Attaining the status of a developed nation involves the government taking concrete actions to stamp out racism, says Jerald Joseph.
As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March 2013, we reflect on our nation’s history since independence. We ask the questions: How much have we moved forward in building one nation? Has Malaysia become a more integrated society? Do we live in mutual respect of all ethnicities in a spirit of unity and tolerance while cultivating multiculturalism?
We celebrate the nation as it moves into developed-country status boasting of good infrastructure in place. Malaysia is seen as a model country by many other developing nations in achieving steady economic growth in the last 20 years. A fully developed nation must be developed in all aspects of nation building, beyond infrastructure.
While we are ahead in terms of infrastructure, we suffer from other maladies when it comes to race relations. For far too long the nation has swept many such issues under the carpet. The nation has been swayed to live in fear, allowing the government to dictate a race-relations policy, which unfortunately, has divided the nation.
Since independence, Malaysian politics has been segregated into ethnic based representation in the ruling coalition, where the main parties represent the three main ethnic groups. Sadly, after 56 years of independence, the division among the ethnic groups has grown and the disparity between the majority and minority communities has also increased.
Komas and its partners launched the ICERD ratification campaign in 2012 because itis time to change this old racial map of discrimination in Malaysia into a new Malaysia, where all enjoy the same Malaysian sun. The ratification of the ICERD is important to ensure that the government recognises its obligation in fighting discrimination and building a nation based on non-discrimination. It is imperative that the space for healthy and free discourse and discussion on identity issues, especially of race and ethnicity, must be encouraged and provided for by the government and all other stakeholders.
The Durban Declaration, of which Malaysia was a party to in 2009, demands that states combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance through concrete action. There has been very little follow-through from Durban, especially in information sharing and engagement with civil society.
Discriminatory attitudes and practices go beyond the individual persons and have become more institutionalised. They are embedded into our social fabric through history and policies and have further infiltrated in the public, private sector and society. Yet not enough concrete steps or actions have been taken to combat this.
Spaces to openly discuss issues such as race-based policies and constitutional provisions on special measures for some ethnic groups have been quite restricted. Some small extremist groups like Perkasa have issued threats to all Malaysians not to discuss these, as they believe affirmative action policies are sacrosanct to the majority and should never be revisited. Malaysians must not be held ransom by a select few who allegedly represent “the people”.
Unfortunately, in keeping silent, the government seems to be giving its support and approval for such conduct. It is the duty of the government to condemn such racist attitudes and utterances. Malaysia has become famous for selective prosecution where strong inflammatory hate-speeches against the minorities are not investigated thoroughly.
Despite the history of divisions, there is a new, emerging shift in national politics to redefine ethnic relations. The government must bear the responsibility to educate, reformulate and change society. The efforts of civil society had made changes in this direction. A very clear message that Malaysians are moving from the boundaries of race was seen at the Bersih rally for free and fair elections where people from all walks of life walked together demanding free and fair elections. There are many examples like that happening throughout the country.
Race-based politics continues to exist and it is time to analyse if this is a disservice to all Malaysians. Historical justifications do not hold ground and Malaysians must be brave in rejecting race-based politics, and the political parties must re-evaluate their political identity to remain relevant. ICERD can be a standard to re-evaluate the nation.
Xenophobia against migrant workers has also been increasing in Malaysia. There is a lack of enforcement in protecting migrants’ rights and the government agencies are the main perpetrators. If the social construct of Malaysia is based on race, thus our actions and mindsets towards migrant workers would also take that same logic.
It is time that Malaysians unpack these complexities of race relations more directly. NGOs like Komas have been using various methods like training programmes, publications and videos to educate Malaysians to fight racism.
We do not subscribe to the argument by the Attorney’s Chambers that Malaysia can only sign the ICERD when it has the laws in place and is ready. Ratification of the ICERD is a process towards full implementation of its standards domestically. This was the same process undertaken for the ratification of the other UN Conventions like Cedaw and the CRC. Malaysia ratified it first and then workedtowards transforming laws and policies to be in line with its demands.
The nation stands before a very historic 13th General Election in a few weeks time. We call on all parties and candidates to state unreservedly that they reject race-based policies and racism and will strive for a nation that equally belongs to all.
We wish all Malaysians and guests in Malaysia a very Happy International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We live in hope that the nation is on the brink of change where racism will be rejected by all Malaysians.
Jerald Joseph sits on the Board of Directors of Pusat Komas, a human rights popular communications centre, and is Chair of the ICERD working group.