News & Views

AN ABSURD TURNAROUND ON ICERD

Posted on 17th December 2018

Malaysia experienced a paradoxical mix of disappointment and jubilation when the Government announced its decision on 23 November 2018 not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) despite having made impressive pronouncements of its commitment to Human Rights at the UN general assembly on 28 September 2018.  This surprising about-turn came when pro-Malay and  Islamic groups threatened to hold large protests and rallies in the nation’s capital hinting of possible violence on the streets if the Government did not back down on its ratification of the treaty. Malaysians who voted in favour of the present government saw this as a betrayal of their support whilst the groups calling for a rejection of ICERD were jubilant.

Those unfamiliar with Malaysia’s complex politics would find the decision almost unfathomable in the 21st Century for a country with a highly educated population and on the verge of becoming a developed nation. Did this mean that the Malaysian government accepts discrimination in favour of some of its citizens by allowing them to enjoy exclusive benefits and privileges denied to the others? Some in Malaysia might share that sentiment. Other would also not deny the irrational xenophobia of Malaysia’s rural communities towards any perceived erosion of their often misinformed entitlements, fueled by politics of fear. Add to this the suggestion that ICERD is an attack on Islam and you have the makings of a protest that has little to do with ICERD but more with keeping the nationalists and religious right relevant. Logically none of this would have been the effect of ICERD but rational thinking did not rule the day and a lack of clarity on the issues by the government was also to blame.

Malaysia’s Federal Constitution enshrines civil liberties which include racial equality, freedom of speech and the right of association, so ratifying ICERD would not have required amending any of these provisions, nor indeed Article 153 that provides expressly for “safeguarding the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities”, which would seem to have been crafted as a balanced recognition of racial diversity and an attempt to preserve the cultural characteristics of weaker communities in the country including the most disadvantaged ones in Sabah and Sarawak. Yet no community has taken up the mantle of promoting their rights more vociferously than those in the former ruling UMNO party who have used the phrase “special position of the Malays” in isolation to promote their own brand of rights, privileges and dominance of their community inspite of being the majority. The justification for this has often been through stereotyping the various ethnic groups, drawing general assumptions between the haves and have-nots, rather than on empirical data. Failure to implement means testing or open tenders whilst using race as a means to retain power and preferences merely allowed a few to benefit to the detriment of the larger deserving community. There are many who still remain mesmerised by race and religious chauvisnism and rhetoric and fail to to see that they are in fact the losers in the policies of the former government. The large turnout at the so-called anti ICERD rally last week is evidence of the continuing dilemma.

The political parties most guilty of these distortions were recently ousted from power by an electorate rightfully fearful of the damage that unchecked corruption and financial scandals were wreaking on the country’s economy but also because of the liberal and pro-equality mandate that the present government had put forward to be its vision for a new progressive Malaysia.

Perhaps the present government may have backed down to fight another day, or perhaps it has lost its nerve on the issue of standing tall and  strong on the issue of racial equality. The answer has yet to be seen.

In a recent post, a concerned Malaysian Bar Council  recalled the words of the late Robert F Kennedy, the 64th United States Attorney General as follows:

“Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society.  Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.  Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

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