PETALING JAYA, Selangor: If Malaysia were to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), this would not oppose the way of life of everyday Malaysians, organisers of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) said on Sunday (Dec 9).
Speaking to reporters following a rally in Petaling Jaya, Suhakam leaders said the commission would continue to advise the government on policies and fight for a Malaysia that does not discriminate against citizens based on race and religion.
“If you check the provisions of ICERD and if you check the provisions of the constitution, we believe it does not oppose our way of life and our politics," said Mr Jerald Joseph, Suhakam's commissioner. "We will continue to have the conversation and dialogue with (the government)."
ICERD is a United Nations Convention that condemns discrimination and calls upon states to pursue a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.
Earlier in September, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the United Nations General Assembly that Malaysia would ratify all six of the human rights conventions it had yet to adopt, including the measure against racial discrimination.
Later in November, the Malaysian government backpedaled on its decision and chose not to ratify ICERD because it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the Federal Constitution.
That did not stop tens of thousands from gathering for a huge demonstration at Dataran Merdeka on Saturday. The demonstrators, who were mostly UMNO and PAS supporters, feared that the implementation of ICERD would undermine some of the privileges enshrined in the Federal Constitution and dilute privileges for the majority Malay-Muslims.
But Suhakam chairman Razali Ismail said on Sunday that it was up to the government to “bring people out of that straitjacket”.
“Religion has always been on the side of human rights. If there’s no religion, there’s no protection of human dignity,” said the former president of the United Nations General Assembly.
“Here (in Malaysia), some (people) believe that religion should be sheltered and protected, and there’s such a thing as pure religion," said Mr Razali. "Therefore we cannot allow this … We must bring people out of that straitjacket, otherwise how are you going to compete with the rest of the world?"
Around 500 people attended Suhakam’s rally at Petaling Jaya on Sunday, said organisers.
This was significantly fewer than the tens of thousands of participants at Dataran Merdeka on Saturday.
Attendees of the Suhakam rally listened to speeches, watched traditional dance performances and visited booths manned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund.
But Mr Joseph highlighted that the difference in the size of the crowds was not indicative of the voice of Malaysians as a whole.
“I think we should not be too concerned about the numbers - if there’s only 500 people here, does that mean the rest of Malaysia does not want to hear what we have to say?” he asked.
But Mr Joseph acknowledged that the numbers at Dataran Merdeka were indicative that Suhakam as a commission and the Pakatan Harapan government have work to do to engage the population with social education and awareness programmes.
Dr Mahathir was scheduled to attend the Suhakam rally, but in a press conference on Saturday, the prime minister distanced himself from the event, explaining that the Pakatan Harapan government he leads has a different stand from Suhakam on ICERD.
"I've decided that we will not accept ICERD. Suhakam wants to accept ICERD. So how can I go?” said Dr Mahathir.
But when questioned by reporters, Suhakam’s Mr Razali was unfazed by Dr Mahathir’s absence at the event on Sunday.
“I’ve seen the response of the people today, despite not having the prime minister (around). He has in a way done us a favour, because people get more interested, so they come and they ask questions and they show their interest in this,” said Mr Razali.
“The hall is full," he added. "I deliberately decided not to make my speech at the top of the stage. I decided to leave the microphone vacant as a signal that it was meant for the prime minister."