From battle of interpretations to politics of compromise

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 25 Nov 2018

Too hot: The debate on the ratification of ICERD has increased the temperature of ethnic discord among the population.

PAKATAN Harapan government’s decision not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) brought relief to the general public.

Not because they agree or disagree about the ratification of ICERD, but the debate on the subject matter since a month ago had increased the temperature of ethnic discord among the population.

It polarised the public not only along ethnic lines but also social class – particularly between the English-speaking urbanites and the Malay-speaking ruralites.

Admittedly, ICERD is a document available only in English, accessible to a relatively smaller group of urban middle-class English speakers. And since the Malaysian public is not known for its reading habits, even among the English speakers the number of individuals who have actually read the full ICERD document is in the minority, and that includes lawyers, professionals, NGO activists and leaders.

No Malay translation of ICERD document is available to date. This is a crucial fact that has never been highlighted.

Thus the possibility of conducting an “ICERD literacy” programme, in Malay, nationwide has never been thought of or seriously considered by the pro-ICERD proponents, whether they are lawyers, social activists and NGO leaders.

What more of having a public consultation – none of any form has been organised to get feedback from the public. Apparently, the only feedback has been from the urban English speakers around the Klang valley.

We can’t expect the different United Nations bodies with offices in Malaysia to initiate such a literacy program. Why should they? Many of them are not even native English speakers, let alone interested in Malay.

The announcement from the de facto unity minister, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy, last week that a public consultation on ICERD would be undertaken early next year was too little, too late.

The anti-ICERD activists, too, have ignored the fact that the majority of the Malay population, urban, semi-urban or rural, cannot read the ICERD document. Even if the Malay version is available, not many would be interested to read it. Hence, the need for a nationwide “ICERD literacy” programme.

Unsurprisingly, ICERD blew up in a battle of interpretations between those pro- and anti-ICERD factions, largely ethnicised, led by lawyers and ex-judges. Anti-ICERD dominated by Malay activists and pro-ICERD dominated by non-Malays.

The predominantly Malay opposition to ICERD was led by Malay NGOs and later by UMNO and PAS. Pakatan Harapan support for ICERD, meanwhile, was fragmented, to say the least.

Many lamented that ICERD has been the subject that was forgotten or not addressed during the GE14 campaign. Well, the public then was more concerned about the cost of living, GST, 1MDB, and corruption.

If the issue of ICERD ratification had been raised during the GE14 campaign, based on the public reaction in the last week, the election result might have been different.

But then again Waytha Moorthy, who announced that Malaysia was going to ratify ICERD, doesn’t belong to any party. He seemed not to show any “political party consciousness or sensitivity” when he made the statement.

He belongs to a social movement called Hindraf, indeed one of the main leaders of the movement. Therein lies the contradiction and fragmentation within the PH government on its stand on the ratification of ICERD. The PH Cabinet is made up of party members and people without political party.

In the fiasco, the PM and the PM-to-be seemed to have differing opinions on the ratification of ICERD.

The former said, “No way to amend article 153 and ratify ICERD” (The Star, Nov 23, 2018).

The latter, once labelled as a “Malaysian Chameleon” by The Economist, said in his famous “YES-BUT“ style, in his inaugural speech as PKR president, “ICERD can be ratified but there is real fear among the Malay Muslims that at the international level the provisions in our Constitution are not we have to postpone ICERD’s ratification” (The Star Online, Nov 18, 2018).

Perhaps we can’t blame those who speculated that the PM or the PM-to-be prefers not to make personal public announcement that the PH government will not ratify ICERD for fear of the future of the already fragile PH unity.

So, they opted for a 53-word press statement instead to announce that the Pakatan Harapan government will not ratify ICERD.

Followed soon after was a press statement from the Deputy Inspector-General on the role of PDRM in maintaining public order and public security, after some 170 police reports relating ICERD were filed. They also mentioned the discourse and debate on ratification of ICERD in the public sphere had touched on many sensitive issues that could pose a danger to the state of “stable tension” in the country.

The PMO press statement and that of PDRM demonstrate that Malaysian “politics of compromise” based on the principles of “bargaining, negotiation and mediation” is still alive and thriving.

Social cohesion remains high.

The writer is a political analyst and academic from Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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Politics , Government , ICERD


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