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Human Rights Day 2019: the Malaysian perspective

Monday 16 December 2019 - 9:00am

A side street in Kuala Lumpur

To commemorate Human Rights Day, PEN International and PEN Centres are launching an essay series and holding events on human rights issues across the globe.

Human Rights and Freedom of Expression in Malaysia

Bernice Chauly, PEN Malaysia

On 9 May 2018, millions of Malaysians voted in their 14th General Election. The country had been mired in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal that implicated Prime Minister Najib Razak in a slew of accusations. These included the loss of billions of dollars – money used to finance elections, the purchasing of penthouses in New York and LA, the production of Hollywood films – including the Wolf of Wall Street – and lavish parties around the world. Malaysians were aghast, humiliated and angry, especially when it was also revealed that Rosmah, the PM’s wife, had been on spending sprees around the world, fueling her taste for designer clothes, Birkin bags and large gemstones. The Najib government had reached lows like never before, and Malaysians did what they do best at times like this. We came together and voted out a corrupt PM and the Barisan National coalition – which had ruled Malaysia since independence from the British in 1957 – without a single drop of blood. It was a bloodless revolution, nothing short of a miracle. Malaysians were ecstatic, it was the beginning of a new dawn, a new beginning, a new Malaysia with the rallying cry, “Malaysia Bharu!” (“A new Malaysia!”)

It has been 18 months since 9 May, and Malaysia is once again plunged into a kind of darkness, of extremist and dangerous rhetoric in the rise of populism and intolerance. The man who led the opposition party Pakatan Harapan (Party of Hope) to victory was no other than 93-year-old Mahathir Muhammad, the draconian, ruthless and authoritarian politician who had ruled Malaysia for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003. The fact that he was now back in power did not sit well with many after the elections, and we now have more reason to be fearful and pessimistic about the future of the nation.

Malaysia is a multicultural, multi-religious country with Islam as its official state religion and an unspoken rule that all Malays – who represent more than fifty percent of the population – have to be Muslim. Non-Malays have to convert to Islam to marry Malay Muslims, divorce as Muslims, as all laws that pertain to Muslims come under the Syariah Court. In recent years, the understanding of what it means to be Muslim and Malay has become highly debated, and highly contentious. Malaysia has always prided itself in practicing a moderate form of Islam, but since the elections last May, the realities are far from that.

A backlash of sorts occurred after the Pakatan Harapan win. Mahathir decided to appoint Lim Guan Eng – his former political opponent – as Finance Minister and Tommy Thomas as the new Attorney General. The decisions to nominate a Malay of Chinese descent and another of Indian ethnicity in key positions were the cause for much dismay among Malay groups in the rallying cry that Malay politicians were being sidelined. In July 2018 as a direct or indirect means to counter this recrimination, Mahathir installed Mujahid Yusof Rawa as Minister in the Department for Religious Affairs. Mujahid is known for his right-wing views and extreme rhetoric, which he made clear as a member of Parliament, and also is a fervent supporter of the controversial Indian cleric and speaker Zakir Naik. A trickle-down effect was seen immediately. Within months, three transgender women were brutally attacked and murdered. In September, Malaysia’s first public caning of two women was carried out at the Terengganu Syariah Court – a predominantly Muslim state in the east coast of Malaysia. The harsh sentence of six strokes carried out in a public courtroom demonstrated little regard for the dignity of the two women who were sentenced under Section 30 and 59(1) of the Syariah Criminal Offences for being in close proximity. Malaysians were shocked and outraged. The event was livestreamed on social media and marked a dark day in our history. The fact that this had happened a few months after the 9 May victory once again plunged many Malaysians into a state of despair. In early November, Mujahid ordered the portraits of two LGBTQI+ activists to be removed from an art exhibition that was part of the George Town Festival in Penang. The photos of Pang Khee Teik, co-founder of Sexualiti Merdeka, an LGBTQI+ human rights group, and Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist and founder of SEED, an NGO for transgender rights, were taken down, and caused criticism and outrage internationally. Pang and Ayub (who is Muslim) continued to be harassed online and received death threats in the following months.

Following the ratification of PEN Malaysia at the 85th Congress in September 2019, we are now in a position to stand in solidarity with writers who have faced harassment in connection with their work.

Another example of the harassment of writers is author Faisal Tehrani - seven of his books have been banned - who stated at a conference in August that the religionisation of Malay literature over decades has become a stumbling block to realising national culture. He added that Islamic literature has become synonymous with Malay literature, which is now “laced with Arabic terminology.” Tehrani also asked why non-Malay writers continue to be sidelined by the Malay publishing and literary communities and questioned whether writers who work in English, Tamil or Mandarin might ever become National Laureate. For his outspoken views and his support of Shia Muslims in Malaysia Tehrani has also received death threats.

Also in August, the High Court dismissed an application from Sisters in Islam – an NGO that works for the rights of Muslim women and children – who challenged a fatwa from 2014 which decreed that the organisation was ‘deviant’ as it believed in liberalism, pluralism and women’s rights.

In October, four public universities hosted the Malay Dignity Congress, which was essentially a platform to facilitate hate rhetoric for academics and students alike, barring students of other ethnicities from attending. One of the keynote speeches ended with the phrase, “Malaysia for the Malays.” The fact that this was endorsed by the heads of four key public universities is in direct violation of the grounds of academic scholarship and its ideals, and indicative that public institutions are becoming a breeding ground for factionalism and extremist ideas.

With this rise in hardline rhetoric, with the fact that the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and detention without trial still exist in spite of Mahathir’s promises to make them obsolete, to make Malaysians more polarised and fractured than ever, with increasing threats to their freedom of speech and expression, human rights and democracy.