OnePacificNews, November 26, 2018, Monday
Malaysians delivered a political earthquake last May when they voted in a new government to replace the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had been in power since the country gained independence in 1957.
The people were seemingly so scandalised by the level of corruption under the nine-year rule of former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak that they overcame fear to vote for change. The new government under Mahathir Mohamed quickly arrested Mr Najib, his wife and several aides, and then hit him with charges of graft and money laundering amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
There were high hopes that Mr Mahathir, in his second term in office, would build on that to introduce political and economic reforms to free the country from decades of race-based patronage and cronyism. As Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003, he had tightened the country’s Malay and Islamic grip on power.
Those nascent hopes for a more pluralistic Malaysia came crashing down last Friday (November 23) when his Pakatan Harapan coalition government declared it would not ratify a UN human rights treaty against racial discrimination.
“The government will not ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD),” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement, according to a Malaysian news report (1).
If it had, it would now be under pressure to dismantle Malaysia’s entrenched race-based policies and practices that heavily favour the 62% of its population (2) who are Malay, Muslim and indigenous.
The government’s offer to continue to defend “the social contract agreed upon by representatives of all races during the founding of this nation” was scant consolation for Malaysia’s main minority groups. Its Chinese and Indian communities have long complained against the country’s institutionalised, constitutionally-supported racism that restricts their opportunities for government jobs, contracts, higher education, and housing.
Ethnic Chinese who form 21% of Malaysia’s nearly 32-million population, Indians (6%), and non-citizens of various ethnicities (10%) are also now faced with the challenge of the country’s drift towards an increasingly Islamic identity. Almost all Malaysian Malays identify as Muslim.
The government’s refusal to sign ICERD was a stern reminder that Mr Mahathir’s return to power represented not a reformist triumph, but a re-assertion of Malay Muslim power. Many Malaysians, especially those of Chinese descent, naively thought race politics would retreat with meritocracy and equality given greater emphasis in the new order.
The spectre of a repeat of the May 13 1969 anti-Chinese race riots was raised in explaining why Malay Muslim privileges could not be repealed.
Malaysians would not want ICERD to be ratified if it led to racial tensions and deadly riots, said Lim Kit Siang, a political leader from the Chinese community who lived through that dark period of the country’s history. Malay Muslim privileges were strengthened at the expense of the country’s minorities after 1969.
“There is no doubt that there are irresponsible elements…seeking to incite and escalate racial and religious distrust, animosity and hatred to engender the conditions to replicate another May 13 racial riot in Malaysia,” Mr Lim said in a reported statement.
Right-wing Malay Muslim groups played a key role in overthrowing Mr Najib and the BN government because they felt he had failed to protect their interests. Corruption alone did not doom his government. Indeed, Malaysians accept patronage and favours trading as a matter of fact in the workings of government.
Rather, it was Mr Najib’s close ties with the Chinese government and his seeming willingness to do Beijing’s bidding that had contributed to his downfall. The thought of Malaysia becoming a China colony was what finally drove the conservative Malay Muslim vote to the opposition.
ICERD’s rejection is further confirmation of Malay Muslim power in Malaysia. It should end any illusion that Mr Mahathir’s return heralds the start of a reformist liberal Malaysia, or that the local Chinese community has any real influence over their country.
Govt will not ratify ICERD, says PMO
Malaysia Demographics Profile 2018
Malaysians won’t want ICERD ratified at the price of another May 13 riot, Kit Siang says