Last Updated 27 October 2020

Malaysia is a federal, multi-territory constitutional monarchy, split across two land masses: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. There is a degree of freedom of religion or belief among the significant non-Muslim religious minorities including Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. However, rising attention on the small number (~1%) prepared to identify as non-religious has lead government officials and police to threaten atheists and deny that there is a right to express atheism under the Malay Constitution.1 Ethnic Malays are subjected to strict state controls over an enforced, homogenous religious identity, including mandatory Sharia laws, and in two states hudud enactments mandate death for “apostasy,” however there are no reports of such a penalty being applied. In August 2017 then-government ministers threatened to “hunt down” atheists photographed at an atheist meetup group in Kuala Lumpur.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution of Malaysia2 states that Islam is the religion of the country but that other religions may also be practiced in peace and harmony (Article 3). The Constitution also provides provides protections for freedom of expression, assembly, and association (Article 10). However, these protections are not absolute, and are subject to wide-ranging exemptions enumerated in several articles. For example, Article 10 includes a provision which allows Parliament to pass laws that restrict these freedoms in the interest of public order, morality and security. The freedoms are further restricted by several other articles, most notably Article 153, which grants the King of Malaysia powers to “safeguard the special position of the Malays”. Discussion of these articles, even by members of Parliament, is illegal.

Malaysia has a narrow concept of human rights, having signed only three of the eight legally enforceable human rights treaties, and even then the state asserts constitutional exemptions to these treaties and to the Universal Declaration itself, stating that only “those fundamental liberties provided for” in the Constitution will be upheld.3 These three treaties are: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In 2018, the government pledged to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), but reversed the decision following backlash from groups who fear it could dilute privileges for majority ethnic Malays and threaten Islam’s position as the official

The government’s ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims in Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications was upheld on 14 October 2014, the Court of Appeal overturning a 2009 decision that such a ban was unlawful.5 The Appeals Court found that the freedom to practice a religion other than Islam is lawfully limited by Islam’s status as the national religion, notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee that “other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony”. The full scope of the “ban” on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims remains unclear, with some officials saying it is limited to the Catholic Herald, which was the subject of the case; however, the precedent and basis of the judgment appear to have wider implications. The case has proved a high-profile, ongoing source of tension between religious communities.

The Malaysian judiciary operates on a parallel system of civil and syariah law, the latter governing Muslims. Syariah laws fall under state jurisdiction. In cases of public outrage over child marriages and public canings under syariah laws, politicians have argued that “the federal government is in no position to influence or change” Islamic

Education and children’s rights

Islamic religious education is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; students from non-Muslim backgrounds are required to take non-religious morals and ethics courses. Minority religion classes may in some cases also be held during the school day. At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commence with recitation of an Islamic prayer. In October 2019, several Islamic groups expressed outrage at the reading of a Christian prayer during a student awards ceremony. A police investigation was conducted against the school’s faculty, and pending action from the prosecution

Grants are given selectively to private Islamic schools only, on agreement they allow government supervision and adopt a government-approved curriculum.8 Girls, particularly in peninsular Malaysia, may be required to wear the tudung (head covering).

Tahfiz Schools

In April 2017, an 11-year-old school boy suffered abuse at an Islamic religious school in the state of Johor. The boy, along with fellow school children had been whipped on the legs with a water hose by an assistant warden. This case has led to closer scrutiny of ‘Tahfiz’ schools where students learn to memorize the Quran. These schools are privately-run and registered with the state religious department rather than the state education system. “To this day, we do not know who are actually in charge of regulating Tahfiz schools,” Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education, told Reuters. The case follows controversy over a proposed bill that would have introduced stricter forms of the Islamic Penal Code, including punishments such as

Recent tragedies of fires, rapes and sexual assaults by teachers have forced the government to declare that all Tahfiz schools must be regulated or shut down. UMNO and PAS, opposition parties who pursue Malay-Muslim supremacist ideals, immediately painted this as an attack on Islam and;

Islamic Studies in Public Schools

In order to graduate from secondary school, Muslim students are forced to undertake compulsory Islamic subjects. In August 2018, there was public outcry after it became known that some educational materials in public schools for SPM-taking Muslim students (equivalent to O’ Levels/GED) included violent topics.

What appears to be a leaked exam paper on Islamic Studies included a question on the permissible ways to “hit a disobedient wife”

Shortly after, another image from a textbook on Islamic Studies was leaked. The textbook read that death is a reasonable punishment for murtads (ex-Muslims)

Children’s rights

Child marriages remain an issue in the country, with a significant amount of child marriages occurring

In June 2018, the marriage of a 41-year-old Malaysian man to an 11-year-old child was posted on social media by his second wife. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Women and Family Development, Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, stated that the 11-year-old girl “consented” to the

After a government investigation, the man was fined a total of RM 1,800 (USD 434) by the Gua Musang Syariah court for solemnizing a marriage and polygamy without obtaining the court’s permission, with each charge comprising a fine of RM 900 (USD 217). The man, however, remains married to the

Citing the inability of the federal government to intervene on matters of the Syariah courts, the Deputy PM claimed that the Federal Government did not have the power to nullify child marriage as it falls under Islamic Syariah

As the issue developed, the federal government decided to take a stance to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18 by preparing working papers to raise the minimum age for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Mufti of Sabah, Datuk Bungsu Aziz Jaafar, spoke out against it, and suggested lowering the minimum age of marriage to 14 instead, stating that children are ‘now more mature and prone to sex earlier’, sparking outrage against the Islamic;

Unilateral child Islam conversion

While M. Indira Gandhi won her case at the Federal Court against the conversion of her three children to Islam without her consent, other women were not as fortunate. There are at least three other cases of unilateral conversion of minors to Islam in Malaysia that, as of 2019, had not been

Family, community and society

Enforced religious identity

The Constitution defines all ethnic Malays as Muslim and severely restricts what kind of Islam may be practiced in the country.

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a ‘MyKad’, which must state the bearer’s religion. This requirement alone appears to breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPT) under which States have no right to demand to know the religion of any of their citizens; a point reinforced by Section 3 of General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Committee: “In accordance with articles 18.2 and 17, no one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief.” In addition, the government has a history of limiting how citizens can identify their religion.

The Prime Minister reiterated in May 2014 that:

“We [the nation] will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims, or deny Muslims their right to be governed by Shariah Courts and neither will we allow Muslims to engage in LGBT activities”.
— Prime Minister Najib Razak

The state sanctioned brand of Sunni Islam is defined and enforced via a central federal authority, as well as a constellation of state authorities, including the parallel Sharia-court systems. Practice of any non-Sunni variant of Islam is prohibited, with Shia Muslims notably targeted by religious enforcement, resulting in arrests of both local and foreign

In September 2019, state religious authorities, along with special police units, raided a gathering of 50 Shiite Muslims at a private residence. The raid was conducted without any warrants. 8 persons were arrested and charged with “contempt of the Sultan” under Syariah

Nationally, Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a Sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” This effectively prohibits the conversion of Muslims, since Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties (such as enforced “rehabilitation”) on “apostates”.

However, non-Muslims can legally identify as non-religious by heading to the National Registration Department (NRD) to request for a change in their religious status to ‘tidak ada agama’ (no religion).

The “threat” of atheism, humanism and liberalism

In May 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” a dangerous threat to Islam and the Speaking at the opening the 57th national Quran Recital Assembly, he characterised secular worldviews as dangerous ideologies, saying:

“They call it human rightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism. It’s deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquettes. They do this on the premise of championing human rights.”

The idea that even divergent opinions within Islam are “deviant” and a dire threat to national security is a frequent accusation made by members of the Malaysian government.

In 2015, the president repeated similar slurs, but with reference to sexual minorities, drawing a direct moral equation between terrorist groups “like the Islamic State” with “lesbians, gay, bisexuals, and transgenders” who call for

Government threat to “hunt down” atheists

In August 2017, members of an atheist meetup group affiliated with the Atheist Republic Facebook page posed for a photograph at a social event in Kuala Lumpur. Those in attendance were smiling and making ‘peace’ signs towards the camera. The photograph was circulated widely online, leading to death threats and a government-led witch hunt against members of the group.

The government reportedly planned to launch a “detailed investigation” into whether any Muslims had joined the group. A Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki asked that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (SKMM) should intervene as the group involved “the faith of Muslims in the country”. “If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action. I have asked for Jawi to look into this grave allegation,” he told

A Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim said the public should aid authorities in locating groups like the Kuala Lumpur affiliate of Atheist Republic so that action could be

“The (Federal Constitution) does not mention atheists. It goes against the Constitution and human rights… I suggest that we hunt them down vehemently and we ask for help to identify these groups.”
— Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim

Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar warned Muslims or Malays against attending such events, saying that it was not their ‘right to attend’ such atheist events as they were against the Malaysian constitution. The Inspector General went on to say that “the police would scrutinise the existing laws to enable appropriate action to be taken should the atheist group cause anxiety for Muslims.”

Claim that atheism is “unconstitutional”

Following the verbal attacks on the Atheist Republic meetup, the liberty to hold or to express atheist views has been targeted by government ministers, claiming atheism is “unconstitutional” and punishable under Sharia and sedition laws. There is no clause prohibiting atheism in the


In Malaysia, sexual contact between two people of the same gender is illegal. LGBTQ+ rights are largely unrecognized in the country, with social attitudes being strongly influenced by Islam, the official religion.

Sections 377A and B of the Penal Code, a British colonial law, criminalizes consensual “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping. Section 377D criminalizes outrages of decency. In addition, Human Rights Watch has stated that “Numerous state Sharia laws prohibit both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender people.”27

Under the state-administered Shariah law, Liwat (sexual relations between men), musahaqah (sexual relations between women), and ‘male person posing as a woman’ and ‘female person posing as a man’ are also criminalized. 6 states in Malaysia impose maximum penalty of a RM 5,000 fine, 3 years of imprisonment and 6 strokes for musahaqah.

The current administration has also adopted two frameworks: taghrib, which means providing assistance to encourage good conduct and tahrib, which means inciting fear to discourage sinful behavior, in order to ‘save LGBT people from sins and sex work and return them to the right path’.

On 18 August 2018, Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), KL City Hall (DBKL), Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) and the National Anti-Drug Agency (AADK), jointly raided a club in Kuala Lumpur, known for its LGBTQ+ clientele to “mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society”. Twenty men were detained and forced to undergo religious counselling for ‘illicit behavior’ by the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department of Malaysia (JAKIM)

Khalwat raids

Religious authorities, together with the police force, are known to conduct raids on hotels and make arrests for ‘khalwat’ (close proximity) between unmarried;

Caning or Corporal Punishment of Muslim Women

Under Malaysian laws, only Muslim women can be subjected to caning as the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits caning women. As a result, Muslim women are disproportionately vulnerable to caning, corporal punishment, and torture.

On 28 September 2018, a 30-year-old single mother who pleaded guilty to offering sexual services to a man, was ordered to be given six strokes of the cane and jailed for six months by the Terengganu Syariah High Court in Kuala Terengganu. The prosecution was conducted by Terengganu Syariah prosecutor Mohd Kahzmizan Abdullah, while the woman was;

In September 2019, member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah was charged with contempt of court for criticizing the syariah courts’ unfavourable treatment of

In August 2019, the High Court dismissed a challenge by Sisters in Islam, a civil society group working to promote the rights of Muslim women, to a fatwa issued against it in 2014.32 The broadly worded fatwa declares that Sisters in Islam and “any individuals, organizations and institutions holding on to liberalism and religious pluralism” are deviant from Islamic teachings. The fatwa has broader implications for civil society actors as a whole working to promote and further human rights in the country.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Death for “apostasy”

Despite contradicting federal law, the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu passed hudud enactments in 1993 and 2002, respectively, making apostasy an offence punishable by death. Despite their long-standing nature, no one has been convicted under these Sharia laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the rulings could not be enforced without a Constitutional amendment. As amending the penal code is the exclusive prerogative of the federal government.

Pervasive Sharia and “blasphemy”

The authorities continue to threaten people with prosecution for “insulting” religion and prosecutions are actively made. Several cases brought by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) were brought in March 2019 (see Highlighted Cases, below).

Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code33 provide penalties for those who commit offenses against religion. The penalties include up to three years in prison or a large fine. Prosecutions for blasphemy usually target those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion can give rise to prosecution.

Authorities at the state level administer Sharia laws through Islamic courts and have jurisdiction over all Muslims.

The degree of their enforcement vary by state. State governments impose Sharia law on Muslims in some cultural and social matters but generally do not interfere with the religious practices of non-Muslim communities; however, debates continue regarding incorporating elements of Sharia law, such as khalwat (being in close physical proximity with an unrelated member of the opposite sex), into secular civil and criminal law. Although specific punishments for violation of khalwat vary from state to state, it is typically punishable by some combination of imprisonment up to two years, a fine of RM 3,000 ($940), or several strokes of the cane.

In July 2018, the Malaysian government declared its intention to introduce the Religious and Racial Hatred Act in the near future, in an attempt to protect Islam and other religions in the country from “insult”. The Coalition of NGOs in the UPR Process (COMANGO) has raised concerns about the act, urging the government to be cautious about potential abuses, and to clearly define what constitutes insult and abuse versus legitimate criticism, in order to prevent it from turning into another law criminalizing;

Just days prior to the announcement, the MCMC had issued a press release detailing its actions against kinds of social media use which it said “disrupts racial and religious harmony”. From February 2018-2019, the MCMC has investigated 47 cases, with 5 individuals being sentenced. The investigations entailed 2,358 requests for information/identity to social media platforms. Other actions taken include the removal of 3,407 social media accounts and 1,163 items of social media

Media and political freedoms

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed but severely restricted in practice. The declining situation in recent years has been described as risking a “political meltdown”

Parliament reformed the restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act37 in April 2012. However, the revised law retained the home minister’s authority to suspend or revoke publishing licenses but allowed such decisions to be appealed to judicial review. The amendments also eliminated the requirement that publications and printers obtain annual operating permits. Another legal change in 2012, made owners and editors of websites, providers of web-hosting services, and owners of computers or mobile devices used to publish content online accountable for information published on their sites or through their services.

State broadcasters and publishers reflect government views. Most private publishers and broadcasters are controlled by parties or business groups allied with the government, and they generally censor programming according to government guidelines. Books and films are directly censored or banned for profanity, violence, and political and religious material.

The internet has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. The government has responded in recent years by engaging in legal harassment of critical bloggers. Individuals who are deemed to insult the monarchy are often charged under the country’s colonial sedition law.38

While the government has pledged to repeal many of these laws, some of them still remain in effect and court cases against individuals are still ongoing. In October 2019, the government voted to repeal an anti-fake news law.

In March 2019, the government announced its intention to enact amendments to the Communications Act to “address the abuse of social media”. The Communications Minister claimed the new laws were needed to be “more effective in addressing issues of racism, religious hate crime and offensive messages on the monarchy institution”

In 2020, PEN Malaysia expressed concern for the apparent increasing use of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) against individuals expressing their views on social media and in the press.40 Section 233(a) makes it an offence for any person to use a network facility to knowingly make, create, solicit or initiate a communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person, and carries a penalty of up to RM50,000 or one years’ imprisonment. The law has reportedly recently been used to harass journalist Tashny Sukumaran following her article in the South China Morning Post titled ‘Coronavirus: Hundreds arrested as Malaysia cracks down on migrants in COVID-19 red zones’ and actor and commentator Patrick Teoh.41

Highlighted Cases

In October 2019, writer and activist Maryam Lee reported that she had been summoned for questioning by JAIS under Section 58 (1) of the Syariah Criminal Procedure Enactment (Selangor) 2003. While JAIS failed to provide a reason for the order, Lee believes that it is connected to her book Unveiling Choice, which was published by Gerakbudaya Enterprise and launched on 13 April 2019. The book argues that Malay Muslim women should have the right to decide if they wish to wear a tudung. The discussion at the launch of the book garnered backlash on social media from individuals who had not attended the session, including the Minister for the Department for Religious Affairs. According to media reports, this backlash prompted JAIS to launch an investigation.42

In March 2019, Alister Cogia (22 years old) was sentenced to almost 11 years imprisonment for blasphemy on social media, via his “Ayea Yea” Facebook account. Three others were being held without bail while awaiting trial for the same charges for “insulting Islam and the Prophet” under the Penal Code and Communications Act. Mohamad Yazid Kong Abdullah (52), owner of the “Yazid Kong” Facebook account, pleaded guilty after he was charged in the Criminal Sessions Court. Chow Mun Fai (43), operating Twitter account @ALVINCHOW333, faced eight charges. Danny Antoni (28), pleaded not guilty to two charges in relation to his personal Facebook account. In a statement about the cluster of cases, Inspector-General of Police Fuzi Harun advised the public not to abuse social media by uploading or sharing any form of provocation touching on religious or racial

Eric Paulsen, personally non-religious and a recurring, legitimate critic of the government – especially in connection with the imposition of Islamist extremism – has been repeatedly harassed by the authorities. In January 2015 he was arrested and subsequently charged with “sedition” for a 9 January tweet which read “Jakim [the Malaysian Islamic Development Department] is promoting extremism every Friday. Govt. needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia.” In March 2015, he was again arrested for tweeting about merely hypothetical problems in implementing Islamic hudud norms in Malaysia. His message read: “Do not simply believe that everything will be okay with hudud implementation – no basis that hudud will run smoothly in Malaysia”. Critical users tagged Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar into their angry replies, leading Abu Bakar to announce that Paulsen should  “watch his habit and mouth” when discussing sensitive topics such as religion, and asking, “Who is Eric Paulsen to question whether the hudud law is fair or not? … I will review the tweets he sent out and the police will take action.”44 Paulsen was arrested and detained
but has not been charged in the Hudud tweet case, however several older “sedition” cases against
others that were investigated in early 2015 have subsequently been brought to court.45; On 15 August 2018, the prosecution reportedly withdraw
the case against Paulsen.46

The Kuala Lumpur “consulate” of the online group Atheist Republic were targeted in an anti-atheist backlash, following publication in August 2017 of a photograph from a meetup event which went viral. The government said it would launch a “detailed investigation” into whether any “Muslims” had joined the Atheist Club. A Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki asked that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (SKMM) should be involved as it involved “the faith of Muslims in the country” and: “If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action. I have asked for Jawi to look into this grave allegation.”


23, 47
27, 38

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