Human Rights and the Economy in Malaysia

Op-Ed by Amelia Cole

The development of Malaysia is facilitated by violations of human rights which eliminate the participation of most of the populace in the economy. By expanding government authority and reducing access to resources, the Malaysian government successfully allocates resources at the top, resulting in an oppressed populace and a prosperous aristocracy.

Most Malaysians live in a country lacking basic liberties such as freedoms of religion, assembly, or expression, in addition to draconian laws that limit their movements and access to resources such as housing and education. Simultaneously, a select group of citizens enjoy protections in the law, allowing them to have a great influence over the country’s economy and their personal bank accounts. The socioeconomic hierarchy of Malaysia is comprised of a huge oppressed base supporting a very thin and homogenic top.

Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysia has very strict guidelines describing who is allowed to participate in the social sphere and the economy and under which circumstances. The silencing of opposition through an oppressive regime enables Mahathir to set his own rules regarding who gets to participate in the economy and how. Violating the rights and freedoms of selected demographics facilitated the restructuring of the socioeconomic fabric of Malaysia in ways that “liberate” weaker indigenous groups, providing them with shortcuts to upward social mobility, while restricting and diminishing the ability of other groups to even try.

Freedom of Expression

One of the most integral mechanisms in Mahathir’s recipe for socioeconomic exclusion is the control over what is being said publicly. The freedom of expression is constrained by Mahathir’s rhetoric. The government passed the Anti-Fake News law, broad legislation imposing up to seven years in prison for anyone who maliciously spreads “fake news,” deliberately defined vaguely to allow maximum discretion for the government to target critics. Last year, a Danish citizen was sentenced to one week in prison and a RM10,000 (US$2,384) fine for posting a video criticizing the police’s response to a targeted killing in Kuala Lumpur. Under the sedition act, at least three new sedition investigations opened in summer 2018 against individuals accused of insulting Malaysia’s royalty. Mahathir enacted a law that penalizes insults to Islam with which he can incarcerate someone for expressing ideas that Mahathir does not like. Alternatively, this gives the government an authority to seize someone if his language weakens Mahathir’s authority or challenges Malay superiority.

Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system in Malaysia operates as if it were a fascist elite commando unit – unaccounted, often covert, with the goal of eliminating problematic voices in society. Malaysia continues to detain individuals without trial under restrictive laws. Both the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act and the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act give government-appointed boards the authority to impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, to order electronic monitoring, and to impose other significant restrictions on freedom of movement and association. No judicial review is permitted for these measures. The similarly restrictive Security Offences (Special Measures) Act allows for preventive detention of up to 28 days with no judicial review for a broadly defined range of “security offenses.” Detention facilities are undermaintained, resulting in the illnesses and deaths of prisoners. Moreover, police torture of suspects in custody, in some cases resulting in death, continues to be a serious problem, as does a lack of accountability for such offenses. In Malaysia, entering a criminal justice process signals the probable end of one’s life. Rather than penalizing or rehabilitating, the Malaysian criminal justice system handicaps intractable parts.

Freedom of Assembly and Association

Control over what is being said is easier when limiting the circumstances in which people are allowed to convene. Under the new government, police have continued to open new investigations for violation of the Peaceful Assembly Act, despite a manifesto promise to “abolish draconian provisions” of that law. For example, on June 11, the police lodged reports against S. Arutchelvan of Parti Sosialis Malaysia and 50 others for gathering outside the prime minister’s office to submit a direct appeal to him. On July 12, lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was called in for questioning about a solidarity rally that took place outside the police station when she was being questioned for sedition. On September 16, eight student activists were arrested during a Malaysia Day protest in Sabah. Additionally, the Societies Act restricts freedom of association by requiring that organizations with seven or more members register with the registrar of societies. The law gives the minister of home affairs “absolute discretion” to declare an organization illegal and grants the Registrar of Societies authority over political parties. Mahathir’s fear of the formation of political opposition brought about the inability of weak socioeconomic groups from assembling to coordinate strategies to better their living circumstances.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Discrimination against LGBT people remains pervasive in Malaysia. Federal law punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with up to 20 years in prison, while numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people. While the minister for religious affairs called for an end to workplace discrimination against LGBT people, he also made clear any visible expression of an alternative sexuality or gender identity will be prosecuted under existing laws, and that he supports programs, broadly discredited, designed to change personal sexual orientation.

On September 21, Prime Minister Mahathir stated that Malaysia “cannot accept LGBT culture,” raising concern about the government’s commitment to protect the rights of LGBT people. Government discriminatory legislations trickled down into widespread homophobia, resulting in a society that takes measures into its own hands, persecuting LGBT people even without the help of official institutions. On August 18, eight men brutally beat a transgender woman in Negeri Sembilan, causing internal injuries, broken ribs, and injuries to her head and back. In September, a Sharia court in Terengganu state ordered two women be given six strokes of the cane for alleged same-sex conduct. The sentence was carried out in a courtroom in front of 100 witnesses, prompting global criticism. Cases such as these teach Malaysians that LGBT people are rotten apples that should be discarded, so homophobic Malaysians will not hire, rent to, or accommodate LGBT people.

Employment and the economy – allowed participation

Governmental and societal constraints over the inclusion of non-indigenous and non-Muslims shifted the job market and general demography of Malaysia from somewhat diverse to nearly homogenic. The key to social mobility is access to education. If you are born to parents who do not have a tertiary education your chance of upward mobility increases tremendously if you were able to obtain it. Other factors that enhance upward mobility are being born male and being in an urban area. Since the genesis of the NEP, the socioeconomic contexture of Malaysia had been restructured. Sixty-eight per cent of the children who were born to parents in the top quintile actually moved down by at least a quintile. The NEP was effective in lifting weaker Malays while weakening stronger ethnic groups.

According to the UNDP 1997 Human Development Report, and the 2004 United Nations Human Development (UNHDP) report, Malaysia has the highest income disparity between the rich and poor in Southeast Asia, greater than that of Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. The UNHDP Report shows that the richest 10% in Malaysia control 38.4% of the economic income as compared to the poorest 10% who control only 1.7%. However, according to official statistics from the Prime Minister’s Department, inequality has been decreasing steadily since 1970, with the Gini coefficient dropping to an all-time low of 0.40 in 2014.

Even though the affirmative action program has become so extensive and entrenched over the decades, most Malays have not realized much benefit from it — but a very small minority have enjoyed superlative gains. Rather than increasing social cohesion, it has contributed to disunity. As a result, Malaysia’s skilled labor and capital has tended to migrate overseas, compounding the costs of affirmative action. Schemes favoring Malays were once deemed essential to improve the lot of Malaysia’s least wealthy racial group; these days they are widely thought to help mostly the well-off within that group, while failing the poor and aggravating ethnic tensions. Yet affirmative action persists because it is a reliable vote-winner.

Mr. Mahathir suggested that the best way to encourage Malaysia’s diaspora to return is to expand the economy so there are more opportunities for people to practice as professionals, as well as invest in this country. However, under current circumstances, the expansion of the economy is a valid option only for Muslim Malays. Through the violation of human rights, Malaysia became a hostile domain for nonconformists. With the law limiting access of, and the population disliking non-Malays, Malaysia is becoming closer to a purely Muslim Malay country. These terms mean that Mahathir acts as a bouncer, picking and choosing who he wants to enter and participate in the economy.

Amelia Cole is a graduate student enrolled in the Economics department in Birmingham University.

Image credit: Pixabay

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