Malaysia

Last updated: 18 June 2020

Coronavirus Response

A March 18, 2020 government order mandated a “complete restriction” of movement and assembly nationwide. The order closed houses of worship, non-essential businesses, and all government and private premises, except for those providing essential services. The order also barred Malaysians from travelling overseas, and prevented visitors from entering Malaysia. In addition, Malaysian authorities have arrested individuals for spreading “fake news” related to COVID-19. Individuals are charged with provisions of the Penal Code and the Communications and Multimedia Act that carry penalties of up to one year in prison and 50,000 Malaysian Ringgit ($11,400). For more details, see the ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker’s entry for Malaysia.

Update

There was a change of government in Malaysia in March 2020 after backdoor dealings that led to some MPs and one of the political parties within the ruling coalition jumping ship and forming a coalition with opposition parties from the old regime. Malaysia now has a new set of cabinet members and there is great uncertainty over whether reform plans will still be implemented. For details on Malaysia’s political changes and Mahathir’s stepping down from power, please see the News Items section below in this report.

Introduction

State authorities often dismiss civil and political rights in Malaysia, and human rights violations occur on a frequent basis. As of the end of 2018, Malaysia had 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. The government often enacts laws that contravene civil liberties guarantees in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia under the guise of national security or preserving national harmony. Examples of these laws include the  Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) of 2012, Prevention of Crime Act (POCA) of 1959, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2015, all of which contain provisions for prolonged pretrial detention that undermine the right to a fair trial. In addition, the POCA and Prevention of Terrorism Act do not require trial by a competent judicial body, while the Sedition Act of 1948 has restrictions on freedom of expression and the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998 disproportionately restricts individual rights to free speech. There are also other restrictions against media and publications under the  Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984.

In 2018, the Barisan Nasional administration was ousted after 61 years in power, marking the first ever transition of the Federal Government of Malaysia. Since the historic election on May 9, 2018, the change in administration has brought about substantive changes to the direction of governance and radically shifted the dynamics of the government. However, many of the new administration’s proposed reforms have yet to materialize.

While many of the long-awaited legal reforms promised by the new administration have not yet been enacted, the government seems to have ended the general policy of harassment and rejection of civil society and human rights defenders after the series of investigations under the Sedition Act. Most, if not all, prosecutions of human rights defenders initiated by the Barisan Nasional administration have also been withdrawn.

The federal opposition led by the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has taken a turn to the far right and strengthened its advocacy and messaging based on race, religion, and the sovereignty of the monarch, has been revived through a new political alliance with the Islamic Party of Malaysia. This new collaboration has managed to further divert the government’s agenda, but an upcoming election will likely test the strength of this partnership.

Organizational FormsSocietiesCompanies limited by guarantee
Registration BodyRegistrar of Societies (ROS)Companies Commission of Malaysia
Approximate Number52,980 registered societies with 67,013 branches (as of December 31, 2013)Unknown
Barriers to EntryProhibition 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 ActivitiesVague 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 AdvocacyRestrictions 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 ContactGovernment authority to prohibit society from having contact with anyone outside Malaysia.None
Barriers to ResourcesNoneNone
Barriers to AssemblyFive-days advance notification (due to a July 4, 2019 amendment), excessive force has been used against protesters. Organizers are often called for investigations post-assembly.

No assemblies allowed on “public places,” such as roads.

Five-days advance notification (due to a July 4, 2019 amendment), excessive force has been used against protesters. Organizers are often called for investigations post-assembly.

No assemblies allowed on “public places,” such as roads.

Population31,931,591 (2018 est.)
CapitalKuala Lumpur
Type of GovernmentConstitutional monarchy
Life Expectancy at BirthMale: 71.97 years
Female: 77.73 years (2012 est.)
Literacy RateMale: 70.16%
Female: 76.87% (2011 est.)
Religious GroupsMuslim (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 GroupsMalay 50.1%, Chinese 22.6%, indigenous 11.8%, Indian 6.7%, other 0.7%, non-citizens 8.2% (2010 est.)
GDP per capita$11,239 (2018 est.) (World Bank)

Source: CIA World Factbook

Ranking BodyRankRanking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index57 (2018)1-182
World Bank Rule of Law Index65 (2018)100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index34 (2018)100 – 0
Transparency International61 (2018)1-168
Freedom House: Freedom in the WorldStatus: Partly Free
Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 4 (2018)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index116 (2018)178 – 1

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International AgreementsRatification*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)Yes1995
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against WomenNo
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)Yes1995
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)Yes2008

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

Constitutional Framework

Citizens’ rights 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 of 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, or 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 members of 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 they obtain an exemption. 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) of 1971 was also used to restrict freedom of association by mandating university approval for student associations. However, the most recent UUCA amendments in December 2018 alongside the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act of 1996 (PHEIA) and the Education Institutions (Discipline) Act of 1976 (EIDA) led to the removal of Section 15(2)(c) of UUCA, Section 47(2)(c) of PHEIA, and Section 10(2)(c) of EIDA. This effectively granted students the right to take part in political activities on campus. Disciplinary action against students for participation in on-campus political activities under those Acts was discontinued when the amendments took effect on January 18, 2019.

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.

2. Legislation relating to freedoms of speech and assembly:

3. Other relevant legislation:

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill
At the end of the mid-year Parliament session in July 2019, the government introduced the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill, which proposed the IPCMC based on the 2005 Report of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police. The Bill, however, contained fundamental flaws that would potentially jeopardize the viability and efficacy of the Commission. The de facto law minister called for multiple consultations and townhall meetings to address some of the concerns prior to the tabling of the Bill on October 7, 2019.

The much-awaited Bill was delayed again after the extensively amended version of the bill was tabled before Parliament on October 7, 2019. A series of engagements by the Parliament Select Committee for the Consideration of Bills took place after October 2019 to help obtain public feedback and stakeholder commentaries on the bill for the first time in the country’s recent history. A report with further concerns and proposed amendments was then tabled to Parliament, but the passing of the bill was delayed without an official reason. The bill is now expected to be tabled in the upcoming March-April 2020 Parliament session.

Amendment of the Sedition Act
On July 11, 2012, the government announced that the Sedition Act would be repealed and replaced with a National Harmony Act. It was reported that the new Act is aimed at finding a 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 NHRB 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 NHRCB 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 RRHCB 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 NHRB 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 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 does away with imposing a fine and increases the prison term from a maximum of three years to three to fifteen years. The amendments are not yet in force.

As of February 2020, the Pakatan Harapan administration has undertaken no substantive legal reform. The government and civil society have engaged in preliminary discussions to review selected laws affecting fundamental freedoms and human rights. In October 2018, the government imposed a moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communication and Multimedia Act of 1998, but the moratorium was withdrawn following a series of riots relating to the demolition of a Hindu temple in November. While the matter of demolition was not associated with racial or religious rhetoric, the subsequent fallout and death of a firefighter sparked provocation and rising tension among ethnic groups.

The Anti-Fake News Bill of 2018
The Malaysian Parliament tabled the Anti-Fake News Bill of 2018 for a first reading on March 26, 2018 and passed it on April 2, 2018. The Bill defines “fake news” as including “any news, information, data and reports” which are “wholly or partly false.” Furthermore, it states that “fake news” may be “in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” Anyone found guilty of transmitting or creating fake news could be subject to a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment and/or a fine amounting to MYR 500,000 (approximately USD 127,681) if convicted of “knowingly creating, offering, publishing, printing, distributing, circulating, or disseminating any fake news or publication of fake news.” The Bill also would also penalize both Malaysians and foreigners alike, even if they are outside of Malaysia, so long as the “fake news” concerns Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen. The Bill would also unduly limit freedom of opinion or expression in Malaysia and could be used to suppress legitimate criticism of the government. While there has only been only one known prosecution under the Bill and one investigation under the Bill, the option for a private individual ex-parte hearings under the Bill makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how many cases of “fake news” have been filed under the Bill.

On May 13, 2018, new Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that the Bill, which was introduced by the previous administration, would be given a “proper” definition that made clear to the media and the public what is fake. The government then said on May 28, 2018 that it would move to repeal the Bill in the first Parliament sitting. Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo also said the government was still open to the creation of a media council to provide input on “the revolution the media was experiencing”. Amran Mohamed Zin, the ambassador and permanent representative of Malaysia to the United Nations office and other international organizations in Geneva, wrote in a letter on June 11, 2018 stating that the Bill was set to be repealed in the first Parliament sitting after the 14th General Election on July 16, 2018. On August 8, 2018, Parliament tabled the repeal of the Bill. The move to repeal the Bill was stopped by the upper house of Parliament, Dewan Negara, which was dominated by Barisan Nasional-aligned members and appointees and voted against the repeal.

With the abolishment of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 in 2019, the government has shifted its policy on tackling fake news and disinformation to Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code (statement conducive to public mischief). Examples of the way that the current legal framework is being utilized to address fake news can be observed in the string of arrests related to the Novel Coronavirus in January 2020. See News Items below in this report for more details.

Organizational Forms

There are three main legal entity forms for CSOs: 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” with a minimum of 7 persons. A CSO can only formally register under the Act if it does not have a primary purpose of making of monetary gain/profit.
Companies limited by guarantee are governed by the Companies Act of 1965 if their purposes 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 to promoting its purposes.

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 decides 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 – a trust must be open to everyone, and at least 50% of trustees cannot be associated with the organization and its founders – too difficult to reconcile with the management of their day-to-day activities.

Public Benefit Status

Most organizations created for public benefit will be tax exempt.  These include public or benevolent institutions; society/institutions engaged in research on the causes, prevention, or cure of diseases, socio-economic research, or technical or vocational training; not-for-profit Malaysian religious institutions/organizations established exclusively for the purposes of religious worship or the advancement of religion; organizations established exclusively to administer a public fund solely for the relief of distress among members of the public; organizations that maintain or assist in maintaining a zoo, museum, or art gallery or are engaged in the promotion of culture or the arts; organizations 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 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 under the Companies Act of 1965 (CA 1965).

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 of 1966 (SA 1966).  As of November 30, 2011, there were 47,636 local societies and 70,300 branches registered under the ROS nationwide. In 2011 alone, the ROS rejected 229 applications to register societies. As of March 22, 2018, the ROS has approved the registration applications of 1,124 societies and rejected 711, with 308 awaiting approval.

Liga Pemuda (Youth League), a rights-centric youth organization, attempted registration in early 2018. By March 2019, the individuals who submitted the application had been notified the application was under review by the Royal Malaysian Police’s Special Branch. In July 2019, the initial application for registration under the name of Liga Rakyat Malaysia (League for the Malaysian Peoples) was rejected. The organization attempted registration again in July 2019, and the application was immediately placed under review by the Special Branch, where it is pending as of September 2019.

Registration Requirements for Societies

Mandatory Registration. The SA 1966 prohibits the formation or operation of unregistered groups and states that committing a breach of the provision and carrying out activities through unregistered organizations will incur a penalty of up to RM5,000, plus an additional 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 government warnings, 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 seven founders to establish a society. It 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 seven founders must agree on several formalities regarding the formation of the society: its name, registered place of business, insignia, aims and objects, and appointed office-bearers. The constitution of the society must include these items. The founders must then submit an application with all documents to the ROS and pay 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.  Potential grounds for refusal are drafted in vague language:

  • 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 also 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.  Section 18 of the SA 1966 governs the right to appeal. 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 Registrar’s decision to appeal to the Minister.  The Minister/ Head Registrar, whose decision will be final, may confirm, reject or alter the decision of the sub-Registrar.

For instance, in the run-up to a rally demanding electoral reforms that he organized for July 9, 2011, former Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH 2.0) an unlawful society. 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.” On July 8, the steering committee for BERSIH 2.0 filed 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 and no new applications for judicial review were filed, another opportunity presented itself after, in an apparent change of stance, the same Home Minister said in a 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. This application was rejected, however, and since 2018 BERSIH 2.0 has operated as a registered company under the CA.

Registration Requirements for Companies

Companies need a minimum of two founding directors between 18 and 70 years of age whose principal place of residence is Malaysia. 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 that 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 CCM within three months of the name’s approval. CCM pledges incorporation within one day. Anyone dissatisfied with the decision of the Registrar of Companies 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 societies 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 limit However, two founding directors must have Malaysia as their primary place of residence. The procedures for incorporation of foreign companies are extremely similar to those for the standard form of incorporation described above.

One foreign organization that has faced difficulties registering is Amnesty International’s Malaysia chapter, which remains unregistered as a society despite numerous applications since 1998. Its sixth application, filed in 2006, was rejected by the ROS. Since 2018, Amnesty International’s Malaysia chapter has operated as an incorporated company under the CA.

Students

The Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) of 1971, Section 15, mandated university approval for student associations. However, the Universities and University Colleges (Amendment) Act of 2012, which came into force on August 1, 2012, amended Section 15 of the UUCA. The amendments allowed students to join political parties and campaign as candidates in elections as long as they were not engaging in political activities on campus. However, the UUCA was amended again in December 2018 alongside the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act of 1996 (PHEIA) and the Education Institutions (Discipline) Act of 1976 (EIDA). The removal of Section 15(2)(c) of UUCA, Section 47(2)(c) of PHEIA, and Section 10(2)(c) of EIDA effectively granted students the right to take part in political activities on campus. Disciplinary action against students for participation in on-campus political activities under the Acts was discontinued when those amendments took effect on January 18, 2019.

In January 2019, the government established a working committee that includes student activists to examine the possibility of replacing UUCA 1971. In January 2020, the Ministry of Education removed student representatives from the working committee, on the grounds that the representatives had graduated from university and new representatives would be drawn from current students.

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 society may not advocating anything that is illegal or unconstitutional. They 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.

Throughout the SA 1966, there is repeated emphasis on maintaining welfare, peace, security, public order, and morality in Malaysia, and in practice this acts as a barrier to a registered society’s operational activity.  Under the SA 1966, regulatory authorities have the statutory power to revoke a registered society’s certificate of incorporation, suspend any or all 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. Authorities may even prohibit registered societies from associating, or even communicating, with foreign persons. The ROS may also prohibit registered societies’ use of illegal or undesirable badges and insignia.

The ROS may search and inspect all books, accounts, meeting minutes, and other documents kept by the society if the ROS suspects the society has violated 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 society’s place of business without prior notice and use force in the process. Authorities may even search persons suspected of hiding evidence and may seize and hold relevant documents.

Within 60 days of holding its annual general meeting (or within 60 days after the end of each calendar year), a registered society is required 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, a relatively short time that has resulted in many CSOs 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 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 without notifying the Registrar.  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

Under the CA 1965, companies limited by guarantee must provide the CCM with annual returns, audited accounts, and an auditor’s report.  To ensure compliance with the Act, the Registrar may access any company’s offices 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, as well as a supplemental 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 was retribution for COMANGO’s submission during the second cycle of Malaysia’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council in October 2013. However, the government later deleted the section of the statement declaring the group illegal. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi similarly declared another coalition of over 80 Malaysian NGOs, Negara-Ku, illegal on July 26, 2014, as it was not registered with the Registrar of Societies. Negara-Ku has challenged this declaration as contrary to a decision of the Kuala Lumpur High Court in overturning a similar declaration regarding Bersih in 2012. The High Court declared that 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 of 2012 and the Penal Code.  In addition, the judiciary’s lack of independence, notwithstanding repeated commitments by chief judiciaries, has meant that CSOs do not have an independent redress mechanism 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. This has continued despite the May 2018 administration change, as the Royal Malaysian Police still subject activists and human rights defenders to harassment. The arrest of Siti Kassim, a prominent human rights defender and lawyer, marked the first known case of an activist arrested under the new ad