Malaysian lawmakers pass long-awaited bill targeting sexual harassment

Muzliza Mustafa and Noah Lee
2022.07.22
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysian lawmakers pass long-awaited bill targeting sexual harassment Malaysian MPs meet in a special session of the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, July 26, 2021.
AFP/Malaysia Department of Information

Malaysia this week passed its first anti-sexual harassment bill, which calls for the setting up of a special tribunal to speedily adjudicate cases behind closed doors, a development that women’s groups have been demanding for 30 years.

The bill, which the upper house must pass and which the king must approve before it becomes law, protects women and men who report harassment, said the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, an NGO.

“Women’s groups across Malaysia have lobbied for 30 years for this legislation. With the passing of the bill, victims can look forward to expeditious, affordable and accessible redress via the Tribunal on Anti-Sexual Harassment,” it said in a statement issued with other human rights groups late Thursday.

While applauding the legislature’s commitment, the group said it wanted the government to ensure that victims are fully protected. It also hoped that the bill would not be misused by irresponsible parties to curtail human rights against marginalized groups or be used to impose moral policing on others.

“The whole intention of the legislation has always been to promote and protect the fundamental rights of all persons regardless of gender, race, religion or background,” the joint action group said.

Twenty-two lower house lawmakers debated the bill on Tuesday before it passed by voice vote on Wednesday.

Under the legislation, a tribunal is to be set up to hear sexual harassment complaints. The first tribunal is to be in Kuala Lumpur or Selangor.

It would have the right to issue awards and orders as members deem appropriate. Such actions could include ordering an accused person to make an open apology and in some cases to pay damages up to 250,000 ringgit (U.S. $56,000).

The bill would also give panelists the ability to refer cases to a high court judge.

Opposition lawmaker Hannah Yeoh said she wanted panel members to be picked from different religions and races to reflect Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious population.

“This is because the sexual harassment issue is subjective. Because if one member said a certain way of dressing is sexy, if we do not have representatives from different religions and races, I am afraid that there will be an imbalanced definition,” she said.

Yeoh worked on a draft of the bill while serving as deputy minister of Women, Family and Community Development during the Pakatan Harapan government in 2018 before it collapsed.

“It is not a perfect bill, but this is needed to help victims,” she said. “I believe many have been waiting for years for this bill.”

Rina Harun, who serves as minister of Women, Family and Community Development under Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, said the bill addressed lawmakers’ concerns that sexual harassment violates human rights and is a form of violence and discrimination against its victims.

“The bill is a form of our commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – CEDAW – that we are part of since July 5, 1995, and also under Article 8 of the Federal Constitution which declares all people are equal and rejects all kinds of discrimination including gender-based,” she said.

Five other laws

Proponents said the bill will complement five laws on the books to deal with more serious sexual crimes.

Rina said those laws are too broad to deal with sexual harassment cases because they require prosecutors to prove a defendant had ill intention in committing a crime.

“And it has to be proven that it was beyond a reasonable doubt. The judicial process is very long and there is no specific remedy for the victims,” she said.

The new tribunal, on the other hand, would allow the panel to decide on complaints based on the balance of probabilities and not beyond reasonable doubt.

It does not allow lawyers or advocates to represent any of the parties in the hearing. In cases involving minors, adults can represent them in lodging a complaint. A decision must be made within 60 days of the hearing.

The tribunal is open to all regardless of gender and nationality.

Show of unison

Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a political observer and analyst at University of Malaya, said the bill has received support from both opposition members and the government. He noted that its complexity had slowed passage.

“It needs to be covered in all angles and that is why it took a lot of time to be drafted. When Pakatan Harapan was in power, there was a draft but it did not get tabled in parliament because the government collapsed,” he told BenarNews.

“There is plenty more that needs to be debated and there is still room for improvement, but because there is a lack of time and to not be seen as a delay tactic, the government and the opposition agreed to speed up its passage during this parliament session.”

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