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The Launch of SUARAM’s Human Rights Report 2021

27 April 2022

In 2021, Malaysia continued to grapple with political turmoil arising from the notorious ‘Sheraton Move’ and the concomitant resurgence of Covid-19. The political crisis, which stemmed from the alleged loss of the parliamentary majority by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, resulted in the country being put under abrupt emergency rule and haphazard lockdowns. The nationwide emergency announced on 12 January 2021 purportedly to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, was widely regarded as a political move by the embattled Prime Minister to suspend parliament when his parliamentary support was on the brink of collapse. For much of the year, the Perikatan Nasional government managed to govern without any parliamentary scrutiny. In early August, political stability was tentatively restored with Muhyiddin’s resignation. His successor, Ismail Sabri, swiftly negotiated with the opposition bloc for a political ceasefire and a bi-partisan memorandum was signed between both parties. The new government was held accountable to deliver on several promises, including the implementation of the voting right of 18-year-old, the tabling of an anti-hopping bill and various parliamentary reforms in return for conditional support from the opposition.

Within the span of unfolding political uncertainty and suspension of parliamentary democracy, the resurgence of Covid-19 in 2021 wrecked serious damage upon the nation’s economy and public health. The government re-introduced its movement control order (MCO) at the beginning of the year, in response to the unprecedented surge in daily Covid-19 cases and deaths. Consequently, outdoor activities were restricted to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Compared to the previous year, the economic and social impact of the lockdown in 2021 was purportedly much more severe, reflected in the reported increase in suicides and distress calls while unemployment figures continued to escalate. The economic hardships in 2021 even led to the launching of an unofficial “white flag movement” by Malaysian citizens, where individuals and families facing financial difficulties would raise white flags outside their residences as a cry for financial and food assistance.

Malaysia’s human rights situation deteriorated further in 2021, with the government clamping down on freedom of expression and assembly to stifle dissent, amid worsening political instability in the first half of the year. Security laws that violate the right to fair trial continued to be abused throughout the year where SUARAM’s media monitoring has tallied 146 individuals arrested under SOSMA, and 245 under POCA in 2021 while the government’s official data revealed an alarming total of 369 and 2,832 individuals arrested under SOSMA and POCA from 2020 – 2021.

Therefore, the pandemic and the restriction of movement did not diminish the use of such laws, but instead provided a ‘rationale’ for the government to continue manipulating these laws on the grounds of ‘crime-prevention’, especially during pandemic times. SUARAM has also noted that the security laws were mainly used to tackle organised crime. While there had been occasional court judgements 8 ruling in favour of the right to fair trial as opposed to the use of security laws, overall, there was very little political will to abolish the elements of detention without trial of such laws.

The situation pertaining to the right to justice was equally concerning in 2021. Incidents related to police abuse of power showed no sign of decreasing, while cases of deaths in police custody were periodically reported. Between April and May, the series of reported deaths in police custody drew public outrage and shock. The 21 deaths in custody documented by SUARAM in 2021 is a cause of concern when there were only 8 deaths documented in 2020. Furthermore, throughout 2021, issues involving chain remand and torture continued to occur, with no accountability and oversight.

Freedom of expression suffered a major setback in Malaysia when the government manipulated its emergency powers to enact a fake news ordinance. Although the ordinance was purportedly meant to deter the creation and circulation of ‘fake news’ related to Covid-19 and the emergency proclamation, the lack of parliamentary oversight and the law’s resemblance to the repealed AntiFake News Act 2018, indicates a high potential for it to be abused as a tool to silence political dissent. 12 individuals have been found to be charged under the fake news ordinance when it was enforced from March 2021 – October 2021. Besides the fake news ordinance, other repressive laws, namely the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, were frequently used to investigate social activists such as Fahmi Reza, Mohammad Alshatri, Mohammad Asraf for creating ‘political dissent’ against the government.

While the freedom to assemble was exercised regularly by activists in 2021, they were not spared from police intimidation. Many individuals who took part in these assemblies were investigated under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. Likewise, Human Rights Defenders and political activists continued to be called up, and at least 87 individuals were investigated under the act, according to SUARAM’s monitoring.

SUARAM’s people before profit desk has noted that various state and non-state actors in 2021 were complicit in various human rights violations under the guise of development, despite the pandemic. Notable cases had included the Selangor state government’s attempt to de-gazette the North Kuala Langat Forest Reserve and the Penang South Reclamation Project which aims to create three artificial islands.

Electoral democracy was suspended in the first half of 2021, due to the emergency order and Covid19 pandemic. Following the lifting of the emergency, two state elections in Malacca and Sarawak were held in the second half of the year. The government also dragged its feet over the implementation of reforms to lower the voting age. Together with the rather dubious registration process of new political parties, these delays resulted in the derailing of the right of political participation for Malaysians.

Women and LGBTQI communities living in Malaysia continued to face severe human rights challenges in 2021. Certain politicians and right-wing organisations harped on gender and sexuality 9 issues to gain political mileage. Of particular concern are the proposed amendments to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (Act 355). If passed, the amendments will amount to an increase in sentencing limits under Syariah courts’ criminal jurisdiction, on the grounds of “resolving the LGBT issues”. The only bright spot was a landmark judicial victory for women's rights when the High Court ruled in favour of granting Malaysian women married to foreign spouses equal rights in conferring automatic citizenship to their children born abroad.

The situation pertaining to migrants and refugees in Malaysia remained dire, with these communities continuing to face hostility and prejudice during the Covid-19 crisis. On top of ongoing systematic discrimination in migrant policies, the government had also on occasion used migrant workers as a convenient scapegoat to cover up their inefficacies in controlling the pandemic. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, SUHAKAM faced substantial operational challenges due to the government instability and Covid-19. During its short-lived tenure, the Perikatan Nasional government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin decided not to allocate time for SUHAKAM’s annual report to be debated in parliament, while the pandemic limited the commission’s capacity to address and investigate human rights complaints.

Lastly, the application of the death penalty continued unabated in the country throughout 2021, despite the government’s recent vote in support of a United Nations (UN) resolution favouring a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Cases of drug trafficking remain the most significant on Malaysia’s death row, topping the list of offences involving the death penalty, and these cases continue to be plagued by injustices and inequities. This was clearly illustrated in the case of Hairun Jalmani, a 55-year-old single mother of nine, who was sentenced to death in October 2021 for possessing 113.9g of methamphetamine. Malaysia’s strict drug trafficking laws continue to influence the widespread application of the death penalty in the country, with no regard for the often vulnerable socioeconomic realities of its victims.

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