Ambiga’s lessons for Pakatan Harapan after the ICERD fiasco

Ambiga Sreenevasan says PH leaders should not contradict each other on decisions made.

KUALA LUMPUR: Prominent human rights lawyer and activist Ambiga Sreenevasan has given Putrajaya several “tips” for the future following the fiasco surrounding its controversial decision to ratify ICERD.

The main lesson, she said, was that they should all stand together on the same page and not contradict each other on decisions made.

A mammoth rally was held earlier this month over ICERD, or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which obliges parties to eliminate racial discrimination.

Although Putrajaya eventually decided not to ratify ICERD, a “thanksgiving” rally by Malay groups went ahead over fears that ICERD would undermine the special position and privileges enjoyed by the Malays.

Ambiga said Pakatan Harapan (PH) did not take control of this “narrative”, saying the government instead got “caught on the back foot” with those who raised red flags of race and religion and “ran with it”.

“One of the issues that I thought that could have been avoided, and these are some lessons for the future, was a need for a concerted message from the coalition,” said the National Human Rights Society president.

“Did you see how quickly the (PH) coalition partners crumbled? They didn’t stand with (foreign minister) Saifuddin Abdullah and all those in Parliament who were pushing for ICERD (to be ratified).

“They immediately capitulated and they turned and said, ‘No, maybe we should stop’.

“So, the minute there is division within PH, then it’s really easy for all those who want to push their narrative forward.

“There really needs to be an education of (what ICERD entails for the) component parties within PH first and then they must also educate the public,” she said, adding some in PH likely did not read ICERD itself.

Ambiga, a former Bersih 2.0 chairman, pointed to viral videos online depicting some of those who were interviewed at the Dec 8 anti-ICERD rally as being unable to answer why they were there.

“I’m not blaming them because I’m sure at Bersih rallies if you asked anyone then (at point blank), ‘Well, what are the Bersih’s demands?’ they wouldn’t be able to answer either. So, it happens,” she said.

“They (those at the rally) were all swept up by this idea of what ICERD would do, (which) would be to undermine the position of the Malays in this country, and that is what was of concern to them.

“Education would have solved that problem.”

She said PH should have responded to concerns of Malaysia losing its sovereignty if ICERD was ratified by saying it was a “responsible member” of the international community and would always support UN efforts.

On the rally itself, Ambiga said while it was a “success” as it showed PH believed in the right to assemble, she panned the “paranoia” from within PH that this would rise to something like the May 13, 1969 racial riots.

“May 13? Really?” she said.

She added that PH was the “biggest loser” for backtracking on its pledge to ratify ICERD “too quickly” and giving in to the “extremist kind of narrative”, which she suggested PH not do again.

“I couldn’t understand why they were looking so nervous,” she added. “I just couldn’t understand that. It’s not good for the government to look nervous… it would have been better to look confident.”

Ambiga was speaking at a forum yesterday on strengthening national unity through the Federal Constitution and ratifying ICERD, organised by the Malaysian CSO-SDG Alliance at the Royal Lake Club.

Syahredzan Johan says he is not convinced everyone in PH is on board with regards to the ratification of human rights treaties.

Meanwhile, constitutional lawyer Syahredzan Johan said PH could have “sat down and come up with a counter article” to concerns raised by former chief justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad about ratifying ICERD.

This should have also been done in Bahasa Malaysia, “the language that matters”, rather than only English, Syahredzan, who is the political secretary to DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang said at the same forum.

“I’m not convinced everyone in PH is on board with the ratification of human rights treaties,” he added. “That’s my personal view, but I think to those of us who are advocating this human rights agenda, this should serve as a reminder.

“I know they (PH) have said things, but we know that once people are in government other considerations come in. We, who want to push this agenda, should make sure this agenda is there,” he said.

Syahredzan added that it was clear from the anti-ICERD rally that race and religion issues will continue to be pushed by the “opposition and certain groups”, citing the newfound alliance between PAS and Umno.

He said what “really happened” was that the Cabinet was not paying enough attention to the ICERD issue, and when it “suddenly blew up”, PH ministers were forced to “scramble” and determine what their stance was.

Ambiga, on the other hand, said this was similar to PH and its 14th general election manifesto, or an, “Oops, we won” moment.

“It is unpreparedness, in my view. They’re trying to see the manifesto through and then they get caught in some of this narrative, not anticipating that the opposition would raise these issues.”

The Malaysian CSO-SDG Alliance is a network of CSOs committed to adopting the sustainable development goals or SDG framework since October 2015. They play a role in creating awareness as well as advocate and monitor policies and programmes.