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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 — Despite the inflammatory rhetoric leading up to today’s rally against a United Nations (UN) convention on racial equality, the protest surprisingly ran peacefully, without any racist placards or violence.
The demonstration that was organised by Malay-Muslim groups, PAS, and Umno to protest against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) — even though the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has decided not to ratify it — saw 55,000 attendees (official police figures).
The restrained nature of the protest — compared to the 2015 Red Shirts rally that saw racist remarks uttered by demonstrators like “Chinese pigs” — gave the gathering a semblance of dignity, especially since the government itself said it would uphold the contentious social contract when it decided against ratifying ICERD.
Even if protesters at the all-Malay rally did not necessarily understand the United Nations treaty, they sent a strong message that Malay privileges and Islamic superiority must remain in Malaysia Baharu.
How the diverse PH administration, compared to the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government that was dominated by Umno, will manage identity politics amid its attempt to spur Malaysia into developed nation status remains to be seen.
Despite PAS’ absence in the West Coast and BN’s loss of federal power, the people who did not vote for PH managed to push the government to prioritise their demands above PH’s own supporters who wanted equality and civil liberties.
PAS proved to be a formidable grassroots movement as the Islamic party brought thousands of supporters to the protest in the city centre, just like how it mobilised people in the first few demonstrations by electoral group Bersih for free and fair elections.
The party also ensured that protesters did not leave a mess after the rally. Their Unit Amal, who previously protected demonstrators at Bersih protests, was on standby, though it turned out to be unnecessary.
Police did not fire tear gas and water cannons, facilitating the rally instead like how they did the two Bersih protests in 2015 and 2016.
Even though outwardly racist incidents did not happen at the anti-ICERD rally, the fact that thousands of people demonstrated against the UN treaty itself indicated that Malaysians were far from embracing equality.
Malaysians may have elected a new government for the first time in history, but this does not necessarily mean that they voted against racism and racial superiority.
Whichever party is in power must try to differentiate affirmative action as a corrective policy, which can be discussed and revised at any time, from Malay “rights” that are perceived as inviolable. Malaysia can only lift herself from mediocrity if all citizens accept each other as equals.
Even though Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced at the 73rd UN general assembly that Malaysia would ratify all remaining core UN human rights instruments, his administration failed to get their own party members to fully support the ratification of ICERD.
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Amanah, and PKR leaders questioned ICERD at the first signs of public discontent. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy in charge of unity, who was merely executing the government’s wishes, ended up as the Opposition’s target instead.
PH was on the back foot right from the start, as they failed to address Malay-Muslim insecurities and found themselves in reaction mode. Even before they could conduct a town hall meeting to explain the UN convention, PH was forced to declare that they would not ratify ICERD.
Most of the participants at today’s rally in the capital city were likely PAS supporters, who spent their own money and travelled by bus for hours from their hometowns.
Umno, instead, trotted out disgraced former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Umno, with its money politics, has yet to forge a clear unique identity sans federal power and is seen as riding PAS’ coattails instead.
Because of the unfortunate timing of its Human Rights Day celebration that was initially scheduled today, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) was forced to defer its event to tomorrow.
Worse, Dr Mahathir, initially slated as keynote speaker at the Human Rights Day celebration, said he would not even attend the event by the statutory body tomorrow because it accepted ICERD.
Suhakam and many activists felt that the police should have facilitated its gathering today instead of asking them to give way to the anti-ICERD demonstration.
One viral message goes, “There are two rallies on Dec 8. One for human rights, the other for human wrongs.”
Malaysia chose the latter.
* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.