No laws preclude civil society organizations (CSO) from seeking or receiving domestic or foreign funding in Malaysia. However, activists report that the Malaysian government views some organizations that receive foreign funding, particularly those that express critical views of the government, as deceitful and politically threatening. Several CSOs that receive foreign funding have been investigated or threatened with investigations for violating the law, which could lead to their dissolution by the government. Investigations are commonly brought under Section 124C of the Penal Code, which is intended to prevent individuals from conducting activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy,” but is vaguely worded and frequently manipulated to target independent voices.
Two other laws severely restrict the work of independent civil society in Malaysia. The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) of 2012 allows Malaysian authorities to detain activists incommunicado for up to 48 hours, and allows for detention without charge or trial for up to 28 days for investigations that the government claims “protect national security.” In 2016, the government used SOSMA to arrest 15 prominent Malaysian activists. CSOs most often targeted are those involved in organizing public assemblies. The Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 prohibits street protests, and allows static assemblies with 10 days’ prior written notice, but subject to stringent pre-conditions and terms.
A Malaysian government-appointed task force on foreign political funding recently called for the introduction of a proposed Political Donations and Expenditure Act (PDEA). PDEA is ostensibly intended to regulate foreign funding for political parties, but civil society activists are concerned that it could be used to prevent CSOs deemed to be “political” by the government from receiving foreign funding. However, the draft legislation had yet to emerge at the time of reporting.
In addition to Malaysia’s restrictive legal framework, the government conducts ongoing smear campaigns against CSOs that receive foreign funding through state-controlled media and social media, which accuse CSOs of being “foreign agents.” When it was revealed, however, that the Prime Minister received had over US$681,000,000 in his personal bank accounts from the government of Saudi Arabia prior to the 2013 election, CSOs pointed out that this would make the Prime Minister a foreign agent by the government’s definition.
Civil society activists also report that the government and pro-government organizations coordinate smear campaigns against independent organizations. Pro-government organizations frequently host counter rallies against the assemblies of independent organizations. For example, the Bar Council, an independent regulatory body of legal practitioners in Malaysia, has been the subject of threats, harassment, and vandalism[i] by pro-government organizations including the “Red Shirt Group.”