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 ECNL-ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker’s entry for Malaysia.
Malaysia’s political situation took a turn for the worse in September 2020. For example, opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, declared he had majority support to be depose sitting Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. A failed political coup in the state of Sabah also led to a snap election, which contributed to the transmission of COVID-19 and resulted in the state being placed on lockdown. In response, Prime Minister Yassin attempted to declare a state of emergency. He also believed this would be the only way to defer the Sarawak state election that must take place by mid-2021. Nevertheless, political analysts suggest that his move to defer the state election was an attempt to avoid his administration’s electoral loss if he became unable to table and pass the annual budget in the November 2020 Parliament session. His call for a state of emergency was also rejected by the King. As of this writing, the content of the budget is in the process of debate in Parliament. Furthermore, a student group that raised concerns about the royal institution overstepping its boundaries resulted in a series of investigations of student activists under the Sedition Act, 1948. This crackdown escalated when a former student activist livestreamed a police raid in relation to the investigations.
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. In the past, the government has often enacted 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), 2012, Prevention of Crime Act (POCA), 1959, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 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, 1948 has restrictions on freedom of expression and the Communications and Multimedia Act, 1998 disproportionately restricts individual rights to free speech. There are also other restrictions against media and publications under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, 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.
After more than two years under the new administration, many long-awaited legal reforms have yet to be implemented. Notable changes nevertheless do include a more accessible Parliament; the formation of Parliament Select Committees on gender and rights; a moratorium on the death penalty; the reintroduction of the Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (formerly it was proposed in 2005 as the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission); and the reduction of the voting age to 18 with automatic voters registration (previously was set at 21 and require manual registration that was often obstructed by political actors). However, the above-mentioned positive developments with regards to the new administration have come with a price.
The federal opposition, led by the Barisan Nasional coalition, has taken a turn to the far-right and strengthened its advocacy and messaging based on race, religion, and the sovereignty of the monarch. The previously disfunctional Barisan Nasional coalition is also undergoing some degree of revival because United Malay National Organization has stepped into an alliance with the Islamic Party of Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s political situation took another dive after an attempted political coup and the potential for a change of government after the September 2020 declaration by the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, that he has a majority support to be dispose of the sitting Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.
A failed political coup in the state of Sabah also led to a snap election in the state, which contributed to the transmission of COVID-19 and the state to be placed on lockdown. The lockdown was eventually reintroduced in most of Malaysia following another wave of COVID-19 and political instability.
In response, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attempted to declare a State of Emergency in light of the political developments and the aftermath of the Sabah state election. Yassin justified the State of Emergency as the only way to defer the eventual Sarawak state election that must take place by mid-2021. Nonetheless, political rumors suggest that Yassin’s move was an attempt to avoid the electoral demise of his administration for his not being able to table and pass the annual budget by the November 2020 Parliament session.
The call by Yassin and his cabinet for a State of Emergency was rejected by the King through a public decree calling for members of Parliament to support the proposed budget of the government. As of November 2020, the content of the budget was in the process of debate in Parliament.
A student group that raised concerns on the royal institution of King overstepping its boundaries resulted in a series of investigations against student activists under the Sedition Act, 1948. A former student activist was also arrested when he recorded and livestreamed a police raid in relation to the investigation under the Sedition Act.
|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.
|Restrictions on assembly.|
|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||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.
|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.
|Population||31,931,591 (2018 est.)|
|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||$11,239 (2018 est.) (World Bank)|
Source: CIA World Factbook
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale|
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||61 (2020)||1-182|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||65 (2018)||100 – 0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||34 (2018)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||51 (2020)||1-198|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Partly Free|
Political Rights Score: 21
Civil Liberties Score: 31 (2020)
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free|
1 – 40
1 – 60
|Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index||120 (2020)||178 – 1|
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
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 1971was 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.
- Societies Act 1966
- Trade Unions Act 1959
- Universities and University Colleges Act 1971
- Legal Profession Act 1979
2. Legislation relating to freedoms of speech and assembly:
- Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950
- Defamation Act 1957
- Official Secrets Act
- Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984
- Communications and Multimedia Act 1998
- Police Act 1967 (note the recent repeal of Section 27 in the Police (Amendment) Act 2012)
- Peaceful Assembly Act 2012
- Penal Code
- Sedition Act 1948 (amended 2015)
3. Other relevant legislation:
- Trustees (Incorporation) Act 1952
- Companies Act 2016 (Amended)
- National Security Council Act 2016
Income Tax Act 1967
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 latest development in November 2020 is that the current government has withdrawn the Bill in Parliament and proposed a watered down version of the Bill with the new title Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) Bill. The new Bill is fundamentally flawed because it would greatly restrict the power and scope of the Commission and provide immunity and exemption to the police force with regards to investigations. Further, the police force would have discretion to not answer to any inquiries by the Commission based on reasons such as national security or the possibility of incriminating other police officers.
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 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 COVID-19 in January 2020. See News Items below in this report for more details.
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
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, however, the individuals responsible for the application had been notified that the application was under review by the Royal Malaysian Police’s Special Branch. In July 2019, the initial application for registration by Liga Pemuda under the name of Liga Rakyat Malaysia (League for the Malaysian Peoples) was rejected. The organization attempted another registration in July 2019 and the application was immediately placed under review by the Special Branch, where it remained as of 2020.
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.
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.
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.
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 administration. The police arrested and detained her on June 23, 2018 after they broke into her house and alleged that she attempted to kidnap one of her clients, who was supposedly a mentally unstable person. Siti Kassim was released one day later. Apart from Siti Kassim’s arrest, there have been other incidents of concern. For example, in March 2018 Sevan Doraisamy, the executive director of SUARAM, was called for questioning under the Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 for holding a rally in the run-up to the 14th General Election in May 2018.
With the abolishment of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, 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). The series of arrests related to the Coronavirus in January 2020 demonstrates how the government is using this legal framework to address fake news.
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. Section 124 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 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 imposes a prison term of 10 years for those who received such documents but do not turn them over to the police.
In addition, the bill criminalizes, among other things, offences of sabotage, espionage, dissemination of false reporting, and dissemination of information that incites violence or counsels 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 response to public concerns that the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2013 that, which expanded the types of offences under Section 124 of the Penal Code, would be abused, the de facto law minister Nazri Aziz declared that the Penal Code would only be used to deal with violent offences such as the assassination of a head of state, coup d’état, armed insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and breaches of constitutional provisions.
On December 31, 2014, the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2013 came into force. The new Section 203A makes 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 provides that whoever has any information or matter that 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.
As a result of legal challenges to the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, such as the case of Azmi Sharom, who was acquitted at the Federal Court in 2016, the police have increasingly used Section 124 of the Penal Code provisions activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy to clamp down on critics of the government. This trend started as early as July 2015, when two members of parliament, Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli, were probed under Section 124B in relation to allegations that they were involved in the tampering and fabrication of documents related to the 1 MDB 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)).
The growing public pressure for the abolishment of SOSMA alongside hunger strikes by detainees has put pressure on the government to repeal or amend it. Some of the detainees who were detained on allegations of affiliation with organized criminal groups and are still on trial process had the benefit of having their charges amended while others who are on trial for terrorism offences or have already been sentenced continue to be detained under SOSMA provisions.
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 necessary to protect the security of the state. The amendments add Section 114(A), which holds Internet account holders and intermediaries liable for content published through their accounts or services. Under this provision, if an anonymous person posts content deemed offensive or illegal using another person’s Internet account, the account holder will be held liable unless proven otherwise. In other words, the burden of proof is placed on Internet account holders and intermediaries have the burden of proof, rather than the prosecutor/investigator.
Printing Presses and Publications (Amendment) Act, 2012
As part of the government’s efforts to improve its public image with regard to respect for civil liberties and media freedom, it enacted the Amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which entered into force on July 15, 2012. Most significantly, the amendments eliminate the requirement for printing presses and publications, including newspapers, to renew their permits annually, and publishers are allowed to challenge in court any decisions by the Home Affairs Minister to revoke or suspend permits.
Although this is an 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, and he still has the power to revoke it at any time. For instance, in October 2012, independent online news portal Malaysiakini, which had been in business for thirteen years, successfully challenged the Home Affairs Minister’s rule that prohibits granting it a printing license. 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 of 1984. The Home Minister rejected the request in August 2010 on the grounds that the publishing permit is a privilege, not a right. Meanwhile pro-government newspapers and publications such as Utusan Malaysia, New Straits Times, and Suara Perkasa had their licenses renewed. The decision to refuse Malaysiakini’s permit application was 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. The Court 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.
The Sedition Act
Political developments have revived the criminalization of speech that is perceived to be an insult or affront to royal institutions, such as the King. The politicization of the royal institution in the attempt by the Muhyiddin Yassin administration in October 2020 to declare a State of Emergency and the royal decree to support the government’s annual budget that would help avoid a State of Emergency led to criticisms by various civil society activists and students with regards to the role of the constitutional monarchy.
The investigation under the Sedition Act, 1948 of student activists who voiced opposition to the royal institution also led to a renewed discourse on the public’s right to record and film police activities or raids. A former student leader who was at the scene of a police raid of an individual who was accused of sedition resulted in the former student leader’s arrest when he refused to stop his recording and livestream of the incident. The director for the Criminal Investigation Department of the Royal Malaysian Police affirmed that recording police on duty is not a crime, but the refusal to cease and desist recording is an obstruction of an investigation and a crime under Section 186 of the Penal Code (Criminalizing the Act of Obstructing a Public Official).
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 create 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 believes this 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 the 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 allows the government 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 of barring regional regional and international human rights defenders and activists 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. In 2018, however, most human rights defenders who were on immigration blacklist have been removed. In Adilur Rahman Khan’s case, for example, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia pursued the matter with the Immigration Department of Malaysia, which revealed that the instruction for the blacklist was made by the Special Branch of the Police. Upon further inquiries to the Royal Malaysian Police, the police confirmed the blacklisting but refused to provide any additional information for the initial imposition and subsequent removal from the list. The police also refused to meet the Commission to discuss the matter.
 In theory this should refer to Intra-Malaysia travel, but when Malaysians from Peninsular Malaysia to Sabah and Sarawak they are required to provide their passports and identification cards upon entry and require work visas to work within those two states.
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.”
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 of 2012 (PAA) regulates holding 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:
(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, non-citizens do not enjoy the right to assemble. 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. This was also witnessed in 2017 when 44 Rohingya refugees were detained at a protest against atrocities in Rakhine, Myanmar. The Kuala Lumpur police chief at the time was reported to have said that the gathering was illegal because it involved foreigners. In addition, anyone below 21 years of age is prohibited from organizing assemblies, and anyone under 15 years of age is not allowed to participate in assemblies.
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 respondwithin 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.
An amendment was passed in July 2019, which aimed to reform three main areas of PAA. One of the areas dealt with the ten day notification period required by PAA. Under the proposed amendment, the ten day notification period was reduced to five days. However, the practicality of the amendment was questionable at best because it failed to address “solidarity actions” that often take place immediately or spontaneously. An example of this included the solidarity march that took place in March 2019 where the Minister for Religious Affairs, Mujahid Rawa, would have still fallen short of the required ten day notification period under PAA when he organized that march following the mosque shooting in New Zealand. If the amendment were in force in March 2019, he would have failed to meet the required 5 days notice.
The amendment did not introduce any new criteria for spontaneous protests, however. The practicality of the amendment is therefore questionable because it failed to address solidarity action often taking place immediately or spontaneously after events, such as the solidarity march that took place in March 2019 when the Minister for Religious Affairs, Mujahid Rawa, did not provide notice 10 days prior to organizing a solidarity rally following the mosque shooting in New Zealand. Even with the new amendments in force, Mujahid Rawa would have still failed to even meet the required five-days notice.
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 of 1959, which was amended in 2006. This Act states that “if as respects any area 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 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 faces imprisonment for up to six months, or a fine, or both. Those who join or continue in an unlawful assembly, knowing that the 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.
The amendments to the PAA also introduced a compound (fine) system to replace the current punitive measures contained within PAA. As opposed to the commission of the crime under the old framework, the amendment provided power to the police in charge of a district to issue a compound to organizers and participants who violate provisions of PAA. The compound can only be issued with the written permission of a public prosecutor. However, the compound does not fully remove the possibility of criminal action against organizers and participants. If a person fails to pay the compound in the stipulated time (a time frame determined by the police), criminal prosecution can begin at any time against the offender. Because the public prosecutor grants written permission for the compound to be issued, prosecution is likely take place if an offender fails to pay the compound. The compounds are fixed at RM5,000 (approx. USD1,200) with potential criminal prosecution to follow if the offender fails to pay the compound.
Malaysian authorities have used excessive force in response to public demonstrations. For 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 held for five days. The police were accused of using unnecessary and excessive force in dealing with peaceful protesters. One protester said the police used iron knuckles while beating them. Many witnesses also stated that police officers beat protesters in a police truck, even though the protesters were already handcuffed from behind and defenseless. One protester suffered serious injuries and was admitted to the ICU and was later diagnosed with cerebral concussion.
|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||2019 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||Malaysia|
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malaysia’s New Government Cracks Down on Critics (June 2020)
A wave of criminal charges and police probes targeting critics of Malaysia’s embattled new government has rights groups worried the country is backsliding on free speech protections following the brief spell of a reform-minded administration. They say at least eight people have been charged or summoned for questioning for critical social media posts about the government, police or royals since May 6, including opposition lawmakers, journalists and the head of a clean government watchdog group. Rights groups place part of the blame on the laws the authorities are using for being overly broad, including sections of the Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act and Sedition Act. They have been urging the authorities for years to amend them so as to limit the potential for their abuse.
How Malaysia’s government collapsed in two years(March 2020)
Before polling day on May 9, 2018, Mahathir’s coalition could not be sure it would succeed in dislodging the rival Barisan party. But Mahathir had campaigned wittily on the theme of then-prime minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah as a pair of thieves. And the vote, normally reliably pro-government, was split three ways, between Mahathir’s Pakatan coalition, Barisan and the Islamic party PAS, and Pakatan ended up on top. However, Pakatan was an uneasy coalition, and Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim had a tortuous history going back 30 years. The two of them eventually reconciled and agreed that Mahathir, who led the election campaign, would be prime minister, but hand over to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. Finally, months before the two-year election anniversary, Mahathir stunned the country by tendering his resignation, and many of the political factions rushed out to express their support for him to stay in the job. However, by the end of the week it was clear that the 94 year-old Mahathir had miscalculated, especially when Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, King Abdullah, whose role it is to invite a candidate to form a new government, declared that Mahathir’s rival, Muhyiddin, had the numbers and would be sworn in as the country’s eighth prime minister.
Malaysia arrests five for spreading fake news about coronavirus(January 2020)
A tutor, two pharmacy assistants, and a university student were arrested in Malaysia on Wednesday for spreading fake news about the coronavirus. This comes after a 34-year-old man was detained in Bangi for spreading false information about the influenza-type virus that originated in Wuhan in China and has infected more than 6,000 people worldwide, mostly in China. Authorities seized four mobile phones, five SIM cards and two memory cards from the suspects. The case is being investigated under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
Dewan Rakyat passes Bill to lower voting age to 18(July 2019)
The Bill to amend the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 has been passed at the Dewan Rakyat. Dr Mahathir said that with the passing of the Bill qualified Malaysians who are 21 and above but have not been registered will be automatically registered as voters.
Amendments to PAA passed(July 2019)
The Peaceful Assembly (Amendment) Bill 2019 was passed in the Dewan Rakyat with last-minute amendments by the Home Ministry. The new amendments further shorten the notice period organizers are required to give to the police.
Govt tables IPCMC Bill(July 2019)
The Government has tabled a Bill in Parliament to pave the way for the setting up of the long-awaited Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).
Mujahid’s ‘Peace Solidarity March’ might hit PAA snag(March 2019)
The scheduled ‘Peace Solidarity March’ in Kuala Lumpur this Saturday might come up against a legal hurdle because of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. If the rally were to proceed, it could be in violation of Section 9(1) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, which stipulates that organisers of public gatherings must notify police at least 10 days prior.
Moratorium on draconian laws suspended(December 2018)
The government will continue to use several laws related to security and public order. However, these laws will only be used when national security is at issue.
MCA has been avoiding BN Supreme Council meetings(November 2018)
The Barisan Nasional Supreme Council has not held a meeting where all three main components were present since Mohamad Hasan took over as United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) acting president in December. The former Negeri Sembilan menteri besar said Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) had been reluctant to attend some of the meetings, forcing UMNO to either meet the party or MIC separately and on an “ad hoc” basis.
Govt will not ratify ICERD, says PMO(November 2018)
The Pakatan Harapan government will not ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), says the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Government will instead continue to defend the Federal Constitution which contains a social contract that has been agreed by all races during the formation of the country, the PMO said in a two-paragraph media statement.
Cabinet agrees to impose moratorium on Sedition Act(October 2018)
The Communications and Multimedia Minister said he had presented the proposal for a moratorium on the Act at the Cabinet meeting on October 10. “A decision was made by the Cabinet yesterday that since we are going to abolish the Sedition Act, it has to be suspended temporarily,” said Gobind Singh Deo.
No decision yet on Sosma, says deputy minister (August 2018)
The proposed abolition of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) is still under review as it will affect authorities in discharging their duties to combat security offences and threats. Deputy Home Minister Mohd Azis Jamman said the government was still considering views of various quarters such as the authorities, judiciary and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which will be evaluated from various angles.
Tabling of bill to repeal Anti-Fake News Act 2018 a positive step (August 2018)
Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), as one of the movers of protest, welcomes the move by the government to abolish the law through its tabling of the Anti-Fake News (Repeal) Bill 2018 in Parliament on 8 August 2018.
Lawyer Fadiah sues Utusan over ‘twisted’ report (July 2018)
Lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri is taking Umno-linked Utusan Malaysia to court over a report which claimed that she had called for the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to be recognised. “They (Utusan) interviewed me, and yet they distorted whatever I had said that day,” said Fadiah, who is being probed by police over a blog article which was allegedly critical of the Malay rulers. Fadiah told FMT that Utusan’s report had also put her in danger as she had received threats after it was published.
Siti Kassim released; court dismisses cop’s remand bid (June 2018)
Police have released lawyer and activist Siti Zabedah Kassim after the magistrate’s court rejected an application for a remand order against her. Zabedah, also known as Siti Kasim, was arrested last night for allegedly kidnapping her own client from a hospital and obstructing the police from carrying out their duties. She was then held at the Kajang district police headquarters.
Malaysia promises to repeal current Anti-Fake News Act (June 2018)
The controversial Anti-Fake News Act 2018 (AFN Act) of Malaysia is set to be repealed in its first Parliament sitting after its 14th General Election on 16 July. This is according to a letter dated June 11 by Amran Mohamed Zin, the ambassador and permanent representative of Malaysia to the United Nations office and other international organisations in Geneva. Mr Amran wrote the letter in reply to David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, who raised his concern on 3 April this year.
Anti-fake news law to be re-defined, not abolished: Mahathir (May 2018) (Malaysian)
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday that an anti-fake news law introduced by the previous administration will be given “proper” definition, making it clear to the media and the public what is fake. “Even though we support freedom of press and freedom of speech, there are limits,” Tun Dr Mahathir said in a live telecast on state TV.
Malaysia approves ‘fake news’ law despite outcry (April 2018) (Malaysian)
Malaysia’s government pushed a law through parliament that makes “fake news” punishable by a maximum six-year jail term despite an outcry from critics worried it will be used to stifle dissent before elections. The law targets foreign as well as local media, and is seen in part as an effort to silence criticism of the scandal surrounding the country’s sovereign wealth that has rocked the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
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)
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)
Malaysia seeks explanation over German funds to NGO (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)
NGO willing to provide security for Ambiga (May 2012)
International news and Malaysia’s censors (May 2012)
Malaysians trust NGOs, businesses more (February 2012)