Severe corporal punishment by order of the courts, for males only (and confined until recently to those aged under 50), is routine for many serious offences, notably those involving sex, violence or drugs. This is always combined with a prison sentence (at any rate in adult cases), and takes the form of a specified number of powerful strokes with a big rattan cane, or rotan, across the offender's bare seat.
The punishment is delivered inside prison by specially trained prison officers. It is never administered in public. To the modern western eye it is a rather brutal affair: where more than a few strokes are involved (the maximum, though relatively rare, is 24), blood is often drawn. See these pictures and, if you can bear it, these video clips.
In these and other respects the procedure largely resembles that in Singapore, though the modus operandi differs in detail. It is a development of what was inherited from British colonial days, and has nothing to do with Islamic law.
In a milder version (often a token single stroke of the cane), CP is also an almost invariable part of the sentence on the thousands of illegal immigrants who arrive every year, mostly from Indonesia. However, the government says caning is not used on overstayers, unlike in Singapore.
Juveniles in Malaysia are those under 18 (whereas in Singapore they are those under 16). Males under 18 may be ordered by magistrates to receive up to 10 strokes with a "light cane" under the Child Act 2001. It is unclear how often this actually happens: media coverage of such cases is extremely unusual, so this Jan 2012 news report about a 17-year-old being sentenced to the full 10 strokes for robbery is a rare find.
MAIN ARTICLE: See comprehensive feature article Judicial caning in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei (illustrated) for full details of history and modus operandi, first-person and eyewitness accounts, links to press articles, and an overview of the legislative situation.
In addition to these canings under the criminal law, there are occasionally mild caning sentences ordered by the separate religious courts (for Muslims only) under Shariah law for things like alcohol consumption. These are much less severe, and intended to be more or less a token gesture. Even so, when reported in the newspapers they have produced an outcry, as in this June 2005 case.
In January 2009 it was confirmed that these Shariah ("Syariah") "light canings" may also be applied to women, another stark difference from the usual judicial canings. However, sentences on women are highly controversial, partly because they appear to contravene the Federal constitution. The first such sentences were carried out in February 2010 when three women (as well as some men) were caned at Kajang Prison for taking part in extra-marital sex. This video clip includes a brief view of the punishment of one of the women. It shows that the "caning", despite the immense international fuss about it, in fact amounts to only very light taps on the middle of the back, causing no pain.
A July 2009 news report claimed that the Shariah caning of women was permitted in only three of Malaysia's 16 states: Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan. This, it now turns out, must have been incorrect, since the three women caned in February 2010 were sentenced in Federal Territory (mainly Kuala Lumpur).
A demonstration caning on a dummy seen in this video clip illustrates the difference between the mild religious caning and the severe criminal caning. Both kinds can be carried out by the same prison officers. This, and the fact that both procedures are called "caning", has led to a great deal of confusion and ill-informed comment in the media across the world and in Malaysia itself.
In an unexpected development, in March 2007 the Malaysian Bar -- the official organisation of the country's lawyers, with 12,000 members -- unanimously adopted a motion calling for the abolition of JCP on the grounds that it is "cruel and inhumane". The impression given in the media, however, is that the general public would not favour such a ban; on the contrary, there have been calls for caning to be used for even more offences. Public pressure for it to be extended to men over 50 was, in 2006, acceded to in the particular case of convicted rapists, and older men are now being caned for that offence.
At the end of 2010, Amnesty International published a report (see external links, below) somewhat tendentiously entitled A blow to humanity: Torture by judicial caning in Malaysia. It claimed that JCP in Malaysia had reached "epidemic" proportions. It estimates that some 1,200 canings are administered per month, a majority of them on illegal immigrants. The report somewhat glosses over the fact that illegal immigrants usually receive only one or two strokes, hardly the "torture" of the subtitle.
In early 2011 the Malaysian government announced that it had caned 29,759 foreign workers between 2005 and 2010 for immigration offences, an average of about 5,000 a year and a lot less than the Amnesty claim.
In 2012 the government revealed that there were 79,487 canings in total between 2005 and 2011, giving an annual average of roughly 11,000. Of these, 42% were of foreigners. This suggests that canings for illegal immigration in fact form significantly less than half of all canings, and not a majority as Amnesty claims.
Also in 2012, a Malaysian government minister announced that sentencing illegal immigrants to caning had not solved the problem, and that the authorities would now consider abolishing it for such offences. It is probably significant that this surprise announcement was made during a visit to Indonesia, Malaysia's huge neighbour, which is where most of the immigrants come from; the caning policy was known to be a source of friction between the two governments.
YOUR EDITOR'S PERSONAL VIEW ...
Few commentators in Malaysia seem to have noted that there is, as so often, a false dichotomy in this debate between the status quo and complete abolition. In my own personal view, a severe caning is justified in certain cases including for instance violent criminals, ruthless professional robbers, and men who rape children. The public clearly are entitled to be satisfied that such people are getting their just deserts. The case for routinely caning thousands of hapless illegal immigrants seems weaker. I also slightly doubt whether it does drug addicts all that much good, though I am no expert in such matters and I might be wrong.
Above all, though, I would reduce the maximum number of strokes to 10 or perhaps 12. It is difficult to see what is gained by sentences of 20 or 24 strokes that cannot be achieved with half that or less. It seems that most prisoners' pain threshold is reached by around the 12th stroke anyway, after which the nerve endings in the buttocks start to go numb. The remaining strokes add nothing except the gruesome mangling of flesh and giving corporal punishment a bad name. Caning doesn't have to be like that.
I also think that one of the strongest arguments for JCP is as a partial or total alternative to prison in those lesser cases where offenders do not actually need to be locked up for many years (at great expense to the taxpayer) in order to protect the public. So, as also in Singapore, one would prefer to see caning used more often "instead of" jail, rather than always "as well as". This might perhaps apply especially to non-violent offences like fraud or vandalism, and also for the younger or less experienced offenders, who could be swiftly given three or four strokes and returned to the community under supervision, rather than being contaminated and corrupted by immersion in the prison system.
Flogging in the Federated Malay States
This news report from 1905 includes an eyewitness account of a mass caning, from which it is apparent that the modus operandi has not changed much in over a century: the offenders were strapped to a triangle and given 24 strokes with a rattan on the bare buttocks. However, the punishment in question was administered in public, which has never happened in more modern times.
An Australian caught with drugs in Malaysia describes receiving six strokes of the cane in 1982. Illustrated with an official photograph of a Malaysian prisoner prepared for caning.
More photographs relating to Malaysian JCP, from the Pudu Prison exhibition in 1997/8
Stills from a filmed reconstruction of a judicial caning
More pictures from the Pudu exhibition, including stills from a different filmed reconstruction
Newspaper article describes the procedure, 2005
Genuine film of several canings being inflicted
EXTERNAL LINKS: (these will open in a new window)
A blow to humanity: Torture by judicial caning in Malaysia [PDF]
Amnesty International report, Dec 2010. The highly tendentious subtitle sets the tone: a punishment that is lawfully ordered by a properly constituted court of law, and carried out according to detailed rules, is not "torture", a word that should be reserved for illegal, extrajudicial ill-treatment. Some of the interviews are quite interesting. There is a tendency towards exaggeration in some of the descriptions of the after-effects of caning, at any rate when applied to illegal immigrants, who in reality generally get only one or two strokes.
Program latihan (Training programme) [PDF]
In this list of training courses for prison offices, see "Kursus sebat rotan" (Caning course), which lasts four days.
Internal Security and Public Order Division
This government department announces that one of its tasks is to determine policies relating to the execution of caning sentences.
Malaysia: Caning should be abolished (Alternative link)
August 2002 press release in which Amnesty International reiterates its familiar line. Very unusually for Amnesty, there is a major error in the background footnote, which states that 13 people were sentenced to whipping in 2001, a sharp drop from 53 people in 2000. These figures are ridiculous and must be based on some misunderstanding. It's obvious from just the small proportion of cases I have reported on this website (I reproduce perhaps one in five of the press reports that I come across) that the numbers for Malaysia as a whole are far higher than that.
State of Malaysian Human Rights: Civil & Political Rights 2000
This, from the Malaysian domestic human rights organisation SUARAM, turns out to be the source of the above weird figures. It says that from January to October 2000, "53 people had been ordered whippings and jail terms by the courts all over Malaysia for various convicted crimes". That's only about one a week! Don't these people read their own local newspapers?
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 1993 (Alternative link)
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 1998
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 1999
Mentions the canings that are routinely added to prison sentences for kidnapping, rape and robbery. Caning, using a half-inch-thick wooden cane, "commonly causes welts" and "sometimes scarring" -- which I think probably rather understates the case. Subsequent years' reports repeat the same information.
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2000
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2001
The 2000 Child Act was introduced under which boys may be ordered up to ten strokes of a light cane. The 2001 report, published in March 2002, says that this legislation had not yet entered into force (see next item). (The 2002 report adds nothing of substance.)
Ambiguities in Malaysia's Child Act
According to this, Malaysia maintains a reservation to certain articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enabling it to continue ordering canings of juveniles. The relevant Minister is quoted as saying that a light cane is used and "average force is used so the child's skin is not cut", in sharp contrast to the judicial canings of adults.
Amnesty International Report 1997 (Alternative link)
Amnesty International Report 1998 (Alternative link)
Court-ordered caning continued throughout 1997 and 1998. The 1997 report cites the first caning case under the new Immigration Act. In the 1998 report, a case is mentioned in which an offender was jailed and caned for possession of cannabis.
Suaram calls the nation to have a heart (10 March 1998)
Malaysia's human rights organisation opposes an alleged call by the Inspector General of Police for illegal immigrants to be flogged in public (his suggestion was not taken up). This item is a long way down the page, with more recent stuff at the top.
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2004
The report notes the extension in 2002 of caning (up to six strokes) to all immigration violations, a move criticised by local human rights groups. It also says that the new Children's Court, under the 2001 Child Act, had still not been set up.
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2005
Reports a government spokesman as saying that all illegal immigrants (if male and aged under 50) faced caning before being deported. The new Children's Courts, which can sentence boys aged 10 to 18 to up to 10 strokes with a light cane, finally came into existence. (The report for 2006 adds nothing of substance.)
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2007
Notes a case in which, according to the Bar Council, eight Burmese refugees had their detentions unlawfully extended so that their caning sentences could be carried out.
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2008
According to this, in 2008 the authorities caned at least six "registered refugees", including a minor, compared with 32 in 2007.
Other external links for Malaysia/Judicial
Corporal punishment, usually with an English-style flexible cane, occurs quite frequently in some Malaysian schools but is rare or unknown in others. Reports suggest that it may be more common in the vernacular (Chinese- or Tamil-medium) schools, mostly at primary level, which have a reputation for strict discipline, than in the "national" schools run directly by government (predominantly Malay-medium with some teaching in English, but attended by all races). Legally, caning is to be applied only to boys, with a maximum of three strokes per caning. It is supposed to be a "last resort".
For musings by a teacher on how the situation used to be in Malaysia, see this June 2006 press item. "Public" caning (i.e. as a ceremony in front of other students) seems to have been common in the past -- though there was controversy about it as far back as 1986 -- and from time to time there are calls for its return.
It is clear from press reports that detailed practice still varies widely from one school to another, largely depending on the views of the head teacher. In this respect, Malaysia perhaps more resembles the pre-1987 UK -- or the present-day USA, in the few areas that still paddle -- than does neighbouring Singapore, where bureaucratic control over schools appears to be more detailed and more centralised.
In March 2006 the government announced that regulations would shortly be promulgated that would require canings to be carried out privately and not in front of other students, as has been common in some schools in the past. This March 2007 report confirms this, and adds that CP may now be carried out only by the headmaster, with one witness, and no longer by ordinary teachers -- an issue over which there seems in the past to have been much confusion and controversy.
According to this Aug 2006 news item, the new rules will also require canings to be decided by a disciplinary committee rather than by the headmaster alone. Another press report (New Straits Times, 3 October 2006, not on line) quotes the federal Deputy Education Minister as saying that the rules lay down a maximum of three strokes; the punishment is to be delivered in a room away from other students and with another teacher as a witness; and the person administering it should not raise his or her arm. As in the previous guidelines, only a cane may be used and it must be applied to the palm or the clothed buttocks of the student.
Despite all the above "trailers" for a new set of rules, this July 2007 interview with the Deputy Education Minister gave the impression that consultations were still under way and the final shape of any new regulations was not yet decided. He also said that the possibility of allowing the caning of girls was being discussed -- a change recommended by a national education seminar in Nov 2007 and explicitly called for by the teachers' union in the state of Sarawak in May 2009.
Matters become still more confused with this Sep 2007 report of yet further remarks by the Minister to the effect that public caning might, after all, be allowed, depending on further unspecified "discussions".
In Aug 2010 it was reported that new guidelines were still awaited, with the teachers' unions, who want caning power restored to ordinary class teachers, becoming frustrated at their failure to appear.
This June 1996 news item quotes earlier government guidelines for caning in schools. These do not always seem to have been very rigorously enforced. For instance, they say that only boys should receive CP, but in practice there are occasional reports of girls being caned. Anecdotal evidence suggests that girls are normally caned on the hand, while boys are often caned on the buttocks.
This June 2003 news item gives more detail about the earlier official guidelines, and includes a photograph of a secondary student being caned in the school office while a second miscreant waits his turn. The modus operandi shown, with the boy standing upright facing the wall to receive the punishment across the seat of his trousers, is also seen in this brief video clip of a real one-stroke caning at an unidentified Malaysian school. However, at some other schools the boy has to bend over British-style, as is the norm in neighbouring Singapore: see for instance this Jan 2009 news item, in which a 14-year-old describes his caning.
Statistics on the incidence of CP are published only sporadically, as far as I am aware. It was reported in March 1997 that 4,835 school students were caned in the state of Negri Sembilan in 1996, and a Nov 2003 report stated that there were 1,881 canings in schools in the state of Johor in the first ten months of 2003.
Also, in the country as a whole, 9,348 school students were punished for smoking between May and July 1997. It seems reasonable to assume that most of these punishments were canings, since it had been announced earlier that year that CP was being made mandatory for smoking.
A survey in 2003 found that 52% of a sample of school students said caning was common in their schools.
In a statement attributed to the Deputy Education Minister ("HMs in the soup over cover-up of indiscipline", New Straits Times, 24 May 2007, not online), it was alleged that the proportion of total school students caned fell from 3.8% in 2005 to 1.4% in 2006. No explanation was put forward for such an implausibly sharp fall from such an already implausibly low number.
Other external links for Malaysia/Schools