2019-2020 was marked by political turbulence, as two different coalition governments took power in Malaysia for a short period of time. After decades of rule by the Barisan Nasional coalition, a new governing coalition, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) took power in historic elections in 2019, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Shortly thereafter, Mahathir’s coalition government collapsed and was replaced in March 2020 by a new alliance of the Islamist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), along with the main opposition and ethno-nationalist United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and other smaller parties to form the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional). (Welsh, 2020) Even before coming to power through the National Alliance, PAS and UMNO joined together to aggressively push Islamist and Malaysian nationalist agendas in state and national by-elections. (Freedom House, 2020)
Under the current reign of the National Alliance and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin, ethnic and religious divides have increased, while the government has expanded restrictions on religious freedom, speech, and civil liberties. Islam also increasingly pervaded government policy and Malaysian society, including a rapid expansion of the regulation and criminalization of speech deemed to be offensive to Islam. The Islamic religious department, for instance, has increased its budget to $300 million with thousands of employees regulating economic activity and tracking social behavior. Religious education in public schools has similarly increased, causing challenges for both Muslim and non-Muslim students, while Islamic religious schools have proliferated. (Welsh, 2020)
In addition, high ranking government officials and religious leaders made several statements and promoted policies reflective of a climate of escalating religious intolerance. For instance, a group of Muslim leaders used social media to exhort Muslm Malays to “buy Muslim-made products first.” (U.S. Department of State, 2020)
Moreover, in September 2019, the Prime Minister’s office banned joint prayers by Muslims and non-Muslims prior to government sponsored interfaith events, although other government functions continued to start with Islamic prayers. Muslim religious leaders claimed that Muslims would lower themselves by having joint prayers with non-Muslims. And public school assemblies continued to start with an Islamic prayer. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) The former Prime Minister also voiced support for policies that would restrict “outsiders” from spreading “ideologies and teachings that deviate from Islam and the Malay culture.” (U.S. Department of State, 2020) In January 2019 PAS President Hadi Awang asserted in an opinion article that Muslims would “end up in hell” if they were led by a non-Muslim.” (U.S. Department of State, 2020)
Simultaneously, cumbersome restrictions on the religious rights of non-Muslims and members of minority-Muslims sects remained in place. Non-Muslim places of worship were subjected to inequitable treatment, marked by the ongoing demolition and forced relocation of Hindu temples, often sanctioned by the government. Similarly, the conflict between the jurisdiction of the Shariat (Islamic law) courts and the civil courts in family law matters continued unresolved. In the past, non-Muslims have been forced to adjudicate family law and “moral” matters in the Shariat courts, where they faced severe disadvantages.
Despite government crackdowns on extremist groups in recent years, Islamic State (ISIS) ideology has gained traction in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. In May 2019, four suspects were arrested for planning attacks on religious sites and a commercial site. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) And on June 27, 2016, ISIS carried out its first attack on Malaysian soil with a bombing of a bar and nightclub outside of Kuala Lumpur. (Gunaratna, 2016)
Ethnic Indians continued to face economic and social marginalization due to the persistence of Bumiputra (sons of the soil) policies favoring the majority Malaysian Muslim community. In order to address the socio-economic discrimination facing the Indian community, Waytha Moorthy, a former Minister in the Prime Minister’s office and human rights activist, created the Malaysian Advancement Party (MAP) in July 2019. According to a statement from Mr. Moorthy, the MAP will “protect, promote and advance the interest of the Indian community in their political, economic, educational, cultural, religious and social aspects.” (The Star, 2019)
In October 2019, officials from both the ruling and opposition political parties, however, proposed expanding the Bumiputra policies by making all high-level government positions only available for Malay Muslims. (Freedom House, 2020)
Finally, the ongoing repression of basic civil rights and fundamental liberties in Malaysia lead to a “Partly Free” designation from Freedom House. (Freedom House, 2020) This included the suppression of free speech and peaceful assembly, discrimination against LGBT activists, and police abuse and arbitrary detentions without trial.