The Malaysian Bar congratulates the Government of Malaysia on its successful campaign for election to the United Nations Human Rights Council (“UNHRC”) for the 2022–24 term.1 It is an important achievement and presents an opportunity for Malaysia to contribute to the development and protection of human rights on the global stage, as well as on the domestic front. This must further translate into a vision for stronger recognition and protection of human rights in Malaysia, and the political will to carry out such reforms.
The Malaysian Bar also welcomes the recent appointment of YB Dato’ Sri Azalina Othman Said as the Special Advisor (Law and Human Rights) to the Prime Minister.2 It is a step in the right direction and increases the possibilities of the Malaysian Bar engaging with the Government to develop and strengthen policies in this area. A bolder move could have been the creation of a full-fledged and stand-alone Ministry of Law and Human Rights, having full charge and responsibility of shaping pro-human rights laws and practices that would enhance the well-being of “Keluarga Malaysia” and being equipped to face the many human rights challenges to Malaysia that are gathering on the horizon.
The Malaysian Bar is also resolute in our call that the Government must take concrete steps towards repealing and abolishing draconian laws. The Twelfth Malaysian Plan (“12 MP”)3 only very tamely provided that the Government will review or amend laws related to crimes. We call for the abolition of the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, both of which permit detention without trial for up to two years at a time, renewable indefinitely. The continued absence of meaningful “due process” protections may lead to one-sided hearings before their respective boards, which are not courts. This is clearly contrary to the idea of an open and fair trial. Provisions in the Sedition Act 1948, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and sections 233 and 263 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 contain excuses for the authorities to undermine and restrict the right to freedom of speech and expression: mere “annoyance” may be sufficient in certain circumstances. Sections 124B to 124J of the Penal Code are themselves a threat to the democratic system of governance in Malaysia. Combined, they are a collective affront to the rule of law, basic human rights values, and various constitutional safeguards. Abolishing or repealing these laws will demonstrate the Government’s resolve to upholding the rule of law and democratic principles, as measured by international norms and standards.
Over the past year, Malaysians have been exposed to the importance of human rights, bearing witness to events where our constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly and association have come into focus. We have seen workers’ rights advocates,4 bloggers,5 cartoonists,6 journalists,7 and satirists8 being investigated by the police. Their alleged offence? Drawing, saying or writing something that has hurt the feelings of some other person, or for gathering in support of work-related issues, to protest against corruption, or in defence of elections and Parliamentary democracy.
The Malaysian Bar reiterates our stand that the authorities should exercise restraint when these rights are being legitimately exercised in good faith. These rights cannot be taken for granted and must be actively used and upheld. The Federal Constitution is a living dynamic document — guaranteeing the rule of law to all persons and affording them fundamental liberties — this must be borne out in the Government’s policies and actions on the ground. This is especially so now that Malaysia will sit on the UNHRC.
We also call on the Government to commit to acceding to more international human rights treaties. Malaysia has so far only ratified three human rights treaties9 — the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”). The acceptance of international human rights norms will allow Malaysia to establish baselines for human rights in this country.
The Malaysian Bar also implores the Government to afford dignity and respect to refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia. Despite the significant population of this community in our country, we do not have a holistic legal and policy framework to deal with the issues that they face. We urge the Government to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) access to refugees and asylum-seekers at immigration detention centres — this will allow the UNHCR to verify the status of these individuals to determine whether they need protection.10 The Government should also demonstrate compassion to all migrants — regardless of their immigration status — and come up with a comprehensive programme to allow them to have a right to livelihood and security in Malaysia.
The Government mentioned in its voluntary pledges and commitments that it issued to campaign for election to the UNHRC that it continues to support the worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty.11 The Government also mentioned that they had established a special committee to study the abolition of the mandatory death penalty. However, the Government has been in receipt of the report from that special committee since February 2020,12 but nothing appears to have been done to make the report public and/or to implement its recommendations.
Election to the UNHRC provides an opportunity for the Government of Malaysia to listen more closely to the counsel of its fellow UNHRC members, and to use the three years of its UNHRC position to improve and strengthen its own human rights record. The Malaysian Bar expresses our continued support and assistance to the Government in its aspirations to uphold the rule of law, and to protect and defend the fundamental freedoms and liberties of the people. Human rights are basic rights that belong to every individual: it is based on equal respect for human dignity and shared universal values that are inherent in all of us. We must strenuously guard these rights, both abroad and at home.
A G KALIDAS
20 October 2021
1 “Malaysia Elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the Term 2022 – 2024”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia, 15 October 2021.
2 “Azalina appointed law, human rights advisor to PM”, Free Malaysia Today, 2 October 2021.
3 Twelfth Malaysia Plan, 2021–2025 (pages 4-19), Economic Planning Unit.
4 “Cops to quiz several individuals over 2 gatherings”, Free Malaysia Today, 10 May 2021.
5 “Blogger charged with insulting King”, New Straits Times, 11 October 2021.
6 “Why act on Thaipusam cartoon only 5 months later, Zunar asks police”, The Vibes, 28 April 2021.
7 “Al Jazeera journalists questioned over Malaysia documentary”, Al Jazeera, 10 July 2021.
8 “Fahmi Reza detained for satirical poster on ‘Keluarga Malaysia’”, Malaysiakini, 4 October 2021.
9 United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies: Malaysia.
10 “Alarm as Myanmar ships reach Malaysia to pick up detainees”, Al Jazeera, 20 February 2021.
11 “Malaysia's Candidature to the Human Rights Council Term 2022–2024: Voluntary Pledges & Commitments”, Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations (UN), New York, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia, 6 April 2021.
12 “Committee on alternatives to mandatory death penalty hands over report to govt”, The Star, 12 February 2020.