"A half-naked, betel-chewing pessimist stood upon the bank of the tropical river, on the edge of the still and immense forests; a man angry, powerless, empty-handed, with a cry of bitter discontent ready on his lips; a cry that, had it come out, would have rung through the virgin solitudes of the woods as true, as great, as profound, as any philosophical shriek that ever came from the depths of an easy chair to disturb the impure wilderness of chimneys and roofs." ― Joseph Conrad (An Outcast of the Islands
, 1896) Malaysia has never had a fair or egalitarian society. That was the way it was when governed by British colonial authorities and that is the way it is now. But the cracks that started to appear 50 years ago can no longer be papered over. The Malay majority always felt hard done by colonial authorities and it was only right that the government at the time adopted a policy of affirmative action to allow them to catch up educationally and economically with the Chinese and Indian communities when the new nation was formed. A code that favored the Bumiputra (a native of Malay or indigenous origin) called the New Economic Policy (NEP) was drafted to eradicate poverty and thus eliminate the identification of race with economic activity shortly after bloody race riots in 1969. The theory was that this would create the conditions for national unity. The NEP officially ended in 1990, but race-based policies in favor of the Malay majority continue to this day.
The policies were corrupted and became racist with successive governments. Islam, the national religion and faith of the majority, was co-opted as a tool to separate and control citizens and discrimination began to intrude into all facets of life in the multiethnic nation. Now, more than half a century since its birth in 1963, this ugly Malaysian characteristic has become one of the hot topics of the day. Mahathir Mohamad
, now in his second stint as prime minister, wants to pull the plug on racial discrimination to give the country a chance to reach its full potential. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 28, he pledged to ratify all remaining U.N. human rights conventions but asked for time to do so. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is among the U.N. conventions that Malaysia has not ratified. The others are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. There was an uproar among hardliners in the Malay community over the pledge. They argued that signing the ICERD would violate their special position and rights guaranteed in the constitution. Anwar Ibrahim
, the prime minister-in-waiting and leader of one of the coalition parties in the alliance government running the country, joined in the debate by telling Bloomberg Television in an interview titled "Malaysia's quest for democratic accountability" that it would take time for the majority to accept shifting from race-based to needs-based affirmative action. He argued for a delay because, he said, for the past 40 years the Bumiputra had been indoctrinated that to survive meant economic policy must favor their race. Despite it being obvious now that survival meant the country must attract investment with fairer policies, it would be difficult to change that view quickly, he said. Some top Malay leaders in the opposition camp, seeing a chance to rally their dispirited supporters still licking their wounds from the election loss and the fallout from a raft of corruption scandals and charges against their leaders, have capitalized on the fears of the Malay majority that their special status, the monarchy and the position of Islam enshrined in the constitution would be weakened by ratifying the U.N. convention. As expected, the top leadership in UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) and Islamist political party PAS found common ground on the issue. Whipping up racial and religious feelings has always been the glue to their existence. They have threatened to wreak havoc
in the country if Mahathir's government goes ahead and ratifies the ICERD. By making the threat, they are mimicking the type of hysteria Joseph Conrad spotted more than 100 years ago. Those against ratifying the ICERD should remember the saying: "Tell me the company you keep and I'll tell you who you are." Malaysia is among just 14 countries, which include Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan, that have yet to sign the ICERD. While Anwar's comments alongside the backlash against the ICERD do not augur well for quick reform, Malaysians should note that ratifying the ICERD is important to demonstrate to the world that Malaysia is on the side of universal justice and equality. Rejecting an effort that aims to strengthen and unify the nation, and which will buttress the idea of an international civilization, will be like shooting themselves in the foot.
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