A move to end racial discrimination is stoking anger in Malaysia. But fears that the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) could have adverse consequences may be ill-founded.
The ICERD is a United Nations convention which commits signatories to eliminating racial discrimination and promoting understanding among all races. After being adopted by the UN General Assembly, the convention entered into force on January 4, 1969 and now has 88 signatories and 179 parties.
Malaysia is however one of three countries in Southeast Asia yet to sign up, along with Myanmar and Brunei.
Inking the document would be a step forward for equality, helping boost national unity among the different races and ethnicities that make up Malaysia. But the latest push to sign has been met with fierce resistance.
The former Barisan Nasional (BN) government discussed ratification of the ICERD twice, but the talks fizzled without a conclusion. Few Malaysians are even aware of the existence of ICERD, let alone the intention of Najib Razak’s BN government to ratify it.
In May, Malaysians voted in a new government led by Pakatan Harapan (PH). PH had pledged to promote racial equality in its manifesto, so exploring ICERD ratification became a task for the new government.
But that task has turned contentious, with strong objections being raised by the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the largest opposition group, UMNO. Even some in the ruling PH party have objected to ratification.
After a storm of controversy, the PH government declared on November 23 that Malaysia would not add its signature to the convention.
Issues related to religion and race are political soft spots in Malaysia and the ICERD has hit a raw nerve among indigenous Malays (“Bumiputra “) and Muslims. The bone of contention is whether ratification would jeopardise the current privileges enjoyed by Bumiputra and the status of Islam under the constitution.
Opponents zoomed in on the Malays’ “special position”, as enshrined in Article 153 of the constitution, which allows for affirmative action and quotas for positions in public service, as well as permits for businesses and scholarships.
They say signing ICERD would end those privileges and also the “special position”.
This would be tricky for the PH government as it seeks to shore up support from Malay voters. In May’s general election, only 25 to 30 per cent of Malays voted for PH, while 35 to 40 per cent voted for BN and the remainder backed PAS. With PH’s popularity among Malay voters less than satisfactory, it must rely on its member parties Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia and Parti Amanah Negara – which safeguard the political rights of Malays – to continue gaining support from indigenous voters.
Hence, leaders such as Mukhriz Mahathir and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman of Pribumi and Mahfuz Omar, deputy president of Amanah hold the view that ICERD is not necessary for Malaysia. And that view is shared by fellow PH member parties DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Many voters are disappointed, as the PH had pledged to eradicate inequality and improve human rights in Malaysia.
Nevertheless, not all Malays oppose ICERD.
Braving an outcry from right wingers and Malay conservatives, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department of Islamic Affairs, has said that ICERD ratification would not harm the status of Malays and Islam.
But his voice is feeble.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had said the government would take feedback from all races before deciding on ratification. But Mahathir has been forced into a compromise at the end of the day.
After ratifying the ICERD, would Malaysia fall under total control of the convention as critics claim?
In simple terms, no.
The reality is that all countries harbour reservations and, when signing the convention, have leeway to interpret it in their own way.
But critics claim Malaysia would have to adopt measures to abolish all forms of racial discrimination after signing, including in policy and legal aspects.
To promote racial harmony, so-called hate speech would be a criminalised and remedies sought for individuals affected by racial discrimination.
Would ratification affect Article 153 of the constitution?
This is a reasonable worry.
But suggestions that signing ICERD would lead to the automatic repeal of Article 153 are inaccurate.
Malaysia adopts a two-pronged system when dealing with international conventions, separating international law from national law. The highest law is the constitution and not international law, which has no legal implications in Malaysia. The law needs to be debated and passed in parliament.
Malaysians are entitled to give their views on ICERD and pay attention to the implementation, since it affects not only the country’s legal system but also its social structures.
However, ratifying the convention would be an important milestone for a new Malaysia – one that should stress equality minus any form of discrimination.
The government, regardless of its ruling party, should promote racial equality. This should be the greatest hope of all Malaysians.
Chong Lip Teck is a leader writer with Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia. The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from
members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.