The more things change, the more they stay the same ~ Alphonse Karr
Malaysians must be scratching their heads over how quickly ICERD has gone from being a symbol of hope to a stark reminder that we have yet to come to grips with the racism that has plagued our nation for so long.
Mahathir’s UN pledge
It was only a few weeks ago when Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, speaking at the United Nation’s General Assembly as head of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, proudly announced to the world that “the new Malaysia will firmly espouse the principles promoted by the UN in our international engagements. These include the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability.”
In this context, and while admitting that it was a sensitive issue, he “pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments (including ICERD) related to the protection of human rights.”
His speech was immediately hailed both at home and abroad as an indication of the new government’s commitment to human rights and democracy.
The Ketuanan Melayu pushback
The reaction of UMNO-PAS and other Ketuanan Melayu groups was fast and furious. Insisting, contrary to the facts, that ICERD directly challenged Malay rights, the position of the rulers and even the role of Islam in Malaysia, they demanded that the government abandon plans to ratify ICERD.
Add to that unverified reports of unknown groups distributing bibles to Malays (even leaving copies in mosques apparently) and UMNO-PAS had all the ingredients necessary to create the perfect political storm. Having found a lethal mix of race and religion that could galvanize public opinion, divert attention from their own failures and put PH on the defensive, they are now enthusiastically milking it for all its worth. And it’s going to be worth a great deal to them.
UMNO president Zahid Hamidi, in the best traditions of his party, starkly warned that the Malays would run amok if ICERD was ratified. PAS leader Hadi Awang, always at his best when it comes to religious demagoguery, insisted that it was “compulsory for Muslims to oppose ICERD” as it would diminish the special position of Islam in the country and weaken the Malays yet further.
Of course, ICERD does no such thing; it is in reality more an aspirational convention rather than a binding treaty. Members are given wide leeway to carve out for themselves exceptions to satisfy their own local laws; dozens of countries have, in fact, done so. Indeed, several local legal experts have confirmed that ratifying ICERD would not violate the constitution. Malay extremists, however, are determined to read into it whatever serves their nefarious agenda.
Anti-ICERD rallies are now being planned across the country with a mammoth one scheduled to take place on December 8. It is telling that the same people who did nothing when billions were being looted from the public purse, when our nation was being literally sold off to a foreign power, are now ready to push the country to the brink of instability over a non-existent threat.
In the meantime, a vicious and racist anti-DAP campaign, perhaps the worst we’ve ever seen thus far, is now underway.
PH in full retreat
Initially, PH luminaries defended the decision to ratify ICERD; it was, after all, mooted by none other than the prime minister himself at a very high-profile international event.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa (Minister in Prime Minister’s Department for Religious Affairs), for example, took Malay rights groups, including PAS, to task for claiming that Malay rights would be abolished if the convention is ratified. He stressed that ICERD “will not have any impact on what’s protected under the federal constitution.” Bersatu President (and Minister for Home Affairs) Muhyiddin Yassin said essentially the same thing.
However, as right-wing pressure grew, Pakatan’s resolve crumbled and Pakatan ministers beat a hasty retreat from ICERD.
Muhyiddin started worrying publicly about whether ICERD would undermine the special position of the Malays. Syed Saddiq, the Bersatu Youth Chief (and Minister of Youth and Sports) expressed concern that ICERD could undermine constitutional provisions pertaining to Malay rights. Other ministers with the exception of Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (who continues to valiantly defend ICERD) simply kept their heads down.
PKR President Anwar Ibrahim, always ready to stand decisively on both sides of an issue, said that while ICERD did not conflict with the constitution, there was no hurry to ratify it given other more pressing priorities – as if the government cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. In parliament he even joined the chorus of opposition calls for the foreign minister to defer ratification.
Of course, all of them were careful not to reference the fact that it was the prime minister himself who surprised everyone by raising the issue at the UN. Mahathir himself finally agreed that it would be almost impossible for Malaysia to ratify ICERD because the government lacked the two-thirds majority it needed to amend the constitution. He also added that some aspects of ICERD were not suitable for Malaysia. It was a surreal moment that immediately begged the question why the prime minister raised the issue at the UN in the first place.
Non-Malay politicians, for their part, justifiably terrified at being cast as the villains in the whole saga, are running for cover. DAP Secretary-General (and Finance Minister) Lim Guan Eng said, “We did not raise the issue. It was Waytha (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department) who did.” MCA and Gerakan as usual attacked the DAP.
Left holding the bag
Unsurprisingly, Waytha Moorthy, whose portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Department obliged him to steer the ICERD issue forward, has now become the fall guy.
More than 115,000 signatures have also been collected for a petition demanding Waytha’s resignation; he now joins a growing list of PH ministers – Theresa Kok, Kulasegeran,, and Gobind Singh – whose resignations are being demanded by Ketuanan Melayu groups for one reason or another.
If Waytha is guilty of anything, it was simply to take the prime minister’s UN speech at face value and act upon it, as most responsible ministers would. After all, the foreign minister had tabled the same UN speech in parliament and received unanimous Pakatan support for making it official policy. Unfortunately for Waytha, when push came to shove, all his cabinet colleagues (save for the foreign minister) left him holding the bag.
A PH-made fiasco
ICERD has, undoubtedly, dealt a serious political blow to the Pakatan government. Despite its good intentions, the government failed to do its homework, failed to build a clear consensus within its own ranks and failed to agree on a game plan to manage the ratification process once it committed itself to doing so. They came across as a party in disarray, unable to even agree on a common position. Worse still, they did not have the courage of their own convictions to stand their ground against UMNO-PAS.
Pakatan’s mishandling of the ICERD issue has now given UMNO-PAS a new lease of life. In a single swoop, UMNO-PAS appears to have outmanoeuvred PH and put it on the defensive. ICERD has also allowed UMNO-PAS to burnish their credentials as the preeminent defender of all things Malay. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a brilliant (if obnoxious) political gambit by a party that until recently was given up for dead.
More dangerously, it has also allowed UMNO-PAS an opportunity to claw back some of the political power it lost at the ballot box; by threatening to run amok whenever it feels Ketuanan Melayu is challenged, it will now be able to strongly influence national policies without even being in the cabinet.
At the end of the day, by exploiting ICERD, UMNO-PAS has now forced Pakatan’s Malay leadership to compete with them on the issue of who can best defend Ketuanan Melayu. Rather than being consigned to the dustbin of history after May 9th, Ketuanan Melayu will now become the altar at which all Malay politicians will have to offer obeisance if they wish to hold power.
If Pakatan doesn’t act swiftly and decisively to extricate itself from this mess, it will be the end of Malaysia Baru as we know it.
[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 22nd November 2018]