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UN expert urges Malaysia to protect its tradition of tolerance from the rise of fundamentalism

Malaysia culture warning

25 September 2017

GENEVA (25 September 2017) – A United Nations human rights expert says Malaysia has much to lose if the authorities do not take seriously warning signs that the country’s culture of tolerance is under threat.

“Malaysia has over the years risen to the challenge of building a society inclusive of its broad cultural diversity, but this achievement should not be taken for granted and could be at risk if steps are not taken to meet current challenges,” said the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune.

In a statement at the end of a 10-day fact-finding mission to the country she noted that there was growing pressure to adopt a narrow interpretation of the Muslim religion and identity, which excludes the country’s cross-cultural history, marginalizes religious minorities and fails to take account of the diversity of Malay Muslims.

“I have heard worrying reports of attempts at Islamization spreading in many areas of society which could lead to cultural engineering: changing how people dress, in particular women, and girls in schools, and altering the arts, cultural practices, religious beliefs, and even the historical narrative of the country,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The government must respect and ensure the rights of human rights defenders challenging fundamentalism who often face harassment.”

“Such developments not only reduce space for the free expression of cultural diversity, but also trigger a sense of exclusion and restriction among people who therefore do not feel fully recognized as Malaysians,” she added.

“In its efforts to foster unity in diversity, I encourage the Government to move away from viewing people primarily through the lens of ethnicity and to put greater emphasis on their shared and equal belonging to the Malaysian nation,” she emphasized.

The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about bans and restrictions to specific traditional performing arts in the State of Kelantan, namely Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong, Main Puteri and Dikir Barait, as well as limitations on women performing in public, because of fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

“These bans and restrictions create stigma, disrupt the transmission of unique and meaningful Malaysian traditions to future generations, and have a negative impact on the artistic freedom and livelihood of local artists. They must be lifted.”

Ms. Bennoune was also concerned to hear of the banning of books, including those about moderate and progressive Islam in the country when the government extolled those very concepts abroad.  “Such moves could lead to a failure to engage in much needed debate,” Ms. Bennoune added. In particular, she called for charges and a travel ban to be dropped against the cartoonist Zunar.

The UN expert is encouraging the Government to support a diversity of spaces and platforms for people to engage meaningfully with one another about culture, including on issues about which they do not agree.

The Special Rapporteur met a large number of public agencies and assessed positively the institutional framework developed in Malaysia to address questions of national unity based on cultural diversity, support for the arts and cultural sector taking into account the numerous minority groups in national programming.

“I am impressed by the high level of awareness among the authorities of the value of cultural diversity and the stated importance of multiple languages, heritages, and beliefs in shaping Malaysia,” she said.

“However, I have concerns about the process of meaningful consultation and the lack of involvement of all relevant stakeholders, such as grassroots activists, in some of the ongoing policy developments and programming. Sometimes those most concerned are not included in the decision-making processes that have an impact on their human rights, and their cultural rights in particular. This is especially true in the case of the indigenous people and the land they inhabit. Their involvement and empowerment in the resolution of the more than 400 cases of land disputes will be central to their capacity to preserve their culture.”

The Special Rapporteur noted: “it is time to ensure that the lived reality of unity, diversity, moderation and progressiveness in Malaysia is consistent with the rhetoric of its government.  This is essential for the enjoyment of cultural rights. The many gains achieved since independence must be protected with vigilance.  They cannot be preserved by rhetoric alone but rather by concrete action demonstrating the effective commitment to the cultural rights of all, to cultural diversity and pluralism and to the unequivocal rejection of fundamentalist ideology,” she said.

In addition to the capital Kuala Lumpur, the Special Rapporteur visited Kota Bharu in the State of Kelantan and Kuching in the State of Sarawak where she also received a delegation from Sabah. She met federal and state authorities, as well as a wide range of people working in the fields of culture and human rights.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report and recommendations to a future session of the UN Human Rights Council.


Ms. Karima Bennoune was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. She grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Ms. Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights country page - Malaysia

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Mr. Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

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