That equality conversation

NOVEMBER 15 — Should we pursue equality for all Malaysians? More than a few of my countrymen felt it’s a lousy idea. Actually, 119,039 folks to be exact, as of yesterday signed the petition to stay the country’s “separate but equal” philosophy. They demand formal inequality over equality as a perverse necessity to retain national balance, in the Malaysian vein.

Their immediate object of disdain?

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) which Malaysia has been a little behind to ratify, delayed by 49 years to be precise. 

Whatever spark of hope Pakatan Harapan’s victory offered to ratification before the 70th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights, has dampened significantly.

We don’t know what we don’t know

The alleged train to equality has come to a screeching halt, it appears, as the petition hit home, and laid a minefield for Malay leaders, in and out of government.

These are cautious days for leaders with race politics on their shirt sleeves, just ask Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who is apt to alternate between messages of “people are people, just love each other, man” to “but, I must, as a loyal son of this soil, defend the Constitution, all the bits, not just the ones written in crayon.”

As expected, all Malay leaders folded.

Pribumi Bersatu asked for calm and measured steps. PKR, the cradle of multiculturalism, waffled about how all views should be heard first. So, the listening exercise commences in the room next door marked “cold storage.” Amanah passed on the offer, their progressive Islam could not cope, apparently. The whole of Borneo bought popcorn for their viewing pleasure, nothing pleases them more than to see Malay Semenanjung politicians cringe.

PAS has offered to attend as many required rallies to underline their ICERD disgust.

Umno is too fractured to enjoy its schadenfreude moment, on how racial indoctrination does work. Rebel leader Khairy Jamaluddin understands flirting with ICERD is suicide, so he stays a block away and dedicates different vegetables to his party leaders.

It was, in hindsight, not difficult to derail the ICERD.

Say Malay, supremacy, equality snorting liberals and change in the same sentence and red flags jump up. Couple it with the Malay segment’s electoral uncertainties, how their vote was split three ways — Umno, PAS and Bersatu-PKR-Amanah — then the fear turns real in record time.

The double-speak liberals

My friend Lukman Sheriff Alias has been a relentless petition champion on the ICERD. He can’t stomach those proposing the ratification as a benign act, purely symbolic. His riposte has been clear, the ratification does alter things and there will be Constitutional effects.

I agree with him on that. The suggestion a key ratification would have no real impact on everyday Malaysian life is mala fide. I can’t blame him if he does not suffer fools very well.

I don’t however, agree with him that Malaysia should not sign the ICERD or other conventions which pave the way to universal equality.

For I am a liberal who concedes change will mean different, otherwise, how can it be change?

While I have sympathies for the petition’s progenitor, I am not enthused by the majority who signed the petition. Primarily in the manner they project the arguments against ICERD — infused with racism, rich with global conspiracy theories and irrational unwillingness to defend inequality with reasonable substantiation.

It’s the Constitution, stupid

While it is the highest law of this land, it has been altered more often than many realise.

It should not have been rejigged as often, but the point remains that when necessary, amendments are possible.

Equality has been a cornerstone of many changes in all advanced democracies. 

The United States of America, for almost a century from its inception, regarded each African-American as worth 3/5 of any White American. It ended with the civil war, and a reconstruction was mandatory because the old ways could not be defended by culture, historical accidents and constitutional obdurateness.

Common sense could not be manacled indefinitely.

So, the 13th Amendment was passed. With time, further amendments were necessary to recognise other minorities, women and other victims of history and social backwardness.

I am for all the careful deliberations and debates in consideration of equality, but I am not here to rescind from just objectives because there are those who are determined to hide behind the wording of our Constitution rather than the spirit of any Constitution, which is to uphold all its citizens in the glory of citizenship. The nation state celebrates the idea of citizenship because it is the only absolute which holds up the value of the nation state.

Equality, the epicentre

My politics begins with the conviction man is born free and entitled to pursue liberty. Personal beliefs built on faith may guide any man, but never a justification to bar any person’s liberty. These truths are self-evident and demand the highest dedications to ensure a path of freedom for all, now and thereafter.

Would integration from equality be disruptive? Of course, by definition. Sikh soldiers used to be free-scoring for the Royal Malay Regiment in the 1980s national hockey league, win medals along the way, but not be eligible to actually be in the regiment they led to glory on the playing fields. Do bullets discriminate racially in a gunfight, or do they pierce and bleed all the same, Salarino?

The list of institutions potentially at risk but not at peril are numerous. Integration does disrupt, and nation-building is by character, challenging.

These are not arguments against equality, these are arguments to cede our intelligence and to resort to the comforts of our base fears.

Inclusion is not a dirty word. It’s bravery defined.

There is the reality that any Malay leaders who support openly unfettered equality will lose Malay votes, the percentage is arguable. Any leader who seeks to move support for equality without losing some Malay support is insincere in both cause and method. 

It would be apropos in order for this debate to grow, greater openness and honesty, which has been conspicuous on both side of the aisles. The naysayers leaning on the Constitution and tradition, and the proponents brash from international support and the march of social advancement.

It’s fine to uphold equality for what it actually is, a marker of our humanity’s progress.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.