Why ratify ICERD now?

NOVEMBER 9 — Don’t get me wrong; I think the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is a great United Nations treaty.

But ratifying ICERD would require a total change of mindset and how things are done in Malaysia, not least the ruling political parties’ own race-based membership structures.

Malaysia must move, sooner rather than later, towards equality.

But to do that, I believe it is more effective to start by changing some things locally first and holding lots of town hall meetings with the public, not just select NGOs, before taking the significant step of ratifying a UN treaty.

The point of ratifying a UN treaty is to show that our country agrees with the spirit of that agreement, which in the case of ICERD, is the eradication of racial discrimination to promote equality and the belief that everyone is entitled to all human rights and fundamental liberties.

It is useless to ratify a UN treaty just for the sake of it, but throw in a whole bunch of reservations that defeat the point of ratifying it in the first place.

“Convinced that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere” — says the preamble of ICERD.

Racial superiority, unfortunately, is still socially acceptable in Malaysian society.

It may not be in the guise of “Ketuanan Melayu” anymore as it has taken on religious overtones, but it exists. The Chinese, Indians, and other “nons” have a more subtle reaction, but it is no less racist. And so the conflict continues to simmer quietly.

If the government really wants to eradicate racial discrimination, it can start by implementing Article 2(e) of ICERD to its own political parties and encourage opposition parties (if the government is hesitant to introduce legislation) to follow suit and provide equal membership benefits to all Malaysians regardless of race or religion.

Article 2(e) states: “Each State Party undertakes to encourage, where appropriate, integrationist multiracial organisations and movements and other means of eliminating barriers between races, and to discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.”

Opening up all political parties so that a Chinese Christian, theoretically, can be president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Umno, PAS, or Amanah will gel with Article 5(c) of ICERD on political rights:

“Political rights, in particular the right to participate in elections — to vote and to stand for election — on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, to take part in the Government as well as in the conduct of public affairs at any level and to have equal access to public service.”

Malaysians face indirect discrimination in participating in the highest level of office when they face racial and religious barriers to joining political parties right from the start. Of course, providing equal membership benefits means that political parties will have to adopt a race- or religious-blind ideology.

After the government removes racial and religious distinctions in political parties, it can move on to tackle other race-based organisations in other spheres like business, culture etc.

Before I talk about Article 153 of the Federal Constitution that states that Malays and Sabah and Sarawak natives have a “special position”, while “other communities” have “legitimate interests”, I want to stress that the concept of equality simply means the absence of distinction.

Meaning, you cannot say “I fight for X and I also respect the rights of non-X” or “I defend X, Y, and all”. You simply say “I fight for everyone”.

Highlighting any particular race or religion is itself a form of discrimination, as it implies that they get special treatment while the others remain just that – “others” or “nons” – unrecognised and unworthy of attention.

Affirmative action should not be confused with the equality of races. However, I don’t see anything wrong with ICERD’s Article 1(4): “Special measures taken for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups or individuals requiring such protection as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall not be deemed racial discrimination, provided, however, that such measures do not, as a consequence, lead to the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups and that they shall not be continued after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”

What is wrong with terminating affirmative action once its goals have been achieved? Any continuance of special measures for certain ethnic groups after their objectives are reached only means racial discrimination.

Before we ratify ICERD, Malaysians must understand and embrace the concept of equality.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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