KUALA LUMPUR: They came by car, train and buses from across the country in the tens of thousands, turning the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, into a sea of white last Saturday (Dec 8) to rally against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Stirred by Islamist party PAS’ call that the rally was a “jihad” and former ruling party UMNO's exhortation for “Muslim unity”, the protestors went ahead despite Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announcing ICERD would not be ratified.
The huge turnout showed how race and religion became tools for the opposition to mobilise the masses against the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
“I came here to defend Islam. We worry the government has merely delayed and not cancelled the ratification of ICERD,” said 51-year-old PAS member Surizan Sulaiman, who travelled by car from Kuantan, Pahang.
The opposition parties - UMNO and PAS - claimed ICERD threatened the position of Islam and the special rights of the Malays in the country.
ICERD USED BY UMNO’S ELITE TO DIVERT ATTENTION FROM CORRUPTION CHARGES: ANALYSTS
Analysts suggested UMNO had seized on ICERD to divert attention away from the corruption allegations facing several of the party’s senior leaders.
Former prime minister and president of UMNO Najib Razak is currently facing 39 charges of money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power. Several other senior members of UMNO have been charged in court.
“UMNO's elites saw this ICERD as an amazing opportunity to divert attention from the corruption cases, court trials, by using a very powerful issue - the notion of what the nation is and the position of Malays,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
PAS, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to boost its standing.
“PAS saw a huge opportunity to strengthen their political position. PAS does not have to grapple with corruption, for them it is mobilisation, something which they are very good at grassroots, to boost their standing,” added Chandra.
“The way it (ICERD) was presented to the Malays by the opposition …there was a lot of distortion, even downright lies. ICERD in no way threatens Islam, the monarchy, Malay rights,” said Chandra.
“ICERD allows for affirmative action … this means it does not threaten the special privileges of Malays,” he added.
ECONOMIC ISSUES CONTRIBUTED TO TURNOUT: ANALYST
Thrown into this mix was the unhappiness of those rural Malays – the fishermen, farmers, rubber tappers – who feel that they are being sidelined by the new government.
This cocktail of racial and religious brew inflamed passions that were on full display last Saturday, prompting analysts to warn it could potentially turn into a flashpoint if the situation is not managed well by all parties.
“It (ICERD) really hurts Malay sentiment. Don’t push us too hard. The word 'amok' comes from Malays. If Malays are very angry, they can become irrational. We don’t want that to happen. We want peace,” said Dr Mohd Khalid Kassim from PAS who stressed that he was speaking in his personal capacity.
"We must ensure ICERD is out indefinitely in Malaysia as it affects our religion and Bumiputra privileges,” he said.
Bumiputra, or sons of the soil, refers to Malays and indigenous people in Malaysia.
“I think the big turnout reflects the growing discontent amongst the Malay constituencies and signals PH to not take the rural voters for granted. Many fishermen, rubber tappers and Felda settlers feel that they are being sidelined by the new government,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, senior analyst at BowerGroupAsia.
Felda refers to the Federal Land Development Authority, a government agency which was founded in 1956 to develop land and handle the resettlement of rural poor into newly developed areas to organise smallholder farmers growing cash crops.
“While race and religion may have been the headline for this rally, cost of living, affordability of goods, opportunities for employment and affordable housing will be the deciding factor in the next election,” said Asrul.
NEW GOVERNMENT FACES BATTLE TO MAINTAIN SUPPORT AS FORMER REGIME PUSHES BACK
Equally significant, last weekend's events were an example of the difficulties that are typically seen to plague new governments that oust long-running regimes.
In the case of Malaysia, Pakatan Harapan unseated UMNO which had ruled the country for 61 years, making it one of the longest-running regimes in the world.
“After many decades in power, the old regime forces have numerous supporters and stakeholders throughout bureaucratic, governmental, legal and community institutions with a great deal to lose,” said Professor Greg Barton, chair of Global Islamic Studies, Deakin University.
“Many resort to publicly supporting reform whilst covertly undermining it.
“Invariably, they (new government) face both open push-back, and more insidious attempts at covert meddling, from the ancient regime forces,” said Prof Barton.
“Whenever there are clashes or tensions along communal lines, that ostensibly appear to be racial or religious in nature, there are competing elite interests that are attempting to mobilise mass support by inflaming communal tensions,” he added.
Prof Barton pointed to Indonesia’s chaotic transition from an autocracy to a democracy in 1998 when sectarian violence erupted and claimed many lives as an example.
“This was very clear in Indonesia two decades ago under the reformist transitional presidencies of BJ Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid,” said Prof Barton, who wrote a biography on Wahid.
ECONOMY, MERITOCRACY KEY TO PH SURVIVAL
‘I think the lesson learnt from the anti-ICERD rally is that the government should not move too quickly just to appease the vocal urban voters,” said Asrul of BowerGroupAsia.
“Such an entrenched mindset (on race and religion) must be tackled tactfully through engagement and education,” said Asrul.
Political scientist Chandra said the government could practise meritocracy in place of ratifying ICERD.
“You start by tending to the needs of people regardless of ethnicity, reward people on the basis of excellence and ability. Make those changes even if it’s gradual,” said Chandra.
“At the same time educate people, develop their understanding of society,” he said.
Asrul said there is a need for Pakatan to focus on the needs of the majority in order to retain support.
“PH government should focus on quick and easy wins that affect the majority to keep the momentum of winning the general election and defeating Najib Razak. Difficult issues such as ICERD should be tackled with a more long-term strategy in mind,” said Asrul.
“For Malaysia to transition through this difficult period of consolidating democratic reform, and to achieve its full potential, will require exceptional leadership from every quarter of Malaysian society,” said Prof Barton.