THE Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) will now have “teeth that will turn into fangs”.
That is what Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said has said when the amendments to the Suhakam Act were passed in Parliament on Nov 9.
Suhakam, which has been described as a “toothless tiger” in the past, was meant to be empowered through the amendments which include vesting in them more power to probe complaints, introduce a Chief Children Commissioner post and allow the suspension of any commissioner pending outcome of a probe.
Nevertheless, human rights activists say that more needs to be done to strengthen human rights protection in Malaysia.
One is human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
While acknowledging progress in some areas of reform, Suaram says that in the past year, there remains limited substantive development in creating an environment that allows citizens to fully exercise their civil and political rights.
This is despite the current government’s proclaimed commitments to reform, which was initially a source of hope for many Malaysians, points out Suaram executive director Sevan Doraisamy.
The group launched its Malaysia Human Rights Report 2023 on Dec 8, looking at eight aspects of civil and political rights in the country.
There has been a “significant regression” in the freedom of expression in Malaysia in the past year, says Sevan.
The Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) are still being enforced with no current plan to repeal or abolish these provisions, despite earlier promises to do so.
Suaram says its hope for reform in this area was dashed when the government announced it has no intention to abolish the Sedition Act while the review of Section 233 of the CMA is only confined to ensuring investigations can be carried out more smoothly.
Another notch in the regression of freedom of expression, Suaram says, is that the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) was invoked five times to ban watch products and publications this year.
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Detention without trial also continues to be utilised under Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 (DDA85).
According to Suaram, there were at least 3,196 investigations or arrests under Sosma and 249 under DDA85 within the first 10 and a half months of this year, as reported by the media.
“Whilst the government is receptive to amending Sosma, no explicit timeline was given.
“How the government can ensure the protection of fundamental rights of individuals whilst continuing to use Sosma for its touted purposes of national security and public order is also uncertain, in light of the negative socioeconomic cascade effects that Sosma has on families of detainees,” says Sevan.
Deaths in custody continue to be an issue, with Suaram documenting 13 such deaths this year.
That is likely to be an under-reported figure as there have been longstanding issues with a lack of data transparency surrounding this matter.
There also remain restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, as Suaram recorded at least 80 individuals were investigated this year for being involved in public assemblies.
“Tactics seen in previous years such as police barricade, arrest and detention of individuals and pre-rally warnings are still used in public assemblies organised by the political opposition or held in significant public spaces such as Parliament,” Sevan says.
Suaram’s report also took a look at electoral abuse, as there have been six state elections and five by-elections held this year.
There is a growing problem with the misuse of MyKad for voting, with the police receiving at least 94 complaints.
Meanwhile, the abuse of government resources persists, due to the lack of strong legal frameworks to define the power of caretaker and non-caretaker governments, Sevan says.
Freedom of religion and belief is still restricted, according to the report, which highlighted recent selective applications of blasphemy laws, as well as the issue of unilateral conversions of minors such as the Indira Gandhi and Loh Siew Hong cases.
At the same time, human rights of LGBTi+ and gender-diverse groups have continued to regress in Malaysia in the past year, as evidenced by state-led efforts to restrict their rights, Suaram says.
Not all human rights issues have been backsliding this year, as the government should be commended for undertaking preliminary efforts to improve the welfare of migrants and refugees.
This includes the launch of forced labour guidelines and the commitment to implement a policy for refugees that will give them access to employment, health and education.
“Nevertheless, such efforts will not come full circle when investigations and raids by law enforcement persist and political will to align with global human rights standards on migrant and refugee protection is still lacking,” Sevan says.
The government has also shown its commitment to legislative reform by passing the Public Finance and Fiscal Responsibility Act 2023 and in the ongoing drafting of the Ombudsman Bill.Making it right
Suaram urges for improvements to be made to the Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) Act to guarantee police accountability.
The IPCC itself has yet to be established as the appointment of the members is still ongoing, even though the Act came into effect on July 1, 2023.
Sevan also laments that no timeline has been given for the separation of power between the attorney-general and the public prosecutor.
Azalina declines to comment on the state of human rights in Malaysia but she has said that the amendment to the Suhakam Act is a message to the world that Malaysians and its politicians are united on human rights.
The amendments were praised by lawmakers for being substantive and showing the government’s will to strengthen the protection of human rights, particularly for children.
While Sevan welcomes the amendments, he says the lack of transparency over the appointment process of commissioners is still a problem.
Similarly, the Malaysian Bar was pleased with the passing of the amendments but urged for further improvements to the Suhakam Act.
Looking ahead, Azalina says the government’s basis is to ensure that the country’s legal system is people-centric.
Among the focus for 2024 is to help more individuals get out of bankruptcy, strengthen legal aid services and deal with scammers.
“What’s the point of the government spending a lot on the law but the people don’t feel the benefit?” she asks.