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Spread across two regions of land, separated by the South China Sea, Malaysia shares borders with Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei. Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. Alongside a parliament, the monarch is also elected for a five year term, with candidates chosen from one of nine hereditary monarchies who rule some of the constituent States. Freedom of speech and political activities are tightly controlled in Malaysia, with frequent abuses by security services, arbitrary detention and the imposition of strict laws on sexual activities.
Malaysia is divided into two distinct geographical areas including 11 States on the Peninsula of Malaysia, bordered by Singapore and Thailand, and Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan on the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia and Brunei. The capital city is Kuala Lumpur, though Putrajaya is the administrative capital.
Population and language
Malaysia has a population of 28.9 million people, a figure that has doubled over the last three decades, and continues to increase at between 1.5 and 2 per cent per year. The majority of the population are ethnically Bumiputera (67 per cent) while there are substantial communities of people of Chinese (25 per cent) and Indian (7 per cent) descent. Islam is the most widely professed religion (61 per cent) followed by Buddhism (20 per cent), Christianity (9 per cent) and Hinduism (6 per cent).
Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) is the national language, but Chinese, Tamil, Iban and English are also widely used.
History and politics
The Malay Peninsula was first settled by immigrants from the north prior to the pre-colonial influx of Indian and Islamic influences. From the 16th century, the region came under the successive governments of the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires, the latter of which retained control until the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. In the aftermath of that war, the ethnic Chinese Malayan Communist Party continued its wartime insurgency which led the recently reinstated British controlled territory on the Malayan peninsula to institute a state of emergency that formally lasted three years past the independence of Malaya in 1957. In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed including the former Federation of Malaya as well as the Sabah and Sarawak territories on the island of Borneo under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
The United Malays National Organisation has held power in the country since independence, though as part of the Barisan Nasional coalition since 1973. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad held the premiership for more than two decades and oversaw much of the country's transition into a prosperous economic success, albeit alongside an authoritarian system of government. Since Dr Mohamad's resignation in 2003, a further three members of his party have held the premiership, most recently Najib Abdul Razak, who took office in 2009. Mr. Razak leads a coalition which, for the first time since independence, holds a less than two-thirds majority in the Parliament: the level of support necessary to amend the Constitution. The new Prime Minister has taken steps to publicly position himself as a reformer, including promises to turn away from his party's history of Malay supremacy and institute greater civic freedoms. Nevertheless, under his government, authoritarian policies and the use of the law against political opponents have continued.
The Malaysian economy underwent a dramatic reformation from its dependency on commodity exports in the 1970s, to its present modern and multi-sectoral state. Between 1985 and 1995, GDP grew at an average rate of 7.3 per cent and, following the Asian Financial crisis, returned to growth of 5.5 per cent between 2000 and the 2008 global economic crisis. Throughout this period poverty fell dramatically, from 12 per cent in 1984 to 2 per cent in 2009, though substantial economic inequalities remain a national feature. Prime Minister Razak announced a New Economic Model in 2010 with the aim of transforming Malaysia into a high-income country by 2020, primarily driven by the private sector and a shift towards higher value-added activities in industry and services.
Media and civil society
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) rated the country 122 out of 179 in its 2011/12 Press Freedom Index, a significant rise on rankings in previous years. Nevertheless, RWB has reported on a wide range of repressive measures against the media and civil society in the country, including a government clampdown on protesters in 2011, cyber-attacks on opposition and news websites, and defamation and sedition laws that have restricted the freedom of expression of journalists and bloggers. Social media has been a growth industry in Malaysia, however, and created an area of the internet less susceptible to censorship, but also leaving bloggers particularly vulnerable in the pre-election climate. In 2010, Prime Minister Razak promised to repeal the Internal Security Act, legislation that has been used to detain journalists, bloggers and opposition political figures, but many have been unconvinced of his ability and intention to follow through such media liberalisation policies.
Human rights and children's rights
Beyond the widespread violation of rights to freedom of expression and association, human rights more generally are subject to tight constraints in Malaysia. The State has recourse to a number of highly controversial powers, including the power to detain people indefinitely without trial if deemed a threat to national security or public order under the Internal Security Act. The country also has highly restrictive rules on sexual orientation, which criminalise “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Such laws received high profile attention during the trial of opposition political leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was accused of engaging in homosexual sodomy in an allegedly politically motivated prosecution. Such discrimination and intolerance has also been directed at children, as evidenced by the State's 2011 initiative to send schoolboys identified as “effeminate” to a “gender corrective” bootcamp. Also of particular concern with regards to the rights of children, is the reported prevalence of sexual abuse of children in children's homes and the exploitation of children as prostitutes.
- UNDESA, "Population Statistics 2011"
- Department of Statistics, Malaysia, ""Population and Housing Census, Malaysia 2010"
- BBC, "Profile: Mahathir Mohamad" 31 October 2003
- See The Economist, "Nijab at bay: Good intentions are not enough for a leader at odds with his party" 4 February 2012 and "The end of sodomy 2.0" 9 January 2012
- The World Bank, "Malaysia Overview" and "Data: Malaysia"
- The National Advisory Council, "The New Economic Model for Malaysia, Part I"
- Reporters Without Borders, "Many opposition adn news sites brought down by cyber-attack in election run-up" 15 April 2011
- Reporters Without Borders, "Blogger ordered to pay huge damages to minister in defamation case" 23 January 2012
- ComScore, "Social networking accounts for one third of all time spent online in Malaysia" 17 October 2011
- Reporters Without Borders, "World Report: Malaysia"
- Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2012", pp. 341-346
- Free Malaysia Today, "No to gender 'corrective' boot camp for boys" 20 April 2011
- The Star Online- Malaysia, "Action needed to reduce sexual abuse in children's homes" 11 February 2011
- Press TV, "Malaysia: haven for child prostitution" 21 February 2011
- OHCHR, "Malaysia Homepage"
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Malaysia Country Profile"
- BBC, "Malaysia Profile", "Timeline" and news items (see footnotes)
- The World Bank, "Country Overview" and "Data: Malaysia"
- The Department of Statistics, Malaysia
- Reporters Without Borders, "Press Freedom Index 2011/12", "World Report: Malaysia" and news items (see footnotes)
- The Economist (see footnotes)