Malaysia's new government slow on reforms, rights groups say

The Petronas Twin Towers seen along the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 8, 2018.
The Petronas Twin Towers seen along the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 8, 2018.PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia's new government has failed to deliver on most of its human rights reform promises in its first year in power, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said on Wednesday (May 8).

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's coalition won a stunning election victory in May 2018, ending more than 60 years of rule by a party that first took power at the time of independence from Britain, pledging to weed out corruption and improve a poor rights record.

But most of its planned reforms have either been delayed or withdrawn, following a backlash from opposition parties and conservative ethnic Malay Muslim groups, Human Rights Watch said.

"There's been far too much of the government just coasting on prevailing political winds," Mr Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur. "It has to stand up and show some conviction."

The Prime Minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tun Dr Mahathir's administration had promised sweeping changes, including abolishing the death penalty, revoking repressive sedition and detention laws, and reforming key state institutions.

But in March, the government said it planned only to abolish the mandatory death penalty, leaving it for courts to decide whether a person convicted of serious offences should hang.

 
 
 

Malaysia has also withdrawn plans to ratify a United Nations convention against racial discrimination, and to accede to the Rome Statute, which would have seen it joining the International Criminal Court.

The reversals came after groups representing the majority ethnic Malay community raised objections, saying the treaties could erode privileges enjoyed by Malays and affect the immunity of traditional Malay rulers in nine states.

Ethnicity is a sensitive issue for Malaysia, in which Malays make up about 60 per cent of its 32 million people. Most of the rest are ethnic Chinese, who have traditionally dominated commerce, and ethnic Indians.

Amnesty International Malaysia called on Dr Mahathir's government to create a clear road map for reforms.

"It's political will - that's what the government needs now," the group's executive director, Ms Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, said.

She also raised concern over efforts to protect minority groups, including indigenous tribes and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

Cross-dressing, sodomy and same-sex acts are illegal in Malaysia, and rights groups say persecution of the LGBTI community has grown in recent months.