ICERD Controversy Needs More than Politics to Resolve

November 26, 2018

ICERD Controversy Needs More than Politics to Resolve   


by Tawfik Ismail and Lim Teck Ghee

Two recent commentaries on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) ratification controversy have argued that it is necessary for the government to make known its position on the issue.

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According to the Sik-Bisik Awang Selamat column of Utusan Malaysia those who oppose ratification have a valid concern in that it will challenge the constitution which affects the special rights of the Malays, the bumiputeras and the Malay rulers. The column noted that the issue will continue to divide the nation as long as the government  drags its feet and does not come out with a clear and definitive decision. The Utusan writers also pointed out that If the politicians cannot take a firm stance on the issue, how can they expect to convince the populace?


The second commentary by Dr. Musa Mohd Nordin and Dr. Awaluddin Mohamed Shaharoun makes the point that that UMNO-PAS politicians are using the issue to create instability in their efforts to topple the Pakatan government. They also provide a necessary reminder to the public that PAS president, Hadi Awang, in an Utusan Melayu report dated 15 September 1985, then in his capacity as Terengganu State Commissioner, “pledged to abolish Malay rights if PAS came into power”. More specifically, he added that these include “the removal of Malay Reserve Land, National Economic Policy or other policies which only served the Malay interest. PAS promised that all races would be equitably treated”.

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Anti-ICERD rally is now void of reasoning

Although diametrically opposed in their support of the political parties, both sets of commentators seem to agree in assigning the primary responsibility for resolving the controversy to the political leaders of Pakatan and Barisan.

A politically driven top down authoritarian approach to managing this controversy now has taken place with the announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office that the Pakatan government has decided against ratifying the ICERD.


According to the PMO statement, “The government will continue to defend the Federal Constitution, in which lies the social contract agreed to by representatives of all races during the forming of the nation.”


While this clearly hasty and apparently panicky decision may have the effect of dousing the inflamed sentiments and views of some members of the public, it is at best a temporary band-aid or cooling agent.

What has happened is that the ICERD issue and the question of Malaysia’s ratification – for better or for worse – has become and will remain a cause celebre which will continue to generate widespread controversy, fierce campaigning by opposed groups and heated public debate.


To ensure that the ICERD ratification issue is not further hijacked by political parties and politicians for their own agenda,  a final government position needs to be made which takes into account the views of all stakeholders and the larger citizenry.

We propose the following process of examination and analysis to take place:


  1. The main objections expressed against ratification relate to concerns about how the international treaty will adversely affect the special position of the Malays, the other Bumiputeras, the Malay rulers, the Malay language, etc..

  2. In addition, the latest statement by PMO brings in a related but new issue of the ‘social contract’ agreed to by the various communities at the time of independence which the ICERD ratification apparently will conflict with.

  3. All major stakeholders – apart from political parties – should review the provisions of the ICERD and determine how the country’s act of ratification will exactly impact on each of their positions as well as on the so-called ‘social contract’.

  4. In particular, each major stakeholder identified by critics of the ICERD as having their position or rights or interests adversely affected by the treaty ratification – the Rulers Council, JAKIM and other Islamic bodies, social, cultural, language, academic, and other Bumiputra bodies and organizations should take the opportunity to give priority to this exercise and  communicate their findings and conclusions to the public and the government. In this way, they can either refute or confirm the concerns made by others on their behalf.


Silence from non-partisan and non-politically aligned key stakeholders will not serve the nation well.  We are all aware that fear and insecurity are being fanned and manipulated by the anti-ICERD Malay faction and this will not stop soon.

Finally, we note that the best way of responding to those who claim to represent or speak up on behalf of the Malays is to remind them of the wisdom of our past leaders in building the nation.

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One of the most influential leaders of our recent history, Tun Dr. Ismail, has explained that:

“The Special Position of the Malays [is] a handicap given to the Malays with the consent of all the other races who have become citizens of the country so as to enable the Malays to compete on equal footing for equal opportunities in this country. That and that alone is the only aim of the Special Position of the Malays.”  (From Ooi Kee Beng, “The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and his Time”, p. 225).


We believe that the ultimate national position on ICERD ratification – whether for or against it – should be derived from historically informed, empirically driven, truth-finding, objective and independent analysis along the lines we have set out. This alone can enable us to break the deadlock over the issue and be acceptable to the great majority of Malaysians who want the country to put this issue behind them and to move on.

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*Tawfik Ismail, eldest son of Tun Dr Ismail, is an alumni of St. John’s, Royal Military College and Oxford University. He represented Sungei Benut as Member or Parliament from 1986 till 1990.

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Dr. Lim Teck Ghee is a public policy analyst and author of the book, Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo.  He is also co-author of the recent book on the 14th GE, Anatomy of an Electoral Tsunami.




5 thoughts on “ICERD Controversy Needs More than Politics to Resolve

  1. Frankly those Malays who support the true purpose and end of special “privillege” are not reliable to make it happen. They seemly were never realistic enough. Like it or not, the ideology is “Ketuanan” or Supremacy, its not “Kesamaan” or Equality. No one gets THIS worked up for equality, only sensationalism of superiority can make it happen. Frankly “equality” for the average person sucks, its not worth getting out of bed for much less go out to risk possible violence.

    Hence if Supremacy is the real truth of what these things are about, it will never get resolved. Because those that are ahead, before it happens, make sure they are not the ones who are being superiored over, not when its by use of state power. Because they will never allow it to happen, then the whole thing will start to decline before it happens. Supremacy or Ketuanan is in fact a fallacy and lie – it will never happen. What they can do is discriminate against new migrants, worst minorities like in Sabah and Sarawak, orang asli and Indians – that is in fact what the real fear is those minorities are not going to let it happen.

  2. //According to the PMO statement, “The government will continue to defend the Federal Constitution, in which lies the social contract agreed to by representatives of all races during the forming of the nation.”
    The PMO made a mistake. As per the report on Reid Constitution, what was agreed that there is a clause that suggests there ought to be a review of Malay special rights after independence. It is more half a century. It is time to for Malaysians to vote for that. LGE should resign from DAP for failing to stand up for the second caste Malaysians. Malaysians should be given a chance to vote. It is time for the PMO to allow all rakyat to read the text of report from Reid Commission. That is what a responsible government would do, no matter where the ruling party stand on the matter.

  3. Speaking as a political realist (and also a social democrat who believes in a fair society for all Malaysians), here are my comments

    1. Malays are the numerically biggest ethnic group and most Malays support some form of institutional discrimination
    2. PH won 1/3 of the Malay vote in GE14 (but can probably win a higher percentage in the next GE, with good governance)
    3. Battling the fascist/race supremacist Right on emotive issues is a losing proposition for the new PH government (since fascists are unprincipled and opportunistic, and politics based more on emotion and perception than reason)

    Instead, shift the focus to more positive actions e.g.

    Extend affirmative action to the poor of ALL ethnic groups, while reassuring the low income Malays that affirmative action will continue to assist them
    Eliminate the more glaring examples of institutional discrimination, such as the bumiputera discount for very expensive houses, first
    Educate the Malays (especially the low income ones) that the creation of a Welfare State under a PH government will benefit them greatly
    Ban certain actions (with heavy legal punishment) completely. Just like Germany has banned Nazi symbols, Malaysia must punish speeches that make threats such as “another May 13” and so on.
    More Malay intellectuals should speak up and educate and familiarise the Malay masses on progressive ideas

    • Well said Dr Phua. In some way, if a nation could not harness the will to extend equal opportunities to another quarter of her people, how can one imagine this nation would be willing to share their wealth amongst their existing Melayu. There wouls only be loose-loose proposition in this Malaysia APA pun take boleh nation.

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