Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. It has a parliamentary system of government selected through regular, multiparty elections and is headed by a prime minister. The king is the head of state, serves a largely ceremonial role, and has a five-year term. The kingship rotates among the sultans of the nine states with hereditary Malay rulers. In 2018 parliamentary elections, the Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, resulting in the first transfer of power between coalitions since independence in 1957. Before and during that campaign, opposition politicians and civil society organizations alleged electoral irregularities and systemic disadvantages for opposition groups due to a lack of media access for the opposition and malapportioned districts favoring the then ruling coalition. In February 2020 the Pakatan Harapan coalition collapsed, and power transferred to the Malay-dominated Perikatan Nasional coalition which included the main Barisan Nasional components, headed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. In August that coalition lost its majority in the lower house of parliament, resulting in a transfer of power to a Barisan Nasional-led coalition headed by the new prime minister, Ismail Sabri.
The Royal Malaysian Police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers have authority to enforce some criminal aspects of sharia. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government entities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media including unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; trafficking in persons; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; criminalization of consensual adult same-sex sexual conduct; and child labor.
The government arrested and prosecuted some officials engaged in corruption, malfeasance, and human rights abuses, although civil society groups alleged continued impunity.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women or men is a criminal offense, as are most forms of domestic violence. Rape is punishable by a maximum 20 years’ imprisonment and caning. The law does not recognize marital rape as a crime.
Women’s groups asserted the courts were inconsistent in punishing rapists. The NGO Women’s Aid Organization reported that from January through September, it received 1,662 complaints involving domestic violence, and the number of survivors seeking shelter increased one and a half times during the same period. There was a lack of investigation into accusations of rape and gender-based violence, and little accountability.
In January a male inmate raped a 16-year-old girl, also an inmate, at a local police station in Miri, Sarawak State. The NGO EDICT declared police violated the legal mandate that at least one female officer be assigned to take care of underage female inmates. Police suspended two officers pending investigation.
Although the government and NGOs maintained shelters and offered other assistance to victims of domestic violence, activists asserted that support mechanisms remained inadequate. Many government hospitals had crisis centers where victims of rape and domestic abuse could file reports without going to a police station. There was also a sexual investigations unit at each police headquarters to help victims of sexual crimes and abuse, and police sometimes assigned psychologists or counselors to provide emotional support. NGOs reported that the government did not take action in cases of domestic violence; victims must keep evidence, gather witness testimony, and ensure their own safety.
In 2020 the NGO Women’s Aid Organization reported that 9 percent of women who had ever been in a relationship experienced domestic violence and such violence was “symptomatic of a deeper problem: gender inequality.” A November report by the organization found that 53 percent of respondents believed domestic violence was a “normal” reaction to stress or frustration, and 43 percent believed a woman could so anger a man that he hit her without meaning to, suggesting a culture deeming such violence acceptable “when perceived as an emotional gesture, or in the event the victim has behaved in a way that triggers the abuse.” In Penang State, police as of July recorded a 35 percent increase in domestic-violence cases compared to 2020. Penang police chief Mohd Shuhaily Mohd Zain observed that factors driving the rise in domestic violence were pressure and stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C, and it was a common practice among Muslim and some indigenous communities. While recent data was very limited, a 2012 study by a professor at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Malaya, found that more than 93 percent of approximately 1,000 Muslim women surveyed in three of the country’s 13 states had undergone the procedure. Ministry of Health guidelines allow the practice in general but only at government health-care facilities, which was not always the case. Advocates and the international medical community remained concerned that the Health Ministry endorsement legitimizes the harmful practice and contributes to the “medicalization” of FGM. Women’s rights groups contended a 2009 fatwa by the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs declaring the practice obligatory made FGM/C more prevalent. According to an investigation published by local media in 2018, there are no standard procedures for the practice and “in some cases box cutters and stationery store blades are used.” Government officials defended the practice during a UN review in 2018, when a Ministry of Health official stated that the practice was performed only by medical professionals and compared it to immunization programs for female babies. The UN panel urged the country to abolish the practice.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits a person in authority from using his or her position to intimidate a subordinate by any conduct that is sexual in nature. The law classifies some types of workplace sexual harassment as criminal offenses (see section 7.d.). A government voluntary code of conduct provides a detailed definition of sexual harassment intended to raise public awareness of the problem. Observers noted that authorities took claims seriously, but victims were often reluctant to report sexual harassment because of the difficulty of proving the offense and the lengthy trial process.
In April two members of parliament accused then deputy inspector general of police Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani, since promoted to inspector general, of trivializing a rape threat made against a teenage girl. In separate statements Batu Kawan member Kasthuri Patto and Petaling Jaya member Maria Chin Abdullah criticized Acryl Sani for his remarks about a police report made by a student, age 17, that a classmate had threatened to rape her after she called out her teacher for making jokes about rape. Acryl Sani was reported to have commented that the classmate’s rape threat was possibly a joke. After this incident, more than 300 former and sitting students issued anonymous statements, with the hashtag #MakeSchoolsASaferPlace, recounting sexual harassment and abuse they had experienced at school by teachers and fellow students.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
In April, news portal Malaysiakini submitted to the Ministry of Education a list of 15 schools that allegedly required female students to undergo intrusive physical examinations to prove that they were menstruating and hence exempted from prayers. Malaysiakini reported that the practice of period spot checks dated as far back as 20 years. The measures included school officials forcing girls to show their blood-soaked sanitary pads; doing swabs of their vaginas with cotton buds, tissues, or fingers; or patting them down to feel if they were wearing a sanitary pad.
Cultural barriers and government policies impeded access to sexual and reproductive health services. For example, sexual health education remained limited for all women, although more accessible for married women than for unmarried women. Reproductive awareness advocates and NGOs that provided sexual health education were frequently accused of encouraging sin and eliciting sexual behaviors. Government-run family planning clinics often would not provide contraceptive services to unmarried young persons.
One-Stop Crisis Centers, an integrated multiagency service in the emergency department of most major public hospitals, provided support, including emergency contraception, to victims of sexual violence.
Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination against citizens based on gender and gives men and women equal property rights, although sharia, which deviates from these principles in some areas, was sometimes applied. For instance, Islamic inheritance law generally favors male offspring and male relatives. Sharia also generally requires a husband’s consent for divorce, but a small and steadily increasing number of women obtained divorces under sharia without their husband’s consent. Non-Muslims are not subject to sharia. Civil law gives non-Muslim mothers and fathers equal parental rights, while sharia favors fathers. Nevertheless, four states – Johor, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang – extend equal parental rights to Muslim mothers.
The law requires equal pay for male and female workers for work of equal value. Nonetheless, NGOs reported continued discrimination against women in the workplace in terms of promotion and salary (see section 7.d.).
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
No laws provided for the protection of members of racial or ethnic minorities or groups against violence and discrimination. The constitution gives ethnic Malays and indigenous groups, collectively known as bumiputra, a “special position” in the country. Government regulations and policies provided extensive preferential programs to boost the economic position of bumiputra, a majority of the population. Such programs limited opportunities for non-bumiputra (primarily ethnic Chinese and Indians) in higher education and government employment. Many industries were subject to race-based requirements that mandated bumiputra ownership levels. Government procurement and licensing policies favored bumiputra-owned businesses. The government claimed these policies were necessary to attain ethnic harmony and political stability.
The government and politicians often incited or condoned violence or abuse of members of racial or ethnic minorities. For example, a government unit charged with tightening border controls posted an illustration on social media that showed armed naval vessels threatening a boat and captioned it, “Rohingya migrants, your arrival is not welcome” (section 2.f., Access to Asylum). The minister of home affairs stated refugees might “lead to various social ills.”
In October, according to media reports, a senior politician from the Bersatu party, Borhanuddin Che Rahim, used an ethnic slur to describe an ethnic Indian member of the national badminton team. Also in October, in a widely viewed TikTok video, Muslim preacher Syakir Nasoha accused members of religious and ethnic minorities of “killing Muslims,” sparking fears this could incite violence against Buddhists (largely citizens of Chinese descent), Hindus (largely citizens of Indian descent), and Dayaks (an indigenous community of Sarawak and Sabah states).
The constitution provides indigenous and nonindigenous persons with the same civil and political rights, but the government did not effectively protect these rights.
Indigenous persons in peninsular Malaysia, known as Orang Asli, who number approximately 200,000, constituted the poorest group in the country and had very little ability to participate in decisions that affected them. The constitution provides for “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak” but does not refer specifically to the Orang Asli. This ambiguity over the community’s status in the constitution led to selective interpretation by different public institutions.
The courts have ruled that the Orang Asli have rights to their customary lands under the constitution, but NGOs contended the government failed to recognize these judicial pronouncements. The government may seize this land if it provides compensation. There were confrontations between indigenous communities and logging companies over land, and uncertainty over their land tenure made indigenous persons vulnerable to exploitation.
In February the High Court ruled against the Semelai Orang Asli claim for customary rights over a plot of land in Pahang State to make way for an oil palm cultivation project. In 2013 the state government had awarded Sri Jengka, a semi-state government corporation, a 99-year lease on the 1,618-acre tract. In September, however, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court decision, citing improper procedures by the company in taking possession of land with a customary right claim.
In April the Selangor State government issued an eviction notice to the Mah Meri Orang Asli for illegally infringing upon government land, nine days after the state government’s investment arm, Permodalan Negri Selangor Bhd, had awarded a 99-year lease for 101.62 acres of land in Mukim Sepang, Selangor, to a private ecotourism development company. The notice warned residents they could be fined up to 500,000 ringgit ($120,000), serve a five-year jail term, or both, if found guilty of the offense of building structures on government land.
Birth Registration: A child born in the country obtains citizenship if one parent is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth and the parents are married. Parents must register a child within 14 days of birth. Parents applying for late registration must provide proof the child was born in the country. Authorities do not register children born to illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. UNHCR registers children born to refugees (see section 2.g., Stateless Persons).
In September the High Court ruled that mothers who are citizens have the right to confer citizenship to their children born overseas on an equal basis with men who are citizens, but the government appealed the decision. Family Frontiers president Suriani Kempe lamented “a missed opportunity” for the government to “rectify this discrimination and make amends to its women who have been negatively impacted for over 60 years by their inability to obtain citizenship for their children on an equal basis as Malaysian men.” After the Attorney General’s Chambers filed the appeal, NGO Lawyers for Liberty coordinator Zaid Malek termed the government position “unacceptable” and declared that mothers with foreign spouses and children born overseas “live in fear that their children could be rendered stateless.”
Education: Education is free, compulsory, and universal through primary school (six years of school) for citizens and permanent residents, although there was no mechanism to enforce attendance. Public schools are open to some UNHCR-registered refugees, but not to the children of illegal immigrants.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18 for men and 16 for women. Muslim women younger than 16 may marry with the approval of a sharia court. Indigenous persons are governed by customary laws with no fixed minimum age for marriage. In some cases authorities treated early marriage as a solution to statutory rape. Advocates remained concerned that Rohingya refugee families were resorting to child marriage for their girls to cope with economic hardship.
The government’s national five-year roadmap for 2021-25 targets child marriage. The plan outlined policies to increase access to education and attendance in schools, increase access to health education, address stigma and social norms on child marriage, and specify laws and guidelines on child marriages that are in line with government policies guarding the well-being of children.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law bans child pornography and states that a child is considered a victim of sexual abuse if he or she has taken part as a participant or an observer in any activity that is sexual in nature for the purposes of a photograph, recording, film, videotape, or performance. Federal police reported approximately 20,000 internet addresses in the country uploading and downloading child pornography. By law the minimum age for consensual, noncommercial sex is 16 for both boys and girls. The involvement in making or producing child pornography carries a penalty of up to 30 years’ imprisonment and not fewer than six strokes of a cane; conviction for accessing or possessing child pornography carries a punishment of five years’ imprisonment or a fine; conviction for trafficking in persons involving a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation carries a punishment of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine.
There is a special court for sexual crimes against children, established to speed up trials that often took years to conclude. Commercial sexual exploitation of children existed, and a local NGO estimated in 2015, the last year with reported data, that 5,000 children were involved in sex work in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas. Authorities, however, often treated children exploited in commercial sex as offenders or undocumented immigrants rather than as victims.
The government focused on preventing sexual exploitation of children, including sex trafficking.
The law provides for six to 20 years’ imprisonment and caning for persons convicted of incest.
As of April, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development recorded 2,040 cases of child abuse. Of the total, 30 percent were physical and sexual abuse.
A child’s testimony is acceptable only if there is corroborating evidence, which posed special problems for molestation cases in which the child victim was the only witness.
In May police reported an increase in cases involving child pornography during the movement control order period from March 2020 to April 2021, including child grooming without physical contact using words or showing obscene sexual acts to children.
In June the Royal Malaysian Police Sexual, Women, and Child Investigation Division reported an increase in the number of reports of child rape by older family members during the various movement control orders. The division’s principal assistant director, Siti Kamsiah Hassan, told media that police received an average of 15 incest cases every month during the year.
In August, Alladin Lanim was arrested for online child exploitation and sentenced to 48 years and six months in prison and 15 strokes of the cane after joint investigations by the Royal Malaysian Police and Australian Federal Police revealed he was sexually abusing children at a plantation in Sarawak State and sharing the material online. Alladin, one of the child sex offenders most wanted by global law enforcement authorities, was linked to at least 34 victims between ages two and 16; he had uploaded more than 1,000 images and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children over the course of 14 years.
Displaced Children: Street children were most prevalent in Sabah State. Estimates of the street-child population ranged from a few thousand to 15,000, many of whom were born in the country to illegal immigrant parents. Authorities deported some of these parents, leaving their children without guardians. Lacking citizenship, access to schooling, or other government-provided support, these children often resorted to menial labor and criminal activities to survive; those living on the streets were vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor, including forced begging.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
The country’s Jewish population was estimated at 100-200 persons, consisting mostly of foreign residents. Anti-Semitism was a serious problem across the political spectrum and attracted wide support among segments of the population. The religious NGO Ikram warned that some residents rejected the COVID-19 vaccine, believing it to be part of the “Jewish agenda,” that it contained nonhalal ingredients and tracking chips, and that it could cause death.
There were restrictions on Israeli citizens entering the country.
Trafficking in Persons
Persons with Disabilities
The law affords persons with disabilities the right to equal access and use of public facilities, amenities, services, and buildings open or provided to the public. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development is responsible for safeguarding the rights of persons with disabilities.
New government buildings generally had a full range of facilities for persons with disabilities. The government, however, did not mandate accessibility to transportation for persons with disabilities, and authorities retrofitted few older public facilities to provide access for persons with disabilities. Recognizing public transportation was not “friendly” to persons with disabilities, the government maintained its 50 percent reduction of excise duty on locally made cars and motorcycles adapted for such persons.
Employment discrimination occurred against persons with disabilities (see section 7.d.).
Students with disabilities attended mainstream schools, but accessibility remained a serious problem. Separate education facilities also existed but were insufficient to meet the needs of all students with disabilities.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
All same-sex sexual conduct is illegal. The law states that sodomy and oral sex acts are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” In February the Federal Court nullified a Selangor State law on same-sex sexual conduct. The verdict ruled on an appeal of a Selangor State sharia court’s 2019 conviction of a man for “intercourse against the order of nature.” The Federal Court found that existing federal legislation outlawing the same conduct for the same reason preempted the state law, meaning it was unconstitutional and hence the case should not have been brought nor ruled on by the sharia court. This verdict could potentially nullify some strict anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) legislation at the state level that uses the same rationale as the federal laws. Religious and cultural taboos against same-sex sexual conduct were widespread (see section 2.a., Nongovernmental Impact).
In June then deputy religious affairs minister Ahmad Marzuk Shaary proposed that social media postings that “promote LGBTQ lifestyles” and “insult Islam” be punishable offenses under sharia. Ahmad Marzuk also announced a special multiagency government task force, including the government multimedia agency and police, to monitor posts related to LGBTQI+ issues. Activist Numan Afifi expressed concerns about the “escalation and trend towards more prosecution against the LGBTQI+ community in Malaysia,” including separate proposals in April to increase sentencing terms against LGBTQI+ offenses under sharia. SUHAKAM urged the government to reconsider its decision to impose heavier punishments for offenses associated with the LGBTQI+ community. SUHAKAM commissioner Hishamudin Yunus declared the best approach towards LGBTQI+ individuals was to “help integrate them into mainstream society” by respecting their constitutional rights to equality, privacy, and a life of dignity. Speaking to local media, the former Court of Appeal judge declared it should not be acceptable to discriminate against the community or to treat its members as criminals.
In June, 40 religious NGOs and educator groups released a joint statement protesting an online program entitled, “School as a Safe Place for Individuals of Various Sexual Orientations,” alleging the event supported the “open promotion of LGBTQI+ elements in schools.” The statement argued that schools “must be saved from elements of pro-unnatural sex orientations and transgenderism ideology that are against religious teachings.” The online program proceeded as scheduled.
Authorities often charged transgender persons with “indecent behavior” and “importuning for immoral purposes” in public. Those convicted of a first offense face a token fine and a maximum sentence of 14 days in jail. The sentences for subsequent convictions are fines and up to three months in jail. Local advocates contended that imprisoned transgender women served their sentences in prisons designated for men and that police and inmates often abused them verbally and sexually.
In January the Selangor Islamic Religious Department detained transgender social media influencer Nur Sajat for questioning regarding an online video of her saying Islamic prayers in women’s clothing in 2018. Religious department officers allegedly beat and slapped her while in custody. They subsequently charged her with “defamation of Islam,” punishable by a fine, up to three years’ imprisonment, or both, and released her on bail. Nur Sajat failed to appear for her court date on February 23, citing a medical condition. Her lawyer presented a medical leave certificate to the court the next day, but the judge rejected it. The religious department then issued a warrant for her arrest without bail and sent department officers looking for her, with police support. Nur Sajat crossed into Thailand, and UNHCR granted her refugee status.
In September the Perlis State Fatwa Committee declared that men “who appear like women” such as “cross-dressers” or transgender individuals were forbidden from entering mosques while “not in gender-conforming appearances.” Penang State mufti Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor suggested that transgender individuals “should change their appearance” if they wanted to be in mosques or suraus (Islamic assembly buildings) so that “they do not look odd and avoid uncomfortable feelings among other worshippers.” Representatives from the NGO Sisters in Islam observed that “the fatwa and statement of the mufti not only contradicts the federal constitution” but was “not in accordance with inclusive Islamic traditions.”
A 2018 survey by a local transgender rights group reported more than two-thirds of transgender women experienced some form of physical or emotional abuse.
State religious authorities reportedly forced LGBTQI+ persons to participate in “conversion therapy,” “treatment,” or “rehabilitation” programs to “cure” them of their sexuality. In a September response to a parliamentary inquiry, Prime Minister Sabri wrote that as of June, a total of 1,733 individuals from the LGBTQI+ community had been sent to a rehabilitation camp run by the Islamic Development Department, a government agency. The camp, called the Mukhayyam Program, was a government initiative designed to change the lifestyle and sexual orientation of LGBTQI+ individuals. Sabri added that the government was serious about the issue, “as Malaysia is a country that adheres to the religion of Islam.”
In September religious authorities in Kelantan State posted fliers in public places such as shopping malls and grocery stores warning the community about LGBTQI+ persons and the need to be vigilant against their influence. On November 1, Kelantan’s Sharia Criminal Code (I) Enactment 2019 came into force, criminalizing 24 new offenses applying to Muslims. Although the code’s five offenses infringing the rights of LGBTQI+ persons – “sodomy,” “homosexual activities involving women,” “changing gender,” “crossdressing as a female,” and “crossdressing as a male” – were not among the newly added crimes, observers expressed concern about the implications for the LGBTQI+ community. The NGO Sisters in Islam declared that Kelantan first minister Ahmad Yakob’s characterization of the code as “restorative and retributive” posed “a grave concern” and asked what this meant for actions deemed crimes under the code in the context of the “looming tabling” of legislation in federal parliament allowing sharia courts to mete out stiffer penalties. The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism urged the Kelantan government to review its “recently enforced” law, including “punishments against homosexual activities and a slew of other offenses.” There were no reports of the revised code being used to prosecute LGBTQI+ individuals at year’s end.
LGBTQI+ persons reported discrimination in employment, housing, and access to some government services because of their sexuality.