Dr M’s ICERD move to ‘salvage’ Malay support, say analysts

A huge crowd turned up for the rally on Dec 8 to voice their protest against ICERD.

PETALING JAYA: Political analysts have panned Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s defence of his decision not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), saying the prime minister likely did so to “salvage” Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) Malay support.

They were referring to Mahathir’s comments at a university event recently, where he said the Bumiputera Malays must be given a leg up or risk being left behind.

A mammoth anti-ICERD rally was held earlier the same day.

Oh Ei Sun from the Pacific Research Centre said the push to ratify the ICERD was expected to work in PH’s favour.

“(But) when this was met with huge resistance from Malay conservatives, Mahathir reverted to his old Malay-first self and spewed out statements like this, all in an effort to salvage their (PH’s) Malay support.”

Speaking to FMT, Oh said the “tremendous” Malay resistance on the ground must have “really surprised” Mahathir’s administration.

Mahathir told a 3,000-strong crowd at UiTM Shah Alam on Saturday that the Malays must be given the opportunity to “catch up” with the other races.

“If we do not give the Malays just a little more opportunities than the other races, if we believe we must give everyone the same thing… only those who do so will succeed and those who can’t will fall behind.

“If we want them (the Malays) to catch up with those in front of them, they must be given the space to succeed. That is why we can’t accept ICERD; it doesn’t give us the right to differentiate treatment for races.”

The ICERD obliges parties to eliminate racial discrimination in all forms, including in public institutions as well as in government policies, the issue at the heart of opposition from Malay groups.

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

They also opposed the ICERD’s timeline on member countries to end affirmative action programmes, which they said would sound the death knell for Malaysia’s decades-old Bumiputera policy.

Awang Azman Awang Pawi questioned why Mahathir dismissed ICERD’s relevance despite pledging at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September to ratify “all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights”.

“Mahathir’s support of the rejection of ICERD was a political move because he was anxious after seeing the enormous resistance that was more or less the size of past Bersih rallies,” the political analyst from Universiti Malaya told FMT.

“(He knew that) this would affect PH’s reputation badly. He tried to do damage control as (moving forward with ratifying ICERD) would make Malaysians feel worried about PH’s leadership (so early on in their rule).”

Awang Azman noted that in the 14th general election in May, PH only garnered some 26% of the Malay vote.

He said this had decreased by at least 5% to 15% after the ICERD fiasco and PH’s response to it.

“If issues like ICERD are brought up, it will be dangerous for PH’s future as the government,” he cautioned, pointing to other “ticking time bombs” that would have similar impact such as the high cost of living, work opportunities, poverty, and housing.

“PH must now come up with a way to restore the confidence of the rakyat, the conservative Malays especially, who have doubted their leadership and administration since the beginning,” he said.

Mahathir had disagreed that the announcement to reject ICERD was an about-turn on his part, 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 multi-religious 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.

James Chin from the University of Tasmania said although the Malays might cheer Mahathir on, the non-Malays would see this episode as proof that “the old institutional racism” of the previous administration was here to stay.

“It is quite clear PH is unable to convince the Malays that racial discrimination is wrong. They do not see anything wrong with racism since they don’t see it as such; they see it as their ‘right’ under ‘Ketuanan Melayu’.

“Under this, the Malays must be given priority over all other racial groups. This means the non-Malays will forever be second-class citizens. This was Umno’s game when it was in power and PAS agrees with this,” he told FMT.

Meanwhile, political geo-strategist Azmi Hassan, from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Perdana School, said he was convinced Mahathir and his Cabinet members were “not that inclined” to ratify ICERD from the start.

This is because of a “conflict of interest” with Article 153 of the constitution.

He said it only became an issue when Wisma Putra said it was a priority to ratify the remaining six human rights treaties.

This is why Azmi disagreed with the contention that Mahathir’s about-turn on the matter was not done only to garner the “sympathy” of the Malays, adding that the foreign ministry should be more tactful in the future.

Only three UN treaties have been signed by Malaysia since 1995.