Contradictheory: ICERD gets the death penalty in Malaysia

  • Living
  • Monday, 03 Dec 2018

Malaysian protesters from several Islamic political parties and NGOs torch a 'Barua ICERD' dummy during an assembly in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, to rally Muslims against the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

No point in writing about ICERD, I suppose, since the issue has been put to rest. First, the government made it clear that they were making a U-turn on ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

However, the opposition still plans to protest against it. Funny thing, the protesters have a clear case why they don’t want ICERD, but the government is struggling to explain their decision.

ICERD is a convention against racial discrimination that’s been ratified by the majority of countries in the world. On top of that, Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto calls to make Malaysia’s “human rights record respected by the world”, including ratifying “suitable international conventions that are not yet ratified”.

It seems logical that the government would choose to endorse one that has overwhelming global support, including from many Islamic countries. Yet it hasn’t been easy.

According to some, what’s good for human rights isn’t good for Malay rights. Specifically the concern was that ICERD would be the thin edge of the wedge that would remove Bumiputera-specific initiatives and laws, including article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

To their credit, the opposition to ICERD has communicated this well: Let’s protest against this government that is willing to allow the erosion of Malay rights. It simplifies the many complexities of ICERD and crystallises it into one sentence.

The government had nothing to push back against that, other than to say: Trust us, we won’t amend the Federal Constitution. And this wasn’t the first time a human rights issue was brought up by the government.

Earlier in the year, a proposal was made to abolish the death penalty. That one sailed through painlessly in comparison. The opposition appealed that further studies should be conducted before making a decision, but there was very little push-back.

Which was a shame because there is plenty to say about the death penalty and what it means for Malaysia. Going forward, there are several arguments for getting rid of the death penalty.

That it is a “cruel and unusual form of punishment” is a phrase often used to mean, “Aren’t we civilised people now?” Meanwhile, studies have shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime.

There are also arguments against removing the death penalty. The idea of “justice seen to be done” is an extension of “an eye for an eye”, and families of murder victims may feel it is the only way to get closure.

Another argument is that the death penalty is something authorities can use to extricate confessions – as in, “If you don’t tell us what you know, we will argue for the death penalty” – which is leverage you will lose if it’s abolished.

I’m not suggesting that we have this debate purely for the sake of argument. Rather, we need to understand the bigger picture. What is the overarching point of the policy? What are we striving for as a nation?

Do we want a compassionate Malaysia that believes in redemption and chances for all to prove their worth? Or do we need to be firm and clear about what is acceptable and what’s not?

Democracy is a funny thing. Some describe it as the will of the people, by the people. Others call it a government chosen by those who know nothing about government.

This government is one familiar with democracy through the loudspeaker of demonstrations. After all, many of them were part of such things. I find it strange that people think demonstrations work by making your case as loudly as possible, because that’s always been a sure way to win arguments.

It’s not the government’s obligation to even listen to people who shout the loudest. To be fair, it should be taken as feedback about an issue. The government should just do what they think is best with regard to the bigger picture.

Government has resources and information not available to the public, and governments should think for long-term benefits for all Malaysians, not just short-term wins for their supporters.

I’m being highly principled here, of course, and the reality is that politics needs to tactically fight in the short-term to achieve strategic goals of the long-term. It usually doesn’t matter how you score points, even if you’re going momentarily backwards, as long as you keep the big picture in mind.

But I was hoping that with this more transparent, more open era of Malaysia Baru that the government would be brave enough to share what they want for the country in the long-term.

Already the manifesto has been thrown out with the ridiculous claim that things can’t be done because there is no money – whereas the price you pay for losing your principles is much worse.

This is the stake in the ground the government should drive. Where are we heading to? What is to become of us? It should have been there at the announcement of the death penalty, beyond saying that it is a “cruel and oppressive law”, and it should have been there when we talked about ICERD.

After all, what are you standing for? The really fundamental question about ICERD should be: Once economic parity is achieved between races in Malaysia, should there be any racial privileges? But the debate is left by the wayside in the heat of U-turns and protests, and we the public are none the wiser.

Read more on Malaysia’s reaction to ICERD

Read more about the death penalty debate

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematecian-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at

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