SINGAPORE: Last Saturday (Dec 8), thousands of UMNO and PAS supporters marched to Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur to express their displeasure over the Pakatan Harapan government’s move to ratify the United Nations (UN) International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Although the police estimated that only 55,000 people participated in the rally, claims from the opposition suggest about half a million people attended.
A LESSON FOR PAKATAN
Notwithstanding the disagreement over the size of the rally, the fact that it took place, received mass support, and forced the Pakatan government to backtrack, proved three points.
First, there were strong concerns from Malays that their rights would be jeopardised had the Pakatan proceeded with ratifying the ICERD.
Second, even though they make awkward bedfellows, the Pakatan government must not underestimate UMNO’s and PAS’s ability to work together in rallying the Malay-Muslim ground and undermining its credibility with this segment.
Third, Pakatan should not take its electoral victory in May 2018 for granted because the Malay community across rural and urban constituencies can easily turn to the opposition if they feel that their communal interests are under attack.
Furthermore, the society which Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad now leads now is different from the one he governed from 1981 to 2003.
There is no way the government can bulldoze policies in the same way the first Mahathir government had, without consultation or at least some ground sensing of public sentiments.
To be sure, UMNO and PAS received significant support throughout the anti-ICERD rally. If anything this episode serves to illustrate the implications for Pakatan’s promised reforms to improve race and religious relations.
ONE MINISTER ATTACKED
At the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Mahathir indicated his government’s readiness to ratify the ICERD but more importantly, added a caveat in his speech - that the ratification process would be an arduous task because Malaysia is multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural and multilingual.
In reality that is not the main reason why the process would be difficult.
The real issue is whether ICERD runs contrary to the Malaysian constitution and the country’s race and religious norms.
In the Malaysian parliament, it was not Mahathir who fronted the issue in late November, but Minister in Prime Minister’s Department, P Waytha Moorthy. The opposition accused the government of harbouring plans to abolish Malay rights enshrined in Article 153 of Malaysia’s constitution with the ratification of ICERD a key prong.
To discredit him further, they also dug up old videos of his past comments on human rights when he was part of controversial Indian rights groups HINDRAF, and used one of the clips to paint him as someone who belittled his own country.
UMNO and PAS leaders then used Waytha to cast aspersions on the Pakatan government’s larger position on the ICERD and urged them to reverse the plan. There were also calls for Waytha to resign but Mahathir was quick to defend him.
Worse, there was little indication that the move to ratify ICERD had any strong support from Pakatan back-benchers. Prime Minister in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim's comments suggested that he agreed with the government’s decision not to ratify ICERD.
BEHIND THE REVERSAL
There are several reasons why the Malaysian government decided to reverse its decision on the ICERD. The political reality is that Pakatan will not be able to pass ICERD on their own in parliament because the coalition does not have a two-thirds majority. Even then, the government had to cajole some Pakatan parliamentarians to support the plan.
Sensing weakness, UMNO and PAS have been quick to capitalise on this issue and demonstrate a show of unity.
But the decision to reverse the plan was not due to PAS and UMNO’s staunch opposition, or the lack of support from segments of Pakatan, but because Pakatan’s eventual reading was that the decision will unsettle many Malays.
Mahathir feared backlash from the Malay-Muslim electorate, not only against his Pakatan coalition, but more importantly his party Bersatu. Already, there were accusations before GE14 that Mahathir would be a stooge of the Chinese-dominated DAP (Democratic Action Party).
The Pakatan coalition had taken several drastic changes to appease non-Malay voters after coming to power.
By naming Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister, they appointed a Chinese to one of the important Cabinet positions, the first time in decades. They also appointed several non-Malays into important positions, the most remarkable being Tommy Thomas as the Attorney General.
Although ratifying ICERD would be another milestone for Pakatan to demonstrate their seriousness to shift away from racial and religious politics, this clearly remains a tall order for the Pakatan government. Doing so would give credence to the opposition’s insinuation that Mahathir is taking instructions from DAP.
UMNO MOVES TO THE RIGHT
On the one hand, UMNO and PAS leaders can claim victory with the success of the anti-ICERD rally. We saw UMNO leaders, including some currently being investigated or charged for corruption, join the rally and speak to demonstrators.
Prominent figures who participated included UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Deputy President Mohamad Hasan as well as embattled former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor.
Facing a leadership crisis, UMNO chose to use the rally to brandish their Malay-Muslim credentials at the risk of further marginalising non-Malay support and fracturing the weakened Barisan Nasional coalition.
Perhaps UMNO had calculated that with the strong undercurrent within Chinese-based MCA to quit the coalition, they were better courting their Malay-Muslim base.
THE BIGGEST WINNER? MAHATHIR
The biggest winner in the anti-ICERD rally could be Mahathir’s Bersatu. The move to reverse the ICERD plan is in line with Bersatu’s stated objective to protect the rights of Malay and indigenous communities.
Compared to its other Pakatan partners Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and DAP, Bersatu is a smaller party. It may be buying time to enlarge its party base in parliament and court after the crossovers of MPs and state assemblymen from UMNO.
Mahathir tellingly called the anti-ICERD rally a “thanksgiving” for his government’s decision not to continue with the plan, reframing the rally as one organised to support his government’s U-turn.
Some asked why Mahathir would say one thing to the United Nations General Assembly but harbour plans to undo ICERD.
The reality is that Mahathir is treading a fine line in his bid to consolidate power. Even though he did not think Malaysians were supportive, he might have gone along with ratifying ICERD at first because his coalition pressed strongly for it, choosing to let dynamics play out.
In this context, the rally provided Mahathir with a strong case, directed to his Pakatan allies, that the Malays remain sensitive to perceived acts that compromise their rights.
His decision not to attend a non-government organisation SUHAKAM planned rally — originally organised on the same day as the anti-ICERD rally but postponed to the following day after a police advisory — was also an astute call.
Poorly attended, the event attracted less than a thousand and had Mahathir attended, the opposition could suggest that Mahathir did not receive as much support compared to PAS and UMNO.
Overall, the rally proved that the move to shift Malaysian away from racially charged politics is indeed a challenging one, even for Pakatan, only in power for barely six months.
What is clear when it comes to Pakatan coalition dynamics is that Mahathir can now claim that while he is willing to listen to “reformers” in Pakatan, the rally has shown there’s a long way to go in convincing the Malay-Muslim segments that embracing a multi-ethnic Malaysia doesn’t mean that their rights will be jeopardised.
Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia (Amsterdam University Press and ISEAS).