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.

History / Background

Indian influence in the Malay-speaking world dates back to at least the third century BCE when traders arrived at the archipelago. Hinduism and Buddhism were both established in the region by the first century CE. (Cavendish, 2007) Indian Hindu culture reigned in the Malay world between the seventh and fourteenth centuries. During the tenth century, however, the arrival of Islam supplanted a Hindu empire and led to the conversion of most of the Malay-Indonesian world.  (Cavendish, 2007) The 1800s witnessed another influx of ethnic Indian Hindus, who were forcibly brought to Malaysia by British colonialists to work as indentured laborers. (Kaur, 2013)

An independent Federation of Malaya was established in 1957 which subsequently became Malaysia in 1963. (Cavendish, 2007)

Upon their departure, the British left provisions in the constitution that favored Muslims and ethnic Malays, known as the Bumiputra (Sons of the Soil) policies. (The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, 2010) These provisions, enshrined in the constitution, created a system that left non-Malays as second-class citizens and provided a legal justification for the discrimination and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.

The practical implications of these provisions led to the departure of nearly 500,000 mostly ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians, who were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, from the country between 2007 and 2009. (Malott, 2011)

In addition, racial divides in Malaysia have escalated into riots, most notably the 1969 anti-Indian and anti-Chinese riots that left hundreds dead across the country. (Wilkins, 2019)

And in 2007, after years of suffering discrimination and persecution in silence, Indian Hindus began to challenge the government’s discriminatory practices, when they organized mass peaceful protests. The Malaysian government subsequently began to crack down on the Indian and Hindu communities, arbitrarily detaining and arresting hundreds of Hindus and banning Hindu organizations, such as the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), also known as Hindraf Makkal Sakthi. The ban was eventually lifted in 2013. (Aw, 2013)

In the 1980s, Malaysian ethno nationalism evolved and took on a religious nature with the state’s official embrace of Islam, leading to the incorporation of Islam into several parts othe government machinery. This further led to a new ethno-religious nationalism, further marginalizing ethnic and religious minorities. (Welsh, 2020)

And Islamists have steadily gained influence over the judicial system since the 1990s, with the Federal Constitution amended in 1988 to give official recognition to Shariat. Similarly, the National Fatwa Council, an organization composed of Islamic legal experts within the Prime Minister’s Office, has issued fatwas (religious edicts) with intensifying frequency and has banned practices it deems un-Islamic, such as yoga and participation in beauty pageants. (U.S. Department of State, 2016)

Many states have similarly implemented Sharia provisions targeting behavior considered inconsistent with official interpretations of Sunni Islam, including the prohibition of traditional performing arts, Mak Yong and Wayang Kulit, due to their animist and Hindu influences, respectively. (U.S. Department of State, 2016) A 28-year ban on the Mak Yong dance was finally lifted by the Kelantan State government in 2019, but still enforced Sharia regulations on the performances, including the segregation of male and female dancers and audience members. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The increasing political reliance on religion has led to greater intolerance of non-Muslims and anti-minority sentiments. The former ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, for example, has pursued policies influenced by Islam in an attempt to pander to its core Muslim Malay constituency. United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in particular, has always viewed itself as a guardian of Malay-Muslim supremacy, even as its political opponents similarly tout their Muslim “religious credentials.” (Liow, 2015)

As a consequence, ethnic and religious minorities have become further politically and socially marginalized and vulnerable to discrimination and violence.

Status of Human Rights, 2019-2020

Religious Freedom

Malaysia’s Federal Constitution gives explicit preference to Muslims and establishes Islam as the official state religion. Article 3(1), for instance, recognizes that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, thereby subjecting non-Muslims to an inferior status in the country. (The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, 2010) Furthermore, although Article 11 guarantees the right to practice and profess one’s religion and that every religious group may manage its own religious affairs, the Constitution simultaneously places limitations on those rights.  (The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, 2010) Non-Muslims are prohibited from propagating their religion amongst Muslims, and a non-Muslim must convert to Islam to in order to marry a Muslim and have their marriage officially recognized by the state. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The Constitution further establishes a parallel court system with secular civil and criminal courts as well as Shariat courts. The Shariat courts have authority over Muslims in issues such as religion, marriage, divorce, inheritance, apostasy, and religious conversion, where the Federal courts have no jurisdiction. The Shariat courts, however, have exercised jurisdiction over non-Muslims, subjecting them to outright discrimination in intra-family disputes. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)  In one famous case, the Shariat courts forcibly removed a 15-month old baby from its mother, Revathi, after she converted to Hinduism. Revathi, who was born to Muslim parents (they converted to Islam) but raised as a Hindu by her grandmother, was also imprisoned in a religious re-education center for individuals who “transgressed” against Islam. (Wilkins, 2019) Revathi was held in custody at the religious rehabilitation center for 178 days and only released upon the condition she live with her Muslim parents, even though she was a married adult. This was the only way she would have access to her daughter. The High Court also refused to hear a case by Revathi’s husband looking into the legality and conditions of the detention. (Singh, 2007)

Additionally, there have been a number of cases where minor children were converted to Islam by a Muslim parent without the knowledge or consent of the non-Muslim parent. In these instances, the Shariat courts have typically found in favor of the Muslim parent and sanctioned the conversion, thereby violating the non-Muslim’s parental rights. (Deutsche Welle, 2013)

In one long standing case that exemplifies the conflict between the Shariat courts and the civil law courts, a Hindu woman M. Indira Gandhi’s ex-husband converted to Islam (Muhammad Riduan Abdullah) and unilaterally converted their three minor children from Hinduism to Islam without her consent in April 2009. He then fled with their 11 month old daughter and went to the Shariat courts to obtain custody rights of all three children. After the Shariat court initially granted custody rights to Muhammad, Indira challenged the ruling in the civil law courts.

The civil law High Court ruled in her favor, but this was overturned by an appeals court that found that the Shariat court has jurisdiction to rule on the validity of the conversion. Indira finally prevailed in 2018 after a nine year ordeal, when a Federal Court ruled in her favor.  Despite the decision and a High Court order in 2019 for police to find Muhammad and return the youngest child to Indira, they have yet to locate them at the time of the publication of this report. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Government imposed legal regulations also place restrictions on the ability of religious communities to openly practice, assemble, or register their organizations. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) The Registrar of Societies, for example, enjoys “absolute discretion” to register or declare unlawful an organization or society believed to be a threat to national security or against “public order or morality,” and requires all registered groups to support Islam as the religion of Malaysia.  (Human Rights Watch, 2013) Similarly, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department wields tremendous power and regulates the practice of Islam in the country at the national level, while states also enforce Shariat provisions at the local level. Under these laws, women are unable to hold certain jobs or work specific schedules, and face discrimination in the workplace.

Furthermore, Sunni Islam is the only version of Islam allowed in Malaysia, and a number of “deviant” non-Sunni Muslim sects, including Shiites and Ahmadiyyas, have been proscribed as they allegedly pose a risk to national security and Muslim unity. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) For instance, in 2019, more than 30 Malaysian citizens in Selangor and Johor states were arrested for practicing Shia Islam. (Freedom House, 2020)

Sedition laws criminalizing speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion,” have disproportionally been used to targed those allegedly making statements about Islam, while action was rarely taken when statements were made about non-Muslim religions. For instance, in March 2019, a man was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $12,200 for allegedly making a post “offensive to Islam” on Facebook. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)  On the other hand, the head of an Islamic information center was arrested in April 2019 for insulting Hinduism during a religious seminar broadcast on social media, but the Attorney General decided not to pursue any charges against him. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The regulation of blasphemy was significantly expanded in 2019 when the federal religious affairs minister created a new task force to monitor “any writing or provocation deemed insulting to the Prophet and Islam across all media platforms, including social media.” (U.S. Department of State, 2020) The task force has received thousands of complaints of blasphemy and for a period of time received nearly 10,000 complaints per day. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Non-Muslims continued to face challenges building religious sites compared to Muslims, and often were denied permission to build temples and churches. Moreover, the government has the authority to destroy religious sites and statutes, if they are unregistered, and has often exercised its authority to do so. (Freedom House, 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2020)

According to Hindu groups, approximately 23,000 Hindu temples/shrines in Malaysia have been denied legal status since independence in 1963, many in existence since the pre-independence era, while Muslim mosques built in the same period have been granted land titles. (Human Rights Party Malaysia, 2012) The absence of land titles has also facilitated the government’s demolition and forced relocation of Hindu temples. Since independence, for instance, 10,000 Hindu temples/shrines have reportedly been demolished, desecrated, or forcibly relocated and appropriated for “public use” under special laws (including private shrines located on plantation estates), according to human rights groups. (Human Rights Party Malaysia, 2012) In the last few years alone, hundreds of Hindu temples have been demolished by government authorities. (Wilkins, 2019)

Hindu temples and religious sites have also been targeted by non-state actors. In May 2019, four suspects from an ISIS affiliated group were arrested for planning a 2018 attack on three Hindu temples: Batu Caves Sri Subramaniyar Temple in Selangor state, and Sri Maha Mariamman Devasthanam temple and Courthill Sri Ganesha Temple in Kuala Lumpur. (Asia News Network, 2019) Similarly, in 2018, rioting broke out over the relocation of a Hindu temple into a Muslim area and Muslim mobs affiliated with a private developer attacked the temple and assaulted worshipers. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Institutional Discrimination

The Indian Hindu community has historically faced the brunt of social, economic, and institutionalized discrimination in Malaysia. Indians continue to be plagued by socio-economic inequality and a lack of educational opportunities, and thousands remain undocumented.  According to some reports, approximately 54% of Indians work as laborers on plantations or in urban areas, and close to half of the Indian population are amongst the lowest income earners in the country. (Wilkins, 2019)

Social attitudes and government policies have become increasingly hostile towards ethnic Indians, and there have been little to no reforms undertaken by successive governments since the country’s independence. In fact, in 2019, despite election promises to address these issues, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expanded discriminatory laws. (Wilkins, 2019)

The primary cause of the institutionalized discrimination and socio-economic inequality lies in the Bumiputra policies, encompassed in Articles 159 and 160 of the Constitution, which collectively relegate ethnic and religious minorities to second-class citizenship. (The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, 2010) The provisions afford a special status to ethnic Malays by defining “Malay” as a “person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom…” (The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia, 2010)

The policies have had far reaching implications for minorities and have resulted in severe economic, social, and educational discrimination. For instance, Muslim Malays are afforded explicit preferences in several spheres, such as university admissions, government jobs, business and government contracts, and property ownership, among others. (Freedom House, 2020)

Government projects are primarily given to Malay Bumiputra individuals and organizations, while all government procurement requires the involvement of or outright Malay equity participation in the supplying organization. Furthermore, Malays are disproportionately promoted in the civil service to assure that Malays fill the highest policy-making positions, regardless of objective performance standards.

In addition, minorities have been grossly underrepresented in higher education and account for less than 20 percent of all college admissions, despite comprising one third of the Malaysian population. (Pak, 2013) And in mixed public schools, non-Muslim Malay students frequently face discrimination and harassment from teachers and school administrators. Moreover, Muslim prayers are commonly held to begin school assemblies or programs. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) Although non-Muslim students are not required to take Islamic studies classes that are compulsory for Muslims, requests for the inclusion of non-Islamic religion classes have been denied by the government. (U.S. Department of State, 2016) Government officials have also indicated that they would consider a number of proposals that would further impinge on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, including closing all Chinese and Tamil language public schools by 2026. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Furthermore, a complex set of repressive laws restricting speech, assembly, and giving security forces broad detention powers, have consistently violated the fundamental civil liberties of Malaysians. (Human Rights Watch, 2005) This has continued in recent years as sedition laws have been utilized as a political tool to silence criticism of the government and have also been used to punish perceived insults to Islam. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) Human rights groups also contend that police abuse is widespread, and such abuse disproportionately impacts the Indian Hindu community. (Human Rights Party Malaysia, 2012)

Conclusion and Recommendations

2019-2020 was marked by a progressive erosion of religious freedom and civil liberties for Malaysian people. Discriminatory Bumiputra policies benefitting Muslim Malays, restrictions on the religious freedom of non-Muslims and minority Muslim sects, and the silencing of freedom of speech, continued to occur and in some instances expand in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious Southeast Asian nation. In addition, all major political parties increased their anti-minority rhetoric and promoted Islamist policies at the state and federal level. Consequently, there are a number of steps that Malaysia must take to improve human rights conditions for all its citizens.

Recommendations to the Government of Malaysia

  • Create a Minority Affairs Ministry to examine and address the plight of the marginalized non-Malay population.
  • Repressive laws should be rescinded or revised to allow for the free exercise of speech, assembly, and association and to end arbitrary detentions and police abuses.
  • Religious freedom should be granted to all religious minorities consistent with those rights granted to their fellow Muslim citizens, including rights regarding registering religious associations and the free practice of religion in public.
  • Non-Muslim places of worship, particularly Hindu temples, must be protected from further destruction, desecration, and appropriation by the government and non-state actors. Additionally, non-Muslim religious sites and institutions should be treated on par with Muslim religious institutions.
  • The conflict between civil law and Islamic law must be resolved and any matter involving non-Muslims should be subject to the jurisdiction of the civil courts, regardless if it is a family law dispute with a Muslim.
  • The Bumiputra laws need to be reformed to accord equal opportunities to all Malaysians.

Recommendations to the International Community

It is also incumbent upon the US and the international community to exert pressure on the Malaysian government to provide religious freedom and equal rights to non-Muslims through constitutional and legal reform and to allow freedom of speech and assembly by amending repressive laws. The US should further revisit its trade ties with Malaysia, as the government continues to distribute economic entitlements to the majority Muslim Malay population. These policies not only impact minorities, but also affect the country’s economy and the viability of foreign investment. Putting pressure on Malaysia to reform these policies will benefit American investors, while addressing the economic marginalization of the Indian minority.


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Aw, N. (2013, January 26). Gov’t lifts four-year ban on Hindraf. Malaysiakini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/219991

CIA. (2020, October 27). The World Factbook: Malaysia. Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/my.html 

The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia. (2010). Federal Constitution. Attorney General’s Chambers of Malaysia.   http://www.agc.gov.my/agcportal/uploads/files/Publications/FC/Federal%20Consti%20(BI%20text).pdf 

Deutsche Welle. (2013, July 17). Malaysian Lawmakers Struggle to Maintain Harmony. Deutsche Welle. https://www.dw.com/en/malaysian-lawmakers-struggle-to-maintain-harmony/a-16958185 

Freedom House. (2020). Freedom in the World 2020: Malaysia. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/malaysia/freedom-world/2020 

Gunaratna, R. (2016, June 29). Islamic State’s First Terror Attack in Malaysia. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/icpvtr/co16163-islamic-states-first-terror-attack-in-malaysia/#.X49g5tBKjb3 

Human Rights Party Malaysia. (2012, April 11). All Hindu Temples Denied Land Unlike All Masjids or Suraus. Human Rights Party Malaysia.

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Human Rights Watch. (2013, September 3). Malaysia 2013 Universal Periodic Review Submission. Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/03/11/malaysia-2013-universal-periodic-review-submission

Kaur, A. (2013, February 20). Indian migrant workers in Malaysia – part 1. New Mandala. https://www.newmandala.org/aliens-in-the-land-indian-migrant-workers-in-malaysia/

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Singh, D. (2007, July 7). Revathi case can’t be heard because she’s freed. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2007/07/07/revathi-case-cant-be-heard-because-shes-freed 

The Star. (2019, July 17). Waytha Moorthy heads new Indian political party. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/07/17/waytha-moorthy-heads-new-indian-political-party/

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329, 847 sq km

32,652,083 (July 2020 est.)

Muslim (official) 61.3%; Buddhist 19.8%; Christian 9.2%; Hindu 6.3%; Confucianism, Taoism, Other traditional Chinese religions 1.3%; Unspecified 1%; None 0.8%; Other 0.4% (2010 est.)

Ethnic Groups
Bumiputera 62% (Malays and indigenous peoples, including Orang Asli, Dayak, Anak Negeri), Chinese 20.6%, Indian 6.2%, other 0.9%, non-citizens 10.3% (2017 est.)

Bahasa Malaysia (official), English, Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Foochow), Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Panjabi, Thai, several indigenous languages

Southeastern Asia, peninsula bordering Thailand and northern one-third of the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia, Brunei and the South China Sea, south of Vietnam (CIA World Factbook, 2020)