Anti-ICERD rally and the perils of misinformation

Image from Malay Mail Online 

On December 8th 2018, about 80,000 people thronged the streets of Kuala Lumpur in protest of the government plan to ratify the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Yes you heard that right, the malays in Malaysia is protesting against the end of all kind of racial discrimination in the country, meaning these lot surely love their discriminatory policies here.

A little background story. ICERD was initiated by the United Nations (UN) in 1965 to deal with global racial intolerance but in Malaysia, it was perceived as a threat to bumiputra special privileges (Article 153) and Islam. Malaysia is one of only 18 countries in the world that have not ratified ICERD which include the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, Angola, Bhutan & Brunei. In the muslim world, all muslim-majority countries have ratified ICERD, except two which are you guessed it, Malaysia and Brunei.

On September 2018, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad addressed the UN General Assembly where he said the government has pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights. Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin raised concerns about ICERD’s impact on bumiputera privileges in Dewan Rakyat. He questioned whether different rights or special status of bumiputeras will cease to exist after ratifying ICERD? Khairy’s comment was picked by Utusan Malaysia which reported that ICERD would threaten the special positions of Malays and Islam in the country. What followed was a series of protests that brought conservative forces together and culminated with UMNO and PAS announcing a mega rally against ICERD.

While several ministers stressed that “reservations” can be made to preserve Article 153, the idea that ICERD would overwrite Article 153 had become public perception. ICERD Article 1(4) specifically say
Special measures taken for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups… shall not be deemed racial discrimination, provided they shall not be continued after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.
Countries are allowed to ratify ICERD with reservations, which works like a caveat. Some countries have made reservations so that the convention would not supersede their constitution. Thailand for example does not interpret and apply the provisions of this Convention as imposing…any obligation beyond the confines of the Constitution and the laws of the Kingdom of Thailand. Nepal meanwhile stresses that nothing in the Convention shall be deemed to require or to authorise legislation or other action by Nepal incompatible with the provisions of the Constitution of Nepal [source: UN Treaty Collection].

Given the examples, Malaysia can ratify ICERD with similar reservations to put to rest concerns that it would affect the Federal Constitution. Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Iraq & Afghanistan that practise syariah law but have ratified ICERD. Some countries have also made a reservation so that ICERD cannot supersede its syariah law.

So the crux of the matter is, ratifying ICERD should be a non-issue since it can be implemented without affecting bumiputra special rights (read: crutches) that they seems to love so much and even more so the position of Islam as the official religion. However UMNO, PAS and other far right groups have hijacked this issue and manipulated the sentiments of conservative malays for their benefit and score brownie points for their cause. And I am ashamed to say that my in-laws have fallen hook, line and sinker to this ploy where they wholeheartedly supported the protests against ICERD. Some even took down to the streets of KL that day for absolutely no good reason.

I suppose for simple-minded people without much exposure to the global effort to end racism and discrimination, having certain parties playing on their racial and religious sentiments is all too easy. They have this unfounded fear that the malays will lose their special rights - university & housing quotas or even more ridiculous - the position of Islam itself will be threatened when ICERD is ratify. Tell that to Saudi Arabia for goodness sake. I’m sure not many of them actually looked into what ICERD is really all about and just follow the herd mentality to simply oppose for the sake of opposing. This is especially true for my PAS card-carrying members in-laws.

So children, the moral of the story here, don’t just oppose or join something without knowing in depth what are you fighting for. I actually rolled my eyes when they claim this anti-ICERD rally is not much different than the Bersih rallies that I had attended before. How a rally for a clean and fair election is similar to a pro-racism rally is beyond me.

While the government in its wisdom finally decided against ratifying ICERD, the damage is already done in term of the country’s reputation in term of eliminating racial discrimination.

This post features excerpts from The ICERD Outrage article on Malaysiakini.