KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 10 — The ICERD controversy may be a hot-button issue over the past few months, but Umno and PAS will not be able to capitalise on it until the 15th general election (GE15) as it is unlike the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, observers have said.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faisal Hazis noted that the crucial difference was that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had not adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), while the 1MDB financial scandal had already taken place.
“It’s going to be played for some time by PAS and Umno but I don’t think it will have life until the next election,” the associate professor told Malay Mail when contacted, pointing out that PH had already said it would not ratify ICERD.
“It’s totally different from 1MDB, which was something that has happened and was raised not only within the country but outside the country,” he said, adding that the 1MDB issue had “more resonance among voters”.
Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow of Singapore Institute of International Affairs, also did not believe that the Opposition parties of Umno and PAS would be able to use the ICERD issue in their campaign against the ruling PH up to the GE15.
“No, nobody will remember what it was all about in a few months’ time. This is unlike 1MDB involving massive unaccountable disappearance of public funds,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.
The 1MDB scandal, which took place when Datuk Seri Najib Razak was Umno president and the prime minister, has resulted in massive financial losses to the country and also a number of court cases.
PH regularly focused on 1MDB both in the years before the 14th general election (GE14) and while campaigning in the national polls. The 1MDB scandal was credited with contributing to PH’s unexpected victory and the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s shock defeat in GE14 on May 9, 2018.
The ICERD controversy, which culminated in a mass “thanksgiving” rally on Saturday backed by Umno and PAS, has been driven by fears among the Malay and Muslim community that the special privileges they enjoy and Islam’s official position would come under threat if Malaysia adopts the international agreement to end racial discrimination.
These fears may be unfounded as the ICERD does allow for the existence of affirmative action policies like those implemented here to help the Bumiputera community reach a level playing field, and also allow countries to make reservations and not fully comply with the convention.
Is Pakatan Harapan (or Malaysia) safe then?
When contacted, University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Prof William Case said: “The ICERD issue will pass — but the ethno-religious hatreds that underpin it will remain constant. It’s the times we live in.”
UKM’s Faisal cautioned that the lack of longevity of the ICERD issue does not mean PAS and Umno will stop playing the race and religious cards, believing that these two parties will continue to do so as long as the status quo remains with Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi leading Umno and with Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang leading PAS.
“I think these parties will continue to use the race and religious cards. Now it could be ICERD; in the future, it could be other issues.
“It’s not healthy for the country. If you think this is the way to be back in power, but if the country is severely fragmented, severely divided by racial and religious politics, is it worthwhile to be back in power in a country that has already been destroyed? This is something PAS and Umno have to ask themselves,” he said, questioning the strategy of stocking up religious sentiments for political mileage.
Faisal said the continuing trend of PAS and Umno using the race and religious cards was due to the two parties realising that they currently hold the bulk of Malay support, citing UKM and Merdeka Center’s analysis of GE14 results where the majority of Malays voted against BN and Umno but with PH trailing behind PAS in terms of Malay support.
“So I think Umno and PAS realise that so they are using the ICERD as another vehicle to play up the race and religious cards.
“Although this is post-BN Malaysia, although we are no longer under BN, and we have a new government in place, that does not mean racial-based politics is gone. I think it is still a key feature of Malaysian politics because it has been deeply entrenched in Malaysia for six decades and you can’t easily uproot it,” he said.
How did we get here?
PH is aware of its need to secure Malay support, with Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ Oh noting that the ruling coalition’s decision against ratifying the ICERD was due to its main concern of avoiding its current Malay base from being “further eroded”.
“PAS and Umno are now the undisputed champions of Malay special rights and privileges, as they won up to 75 per cent of Malay votes in the last GE.
“Ratifying the ICERD would further consolidate PH’s ironclad 95 per cent hold on non-Malay votes, but the Malay pushback proves to be too strong for PH to stomach,” he said, adding that PH’s leadership “wisely chose” to anger their solid non-Malay support instead of risk losing Malay support.
Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Prof Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said there was a slight misjudgement by PH when it prematurely made its initial announcement that it would ratify the ICERD, adding that the government should have first studied the suitability of ratifying it and carry out the necessary groundwork by increasing public awareness and understanding of the international convention.
“The problem is when it announced it was going to ratify it, many groups like PAS and Umno who try to champion Malay rights and privileges made use of this issue to rally against the government.
“Actually, they are not really against the convention; they are against the government. So, people just blindly accept their propaganda,” he told Malay Mail, adding that the public are easily carried away supporting PAS and Umno as they do not understand the ICERD which has not been widely discussed publicly.
“Umno has problems with its leaders facing criminal charges, it’s a blessing in disguise for them to have this ICERD issue to distract people from their problems, because the main issue right now in public is 1MDB. For them to have the ICERD, it’s a big issue for them to turn people away from 1MDB,” he added.
Noting that the ICERD was actually merely a legal issue and that it is actually in line with the Federal Constitution, Azizuddin said Umno and PAS may continue to use the ICERD issue to rally support against PH.
“The best thing for PH is to make people aware and understand the issue. If people don’t understand the issue until the next election, BN and Umno and PAS will continue to use this issue to fight against PH. Luckily, PH is less than one year in government. It has ample time to use all the machinery and media to make people understand the ICERD and other international conventions,” he said.
Azizuddin said PAS and Umno were now virtually indistinguishable as they fight for the same issues of race and religion, but said these two parties will continue to use racial sentiments as long as such sentiments determine Malaysians’ way of thinking.
“It’s not unique to Malaysia. If in Europe, they talk about anti-immigration, they use the racial card,” he said.
The priority list
Penang Institute executive director Datuk Ooi Kee Beng said it was a given in Malaysian politics that PAS and Umno would use race and religion to dictate terms, but said what was “surprising was PH’s lack of strategic sense” in pushing for the ICERD’s ratification.
“I hope this is a wake-up call for the government that it needs to prioritise properly how reforms in Malaysia are to take place. According even to their own understanding, the major issues have to do with fighting corruption on the one hand, and improving the economic standards of the B40,” he told Malay Mail, adding that the reformist government should focus on local and regional matters as politics usually revolve around local issues first.
While saying it was a good move for the PH government to not ratify the ICERD, Ooi said it would have been “wiser to prioritise their reforms and not give in to individual pressure from within the coalition or from supporting organisations outside it”.
Faisal said it was strategic for the PH government to defer the move to ratify the ICERD first and address other more pertinent issues, such as the plight of the low-income group known as B40, getting the economy back on track, the declining quality of education, low-cost housing, and the marginalisation of the Sabah and Sarawak’s natives.
“I am not saying what PH should do is confined to the manifesto, but there are other priorities that have to be addressed by the government. There are other pertinent issues that have yet to be addressed which are in the manifesto and that should be given priority. If the ICERD is distracting them from pushing ahead, it’s strategically done to postpone it,” he said.
Faisal said the decision to not ratify the ICERD does not mean that the government should stop efforts to end racial discrimination, as there are other options available without touching on sensitive issues, such as Malay rights and to prevent racial discrimination from being a stumbling block for Malaysia to move forward.
He noted, however, the “dilemma” and challenges that PH is facing, as illustrated by how it had to shelf its initial plan to ratify the ICERD after the idea was opposed.
“The coalition wants to project an inclusive Malaysian narrative, but at the same time, it realises it doesn’t have the support of the Malays. It realises the way to remain in power and not be a one-term government is to win Malay votes on top of non-Malay votes,” he said.
“This is one of the biggest challenges for the PH government in moving forward and introducing reforms. It must find a way to balance the need for reform and the sensitivities of Malays, because ultimately, it doesn’t want to be just a one-term government. The challenge is to find a balance and that’s not easy.”