Malaysia has a Muslim majority and yet its government operates as a democratic constitutional monarchy equipped with elections. When political commentator Bill Maher repeatedly bashed Islam for its collective violent oppressing of women, homosexuals, and for its restrictions on press freedom, scholar Reza Aslan reprimanded Maher for what he claims were inaccuracies in an interview with CNN. “When it comes to the topic of religion, he’s not as sophisticated as he thinks he is,” Aslan said. “You make these facile arguments, like that women are somehow mistreated in the Muslim world; well that’s certainly true in many Muslim-majority countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia; did you know that seven women have been elected as heads of states in those Muslim majority countries? How many women have we had as head of states in the United States?” When the interviewer said Muslim countries are not “free and open societies for women,” Aslan responds, “Well, it’s not in Iran. It’s not in Saudi Arabia. It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. Again, this is the problem. You’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people. It’s easy to paint them all with a single brush…”
Despite Malaysia’s democratic constitutional monarchy and election of prime ministers, however, its press freedom is limited at best. The Freedom House status currently “not free” while its press freedom score, factoring in legal, political, and environmental factors, is 64, with 100 being the worst, and is ranked 146th out of the 196 countries recognized by Freedom House (FreedomHouse.org). While Aslan may argue Malaysia’s press freedom is certainly not as subjugated and restrictive as North Korea and Iran, it’s a far cry from that of Western Europe and North America. Additionally, comparing the several different Muslim-majority nations that have had female heads of states to the lone United States which has not had any as an indicator that Muslim-majority countries are of more advanced in this area may be a tad misleading. To get a more accurate depiction of global progress, it would be more beneficial to compare that of Christian-majority nations or the Americas with Muslim-majority countries to determine who have had more minority leaders.
Some scholars argue press freedom similar to the west is virtually impossible in Malaysia due to a suppressing nature of Islam itself. Sociologist B.S. Turner argues, “…the problem of incorporating Islam into the modern Western policy lies in the fact that Islam does not recognize the separation of church and state” (Leong 37). The incorporation of political issues with religion is an ongoing problem with Malaysians (37). While Western religions, such as Protestantism, tend to be content with an “individualistic and private” (36) enterprise, and are able to separate religious matters from politics without feeling as they are harming the fabric of their faith, “The relationship between religion and politics in Islam is very different from the relationship in other civilizations,” Turner said.
In 1984, the Malaysian government established the Printing Presses and Publication Act, which required all publishers with printing presses to obtain a license issued from the state before publishing any media for the public. To get the license, publishers have to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs, a sect of the government in charge of domestic affairs, civil defense, and national security. The act gives the government complete authority to shut down any media they view as a threat to national security interests at their discretion (cijmalaysia.org).
While press freedoms typically progress with age, government control of media in Malaysia has actually become stricter within the last century. The PPPA is a revised and updated version of the Public Authorities Protection Act of 1948, when Malaysia was under British rule, and was enacted to suppress the threat of Communism in the media (cijmalaysia.org). After Malaysia gained independence from British rule in 1957, the new threat to its national security was secret societies formed by the Chinese in the 1960s. Many policies and reformation were created to oversee this new threat. The Societies Act of 1966 was “implemented largely in response to the threat to the public order posed by Chinese secret societies” (Weiss p. 31). Now, virtually all those involved with groups, such as trade unions, had to register with Department of Home Affairs, who had the ultimate discretion to search the premises of any organization as well as shut them down, when they felt it was the in the best interest of Malaysia’s national security. After the race massacre of 1969, in which many Chinese and Malayans were killed in an attempt to fight for dominant power, the PPPA added a revision that gave the government the right to suppress any “racial sensitivities” in the media, and revoke licenses if they occurred (cijmalaysia.org).
While the Malaysian Constitution “guarantees freedom of speech, expression, peaceful assembly, and association,” (Weiss p. 31), the exceptions to this right are left up to the discretion of the government itself. The official statute says that this act is intended for the “protection of persons acting in execution of statutory and other public duty” (see agc.gov, p.5). With this choice of words, the government paints itself as the victims rather than journalists, illustrating how the statute appears justified from a different perspective. With this intimidation technique, journalists may self-censor to avoid license revocation and banishment of journalistic duties.
Access to various media systems has become available in Malaysia. In the 19th century, only one English newspaper existed, the New Straight Times, which currently has circulation of 190K (Pressreference.com). Malaysia currently has approximately 30 newspapers and, similar to most nations that have escaped Soviet control, it has a staggeringly high literacy and low unemployment rate. The population of Malaysia has been steadily growing with each passing decade. In 1961, approximately 8 million populated the nation (WorldBank.org), which grew to 15.8 million in 1987 (Nathan p. 1059), and 22.2 million in 2015 (Pressreference.com). Malaysia is one of the most diverse multicultural countries, with a high population of Malays, Chinese, English, and Tamil. Because of this, newspapers and television stations are distributed throughout the region in four different languages (Pressreference.com).
While different forms of media have been increasing in Malaysia, they are all, nevertheless, owned and monitored by the government or one of its affiliates (Weiss p. 34). The government will censor news when it expresses opposition to the government, or when government officials are shown to be inept. The inception of the Internet, however, with its global power and reach, has made it difficult for the Malaysian government to control. A large number of the population, nearly 80%, has access to the Internet (BBC). The Muslim majority is threatened by the Internet on grounds that global sharing and communication with outsiders is immoral and want to impede technological progress. As Turner said, “…Islamic law is not merely a law of private status, and the Islamic community is a transnational social system” (p. 37).One solution is for society as a whole “to convince the Muslim majority that technological advancement with a view to material progress is compatible with the teachings of Islam, and is hence worthwhile and desirable” (Leong p. 70). As of now, to maintain stability, in the country, “the government is keen to insulate the largely Muslim population from what it considers to be harmful foreign influences” (BBC). The Internet allows users the flexibility to express the opposition with the government with other nations on social network sites including Twitter. While the government has little control over such a vast global technological system, Reporters without Borders lists them as “under surveillance.” While the Internet is still young, access to information as well as disseminating information is only increasing. Will Malaysia’s Muslim majority adapt to the increasing changes? Will the government limit its restrictions? It is possible to have a high Freedom House ranking with a Muslim majority? Only the future will provide the answers.
Aslan, R., Lemon D., & Camerota, A. (2014). CNN Tonight. Atlanta, GA: CNN.
Leong, S. (2014). New media and the nation in Malaysia. New York: Routledge.
Weiss, M. L. & Hassan, S. (2003). Social movements in Malaysia: From moral communities to NGOs. New York: RoutledgeCurzon
Nathan, K.S. (1987). Malaysia and the Soviet Union (A relationship with a distance). California: University of California Press.