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Saturday’s anti-ICERD demonstration has given rise to many questions. Why was the government so unprepared to defend one of its own initiatives? Was there another agenda at play at the back of it all? And how will it impact the Pakatan government going forward?

Making ICERD an issue

It is certainly noteworthy that Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad himself gave life to the whole ICERD controversy when he spectacularly announced at the UN that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government would ratify all remaining UN human rights conventions, including ICERD. It took many by surprise given that all previous Malaysian administrations, (including his own earlier administration) had shied away from ratifying them.

Strangely, despite acknowledging that it could be a difficult sell, he made no move to campaign for it or justify his decision to ratify it. Not once did he speak out in defence of ICERD. In fact, not only did he not make any attempt to assuage concerns that ICERD might adversely affect Malay rights, he appeared to stoke apprehension by suggesting, contrary to legal opinion, that the constitution would have to be amended in order to ratify ICERD. It was as if he simply sat back and watched it simmer.

By failing to stand up for a proposal that he himself initiated, by declining several opportunities to clarify the facts about ICERD, and by leaving it to the hapless Waytha Moorthy to defend, he contributed to the perception that ICERD was somehow a scheme by the non-Malays in his own cabinet to erode Malay rights and privileges.

Subsequently, in what can only be described as bizarre, Mahathir went on to take full credit for stopping ICERD dead in its tracks. At a gathering at UiTM following Saturday’s demonstration, Mahathir declared that he could not accept ICERD because it would disadvantage the Malays. Of course, they cheered him on.

But, if the prime minister really believed all that nonsense that ICERD was detrimental to the position of the Malays, why on earth did he even raise the matter at the UN in the first place? He was certainly not under any pressure from his non-Malay colleagues to push for it. What was he hoping to achieve?

If it was a mistake, he should apologise to the nation for needlessly causing all that angst and anxiety. 

Profound consequences 

Whatever it is – whether by accident or design – one thing is certain: ICERD, and the ugly racism that it provoked, will have profound consequences on the future direction of the Pakatan government.

For one thing, expect Pakatan to shift further to the right politically; it’s where Mahathir is most comfortable.

The anti-ICERD rally will also become the raison d’état for pushing stronger Malay-centric policies, a major theme of Mahathir’s political philosophy. There will be no more talk about a needs-based approach to poverty eradication. Instead, Mahathir will insist, in the interests of assuaging Malay concerns, that he be given a free hand to pursue his own long-held ideas for Malay empowerment.

Other Malay Pakatan leaders, whatever their own inclinations, will now fall in behind Mahathir or risk being seen as insufficiently committed to the Malay cause. Indeed, they are already echoing the view that Pakatan must not neglect Malay concerns. It is, of course, a strange argument to make since Malay concerns have always been front and centre of every administration in Putrajaya. What has been lacking, however, is an effective political programme to counter the racist arguments of UMNO-PAS but that is another story.

Besides, if one goes by all the rhetoric thus far, Malay angst has been stoked as much by the appointment of non-Malays to high office as anything else. Will “paying attention to Malay concerns” now require the government to roll back some of those appointments?

ICERD has also effectively neutered the DAP. After ICERD, few in DAP will dare to do or say anything that might be construed as undermining Malay rights and interests for fear of provoking another backlash. Witness, for example, Lim Guan Eng’s diplomatic retreat on local council elections – he said he would push for local council elections but for now he would give priority to delivering on Pakatan’s manifesto promises (which incidentally are being jettisoned one by one).

Indeed, ICERD provides Pakatan the excuse it needs to further renege on its manifesto promises including the complete removal of oppressive laws and the restoration of local council elections. Going forward, only those elements of the reform agenda that do not impinge on the position and rights of the Malays (and that could be anything) will be prioritised. Greater democracy, transparency and accountability will, unfortunately, not be part of the equation.

Expect also that the MACC will be kept on a tight leash; too many of the political and business elites that Mahathir needs to depend on are, after all, vulnerable. He tolerated them during his first term  in office in the interest of moving his agenda forward; he is likely to do so again. Tokenism will become the order of the day in the fight against corruption.

Expect, as well, that UMNO and PAS will grow weaker not stronger as a result of ICERD. They were cleverly maneuvered into serving a bigger purpose; enough of a crowd turned up to make the case for Malay rights but not enough to burnish UMNO-PAS credentials as the ultimate voice of the Malays. And, of course, the more Mahathir moves to the right politically and champions Malay issues, the less relevant UMNO-PAS becomes. It won’t be long before UMNO at least folds into Bersatu.

Only one winner

In the end, there was only one winner: Mahathir himself. He comes out of the whole ICERD affair with his political standing enhanced, his influence strengthened and his position in cabinet stronger than ever.  What he will do with all that power and influence is something that will bear close watching.

There’s a real danger, however, that the whole ICERD issue could now end up derailing the hopes and aspirations of all the people who voted for a new Malaysia. Malaysia needs greater democracy, transparency and an end to race-based politics and policies. The Pakatan manifesto is exactly the kind of blueprint that we need to move our nation forward. Abandon that and we abandon our one chance of becoming a truly great and successful nation.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 13th December 2018]