With its mixed population of Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, Malaysia has long traded on its reputation as a uniquely diverse, yet harmonious nation. Sometimes the reality matches the rhetoric. And sometimes the ease with which the forces of racism and malice can triumph over those espousing the moderation that successive governments have claimed as their hallmark makes one despair that the country will ever move on from the politics of prejudice and fear.
The case in point: in September, Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, announced that his government would "ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights". One of these was the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Given that most of the world is signed up to this convention – the UAE acceded to it in 1974, for instance – one would not have thought this would be particularly controversial.
Unfortunately, the issue was swiftly weaponised by the Islamist party PAS and by UMNO, the Malay lead party of the coalition that had ruled the country until last May. Ratifying ICERD would require amending Article 153 of the Federal Constitution on the special position of Malays, it was said, so the rights of Malays – whom the constitution defines as being Muslim − were under threat. The head of PAS, Hadi Awang, declared that it was “compulsory” for Muslims to oppose ICERD. Zahid Hamidi, the president of UMNO, questioned the faith of Saifuddin Abdullah, the well-regarded foreign minister, for supporting ratification.
With a big anti-ICERD rally planned for December 8, tensions were rising to the point that there were calls for the army to stand by to keep the peace. Lawyer after lawyer has made it clear that the convention allows for positive discrimination, need not affect the Malaysian constitution at all, in no way endangers Islam or the Malays, and could be adopted as little more than non-binding window dressing. Despite this, last week the government caved. Ratification was off. The rabble rousers had won, proving once again that playing the race and religion card pays off time and again in Malaysia, no matter what the cost to the country’s cohesion or how much it corrodes its politics.
The government’s move may have been prudent. Even Lim Kit Siang, a fearlessly independent parliamentary veteran, urged caution. He warned that if ICERD went ahead, then “irresponsible elements seeking to incite and escalate racial and religious distrust, animosity and hatred” could cause another May 13. This was a reference to the 1969 racial riots that left hundreds dead, mainly Chinese, after Malays in Kuala Lumpur claimed they had been provoked and taunted by Chinese opposition supporters whose parties had done unprecedentedly well in the general election days before. People who lived through the violence, burning and looting recall it with horror. It led directly to the positive discrimination in favour of the Malays that has been in place ever since.
Given that, at that time, Malays and other indigenous peoples made up a majority of the population but only held around three percent of the country’s wealth, the policy was necessary. I also fully understand the sensitivities of a majority population with a historical memory of being systematically oppressed in their own country. But these sensitivities have become over-sensitivities.
Today, Malays comprise an ever-greater proportion of the population, as the ethnic Chinese community is predicted to shrink to less than 20 per cent by 2030. The country’s nine hereditary rulers, who elect the king from among their ranks, are Malays, while one politician told me he thought it would be at least 50 years before a non-Malay could possibly become prime minister.
In short, there is no chance whatsoever that Islam or the Malays will ever be under threat in Malaysia. The supposed “risks” – such as rooftop airwells that looked like crosses on the island of Langkawi − to a group that has always held the keys of power, are manufactured purely to play on the insecurities of the key conservative Malay vote, and have sometimes made the country an international laughing stock.
Yet, as this row over ICERD – which could still be deadly serious, as the December 8 rally is still planned, only now to celebrate the ditching of the ratification – shows, there is no end to the attempts to rouse fear and anger among the Malays. Such rhetoric is always to the detriment of Chinese and Indian Malaysians, many of whom are still labelled as immigrants who should go “home”, no matter how many generations of their families have been born in the country.
I have two half-Malaysian sons, and I always encourage them to take pride in their country. But, right now, I haven’t the heart to do so. How can I ask them to be proud of a country that has effectively told the world: we want to be free to practice racial discrimination – so much so that there might be blood in the streets if we’re not allowed to?
Rome wasn't built in a day, some people say. But it would never have been built at all if someone didn't start laying a few bricks. And there is no sign that Malaysia will ever even begin the process of freeing itself from the curse of racial politics. Every party is either monoracial or dominated by one race or another. Every national unity campaign – from Dr Mahathir's "Bangsa Malaysia" (Malaysian nation) of the 1990s, to the "1Malaysia" concept of the last prime minister, Najib Tun Razak – has been politicised, with hardliners denouncing both as giving up Malays' rights, a criticism they also made of the pluralistic and multienthnic vision of a "Malaysian Malaysia" that was also put forward.
Neither is there hope that younger generations will shed the victim mentality. Both the current Youth Minister, Syed Saddiq, and his predecessor in the previous government, Khairy Jamaluddin, have raised worries about ICERD, even though both are intelligent enough to know such fears are groundless.
There are good men and women from all communities who know the racism that afflicts Malaysian politics is evil, but too few speak out whenever confrontation arises. “You can’t change society overnight,” is the refrain. But if you say that every time, it will never change at all. My sons, and all Malaysians, deserve better.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia