KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia is sorely divided on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or ICERD.
A debate is raging – with knee-jerk reactions in some quarters and a sanguine pleasure in others – of the jolt the ICERD has created in Kuala Lumpur.
Some political watchers are calling out the culprit of this sudden social-racial instability, the leader of the Democratic Action Party Lim Kit Siang.
DAP is one of the reasons behind the Pakatan Harapan’s victory in the May 9 elections. It brought the bulk of the Chinese voter bank swing to the PH. However, DAP is seen with suspicion by much of the ethnic Malay population here.
Rightly so, Lim Kit Siang feels the ‘oppressed’ Chinese (and perhaps the ‘oppressed’ Indians too) should be given equal rights like the Malays and the Bumiputera. But there is a Malay pushback.
Malaysia is a unique country by all racial standards. It has special rights for the Bumiputeras or the sons of the soil. But this protectionist policy is not for the Malays-Muslims alone.
The Bumiputeras are also the citizens of Sabah and Sarawak – the Borneo states that contributed largely the deep fall of the Barisan Nasional on May 9.
The irony is the Malay-Bumi citizens are generally not in favour of the ICERD. But that may not be the case for the Sabah-Sarawak bumis. They do not seem to be that rattled by the prospect of a ratification of the contested convention.
The Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah said the Pakatan Harapan government had no intention to touch on Article 3 of the Malaysian Constitution (the position of Islam), Article 152 (Bahasa Melayu as the official language), Article 153 and the position of the Malay Rulers.
But he said the country had to look into the ratification of the ICERD because as a nation which practices parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, this principle must be upheld.
Opposition parties (Malay based) are ganging-up to fight the proposal put forward by Lim Kit Siang for the ratification of the ICERD.
Kit Siang threw a drum of fuel on the simmering fire.
“Think about this ladies and gentlemen and ask yourself whether there is racial discrimination in this country or not. Relate this to the idea of ‘ketuanan Melayu’ and the affirmative action and policy for the Malays who form the majority population and control everything associated with government,” he wrote in his blog post.
This has rattled the Umno and Islamist PAS. They rallied, they condemned the PH for what they call ‘undermining Malay rights’. Kit Siang got his moment of fame on the social media, though.
Amid the chaos, a healthy debate is surfacing among officials and concerned citizens.
Ministers are divided on how to handle the chaotic situation created by the Malay opposition to PH. Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic affairs tried to thaw the hot tempers.
He said the government was not in a hurry to hold discussions and would look into the matter in detail, but it will adhere to the advice of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The PM said this matter should be discussed first with all races before it is even given the thought of ratification.
But the young hotshot minister of sports Syed Sadiq voiced his concerns. The Youth Chief of Dr Mahathir’s party, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) defended the Youth wing’s stand that the Malaysian government should not ratify the convention.
He said he supported the Youth wing’s view the ICERD could undermine the Federal Constitution’s provisions granting special preferences to Malays and Bumiputeras.
This view is shared by many Malays, including influential members of the Malay business and professional communities.
The main point of contention raised by opponents to the ICERD is how it will affect the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak.
Malaysia is seeing a Whatsapp and social media storm over the issue. Videos of rallies held against the ICERD and against the PH on the matter is making inroads among the Malay community.
But the less threatened Malays, in particular, those who form part of what is called the ‘liberal thinking’ Malays, are not really worried about the ICERD. They are more or less concerned by the ‘racial’ intonation in the debate on the convention.
They are quick to argue that affirmative action to advance certain groups (due to existing inequalities) is not considered racial discrimination. And they state that this is Article 1 of the ICERD.
Azmi Sharom, a law teacher, raised that point in his column in The Star newspaper.
“Non-Malay leaders should accept a simple historical truth – that contemporary Malaysia has evolved from a Malay sultanate system. Malays should accept the genuine accommodation of their non-Malay fellow citizens as equal partners in the building of a nation.
He warned the nation will only survive if it is firmly rooted in justice and fairness for all its sons and daughters, transcending ethnicity.