Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multicultural Commonwealth country in South-East Asia, with a population of 31 million. The main legal system and its associated cultural baggage is inherited from British rule. However, as 60% of the population are Muslims, who dominate the political landscape, there is a significant Islamic element.
Malaysia has three distinct kinds of judicial caning:
1. Criminal CP for male adults is by far the most common type of JCP. It is performed privately in prison as part of a court sentence, with a long, heavy rattan cane administered to the bare posterior.
2. Male young offenders (under 21) may be ordered to be caned right there in the courtroom, up to 10 strokes, in the presence of their parents, officials, journalists and other offenders. The punishment is delivered across the seat of the bending youth's trousers with a metre-long light rattan.
3. Religious ("Syariah") courts in some states have the power to order light, symbolic canings for Muslims only, both men and women, for "moral offences" such as adultery or drinking alcohol. In practice this is rare. The punishment is administered privately in prison, over clothes. It is the only kind of CP to which females are subject in Malaysia.
(1) Severe corporal punishment by order of the courts, for adult 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, and takes the form of a specified number of powerful strokes with a big rattan cane, or rotan, across the offender's bare seat. Officially this is called "whipping" (from former British legal terminology), though a whip is not used.
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 late 2014 a new video clip of a different caning came to hand.
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.
A stroke or two of the cane is also a very common part of the sentence on the thousands of illegal immigrants who arrive every year, mostly from neighbouring Indonesia. They are briefly imprisoned, caned and then deported. However, the government says caning is not used on overstayers, unlike in Singapore.
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.
(2) Males under 21 may be ordered by magistrates to receive up to 10 strokes with a "light rattan", with or without a jail term, "in the way of school discipline", which evidently means with trousers kept on. This language dates from Federated Malay States law of the early 20th century. It was presumably still under this legislation that a boy of 15 was ordered to be caned in this Feb 1962 case.
The relevant legislation is now Article 91, Child Act 2001, for males under 18; and Article 293, Criminal Procedure Code, for male "youthful offenders". This phrase was redefined in 2006 to mean aged over 18 but under 21, a little-noticed change at the time but which now turns out to have had the effect of extending the scope of public courtroom caning to offenders aged up to 21 instead of the maximum age being 18 or possibly even 16.
It is unclear how often this actually happens: media coverage of such events was, until recently, extremely unusual, so this Jan 2012 news report about a 17-year-old being given the full 10 strokes for robbery seemed like a rare find. But since then, a number of similar cases have been reported.
A much better-publicised case occurred in September 2013, when three robbers aged 18, 19 and 20 received juvenile caning (two strokes) without prison time. The reports make clear that the punishment is administered to the clothed posterior. It was delivered immediately, in open court (the legislation specifies only "in court premises"), the youths being made to bend over a desk facing the public gallery, watched by their families as well as journalists and anyone else who happened to be there. Photographers were in the court precincts to bring us pictures and video of the three boys, but there are no pictures of the caning itself, so presumably photography is banned inside the courtroom, as in the UK.
Although this procedure is explicitly intended to resemble a school caning rather than a prison one, it is interesting to note that officers were fetched from a prison to administer it, with a cane 1 metre long, and that the offenders got a health check from a doctor beforehand. This all makes it sound like a bigger ordeal than getting the cane at school. One of the press reports notes that "it was learned" that this was not the first time juveniles had been whipped in court in Ampang (a satellite town of Kuala Lumpur), and if there, presumably also elsewhere; this tends to confirm that such cases may occur more often than they are reported.
A further such case was reported in Dec 2013 in which no fewer than ten boys under 18 were ordered to receive eight to ten strokes each of the light rattan for absconding from their reformatory. An odd aspect is that these juveniles were not caned straight away, but ordered to be returned to the court four weeks later to receive their punishment.
Another Ampang juvenile caning case occurred in June 2014 when a 19-year-old student received 8 strokes in open court for having sex with his under-age girlfriend. The press coverage included a detailed eyewitness description and a graphic illustrating the scene in the courtroom.
There was a similar case in Oct 2014, but this time in East Malaysia (Sarawak), when another 19-year-old was pictured looking highly apprehensive as he entered the courtroom where he was about to bend over for a seven-stroke caning to which he had been sentenced earlier for raping his girlfriend. He was also then sent to a reformatory until he is 21.
Yet another courtroom caning was reported in Nov 2014, when two youths aged 19 and 20 received 7 and 9 strokes respectively in open court in Kajang. The press report states that both "cried out in pain each time they were whipped as they were held bent over a court table by a Kajang Prison police officer".
This case attracted much comment, some of it critical, because the youths were armed robbers charged under the ordinary adult legislation, and could have been whipped in prison. The judge told them they were lucky because prison whippings are harsher than courtroom ones. Some legal commentators felt the judge had misapplied the law, though others welcomed the decision.
It soon transpired that it was the defence lawyer for one of the youths who had suggested juvenile-style public caning as part of a plea bargain. She rejected suggestions that there was anything odd about it: "Whipping of youthful offenders in court is quite common in Malaysia", she said, adding that she had witnessed six such cases in five years of legal practice.
In Jan 2015 it was reported that the government was proposing to abolish the relevant provisions of the Child Act, under pressure from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This would mean the end of courtroom canings of boys under 18, but not presumably that of youths aged between 18 and 21. Reporting of these moves has been (typically for the Malaysian media) muddled and incoherent, causing confusion in the public debate with the entirely separate subject of domestic CP of children by their parents.
That report was contradicted in April 2015 by this one quoting the Deputy Home Minister in the Senate as denying that there were any plans to review the juvenile caning system. But in Dec 2015 it was reported that a Bill had been tabled in parliament to end the practice.
A Nov 2015 news item reported on a case in which a Juvenile Court sentenced an 18-year-old rapist to eight strokes, apparently without imprisonment; he had been 17 and thus a juvenile when the offence was committed.
(3) In certain of Malaysia's states, there are occasionally mild caning sentences ordered by the separate religious courts (for Muslims only) under Syariah 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 "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 (which is mainly Kuala Lumpur).
The state of Kelantan in the conservative north of Malaysia, controlled by the Islamic party PAS which is in opposition at federal level, wishes to extend the use of Sharia law, according to this April 2015 report. This could involve canings of up to 100 strokes for drinkers and adulterers, rather than the six-stroke maximum that currently applies to sentences by the religious courts.
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) 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 glosses over the fact that illegal immigrants 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.
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.
In Nov 2014 the government announced that there had been 8,481 caning sentences the previous year, 5,968 of whom (70%) were foreign nationals. This is a significant reduction in caning overall but a substantial increase in the numbers of foreigners caned. The government seems to have changed its mind about the effectiveness or otherwise of caning illegal immigrants. Not only were there now no plans to replace caning, but it was proposed to make caning mandatory for agents found guilty of bringing in illegal workers.
Flogging in the Federated Malay States
This news report from 1905 includes an eyewitness account of a mass caning. 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 was administered in public, which has never happened in adult cases 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)
GITEACPOC reveals that 31 sentences of whipping were passed on Malaysian boys under section 91(g) of the Child Act and section 288 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the ten years up to April 2012; all were carried out. In the same period, 19 sentences of whipping were passed on Malaysian children (boys and girls), and 19 carried out, under Sharia legislation.
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
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
Amnesty International Report 1998
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.
US State Department Human Rights Practices Report 2009
This report mentions the Kartika case, and some others involving Sharia court caning sentences.
Other external links for Malaysia/Judicial
Corporal punishment, usually with an English-style flexible rattan cane, occurs quite frequently in some Malaysian schools but is rare or unknown in others. Reports suggest that it is common in the vernacular (Chinese- or Tamil-medium) schools, mostly at primary level, which have a reputation for strict discipline. At secondary level, video and other anecdotal evidence shows that boys are often caned at some "national" primary and secondary schools run directly by government (predominantly Malay-medium with some teaching in English, but may be attended by all races). Legally, caning is to be applied only to boys (since 1951). 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 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.
In Feb 2015 the teachers' union emphasised that it was essential to retain the cane, and that teachers should not fear that they would be penalised for disciplining stubborn students.
In May 2016 the Director-General of Education clarified that there were after all no new guidelines, and a 2003 circular still applied: boys may be given up to three strokes over the seat of the trousers for serious offences, and up to three strokes on the palm of the hand for less serious ones. A record of the caning should be kept, and it should be carried out in private by the head teacher or under his/her control.
This announcement was mistakenly seen as a reintroduction by those who wrongly thought that CP had become a thing of the past; in reality, caning had never gone away, though its use might have declined somewhat over the years. Hence the May 2016 headline "Rotan sellers jumping for joy over new ruling"; in fact there was no new ruling.
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 most often caned on the backside.
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 English-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.
See also pictures of Malaysian schoolboy canings under way, from which it appears that "hands on the desk" is also a commonly required position. This method is also seen to good effect in this particularly clear video from 2009 in which four teenage youths receive one hard stroke each from an evidently expert discipline master with a good long sturdy rattan.
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