KUALA LUMPUR, June 22 — The Malaysian government’s respect for the rights to freely express opinions and to hold peaceful gatherings have worsened in 2022 compared to 2019, the latest data from a global human rights tracker shows.
Citing survey responses from human rights experts, independent non-profit organisation Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) found that the right of freedom of opinion and expression had deteriorated from 2019 to 2022 in Malaysia, with the country’s 5.4 score in 2019 falling to 4.0 (in 2020 and in 2021) and being at 4.1 (2022).
Similarly, the HRMI said the right to peaceful assembly and association in Malaysia also declined during the four-year period. The score for this started at 6.3 in 2019, before falling to 4.1 (2020) and 3.9 (2021) and currently being at 4.7 (2022).
Michaelle Phoenix Yeo, HRMI’s East and South-east Asia Lead, commented on these changes in Malaysia from 2019 to 2022.
“Experts identified people who protest, and human rights advocates, as some of the groups at particular risk of having these rights violated.
“This coincides with increasing reports of individuals and organisations being arrested, charged, or harassed simply for organising gatherings or expressing critical views of the government,” Yeo said.
HRMI’s 2022 survey found that groups most identified as being at risk in relation to their right to assembly and association include human rights advocates (as identified by 71 per cent of human rights experts), people who protest or engage in non-violent political activity (64 per cent), people with particular political affiliations or beliefs (64 per cent), LGBTQIA+ people (57 per cent), labour union members or workers’ rights advocates (36 per cent).
When asked to give more context, the experts told HRMI that there is no assembly without the government’s consent, and identified those as especially vulnerable to have their rights to assembly being restricted in 2022 as “people who are vocal about the government and their human rights violations, especially lawyers and activists” and “LGBTQIA+ people, as the police often shut down various events for the LGBTQIA+ community”.
As for the right to opinion and expression, those most identified as being at risk include people with particular political affiliations or beliefs (identified by 79 per cent of experts surveyed), people who protest or engage in non-violent political activity (71 per cent), LGBTQIA+ people (64 per cent), human rights advocates (57 per cent), labour union members or workers’ rights advocates (50 per cent), migrants or immigrants (43 per cent), and indigenous people (36 per cent).
Survey respondents cited these groups as being vulnerable to restrictions on their right to expression: Indigenous people and non-Bumiputeras; journalists and artists; human rights advocates and campaigners. HRMI said the respondents had also said that “all people who express government dissent or culturally precarious stances, such as affirming LGBTQIA+ people, or supporting the restriction of police funding, are likely to be silenced by the government”.
As for the right to participate in government, Malaysia scored 6.6 in 2019, dipping to 4.9 (2020), before improving to 6.1 (2021) and 6.5 (2022).
Based on the figures, Yeo said Malaysia saw a significant increase in political participation in 2022 from 2020.
“Last year’s general election had the largest cohort of voters under-40 since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 2019,” Yeo said, referring to Malaysia’s move to reduce the eligible age to be a voter from 21 to 18 years old.
“Local experts also said that there were fewer reports of voter suppression and cheating than in previous elections,” Yeo added.
The group most identified as being at risk for the right for political participation was people with particular political affiliations or beliefs (identified by 50 per cent of experts in HRMI’s 2022 survey), with the rest including four groups identified by 36 per cent of experts each (LGBTQIA+ people; migrants or immigrants; people without a legal identity; refugees or asylum seekers).
Survey respondents told HRMI that those especially vulnerable to having their political participation restricted in 2022 include “LGBTQIA+ people, especially those whose personal appearance does not match their official government ID or gender”, and also claimed that “refugees have no rights to live peacefully and their participation in the democratic system is limited”.
Overall score of 5.0
Based on Malaysia’s overall score of 5.0 out of 10 for its respect for “empowerment” rights, HRMI said this suggests that “many people are not enjoying their civil liberties and political freedoms (freedom of speech, assembly and association, and democratic rights)”.
For Malaysia, the Rights Tracker measures its respect for three “empowerment” rights, namely the rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, and to participate in government.
While HRMI said it did not have data for enough countries in East Asia and Pacific to carry out a regional comparison, it said Malaysia is performing “close to average” on empowerment rights when compared to other countries covered in HRMI’s sample.
In terms of respect for empowerment rights, Malaysia’s score of 5.0 is relatively higher than Thailand’s 4.5 (which also looks at the same three rights) and Vietnam’s 2.7 (which looks at the same three rights and an additional right to religion and belief). There was no data for other Southeast Asian countries to enable comparison.
The Rights Tracker’s scores are based on comparisons with other countries in its sample since 2017, with good (8 to 10) reflecting respect for empowerment rights more than most other governments but with some still having significant problems leading to some peoples’ rights violation; while fair (six to eight) was for governments which respect these rights more than many countries but with a significant number of people’s rights still violated.
For countries which are in the “bad” score category (3.5 to six), these governments perform worse than many in the sample in 2017 and engage in numerous violations of civil and political rights, while those in the “very bad” score category (0 to 3.5) violate these rights more than most other governments.