Flag of MalaysiaCivi Freedom Monitor: Malaysia

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 1 March 2018

Update: In 2017, the numbers of arrests and prosecutions of individuals for online comments made on Facebook and other social media platforms increased. Many have been arrested and prosecuted under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, 1998 which carries one-year imprisonment or RM50,000 in fines. Other human rights defenders and community activists advocating on economic, social and cultural rights have also been subjected to state and non-state harassment for their activism.


Since 2015, the government has increasingly used Section 124 of the Penal Code (prohibiting activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy) against critics of the government. In addition, on October 1, 2015, the Court of Appeal ruled that Section 9(1) of the Peaceful Assembly Act was constitutional in the case of R. Yuneswaran, an opposition politician. The ruling departed from the judgment made by the same Court of Appeal in 2014 in the case of Nik Nazmi, which declared Section 9(1) as unconstitutional, thereby raising legal concerns and confusion.

On April 9, 2015, an amendment to the Sedition Act, 1948 was passed by the parliament, making the Act even more draconian. On October 6, 2015 the Federal Court, the highest court of Malaysia, dismissed a constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act by Azmi Sharom, a law professor who was charged for making a legal comment on the monarchy.

In September 2015, Khairuddin Abu Hassan and his lawyer Matthias Chang were both arrested under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) for attempting to provide evidence to Swiss authorities on the 1 MDB scandal, in which Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is accused of channeling hundreds of millions of dollars from government-run company 1 MDB to his personal accounts. Khairuddin became the first politician to be arrested under the SOSMA, which allows 28 days of detention for investigation and no bail after being charged.

Civil and political rights in Malaysia is largely dismissed by the state authorities with substantial and systematic human rights violations taking place on a daily basis. As of 2017, Malaysia has only signed and ratified (with reservations) the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Laws that contravene civil liberties in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia are often enacted under the guise of being necessary for national security or preserving national harmony. Examples of these laws include the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, Prevention of Crime Act 1959, and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, which all undermine the right to a fair trial with provisions for prolonged pre-trial detention; the Prevention of Crime Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act, which do not require trial by a competent judicial body; the Sedition Act 1948, which has restrictions on freedom of expression; and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which disproportionately restricts individual rights to free speech alongside other restrictions against media and publications under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

State-led harassment of human rights defenders remains a common practice of state agencies. Human rights defenders are often called for questioning by the Royal Malaysian Police for allegedly organizing peaceful assemblies and for highlighting human rights violations by the state. Government-aligned non-state actors are often found to have promoted or engaged in violence against civil society, NGOs and political opponents with false allegations and death threats thrown around with impunity.

Please see the "Barriers to Speech / Advocacy" and "Barriers to Assembly" sections below in this report for more details.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Societies Companies limited by guarantee
Registration Body Registrar of Societies (ROS) Companies Commission of Malaysia
Approximate Number 52,980 registered societies with 67,013 branches (as of December 31, 2013) Unknown
Barriers to Entry Prohibition against unregistered groups.
Minimum number of 7 founders required.
No fixed time period for review of applications.
Vague grounds for denial.
Limited right to appeal.
At least two founding directors must reside in Malaysia.
Barriers to Activities Vague requirements to respect tenets of Malaysian life and government.
Criminal penalties for failure to comply with Societies Act.
Government access to company offices without prior notification.
Criminal penalties for failure to submit annual returns.
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy Restrictions on political activities if incompatible with the interest of security of Malaysia, public order and/or morality.
Restrictions on assembly.
Internet censorship.
Restrictions on assembly.
Internet censorship.
Barriers to International Contact Government authority to prohibit society from having contact with anyone outside Malaysia. None
Barriers to Resources None None
Barriers to Assembly 10-days advance notification, excessive force used against protesters, no assemblies allowed on "public places," such as roads. 10-days advance notification, excessive force used against protesters, no assemblies allowed on "public roads."

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Key Indicators

Population 30,513,848 (July 2015 est.)
Capital Kuala Lumpur
Type of Government Constitutional monarchy
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 71.97 years
Female: 77.73 years (2012 est.)
Literacy Rate Male: 70.16%
Female: 76.87% (2011 est.)
Religious Groups Muslim (official) 61.3%, Buddhist 19.8%, Christian 9.2%, Hindu 6.3%, Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 1.3%, other 0.4%, none 0.8%, unspecified 1% (2010 est.)
Ethnic Groups Malay 50.1%, Chinese 22.6%, indigenous 11.8%, Indian 6.7%, other 0.7%, non-citizens 8.2% (2010 est.)
GDP per capita $24,700 (2014 est.)

Source: CIA World Factbook

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 59 (2016) 1-182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 71 (2016) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 33 (2016) 100 – 0
Transparency International 55 (2016) 1-168
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Partly Free
Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 4 (2018)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
116 (2017) 178 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) No --
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) No --
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) No --
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No --
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) No --
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1995
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No --
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1995
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) No --
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2008

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The rights of citizens to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association are governed by Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.  However, these rights may be restricted where it is considered to be in the interest of security, public order and/or morality of the State.

Furthermore, legislation restricts civil society by curtailing the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression through the Sedition Act of 1948 (reaffirmed by the Government of Malaysia in 2012), the Official Secrets Act of 1972, the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, and criminal defamation laws, among others. Despite previous promises to repeal the Sedition Act, in April 2015, the ruling parties adopted amendments to strengthen the Sedition Act, increasing penalties from a fine and/or a prison term of up to three years to a mandatory prison term of three to fifteen years.

The right to assemble “peacefully and without arms” used to be impeded by Section 27 of the Police Act of 1967, which criminalized any assemblies that took place without a police permit, and was enforceable against three or more persons. This provision, however, was replaced by the Peaceful Assembly Act in 2012, which introduces equally restrictive and objectionable provisions.  Notably, street protests are prohibited altogether, while non-citizens and children below the age of fifteen are barred from participating in public assemblies.  Meanwhile, Section 141 of the Penal Code stipulates that an assembly of five or more persons is designated an “unlawful assembly” on several broad and general grounds, including, among others, if the common object of the persons composing the assembly is to overawe by criminal force the authorities and public servants, to resist the execution of any law or legal process, to commit any mischief or criminal trespass or other offences.

The right to form associations, although recognized in the Constitution, is highly limited by statutory law. The Societies Act of 1966 prescribes that only registered organizations may function as societies.  Restrictions in breach of the fundamental right of freedom of association are also imposed on academics, trade unions and persons belonging to the Malaysian Bar Council.  The Trade Unions Act of 1959 prohibits public officers from joining any trade union, and officers of trade unions cannot hold office in political parties unless exemptions are sought. The Legal Profession Act of 1979 disqualifies a person from being a member of the Bar Council or a Bar Committee if he or she holds office in any trade union, political party, or other organization which undertakes activities which can be construed as being political in nature.  The Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971 is also used to restrict freedom of association by mandating university approval for student associations.  However, amendments to the UUCA that came into force on August 1, 2012 allow students to join political parties and campaign as candidates in elections as long as they are not engaging in political activities on campus. However, because the university retains the power to forbid students’ participation in any organization they deem “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University,” the true freedom of university students to participate in politics remains somewhat ambiguous.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national-level laws and regulations affecting civil society can be divided into three different categories, as listed here below.

1. Legislation affecting freedom of association / CSOs:

2. Legislation relating to freedoms of speech and assembly:

3. Other relevant legislation:

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Amendment of the Sedition Act

On July 11, 2012, the government announced that the Sedition Act will be repealed and replaced with a National Harmony Act. It was reported that the new Act is aimed at finding the best balance between ensuring freedom of expression and the maintenance of harmony in the context of the country's multi-racial and multi-religious society. This announcement was met with caution by civil society, including religious leaders, as other repressive laws recently repealed were replaced with equally restrictive laws, which were enacted with little or no public consultation.

In June 2014, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) released the first drafts of three proposed bills to receive feedback from the public: (1) the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill (NHRB), (2) the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill (NHRCB), and (3) the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill (RRHCB). The draft National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill would have prohibited the dissemination of discriminatory ideas as well as discriminatory actions, but would make an exception for discrimination that has a “legitimate purpose.” The Commission bill would establish a commission that educates the public on issues of equality and harmony, advises the government on best practices, and investigates complaints of unfair discrimination through a new Unfair Discrimination Tribunal. The Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill would make it a criminal offence to incite racial or religious hatred.

The NUCC’s Working Committee on Law and Policy has explicitly stated that none of the proposed bills threatened the special position of the Bumiputera (Malay people/race or "Sons of the Land"), and that they instead alleviated any discrimination they may face in society. However, the draft National Harmony Act immediately faced stiff opposition from conservative forces who were concerned that it would not do enough to limit speech on issues of Malay rights, Islam, and Malay rulers.

On November 27, 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak reversed his decision and announced that the Sedition Act will not be repealed and would in fact be fortified in order to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions and to ban secession of Sabah and Sarawak states from Malaysia. A proposed bill to amend the Sedition Act was then tabled in the parliamentary session in April 2015. Despite strong objections from the opposition members of parliament, the amendment was passed on April 9, 2015. The amended Sedition Act clearly targets social media users by amending the word “publish” to also include words “cause to be published.” The Act makes it an offence to “propagate” seditious publication and creates an “aggravated” offence where the seditious act causes “bodily injury or damage to property.” The amendments also empower the courts to make a “prohibition order” for publications considered seditious and prevent a person charged with sedition from leaving the country. The amended Sedition Act did away with imposing a fine and increases the prison term from maximum three years to three to fifteen years. The amendments are not yet in force.     

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

There are three main legal entity forms for CSOs, namely “societies,” “companies limited by guarantee,” and “trusts.”

Societies are regulated by the Societies Act of 1966. A society is defined as any “club, company, partnership, or association” of a minimum of 7 persons. A CSO can only formally register under the Act if it does not have as its primary purpose the making of monetary gain/profit.

Companies limited by guarantee are governed by the Companies Act of 1965 if its objects are found to be useful to the community. The Act permits a public company with limited liability to be formed for the purposes of providing “recreation or amusement” or “promoting commerce, industry, art, science, religion, charity, pension or superannuation schemes or any other object useful to  the community” if it applies its income in promoting its objects.

In addition, under the Trustees (Incorporation) Act of 1952, a trust may be established for any religious, educational, literary, scientific, social or charitable purpose. The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department is in charge of deciding whether to issue a certificate of incorporation for each trust. Practically, trusts are difficult entities to administer and tend to work better as vehicles for the investment of personal/family money for a charitable cause.  NGOs established under a broader mandate, such as those working to advance human rights or to protect the environment, will find the structure of the trust – requiring that each trust must be open to everyone, and at least 50% of trustees must be dissociated from the organization and its founders – too difficult to reconcile in the management of their day-to-day activities.

Public Benefit Status

Most organizations created for public benefit will be exempt from tax.  These include, among others, the following: public or benevolent institution; society/institution engaged in research for the cause, prevention or cure of diseases, socio-economic research, technical or vocational training; Malaysian religious institution/organization which is not-for-profit and established exclusively for the purposes of religious worship or the advancement of religion; an organization established exclusively to administer a public fund solely for the relief of distress among members of the public; an organization which maintains or assists in maintaining a zoo, museum, art gallery or is engaged in the promotion of culture or the arts; an organization engaged in or in connection with the conservation or protection of animals; and other organizations included in the exemption guidelines of the Ministry of Finance. 

The Ministry of Finance is responsible for issuing tax exempt status through the use of statutory orders.  Sections 44(6) and 127, alongside Section 13 of Schedule 6 Part 1, of the Income Tax Act of 1967 govern this status. Applicants must provide detailed information and documentation to the Inland Revenue Board. Generally, applicants must provide proof of registration, copies of governing documents, financial statements of the preceding two years, a list of past and future activities, and a supporting letter from the relevant Department/Ministry.

Barriers to Entry

Registration Authorities

The Registrar of Societies (ROS) is the regulatory department in charge of the registration, supervision and maintenance of records pertaining to societies and their branches (as well as political parties) throughout Malaysia.  The ROS carries out enforcement activities governed by the Societies Act 1966 (SA 1966).  As of November 30, 2011, there were a total of 47,636 local societies and 70,300 branches registered under the ROS nationwide. In 2011 alone, the ROS rejected 229 applications for the registration of societies.

The Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) registers and regulates all companies in Malaysia, including CSOs registered or incorporated as companies limited by guarantee. CCM carries out enforcement activities governed by the Companies Act of 1965 (CA 1965).

Registration Requirements for Societies

Mandatory Registration. The SA 1966 prohibits the formation or operation of unregistered groups. The SA 1966 states that committing a breach of the provision and carrying out activities through unregistered organizations will incur a penalty of up to RM5,000 and RM500 for every day of continuing default. For example, the Hindu Rights Action Task Force (HINDRAF), which was established in 2005, never registered as a society. After several warnings by the government, HINDRAF was officially banned on October 15, 2008. HINDRAF was later declared an “illegal society” under Section 5(1) of the SA 1966, even though it had never been officially recognized as a society in the first place.  Former Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar explained that the group posed a threat to public order and morality in Malaysia and that although their rallies were technically peaceful, the message they carried had actively promoted division between the ethnic Indian community and the Malay-Muslims.

Eligible Founders. The SA 1966 requires a minimum of 7 founders to establish a society. The SA 1966 does not explicitly prohibit the participation of non-Malaysians, but the Registrar may require the office-bearer to be Malaysian under the arbitrary powers afforded by Section 7. Minors may be members under the SA 1966, but a person under 17 years of age “shall not be a member of the committee, or a trustee, secretary, manager or treasurer of a registered society.”

Registration Procedures.  At the inaugural meeting the 7 founders must agree on several formalities regarding the formation of the society for which provisions must be made in the constitution of that society, including:  name, registered place of business, insignia, aims and objects, and appointed office-bearers.  The founders must then submit an application, with all documents incorporated, to the ROS, for a small fee. The ROS sets no fixed time period to decide upon a registration application, and in practice, waiting periods can be excessive.

Grounds for Refusal.  Certain grounds for refusal are drafted in vague language.  Specifically:

  • Under the SA 1966, the Registrar may refuse to register a local society “where it appears to him that the local society is unlawful under the provisions of the Act or any other written law or is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or any purpose prejudicial to or incompatible with peace, welfare, security, public order, good order or morality in Malaysia."
  • The Registrar may also refuse to register a society where “the name under which the society is to be registered (i) appears to the Registrar to mislead or be calculated to mislead members of the public as to the true character or purpose of the society or so nearly resembles the name of such other society as is likely to deceive the members of the public or members of either society; (ii) is identical to that of any other existing local society; or (iii) is, in the opinion of the Registrar, undesirable."
  • The Registrar may prescribe other criteria for registration under the wide discretionary powers afforded to him or her under Section 67(2)(a) of the SA 1966, opening the door to a range of possible constraints.

Right to Appeal.  The right to appeal is governed under Section 18 of the SA 1966. Any person who is aggrieved by the decision of the Registrar to cancel registration, refuse registration, prohibit foreign affiliations or the involvement of foreign persons within the society, order amendments to the rules or constitution of the society, or make a provisional order for the dissolution of a society is given 30 days from the date of the decision of the Registrar to appeal against the decision to the Minister.  The Minister/ Head Registrar, whose decision will be final, may confirm, reject or alter the decision of the sub-Registrar.

A notable example of the right to appeal being applied in practice followed the former Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s declaration of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH 2.0) as an unlawful society in the run-up to a rally demanding for electoral reforms, organized by the latter on July 9, 2011. Under Section 5 of SA 1966, he argued that the coalition was “being used for purposes prejudicial to the interest of the security of Malaysia and public order.” The steering committee for BERSIH 2.0 filed on July 8, 2011 an application for a judicial review at the High Court (Appellate and Special Powers) registry to quash the July 1, 2011 order. Although unsuccessful thus far, another opportunity presented itself after, in an apparent change of stance, the same Home Minister said in a recent press conference that the BERSIH 3.0 rally planned for April 28, 2012 would be allowed as it was not a security threat. BERSIH quickly submitted, on April 25, 2012, a leave application to cross-examine the Home Minister, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Ismail Omar and the senior federal council member Azizan Md Arshad. 

Registration Requirements for Companies

Companies need a minimum of two founding directors who have Malaysia as their principal place of residence. They must be between 18 and 70 years of age.

Under the CA 1965, CSOs can be incorporated as private companies by purchasing ‘off the shelf’ companies from private providers (e.g. secretarial firms). They are fully legal and incorporated as private companies which have not carried on any business transaction or activity since their incorporation. Alternatively, for a completely new registration, a name search is conducted to determine the availability of the name. Incorporation documents must be sent to the CCM within three months of the name’s approval. CCM pledges incorporation within one day. Anyone dissatisfied with the Registrar’s decision may appeal to the Court within 30 days. Under the CA 1965, CSOs have 30 days to submit an appeal to the Court concerning a decision by the Registrar to refuse registration.

Foreign Organizations

Under the SA 1966, foreign CSOs cannot be registered as societies in Malaysia if they do not fulfill certain requirements. Section 4 criteria specify that different organizational forms will be considered as “established in Malaysia” if (a) a society has its headquarters or chief place of business in Malaysia; (b) any of its office members are residing in Malaysia; or (c) any person who manages, assist or fundraises on the society’s behalf does so in Malaysia.

Alternatively, foreign CSOs may exist as companies limited by guarantee under CA 1965. One limitation, however, is that it requires its two founding directors to have Malaysia as their primary place of residence. The procedures for the registration of foreign companies are extremely similar to the standard form of registration (as described above).

One example of an NGO that faced difficulties in obtaining legal registration is Amnesty International’s Malaysia chapter, which remains unregistered despite numerous applications since 1998. Its sixth application since 1998, filed in 2006, was rejected by the ROS.


The Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971, Section 15, mandates university approval for student associations. However, the Universities and University Colleges (Amendment) Act 2012, which came into force on August 1, 2012, amended Section 15 of the UUCA. The amendments allow students to join political parties and campaign as candidates in elections as long as they are not engaging in political activities on campus. Nevertheless, because the university retains the power to forbid students’ participation in any organization they deem “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University,” the true freedom of university students to participate in politics remains somewhat ambiguous. In order for the same regulations to apply to students at private higher learning institutions, amendments to section 47 of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 and section 10 of the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1979 entered into force in August 2012.

Barriers to Operational Activity

Generally, there is no substantial interference in CSOs’ internal governance.  CSOs are not required by law to notify the government of project activities or internal meetings. However, in order to ensure compliance with relevant Acts, respective authorities are given wide powers that ultimately restrain and burden CSOs in their day-to-day operations.

Constraints on Societies

Under the SA 1966, registered societies must respect core tenets of Malaysian life and government in their activities and affairs, and also in the fulfillment of provisions enshrined in the Federal Constitution, including:

  • The system of democratic governance;
  • The importance of Islam, as well as minority religions;
  • The use of the national language Malay for official purposes;
  • The position of Malay and the natives of the States of Sabah and Sarawak; and
  • The legitimate interest of other communities.

There is repeated emphasis on maintaining welfare, peace, security, public order and morality in Malaysia throughout the SA 1966, and it is this which acts as a barrier to a registered society’s operational activity.  Under the SA 1966, regulatory authorities hold the statutory power to revoke a registered society’s certificate of incorporation; suspend all or any activities; or seek involuntary dissolution if the organization is found to be carrying out unlawful activities or activities incompatible with the provisions of the Act. They may even prohibit registered societies from associating, or even communicating, with foreign persons.The ROS may also prohibit the use of illegal or undesirable badges and insignia by registered societies.

The ROS may search and inspect all books, accounts, minutes or meetings and other documents kept by the society on suspicion of the registered society violating provisions of the SA 1966. In cases where there is reason to believe that any registered society is being used for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order or morality in Malaysia, the Registrar or police may enter and search the place of business of such society without prior notice and use force in the process. They are even granted powers of searching persons suspected of hiding evidence. Relevant documents may henceforth be seized and held.
Registered societies are required within 60 days of holding its annual general meeting (or within 60 days after the end of each calendar year) to provide the ROS with documents relating to new amendments of the rules, list of office-bearers, number of members residing in Malaysia, place of business, accounts, name and address of any affiliated foreign associations, and a description of any money or property received from foreign entities. The Registrar may “from time to time by notice under his hand order the registered society to furnish him” all or any of the variety of documents listed above. The Act states that a registered society should be given a minimum period of seven days to fulfill that requirement, which is a brief period of time and is a major reason why many CSOs are facing de-registration.

Failure to comply with the SA 1966 will subject registered societies to various penalties.  A fine not exceeding RM2,000 and a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months shall be incurred where a society fails to comply with any of the Registrar’s regulations as conferred to him under Section 67(1). A fine not exceeding RM3,000 or a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months shall be incurred for using a sign or emblem without the approval of the Registrar. A fine not exceeding RM5,000 shall be incurred for failure to furnish annual reports. A fine not exceeding RM3,000 shall be incurred for changing the place or business or rules of the society.  A fine not exceeding RM15,000 and/or a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years shall be incurred for communicating or affiliating with foreign corporations against the orders of the Registrar.

Constraints on Companies

Companies limited by guarantee must provide the CCM with annual returns, audited accounts and an auditor’s report under the CA 1965.  To ensure compliance with the Act, the Registrar may access the offices of any companies to inspect and make copies of any relevant documentation. The Act does not explicitly require notice be given before conducting inspections.

Failure to hold an annual general meeting shall result in a fine of RM5,000 and a default fine of RM100 for every day of the continuing offence; Failure to submit annual returns shall result in a fine of RM2,000, while using a company name in business prior to incorporation shall result in a fine of RM50,000 and/or three years of imprisonment.

Declarations of the Illegality of CSOs and Deregistration

On January 8, 2014, the Secretary General of the Home Ministry declared Coalition of Malaysian NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO) an "unlawful organization." The Secretary General said COMANGO was promoting "sexual rights contrary to Islam" and that 15 of its 54 group members were unregistered under the Societies Act. There was concern that the ban is retribution for COMANGO's submission during the second cycle of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Malaysia in October 2013. However, the section of the statement declaring the group illegal was later deleted. Another coalition of over 80 Malaysian NGOs, Negara-Ku, was similarly declared illegal by the Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on July 26, 2014, as it was not registered with the Registrar of Societies. Negara-Ku has challenged this declaration by interpreting the law as declared by the Kuala Lumpur High Court in overturning a similar declaration regarding Bersih in 2012 as saying that unregistered societies can function if they are "not a threat to national security, public order and morality."


Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

Although there is no law that explicitly prohibits CSOs from criticizing the government, advocating politically unpopular causes, or engaging in political or legislative activities, civil society activism faces substantial obstacles in Malaysia.

The SA 1966 places legal restrictions on societies in the form of the statutory power to de-register or involuntarily dissolve societies. Societies may be prevented from engaging in certain political activities if considered to be incompatible with the interest of security of Malaysia, public order and/or morality.  Furthermore, laws such as the Official Secrets Act of 1972, the Sedition Act of 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 contain provisions that constrain the societies’ freedom of expression and advocacy activities. Freedom of assembly is highly restricted by laws such as the new Peaceful Assembly Act in 2012 and the Penal Code.  Also, the questionable independence of the judiciary, notwithstanding repeated commitments by chief judiciaries, has meant that CSOs do not have an independent redress mechanism at times when their space is threatened.

Since 2014 there has been an increase in the use of the Sedition Act to prosecute individuals and quell free speech.

Penal Code
Federal Police Chief Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar has threatened to use the SOSMA against those who say things which “could worsen the current racial and religious tension.”  The SOSMA replaced the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, which provided powers to detain individuals without trial.

On July 31, 2012, the Penal Code (Amendments) Act 2012 came into force. The Amendment Act introduced 13 additional clauses to Section 124 of the Penal Code. It criminalizes activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, which is broadly defined as "any activity carried out by a person, or a group of persons, or a group, designed to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by violent or unconstitutional means." Sections 124B and 124C state that anyone who is involved in an "activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy" can be imprisoned for a term up to 20 years, while those attempting to do so can be imprisoned up to 15 years. Section 124D, 124E and 124F of the bill state that anyone who prints, publicizes, sells, issues, circulates, reproduces or possesses, or imports any document or publication detrimental to parliamentary democracy can be imprisoned for a term up to 15 years, 10 years, and 5 years respectively. Section 124J of the bill imposes a prison term of 10 years for those who received such documents but failed to deliver them to the police.

Besides offences detrimental to parliamentary democracy, the bill also punishes, among others, offences of sabotage, espionage, dissemination of false reporting, and dissemination of information that incites violence or counsel violent disobedience to the law. The sentence for committing sabotage and attempting to commit sabotage is especially high - life imprisonment and 15 years of imprisonment, respectively. The crime of sabotage was not defined in the bill.

In responding to public concerns that such amendments to the Penal Code would be abused, the then de facto law minister Nazri Aziz declared that the Penal Code would be used to deal with violent offences such as the assassination of a head of state, a coup d'état, an armed insurgency, or guerrilla warfare, and breaches of constitutional provisions. On December 31, 2014, the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2013 came into force. Section 203A was added, making it an offence for anyone to disclose any information or matter which was obtained in the performance of their duties or the exercise of their functions under any written law. The offence is punishable with a fine of not more than RM1 million or with imprisonment for a term of up to one year. It further provided that whoever has any information or matter which to his knowledge has been disclosed in contravention of Section 203A and discloses that information or matter to any other person shall be punished with fine of not more than RM 1 million, or with imprisonment for a term of up to one year, or both.

With the constitutionality of the Sedition Act being challenged in court in the case of Azmi Sharom at the Federal Court, the police have increasingly used Section 124 of the Penal Code regarding activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy to clamp down on critics of the government. This trend started in July 2015 with two members of parliament, Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli being probed under Section 124B in relation to allegations that they were involved in the tampering and fabrication of documents related to the 1MDB scandal in order to oust Prime Minister Najib.

Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) 
Federal Police Chief Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar has threatened to use the SOSMA against those who say things which “could worsen the current racial and religious tension.”  The SOSMA replaced the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, which provided powers to detain individuals without trial.

The SOSMA has been strongly criticized by various civil society groups. For example, while Clause 4 of the SOSMA reduces the period of detention without judicial review from the ISA's 60 days to 28 days, the absence of judicial scrutiny means the police can use the law to detain anyone under the pretext of active investigation. The law authorizes arrest without judicial warrant based on the subjective standard of "has reason to believe" that the person may be involved in security offences. In addition, Clause 5(2) encourages abusive interrogations and the possibility of confession under duress by allowing for a delay of 48 hours before the suspect has access to a lawyer.

The SOSMA also provides powers to the public prosecutor and the police to intercept communications on suspects, and permits the police to unilaterally impose electronic monitoring devices on individuals released from detention (Clause 6), in deliberate breach of privacy and infringement of the principle that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Furthermore, while the SOSMA purportedly prohibits arrest solely on the basis of "political belief or political activity," the narrow definition of "political activity" under Clause 4(12) of the SOSMA effectively excludes various forms of peaceful political activities, and thus provides no guarantee that it will not be used against activists and human rights defenders. In denying the right to bail for people charged with security offences (Clause 13), the SOSMA essentially authorizes the ongoing detention of suspects who have not yet been found guilty. More restrictive are Clauses 14 and 16, which allow the identity of certain prosecution witnesses to be kept from defendants and their attorneys, depriving them of the right to cross-examine the witnesses against them. Finally, the SOSMA specifies that the repeal of the ISA will not lead to the release of current ISA detainees (Clause 32(2)).    

Evidence Act, 1950
On July 31, 2012, amendments to the Evidence Act came into force, despite strong criticisms and calls for repeal by rights and media freedom groups as well as the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHUKAM). The government deemed the amendments as necessary to protect the security of the state. The amendments introduce a new provision, Section 114(A), which holds Internet account holders and intermediaries liable for content published through its accounts/services. Under this provision, if an anonymous person posts content deemed offensive or illegal using another person's Internet account, account holders will be held liable - unless proven otherwise. In other words, the burden of proof is placed on Internet account holders rather than the prosecutor/investigator.

Printing Presses and Publications (Amendment) Act 2012
Amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) entered into force on July 15, 2012, as part of the government's efforts to improve its public image with regard to respect for civil liberties and media freedom in Malaysia. Most significantly, the requirement for newspapers (among other printing presses and publications) to renew a permit annually has been eliminated, while publishers are allowed to challenge in court any decisions by the Home Affairs Minister to revoke or suspend permits under the amended law. While this can be seen as a relative improvement for the publishing industry, advocates have argued that the oppressive instruments of press censorship remain largely intact: anyone wanting to publish is still required to apply for a license from the Minister who still has the power to revoke it at any time. In October 2012, independent online news portal Malaysiakini successfully challenged the Home Affairs Minister's rule that prohibits granting a printing license to the online newspaper, which has been in business for thirteen years. Malaysiakini applied for a publishing permit to publish 40,000 copies daily in Klang Valley on April 2010 under Section 6(1)(a) Act 301 of the PPPA 1984, but had been rejected by the Home Minister in August 2010 on the grounds that the publishing permit is a "privilege", not a right. Pro-government newspapers and publications such as Utusan Malaysia, New Straits Times, Suara Perkasa have had their licenses renewed. The decision to refuse the permit application of Malaysiakini has been met with criticism from various civil society organizations. On October 1, 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court quashed the Home Affairs Ministry's decision as unconstitutional as it would violate the freedom of expression, which includes a right to a permit. It also affirmed that the permission to publish the printed version of the newspaper is a fundamental liberty. This ruling is seen as a significant development for freedom of expression and freedom of press in Malaysia.

Barriers to International Contact

There is no general restriction on the ability of CSOs to communicate and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business or governments, either within or outside the country.  The law does not require that advance notice be given to the government to travel, participate in networks, or access the Internet.  There are also no special rules concerning foreign funding. 

The broad sweep of SA 1966, however, does open up the possibility of interference with a society’s international affiliations. More disturbingly, the ROS may prohibit a society, through a written order, from having direct or indirect contact with anybody outside of Malaysia, if the ROS is satisfied that such an order is necessary in the interest of public order, safety or security. In more extreme cases, the ROS may compel the registered society to re-draft its governing rules to exclude persons who are not “Federal citizens” from holding office within that society.

The importance the ROS accords these provisions on international contact is reflected by the penalty enforceable in instances of breach: Failure to comply with the Registrar’s order prohibiting communication or affiliation with foreign corporations shall incur a fine of up to RM15,000 (approx. US$5,000) and/or a term of imprisonment of up to 5 years.

The Sedition Act of 1948 further confers on the government the power to restrict international contact by alluding to the need to maintain ethnic and religious harmony.

Since 2011, scores of individuals, mainly human rights defenders, from Peninsular Malaysia have been barred from entering the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Since 2017, there has also been a growing trend where regional and international human rights defenders and activists have been barred from travelling into Malaysia for human rights work. This includes the deportation and denial of entry of Joshua Wong of Hong Kong in 2015, Mugiyanto of Indonesia in January 2016, and Han Hui Hui of Singapore and Adilur Rahman Khan of Bangladesh in 2017

Barriers to Resources

While there are no legal constraints on the ability of CSOs to seek and secure funding, other than those set out in the Anti-Corruption Act of 1997 or Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001, CSOs receiving foreign funds are often demonized by both the government and the government-controlled media as being “foreign agents.”

Barriers to Assembly

Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution states that “all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.”

The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (“PAA”) regulates the holding of assemblies in Malaysia. An “assembly” is defined under the PAA as an “intentional and temporary assembly of a number of persons in a ‘public place’, whether or not the assembly is at a particular place or moving.” Under Section 3, a public place is defined as follows:
(a) a road
(b) a place open to or used by the public as of right, or
(c) a place for the time being open to or used by the public, whether or not-
(i) the place is ordinarily open to or used by the public
(ii) by the express or implied consent of the owner or occupier, or
(iii) on payment of money.

Restrictions on Organizers and Participants
Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution states that “all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.” Thus, the right to assemble is unavailable to foreign citizens and non-citizens. Indeed, Article 4(2) expressly prohibits any non-citizen from participating in or organizing any assembly. For example, Australian Senator Nick Xenophon was arrested and deported from Malaysia for violating the PAA during the Bersih 3.0 rally.

In addition, anyone below 21 years of age is prohibited from organizing assemblies and anyone less than 15 years of age is not allowed to participate in assemblies.

Advance Notification
The PAA stipulates that: “Notice of an assembly must be given to the police within 10 days before the assembly date.” The police are required to respond within 5 days. Under section 16(1) of PAA, the organizers may appeal within 48 hours if they do not agree with the restrictions and conditions imposed by police. There is no exception for spontaneous demonstrations.

Time, Place and Manner Restrictions
The PAA states in Section 4(1) that the right to assemble does not encompass a “street protest” and that a “street protest” is illegal. However, the definition of “street protest” is unduly broad; Section 3 defines a street protest as an “open air assembly, which begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes.”

Additionally, participating or organizing an assembly at a prohibited place or within fifty meters from the limit of a prohibited place (such as a “public road”) is considered an offence under the Protected Areas and Protected Places Act, 1959, which was amended in 2006. This Act states that "any area if it appears to the Minister to be necessary or expedient that special measures should be taken to control the movements and conduct of persons therein he may by order declare the area to be a protected area for the purposes of the Act." This severely restricts available venues where assemblies can be held.

Furthermore, Sections 6 and 7 of the PAA state that neither organizers nor participants may perform any act or make any statement which has a “tendency” to promote “feelings of ill-will or hostility amongst the public at large or do anything which will disturb public tranquility.” The vagueness of terminology invites the exercise of arbitrary government discretion.

The Penal Code also regulates freedom of assembly in a broad and vague manner. Section 141 of the Penal Code defines any assembly of five or more persons as an “unlawful assembly”, if the common object of the persons composing that assembly is:

To overawe by criminal force, or show of criminal force, the Legislatives or Executive Government of Malaysia or any State, or any public servant in the exercise of the lawful power of such public servant; or

To resist the execution of any law, or of any legal process; or

To commit any mischief or criminal trespass, or other offences.

A person who is convicted for participating in an illegal assembly is subject to imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or to a fine, or to both. Those who join or continue in an unlawful assembly, knowing that such unlawful assembly has been ordered in the manner prescribed by law to disperse, will face imprisonment of up to two years, or a fine, or both. The owner or occupier of land on which an unlawful assembly is held is also subject to punishment of a fine of not more than RM2,000.

Excessive Force
Malaysian authorities have used excessive force in response to public demonstrations.  As but one example, on June 22, 2014, more than one thousand people participated in the “Shut Down Lynas” rally in Gebeng, Kuantan. The police cordoned off the plant and stopped the protesters from marching to the plant. A total of 16 activists were arrested and one Sydney based environmental activist was remanded for five days before being released. The police were accused of using force unnecessarily and excessively in dealing with peaceful protesters. One protester said the police used iron knuckles while beating them. Many witnesses also revealed that protesters were beaten up in police truck by police officers despite already being handcuffed from behind and defenseless. One protester suffered serious injuries and was admitted to the ICU and was later diagnosed for “celebral concussion”.

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UN Universal Periodic Review Reports

4th Session 2009

Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs


USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes

Not available

U.S. State Department

2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Fragile States Index Reports

Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index

IMF Country Reports

Malaysia and the IMF

International Commission of Jurists

Not available

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library


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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

The State Bank violates human rights and freedoms (November 2017) (Malaysian)
An activist from a Malaysian NGO, Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (JERIT), was sacked by the National Bank, Bank Negara Malaysia, for her work for the NGO and for her support of a Socialist Party candidate during the 2013 elections. She is in the process of challenging her sacking and seeking judicial review on the matter.

New political parties, NGOs foreign-funded, Malay group claims (March 2017)
Two political parties and four non-governmental organisations (NGOs) currently seeking the approval of the Registrar of Societies (RoS) have received foreign funding, an activist has claimed. Pro-Malay group Jaringan Melayu Malaysia president Datuk Azwanddin Hamzah said he has already lodged a report with the RoS over the matter, and subsequently will be lodging a police report soon. Azwanddin was reported to have handed over a memorandum yesterday to the RoS urging a thorough investigations on the parties for allegedly receiving funding from American billionaire George Soros. Several local NGOs, including electoral reform group Bersih 2.0, the Malaysian Bar and news portal Malaysiakini have come under police scrutiny after they admitted to receiving grants from Soros' pro-democracy network Open Society Foundations (OSF).

Malaysia: Controversial National Security Act launched (August 2016)
Tough new security legislation came into force in Malaysia, with critics saying the "draconian" law threatens democracy and could be used against opponents of the prime minister. The legislation gives the government power to declare virtual martial law in areas deemed to be under "security threat."

Amnesty International: National Security Council Act gives authorities unchecked and abusive powers (August 2016)
The National Security Council Act that comes into force today empowers the Malaysian authorities to trample over human rights and act with impunity, Amnesty International said today. The new law will grant the Malaysian authorities the power to carry out warrantless arrests, search and seize property, and impose curfews at will.

Sabah demo activist charged for not ‘notifying’ cops (October 2015)
Bersih 2.0 announced in a statement, that its Sabah Chairperson Jannie Lasimbang was charged in the Magistrate’s Court in Kota Kinabalu on Wednesday for not giving the police ten days notice, as required under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, for gatherings held in Kota Kinabalu recently. Lasimbang is the first activist to be charged for the Bersih 4 gatherings in the Sabah capital on August 29 and 30. The gatherings were part of similar affairs in 70 cities worldwide including Kuala Lumpur and Kuching. She was charged under section 9(5) of the Act, disclosed Bersih 2.0 Steering Committee Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah.

Federal Court rules Sedition Act constitutional, UM’s Azmi Sharom to stand trial (October 2015)
Universiti Malaya law lecturer Dr Azmi Sharom lost today his constitutional challenge against the Sedition Act 1948 and will have to stand trial for issuing an allegedly seditious remark.  It also ruled that Section 4 of the Sedition Act under which Azmi was charged is constitutional. On September 2 last year, Azmi pleaded not guilty to the principal charge under Section 4(1)(b) and an alternative charge under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act 1948 at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court for a remark he made in an article published on Malay Mail Online. Section 4(1)(b) covers “uttering any seditious words” while Section 4(1)(c) deals with individuals who publish seditious publications, among other things. If convicted under either charge for his quotes in the article titled “Take Perak crisis route for speedy end to Selangor impasse, Pakatan told”, the UM associate professor could face a maximum fine of RM5,000, a maximum three-year jail term or both.

Court backtracks, now says punishing rally organisers legal (October 2015)
The Court of Appeal today ruled that Section 9(5) in the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA) that punishes organisers for holding assemblies with fines of up to RM 10,000 is constitutional. This follows a ruling in April 2014 from the same court, in which Section 9(5) was deemed unconstitutional.

Khairuddin rearrested under Sosma moments after court orders his release (September 2015)
Former Batu Kawan Umno deputy chief Khairuddin Abu Hassan has been rearrested by the police, moments after he was released by the court at the Jalan Duta Court Complex. Khairuddin, who filed reports against 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) in several countries, was rearrested under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma). He can be detained without trial for up to 29 days under the Sosma act.

Cops arrest former Umno man after barring him from leaving country (September 2015)
Former Umno leader Khairuddin Abu Hassan was arrested by police this evening, just hours after posting on Facebook that he is being investigated for submitting evidence related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to the Swiss attorney-general in Bern, Switzerland.  Khairuddin is being investigated for attempt to commit activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy, a charge under the Penal Code.

1MDB critics Tony Pua and Rafizi barred from leaving country (July 2015)
DAP's Tony Pua and PKR’s Rafizi Ramli, who have been vociferous in their criticism of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), have been barred by immigration authorities from leaving the country. "They stopped me and told me I can't go aboard. They said the instructions came 'from above'. No reasons were given why I was prevented from leaving," he told The Malaysian Insider when contacted.

Changes to Sedition Act passed after heated debate (April 2015)
The amendments, which critics said would make the law more draconian, were passed by a vote of 108 to 79. Among other changes, the amendments would among others remove criticism of the government or the administration of justice as something seditious, and make promoting hatred between different religions an offence. The amendments also do away with fines, with a jail term of between three and seven years, as well as up to 20 years imprisonment for seditious acts or statements that lead to bodily harm and property damage. There is also no leniency for first time and youthful offenders, who can be automatically slapped a minimum three-year sentence. The act now empowers the court to order the removal of seditious material on the internet.

Cartoonist Zunar charged with nine counts of sedition (April 2015)
Cartoonist Zunar has claimed trial to nine charges of sedition for allegedly insulting the judiciary in tweets made regarding Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's conviction in the Sodomy 2 case. The tweets contained commentary of the proceedings on the day, and mentioned the Chief Justice and Palace of Justice. The charges were broken up into three sets of three charges each, to reflect that the tweets were treated as separate transactions. As such, Zulkiflee could be jailed consecutively for each of the three "transactions", if found guilty. The charges under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act are punishable by up to three years prison and a fine of up to RM5,00.0

Banned Sarawak NGO takes Home Minister to court (January 2015)
The Sarawak Association for Peoples’ Aspiration (Sapa), which has since been banned by the Home Minister, is seeking a judicial review to reinstate its status. Counsel Dominique Ng, who is representing Sapa, said the banning order was a serious matter of public interest as it struck at freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of association, the very tenets of democracy and fundamental civil liberties guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.




In campaign to defend democracy, U.S. should start with Malaysia (November 2014)

Penang PPS an illegal organisation, says police (August 2014)

Clause protecting LGBT community may be dropped due to political pressure (July 2014)

Anti-Lynas Activists Charged with Illegal Assembly (July 2014)

National Harmony Law violates "Rukunegara" with Tolerance of Atheists (June 2014)

Cabinet Receives First Draft of National Harmony Bill (May 2014)

Attorney General Seeks to Reinstate Charges against Nik Nazim Nik Ahmed (May 2014)

Application to Dismiss Additional PAA Charges Fails (May 2014)

Police cannot penalise organisers and participants for non-compliance in assemblies (April 2014)

Home Ministry ban signals crackdown on civil society (January 2014)

Ministry may create laws to monitor foreign funds of NGOs (December 2012)

Pro-govt mega NGO rally on Nov 24 (November 2012)

Najib signs ASEAN’s first human rights convention (November 2012)

MP proposes law to restrict foreign funding of NGOs (October 2012)

Tax laws for charity - A re-examination is needed (September 2012)

Forty percent of government funding for NGOs diverted as 'Commission' in political corruption scandal (September 2012)

Malaysia seeks explanation over German funds to NGO (September 2012)

Human rights groups urge Malaysian government to end harrassment against SUARAM (September 2012)

'Suaram funded by foreign countries, states and donors' (August 2012)

National Harmony Act to replace Sedition Act (July 2012)

Expert discusses the new Assembly Act (July 2012)

NGOs demand UN sanctions against Malaysia over Taib crimes (June 2012)

Legal action against Bersih sparks renewed scrutiny of new assembly law (May 2012)

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar and ally to be charged (May 2012)

NGO willing to provide security for Ambiga (May 2012)

International news and Malaysia's censors (May 2012)

Malaysians trust NGOs, businesses more (February 2012)

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