million with the following demographic breakdown: 62% – Malay and indigenous peoples; 20.6% – Chinese; 6.2% – Indian. 0.9% – other; 10.3% – non-citizens (including refugees and foreign workers).

Malaysia operates within a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The federation of Malaysia comprises 13 states. The King is Yang di-Pertuan Agong XVI Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah (since 24 January 2019). The head of government is Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (since 1 March 2020). It is important to note that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on 24th February 2020, but the King asked that he stay on as interim Prime Minister until the appointment of Muhiyiddin Yassin.

From 16th March to 9th June, Malaysia has been under a Movement Control Order (MCO) under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988. Under the MCO, there was a complete restriction of movement and assembly nationwide. Only businesses selling essential goods were allowed to continue business. On 10th June, Malaysia will enter its Recovery Movement Control Order (R-MCO). A looser version of the MCO.

As of 2017, the total expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP is 3.86%. Malaysia operates on a dichotomous public-private system of health care services. However, there still does not exist a unified system of universal access to healthcare for every person. The public sector caters to the bulk (~65%) of the population, but is served by 45% of all registered doctors, and even fewer specialists. There are 1.9 beds per 1000 people and there are  135 public hospitals with 1220 ventilators and 210 private hospitals with 450 ventilators.


Democratic Participation

Prior to 2018, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition (centre-right) reigned uninterruptedly since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Leading up to the 2018 General Election, the Barisan Nasional coalition’s leader faced global corruption charges. After the 2018 General Election, the Pakatan Harapan coalition (centre-left), led by Mahathir Mohamad (94 years old), won a simple majority which resulted in the first regime change in Malaysia’s history. Notably, 39 years ago, Mahathir Mohamad served as prime minister following the Barisan Nasional coalition’s victory in the 1981 General Election.

Against the backdrop of a tumultuous political landscape, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned on 24th February 2020. Protests erupted as rumours of an undemocratic regime change spread. On 1st March, Muhiyiddin Yassin was appointed to serve as Prime Minister by the King on the basis that he would be the candidate to have majority support of the 222-seat House of Representatives (pursuant to Article 40 (2) of the Malaysian Constitution). As a result of this appointment, the Pakatan Harapan coalition collapsed and the executive government was replaced by the Perikataan Nasional coalition (right-wing).

Critically on 4th March 2020, Prime Minister Muhiyiddin Yassin postponed the first parliamentary session under his leadership for two months due to the spread of Covid-19. On 18 May 2020, the House of Representatives met but it was not business as usual; the King gave a speech and parliament was adjourned until July 2020. Therefore, from March onwards, elected officials have not been able to fulfil their constitutional role as a check and balance on the executive branch. Furthermore, whether Prime Minister Muhiyiddin has the majority support of the House of Representatives is also unverified until a vote of no-confidence is held. It seems that during this pandemic, the parliament, the only source of democratically elected legitimacy, has been effectively muzzled.


Civil and Political Rights 

Refugees and migrants

Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention but permits the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to register refugees. Although Malaysia has not ratified the Refugee Convention, Malaysia is a State Party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Notably, Malaysia expresses reservations with some of the most critical articles: 2, 7, 14, 28 para 1(a) and 37. Despite these reservations, Malaysia still has a duty to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” (Article 6(2)) and “shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services” (Article 24). Unfortunately, it appears that the pandemic has suspended such commitments.

The UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights commented that Malaysia keeps refugees in extremely precarious conditions that all but guarantee they will fall into poverty”. UNHCR registers refugees, but that does not give them legal status in the country. Hence, they are unable to work, travel, or enrol in government schools. The lack of institutional support means that they have to seek informal work and schooling. Consequently, this segment of the population is left vulnerable. UNHCR reports that they have registered 179,520 refugees and asylum seekers. Out of that number, 46,740 are children under the age of 18. These figures do not account for the people that are still unregistered. While the country was under lockdown, Malaysian authorities began arresting and detaining 2,000 undocumented migrants, refugees and children, forcing them into cramped overcrowded detention centres. UNHCR has been denied access to Malaysia’s detention centres since August 2019, making it impossible to help advocate for individuals and children. Inevitably, the virus spread rapidly, with the current number of infections at 410 individuals across four detention centres. Officials were warned of the risk of infection by Doctors without Borders. Evidently, Malaysian officials detained migrants and refugees knowing that infection was more than likely. The Malaysian government cannot continue to detain migrants and refugees under the guise of controlling the spread of the virus.

Xenophobia is rampant in Malaysia, in part due to xenophobic comments made by government officials. Many civil society groups have called upon the government to change the tide of government policies on refugees and foreign workers. Most recently, 84 organisations undersigned a letter to Prime Minister Muhiyiddin asking him to speak out against the proliferation of ‘hate speech’ and violent threats against the Rohingya community. Moving forward, the Malaysian government should craft policies with recent political commitments in mind, such as the 147 recommendations it accepted after its third Universal Periodic Review. For example, Malaysia has agreed to speed up its deliberations on the signature and ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Recommendation 151.9 – 3rd cycle UPR Malaysia).

Domestic violence 

Malaysia is a State Party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Notably, Malaysia does not consider itself bound by articles 9(2), 16 (1)(a), 16 (1)(c), 16 (1)(f) and 16 (1)(g). In general, CEDAW aims to reaffirm fundamental human rights through the achievement of equal rights of men and women. Despite Malaysia’s commitment to this treaty, the government’s response to domestic violence during the pandemic falls appallingly low of CEDAW’s standards. The government’s advice for women to avoid conflict during lockdown was controversial, attracting allegations of sexism and gender discrimination. Government advice such as this poorly addresses the alarming increase in domestic violence reporting; a local domestic violence hotline has seen a 57% surge since the Movement Control Order. Malaysian authorities should take note of their commitment to better protecting women from domestic and sexual violence by strengthening the relevant legal frameworks and policies (Recommendation 151.214 – 3rd Cycle UPR Malaysia).