Malaysia is a federal, multi-territory constitutional monarchy, split across two land masses: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. There is a degree of freedom of religion or belief among the significant non-Muslim religious minorities including Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, and the small number (~1%) prepared to identify as non-religious, however, Malaysia rates very badly for freedom of thought and expression, with ethnic Malays subjected to strict state controls over an enforced, homogenous religious identity, including mandatory Sharia laws, and in two states hudud enactments mandating death for “apostasy”.

Rating: Grave Violations
This country is found to be declining, with human rights including freedom of thought and expression under serious assault.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The constitution protects freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression. However, portions of the constitution as well as other laws and policies restrict these freedoms in practice.

Malaysia has a narrow conception of human rights, having signed only two of the eight legally enforceable human rights treaties derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even then the state asserts constitutional exemptions to these treaties and to the Universal Declaration itself, asserting that only “those fundamental liberties provided for” in the Constitution will be upheld, rendering its signature to the UDHR essentially an empty gesture.

The government’s ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims in Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications was upheld on 14 October 2014, the court of appeal overturning a 2009 decision that such a ban was unlawful. The appeals court found that the freedom to practice a religion other than Islam is lawfully limited by Islam’s status as the national religion, notwithstanding the constitution’s guarantee that “other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony” which is intended to protect the sanctity of Islam! The full scope of the “ban” on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims remains unclear, with some officials saying it is limited to the Catholic Herald, which was the subject of the case; however the precedent and basis of the judgment appear to have wider implications. The case has proved a high-profile, ongoing source of tension between religious communities.

Education and children’s rights

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for children from Muslim background in public schools; students from non-Muslim backgrounds are required to take non-religious morals and ethics courses. Minority religion classes may in some cases also be held during the school day. At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commence with recitation of an Islamic prayer. Grants are given selectively to private Islamic schools only, on and on agreement they allow government supervision and adopt a government-approved curriculum. Girls, particularly in peninsular Malaysia, may be required wear the tudung (head covering).

Family, community and society

The “threat” of atheism, humanism and liberalism

In May 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” a dangerous threat to Islam and the state. Speaking at the opening the 57th national Quran Recital Assembly, he characterised secular worldviews as dangerous ideologies, saying:

“They call it human rightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism. It’s deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquettes. They do this on the premise of championing human rights.”

The idea that even divergent opinions within Islam are “deviant” and a dire threat to national security is a frequent accusation made by members of the Malaysian government. IHEU commented at the time:

“This is a sad reflection on Najib’s personal understanding of human rights, in particular his total failure to grasp the scope and necessity of freedom of thought, religion and belief.

“On the one hand he asserts that under Maqasid Shariah he will uphold the welfare of every citizen regardless of religion or other status, and yet in fact he denies the very essence of Article 18 rights: that every citizen must have freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of religion. To rule out what he calls “apostasy” as Najib does, is to completely deny this long-established human right. It is not a matter of interpretation; he simply denies this basic human right to which his country is a signatory. … These freedoms [of thought and expression] are not an alien agenda, they are a minimum standard for people to be able to live a fulfilled life and are the only way to achieve the progressive country which Najib says he wants to develop.”

— Sonja Eggerickx, then-president of the IHEU

In 2015, the president repeated similar slurs, but with reference to sexual minorities, drawing a direct moral equation between terrorist groups “like the Islamic State” with “lesbians, gay, bisexuals, and transgenders” who call for equality.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Death for “apostasy”

Despite contradicting federal law, the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu passed hudud enactments in 1993 and 2002, respectively, making apostasy an offense punishable by death. Despite their long-standing nature, no one has been convicted under these Sharia laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the rulings could not be enforced without a constitutional amendment. (Amending the penal code is the exclusive prerogative of the federal government.)

Enforced religious identity

The constitution defines all ethnic Malays as Muslim and severely restricts what kind of Islam may be practiced in the country.

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a ‘MyKad’, which must state the bearer’s religion. This requirement alone appears to breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPT) under which States have no right to demand to know the religion of any of their citizens; a point reinforced by Section 3 of General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee: “In accordance with articles 18.2 and 17, no one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief.” In addition, the government has a history of limiting how citizens can identify their religion.

The Prime Minister reiterated in May 2014 that:

“We [the nation] will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims, or deny Muslims their right to be governed by Shariah Courts and neither will we allow Muslims to engage in LGBT activities”.
— Prime Minister Najib Razak

Nationally, Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a Sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” This effectively prohibits the conversion of Muslims, since Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties (such as enforced “rehabilitation”) on “apostates”.

Pervasive Sharia and “blasphemy”

Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code provide penalties for those who commit offenses against religion. The penalties include up to three years in prison or a large fine. Prosecutions for blasphemy usually target those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion can give rise to prosecution.

Authorities at the state level administer Sharia laws through Islamic courts and have jurisdiction over all Muslims.

The degree of their enforcement vary by state. State governments impose Sharia law on Muslims in some cultural and social matters but generally do not interfere with the religious practices of non-Muslim communities; however, debates continue regarding incorporating elements of Sharia law, such as khalwat (being in close physical proximity with an unrelated member of the opposite sex), into secular civil and criminal law. Although specific punishments for violation of khalwat vary from state to state, it is typically punishable by some combination of imprisonment up to two years, a fine of RM 3,000 ($940), or several strokes of the cane.

Media and political freedoms

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but severely restricted in practice. The declining situation in recent years has been described as risking a “political meltdown”.

Parliament reformed the restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act in April 2012. However, the revised law retained the home minister’s authority to suspend or revoke publishing licenses but allowed such decisions to be appealed to judicial review. The amendments also eliminated the requirement that publications and printers obtain annual operating permits. Another legal change in 2012, made owners and editors of websites, providers of web-hosting services, and owners of computers or mobile devices used to publish content online accountable for information published on their sites or through their services.

State broadcasters and publishers reflect government views. Most private publishers and broadcasters are controlled by parties or business groups allied with the government, and they generally censor programming according to government guidelines. Books and films are directly censored or banned for profanity, violence, and political and religious material.

The internet has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. The government has responded in recent years by engaging in legal harassment of critical bloggers. The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), an agency responsible in part for regulating the internet, has been known to monitor online content and order outlets or bloggers to remove material it views as provocative or subversive.

Freedoms of assembly and association are limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order. The Peaceful Assembly Act, passed in late 2011, lifted a rule requiring police permits for nearly all public gatherings. However, other provisions were seen as a bid to restrict rather than safeguard freedom of assembly, including a prohibition on street protests and the levying of excessive fines for noncompliance with this rule. For example, in early 2015 the Peaceful Assembly Act was used to bring charges against peaceful protesters including opposition activists.

Highlighted Cases

Eric Paulsen, personally non-religious and a recurring, legitimate critic of the government – especially in connection with the imposition of Islamist extremism – has been repeatedly harassed by the authorities. In January 2015 he was arrested and then in February charged with “sedition” for a 9 January tweet which read “Jakim [the Malaysian Islamic Development Department] is promoting extremism every Friday. Govt. needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia.” In March 2015 he was again arrested, for tweeting about merely hypothetical problems in implementing Islamic hudud norms in Malaysia. His message read: “Do not simply believe that everything will be okay with hudud implementation – no basis that hudud will run smoothly in Malaysia”. Critical users tagged Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar into their angry replies, leading Abu Bakar to announce that Paulsen should  “watch his habit and mouth” when discussing sensitive topics such as religion, and asking, “Who is Eric Paulsen to question whether the hudud law is fair or not? … I will review the tweets he sent out and the police will take action.” The Jakim tweet case is ongoing as of December 2015. Paulsen was arrested and detained but has not been charged in the Hudud tweet case, however several older “sedition” cases against others that were investigated in early 2015 have subsequently been brought to court.