ICERD non-ratification: End of new Malaysia?

In recent weeks, we have seen an uptick in inflammatory racial and religious remarks sparked by the opposition to the government’s plan to ratify a UN treaty known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Nov 30, 2018

By Anil Netto
In recent weeks, we have seen an uptick in inflammatory racial and religious remarks sparked by the opposition to the government’s plan to ratify a UN treaty known as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

A good 179 nations have already ratified the convention. Malaysia is one of only a handful of nations that has not yet taken any action, the others being South Sudan, North Korea, Myanmar, Brunei and nine small nations — mainly Pacific islands. This shows us where we stand.

Opponents of the convention may claim victory in forcing the new government to back-pedal — but it is a hollow victory that puts us distinctly against the global trend.

Some have gloomily suggested that the protests (now dubbed ‘celebration’ rally) and the government’s backing down signal the end of the new Malaysia project, along with the wave of hope and expectation it ushered it.

This reminds me of the time in 1897 when a reporter enquired of Mark Twain whether the rumour that the legendary writer was ill and on his deathbed had any basis. His brilliant response: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Similarly, any suggestion that the new Malaysia project is dead is premature and greatly exaggerated.

Instead, the new Malaysia is an ongoing project towards a more inclusive nation where we can rise above the barriers of race and religion and bridge the wide income divide. Rather than a revolution, what we have here is an evolution towards a higher level of consciousness, which took a leap forward on May 9. But the journey continues, sometimes fraught with challenges.

Let’s remember that six decades of racial and religious indoctrination is not about to disappear overnight — even with regime change after the general election on May 9, 2018.

A couple of months ago, this column noted that the famous Zunar drew a cartoon a few months after the general election in which he depicted people rejoicing after chopping a rotting tree, which represented the previous ruling coalition being toppled after six decades in power. But beneath them, underground, the diseased roots of the tree ran deep — something the jubilant crowds could not see. The roots were a metaphor for the diabolical politics of race and religion.

These roots of religious and racial politics run deep and could sprout again if we are not vigilant. Indeed, for far too long, politicians have manipulated race and religion to divide and lord it over us while siphoning away the riches of this land. What we have now is an attempt by the defeated old guard to push back against the gains of the new Malaysia.

It is easier to manipulate race and religion when a large segment of the population is struggling to cope with the cost of living in the face of an inadequate education system and low wages. This makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous politicians who play to their deepest insecurities.

For now, the government’s decision not to ratify the treaty has pulled the rug from under the feet of those trying to mobilise opposition to the new government using primordial sentiments of race and religion.

The government’s astute move has deflated the momentum of the protests. But the risk is that it could embolden the old order to make greater demands in the long run and drag the rest of the nation down with them.

The government needs to quickly move now to allay all the old insecurities of the bottom 40 per cent of the population (B40), which make them the prime targets of the old kleptocratic order, comprising the corrupt, defeated politicians and their cohorts.

While the new government has made commendable progress in institutional reforms, it must now pay attention of its socio-economic policies, especially in dealing with the urban and rural poor and the gap between the rich and poor.

It must seriously look into the plight of the B40, irrespective of their ethnic and religious background, and address the root causes of their insecurities — soaring food prices, youth unemployment, lack of accessibility to universal education and healthcare of high quality, unaffordable home prices, lack of efficient public transport and cuts in subsidies.

To do this, the government needs to move away from neoliberal economic policies that often burden the lower-income group. For example, the full-paying patient scheme in hospitals and policies to boost medical tourism could lead to less priority being given to ordinary, low-income patients.

The new Malaysia is far from dead and hope lives on. But we all need to do our bit to try and uplift those who have been left behind so that all of us can play a rightful part in an inclusive Malaysia whose diversity is a reason for celebration. Then, we will be able to uproot the diseased roots of the old Malaysia for good.

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