ICERD rally: Who stands to benefit?

The MP for Pasir Salak says politicians are to blame for racial issues in the country. Tajuddin Abdul Rahman never spoke a truer word.

On Nov 22, the Umno leader, who was a deputy minister in the previous Barisan Nasional government, said in Parliament while debating Budget 2019: “Malays, Chinese and Indians are all ok with each other. The problem is with politicians. When we want support, we play up race-based issues for our own benefit.”

He said that in small towns, “we are like brothers”. “We sleep at the homes of non-Muslims. We buy things at Chinese shops and the Chinese buy things at our shops.”

Noting that politicians on both sides of the divide were guilty of playing up race and religion, Tajuddin said: “When we want Malay support, we use anti-Chinese slogans. When we want the support of the Chinese, politicians play up anti-Malay sentiments. That is the problem.”

As I said, he never spoke a truer word, or in this case, several sentences.

Tajuddin, of all people, should know this. Not just because he comes from Umno, which has a significant share of leaders known to play the race and religion card to win support, but because the man is infamous for making controversial remarks.

It was not too long ago, September actually, when he declared at a “Bangkit Melayu” (Malays arise) rally in Pasir Salak that the Malays had lost power following Pakatan Harapan’s win in the 14th general election of May 9 and that non-Malays were now in control.

He was reported as saying: “Today, we have lost power, the Malays have lost power. More than half of the government today is controlled by the non-Malays and non-Muslims.”

On July 25, in the Dewan Rakyat, he famously declared that “this is Malay land”.

So, Tajuddin certainly knows what he is saying. And I believe those in PAS and Umno pushing for the anti-ICERD rally, that is now to be a celebratory rally, know exactly what they are doing.

A coalition of Muslim NGOs called Gerakan Pembela Ummah had earlier said it would organise a rally on Dec 8 to protest the government’s decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD.

Umno and PAS threw in their support for the rally, making their stand on Nov 18 at an event attended by both PAS president Hadi Awang and Umno president Zahid Hamidi. Interestingly, the announcement was made at a gathering in Pasir Salak, on Tajuddin’s turf.

PAS and Umno, and some Muslim groups, are furious because ICERD obliges signatories to eliminate racial discrimination in all forms, including in public institutions and government policies.

Malaysia is only one of 14 countries – and one of two Muslim countries, the other being Brunei – that have not signed the UN treaty. Muslim-majority nations such as Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and all 22 states of the Arab League have signed it.

The treaty allows signatories to sign on with reservations. In fact, many nations have done just that and Malaysia, too, had planned to sign the dotted line with reservations aimed at protecting Malay rights.

Many lawyers and constitutional experts allayed the fears of the Malays by saying ICERD could not override the guarantees in the Federal Constitution, especially since it would require a two-third majority to change constitutional provisions, and that Malay rights would be protected.

Despite this, several NGOs, Umno and PAS, planned to hold a massive rally and threatened to get more Malays to protest against it.

The resulting situation, with Malays being worked up with confusing and wild statements, caused the government to abort its decision to ratify ICERD.

As Islamic Renaissance Front founder Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who supports ratification, said: “A few weeks ago, the government talked about ratifying the ICERD, among other UN conventions, and I think it was committed to doing so.

“This kind of sudden departure from the commitment was expected because it seems that right-wing Malay groups, especially like Gagasan Kuasa 3, were trying to incite racial hatred and bloodshed by invoking memories of the May 13 riots.”

Despite the government’s decision reversal, Muslim NGOs, PAS and Umno want to carry on with the rally. They say it will now be a rally of celebration, to, as Zahid said, to thank the government for reversing its decision.

However, the decision to continue with the rally has been criticised by many as being “unreasonable”.

But when did reason play a part in the politics of power? When did reason play a part in the politics of race and religion?

The rally is clearly aimed at showing the PH government and the people – especially the Malays – that both parties are still relevant, still strong, still there to protect Malay rights. It is to give the impression that they have successfully championed Malay rights and that the Malays cannot do without them.

This is especially important in the face of some Umno leaders and members quitting to join PH coalition partners such as PPBM. If the outflow continues, confidence in Umno would weaken further and this issue is, therefore, a godsend to stem the loss of confidence.

It is also a good issue for PAS, now that interest in pushing Hadi’s bid to amend the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, better known as RUU355, has waned with the PH in government.

Did Tajuddin have the rally in mind when he said politicians create racial problems?

Playing the race or religion card is dangerous in any society, more so a multicultural nation. Any reasonable leader, any intelligent leader who puts the nation’s wellbeing as his priority, would know this.

Who would benefit if there were to be riots or instability? Who would benefit if the government is shaken?

Opposition parties, for one, would likely benefit as they can rally their members behind them again and grow stronger, or if the government collapses, bid to form a new government. At the very least, creating the impression that the ruling government is weak and that people made a mistake by voting for PH would be a victory.

It is not just the rally, any incident, especially a clash , that can be shown to reflect a weak government is always useful to the opposition. It was the same when BN was in power; it is the same now that PH is in power.

Also, making the PH government look weak may persuade civil servants thinking of becoming depoliticised or changing their allegiance to PH to reconsider. That would be a victory for the opposition too, especially for Umno which has many backers in the civil service.

Also, those who are facing criminal charges, or who know they are next on the list, could benefit too. If a new government takes over, especially if their parties are part of the new government, it is possible for the charges to be dropped. At the very least, with the PH government in retreat, the prosecutorial process would be delayed and some of those who have yet to be charged may even be spared.

Who knows how many more from Umno will be charged? Who knows if anyone from PAS will be charged?

Whatever it is, I would urge the police to allow the rally to go on. It is the democratic right of the organisers and Umno and PAS to hold a rally if they wish to. They should not be shouted down.

Police should facilitate the rally and ensure that it is carried out in a peaceful manner. Leaders of PAS, Umno and NGOs participating should ensure that the entire process is peaceful, that participants do not become rowdy, and that their members comply with police advice or instructions.

To the participants I will say this: March peacefully, get your message across, and go home to reflect on your actions and the motives of your leaders.

And if it is indeed true that this rally is to thank the PH government for reversing its decision to ratify ICERD, participants should carry placards saying so and shout: “Hidup, hidup; hidup PH”.

Otherwise, we may be excused for thinking that this is yet another example of what Tajuddin said: politicians use race and religion to gain power.

A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT

The view expressed by the writer does not necessarily reflect those of FMT.