Lessons from the ICERD hullabaloo

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Malaysia is one of only a handful of major countries (in red) that have neither signed nor ratified the ICERD - Graphic: Wikipedia

The government needs to address the genuine fears of certain segments of Malays and other indigenous communities, especially the poor, says Mustafa K Anuar.

Those who opposed the controversial International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination may have claimed victory after Putrajaya announced it would not ratify the international instrument.

The mood among them might have been celebratory, especially if they chose to perceive this decision as the Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration buckling under ferocious pressure and objection from the Malay-Muslim community.

Hence, the insistence among some of them that they would still stage a public rally on 8 December to celebrate.

But it may not be the right time for them – if we are at liberty to use the expression – to crack open a bottle of champagne – for there is a need for introspection and conversation by all concerned Malaysians arising from this episode.

Decades-old politics of race and religion that informed the protest against the convention had entrenched and in some cases amplified ethno-centrism, hatred and suspicion among segments in our society. Old habits die hard.

Hence, many segments among the Malays were swayed by the argument by so-called defenders of Islam and the community that the convention would would undermine Article 153 of the Federal Constitution and other provisions that are considered ‘sacred’.

While fear of the implications of ratification of the convention may be genuine to certain pockets of Malays, the deliberate manufacturing of a siege mentality by certain quarters with vested interests for the consumption of Malays might have increased the political temperature to a dangerous level.

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To give it a larger context, the controversy emerged at a time when those politicians who lost badly in the last general election were struggling to make themselves relevant again in the eyes of the Malay-Muslim community.

To these politicians this issue must have been, as the Malay proverb says, “Bagaikan bulan jatuh ke riba.” – a golden opportunity that knocked on the door of those who all along have been peddling and profiting from the politics of race and religion.

As part of the playbook of those who exploit race, Malays are told that ratifying the convention would mean they were being slowly undermined by minorities in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural country.

And, it didn’t help either when such rhetoric against the convention was couched in religious terms. Not that such religious intervention is out of the ordinary in Malaysian politics.

If anything, it only heightened the fervour of those waging war against the convention, and possibly blowing things out of proportion.

For instance, in urging all “God-fearing” Malaysians to oppose this convention, Pas president Abdul Hadi Awang sought the moral and religious high ground in defending “agama, bangsa dan negara” (religion, race and country).

In other words, to defy his calling was to be fearless of God, and, therefore, those who did so deserved to be demonised. In a culture steeped in religious practices, it was sacrilegious for a Malay not to fear God. You were therefore either with “us” or “them”.

Such rhetoric laced with godliness was calculated to legitimise threats of running amok if the government ignored their objections and pursued the path of the convention. No matter if such threats violated the norms of democracy.

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Even the spectre of May 13 was invoked by certain quarters to show their grim resolve to oppose what they saw as a transgression of Malay interests. It appeared that they didn’t mind going down the slippery slope of violence to attain their objective.

Is it any wonder then that the vigilante Badar Squad, for instance, is defiant and adamant about spreading its wings nationwide in its supposed war against vice and sin, especially among young people? A perceived divine blessing drives its mission to fight the evil courted by those who defy God’s laws.

Democratic norms call for dialogue, discussion and debate, not rabble-rousing and, God forbid, social unrest.

Furthermore, Islam, like other religions, also calls for peaceful interaction and conversation about things that matter to all Malaysians from all walks of life.

With the benefit of hindsight, the government needs to address the genuine fears of certain segments of Malays and other indigenous communities, particularly the poor and disenfranchised.

All is not lost if the government conscientiously pursues a policy of assisting the poor and needy in the country ie the bottom 40%, the majority of whom are Malay, to show that poverty is indiscriminate. This is apart from providing assistance for educational and career advancement.

In the long run, it is hoped that it would be instructive to the poor and those in other social categories that Malaysians, irrespective of their ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, must be accorded dignity as human beings who are God’s creation.

There is a lot of work to be done, especially when race and religion are often exploited. But it is worth doing it in the spirit of the convention.

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Source: The Malaysian Insight

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