Authorities in Malaysia have introduced a policy that bans citizens who discredit or ridicule the government from traveling abroad, according to a local daily, drawing criticism from civil liberty advocates.
“Anyone who runs down the Government or ‘memburukkan kerajaan’ [smears the government] in any manner will be barred from going abroad,” a source in the Immigration Department told The Star newspaper.
Citizens can be barred from traveling abroad for up to three years, the source said following a foreign travel ban imposed on the chairwoman of the Bersih grassroots coalition, which prevented her from boarding a flight to South Korea where she was to pick up the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
Immigration Director-General Sakib Kusmi later confirmed with the newspaper the existence of the new policy, saying that owning a passport was “a privilege and not a right.”
Because the government has the power to issue international passports to its citizens under the aegis of the king, “the [g]overnment has the discretion to either issue, defer or revoke the travel document,” Sakib said.
BenarNews was unable to reach Sakib for comment.
‘Punishment without trial’
Mohamad Haniff Khatri, a prominent Malaysian lawyer, reacted to the report by describing the policy as an example of the government abusing its power in unrestrained way and restricting the liberties of activists and critics.
“By arbitrarily imposing bans without that individual firstly, being charged for any specific offence, and secondly, without that person being found guilty. It’s a punishment without trial. That is the issue,” Haniff told BenarNews.
Arbitrary travels bans should not should not be occurring in Malaysia especially if “the Malaysian government claims to be progressive and democratic,” according to another commentator, Wan Saiful Wan Jan who heads the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), a local think-tank.
“The freedom of movement, which includes the right to travel is a universal human right. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which the Malaysian government has claimed to adopt and uphold, specifies that everyone has the right to leave the country and to return,” he told BenarNews, adding the government had also failed to understand that Malaysian citizens have a right to criticize its policies and actions.
‘She should have checked with Immigration’
The issue came to light after Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah said Malaysian immigration officials had barred her from flying to South Korea on Sunday.
Bersih, a movement that advocates clean government, transparency and fair elections, last year organized massive rallies in Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian cities that called for the removal of Prime Minister Najib Razak over corruption allegations.
On Wednesday, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamad defended the ban, saying that outspoken Malaysian politicians and activists in particular should check their travel status with the Immigration Department before booking international trips.
“With regards to Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin, she should have checked with Immigration if she still was barred from leaving the country or not. Don’t just wait, check with Immigration,” a separate report in The Star quoted the deputy minister as saying.
Few Malaysians have been barred from leaving the country for discrediting the country, but it was up to the discretion of the department’s head, Sakib Kusmi, to ban foreign travel for certain citizens, Nur Jazlan added.
In March, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told parliament that 827,921 Malaysians had been barred from leaving the country for going bankrupt (200,727), failing to repay students loans (118,892), and committing security-related offences (520). The remaining 507,782 were banned from traveling abroad for various other offenses, according to local media reports.