As a member of the United Nations, Malaysia affirmed to promoting and protecting human rights as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948. As the Federation of Malaysia, the country became a member of the United Nations on 17 September 1957, and as Malaysia since 1963, remains a member of the United Nations. Being a member of the United Nations means that Malaysia is part of all negotiations on the setting of international human rights standards. Malaysia also reaffirmed its commitments to promoting non-discrimination for all Malaysians during its term as a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2009. To become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia had to develop its pledge of how it would uphold international human rights standards. This means that Malaysia must be committed to upholding international human rights standards not only at the global level, but on all levels, in ASEAN and in the country.
In spearheading its plans for the country, Malaysia has embarked on a path to a developed nation status by the year 2050. The government of Malaysia believes that the nation must do so by “Anchoring Growth on People” as articulated in Malaysia’s 11th Plan. To realise this path of people-centred growth, the human dignity of all peoples in Malaysia should be upheld. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the Malaysian government to promote and protect human rights of all peoples in Malaysia in line with the opening sentence in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
However, in practice, the government of Malaysia has often cited that it is not ready and still in consultation and ensuring its preparedness with reference to signing and ratifying the remaining 6 of the 9 core international human rights treaties. The table below shows that Malaysia signed and ratified the international human rights treaties on women, children and persons with disabilities — which subjects Malaysia to the criticism that the country is only willing to ratify international human rights treaties on issues that are deemed as “soft issues”.
The signing and ratification of only three international human rights treaties puts Malaysia as the nation in ASEAN with the least number of international human rights treaties signed and ratified.
The respect, promotion and protection of human rights is not only about the signing and ratification of international human rights treaties. For example, the right to health is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articulated in a number of ways as a fundamental human right for women, children and persons with disabilities in all of the three international human rights treaties signed and ratified by Malaysia. While Malaysia’s healthcare in 2014 was ranked no.3 worldwide, it was ranked based on the costs foreigners would have incurred in their home countries which enjoy a higher development status and national income compared to Malaysia. In short, Malaysia’s ranking was based on its growing fame as a medical-tourism destination, facilitated by the fact that most foreigners pay for health insurance coverage that would reimburse or settle their healthcare costs even if incurred in a foreign country like Malaysia. While the ranking also considers the number of people per doctor, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people, the percentage of the population with access to safe water, the infant mortality rate, life expectancy, and public health expenditure as a percentage of a country’s GDP, the impact of privatised healthcare services in raising Malaysia’s healthcare rank at the global level effectively hides the harsher realities faced by Malaysians and poorer peoples in Malaysia in accessing timely, affordable, good quality public healthcare. Malaysia’s global healthcare ranking continues to be influenced by its growth as a medical-tourism destination for wealthier foreigners. This can negatively impact the human rights situation on the ground in terms of the right to health, including preventive healthcare. For example, number of people per nurse appears to be a missing statistic and yet it is nurses who monitor the health status of patients and inform doctors in a timely manner as to whether the condition of the patient is worsening or improving. It is also not clear from the global rank that Malaysia enjoys whether the national budget for healthcare has significantly reduced or grown over the years vis-a-vis the growth of the Malaysian population. The lack of access to information also makes freedom of information a critical enabler to monitoring the human rights situation on the ground for all peoples of Malaysia.
Human rights are imperatives for Malaysian citizens as it has currently affected even the basic rights to education of the mass population. Since the late 1990s, Malaysia has seen an upward trend of privatization of higher education. This can be seen when the number of private institutions increased to a total of 485 (69 universities, 36 college universities and 380 colleges) in the year 2015, compared to only 33 public universities nationwide in the same year. This results in students from the poor and lower income groups even with commendable academic qualifications facing stiffer challenges to enrol in tertiary education, while those from high income groups have guaranteed access to higher education.
In Sabah, statelessness has become one of the main issues in need of urgent actions and responses from both the state and federal administrations. According to a recent (2016) report by Al Jazeera, some 50,000 stateless children in Sabah are always on-the-run, fearing the prospect of facing the authorities. These children are mainly offsprings of migrants who form the backbone of Sabah’s economy, working mainly in palm oil plantations, or the construction and fishing industries. However, these children not only face the prospect of being deported and daily challenges of getting access to food, water and sanitation. These children are deprived of even the most basic access to early and middle education. Exacerbating this issue, these communities face marginalization from native Sabahans in terms of their common perceptions towards stateless children. Here human rights education is vital to change this narrative and empower the mass with knowledge to address the issue.