Pushback against ICERD reflects old fears over trade-off with non-Malays, says Dr M

Dr Mahathir Mohamad says he had already anticipated the angry reactions from Malays over ICERD.

PUTRAJAYA: Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he was not surprised by the strong protests from Malay groups over a proposal that Putrajaya ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

He said the fears over Bumiputera special privileges, which is at the heart of the opposition against the global treaty, were a reflection of the Malay sentiments in the early days of Malaya’s independence from Britain.

“I was at that time already active in politics. I knew the sentiments at that time,” the prime minister told FMT during an exclusive interview in his office here.

He said the Malays had demanded for special privileges in exchange for giving citizenship to the Chinese and Indian communities.

“If there was no provision like that, the Malays would not agree to independence even. They wanted independence with that condition. On the other hand, the British said, (if) you want independence, you must accept the Chinese and Indians as citizens. So the Malays accepted that, and others accepted the privileges for the Malays.”

Mahathir said it was a trade-off that was deliberately made to last by including it in the Federal Constitution.

“The constitution cannot be amended unless there is two-thirds majority. And we know it is almost impossible to get the two-thirds majority without Malay support,” he said.

Last week, after weeks of intense public debate over ICERD, an international convention endorsed by the United Nations which commits governments to remove all discriminatory laws, Mahathir’s office announced that the government would not ratify the treaty.

The treaty among others commits Malaysia to ensuring equal treatment for all races.

Critics had said ratifying ICERD would undermine the special position of the Malays, including provisions to allow quotas in public institutions, as spelt out in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

They also warned that ratifying ICERD meant a death knell for Malaysia’s affirmative action policies to help the Bumiputera community.

The call to ratify ICERD was mooted by several Pakatan Harapan leaders, days after Mahathir, in his UN General Assembly speech in September, pledged to ratify “all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights”.

When reminded of this, Mahathir disagreed that the announcement to reject ICERD was an about-turn by him, saying he remembered clearly what was said in his speech.

“When I spoke in the UN, I remember exactly, I said we will ratify all the conventions of the UN. But I pointed out that we are a multiracial and multireligious country. We will have problems with that.

“So now the problem that we predicted has happened, and we have to react to that,” he said.

In the interview, Mahathir was also asked if ICERD was an indication that the PH government lacked Malay support.

“The reason why PH didn’t get more Malay support is because Umno has been around for more than 60 years, and these people cannot imagine being without Umno.

“The loyalty to the party is so ingrained in them that they cannot think of voting for another party. The younger ones have made the shift.”