Tens of thousands of Malay Muslims took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on December 8 to oppose Malaysia’s adoption of a United Nations (UN) convention against racial discrimination amid fears that privileges enjoyed by the Malay majority and Islam’s status as the country’s official religion would be threatened.

When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addressed the UN General Assembly in September, he pledged that Malaysia would ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Although the nonagenarian premier admitted that ratification “would not be easy” owing to acute sensitives around race and religion in Muslim-majority Malaysia, the pledge was hailed both at home and abroad as an indication of the new Pakatan Harapan government’s commitment to human rights, reform and democratization.

Conservative ethno-nationalist and Islamist opposition parties, however, furiously took aim at the treaty and alleged, contrary to the facts, that it would threaten the special position of Malay Muslims, who account for around 60% of the population and are granted special status as bumiputera, or “sons of the soil”, in Article 153 of the country’s constitution.

After weeks of pressure by pro-Malay groups, the Mahathir-led Harapan government changed course, announcing in late November that it would not ratify ICERD. Saturday’s rally was originally intended as a protest against Harapan’s ratification plans but went ahead anyway despite the government backtracking on its earlier commitment to sign the treaty.

Seven months after the electoral defeat of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – an event some heralded as the beginning of a “New Malaysia” – the country’s new multi-ethnic government is staring down the old specter of race-based politics as right-wing opposition parties double down on efforts to win over the Malay majority.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - DECEMBER 08: People stage a protest against the government to ratify the UN, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, 2018. Adli Ghazali / Anadolu Agency
Malaysians stage a protest against the government’s vow to ratify the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination at Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur, December 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency

Organized by a coalition of Malay Muslim groups, Saturday’s rally was attended by leaders of the former ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), both of which urged Malays to unite in a bid to recapture political power after their failure to win May’s general election.

“If Islam is disturbed, if the [Malay] race is disturbed, if our rights are disturbed, then we will rise to defend our rights,” UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told rally-goers. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, also participated in the rally; both face criminal charges for corruption and graft that could soon see them jailed.

A sea of UMNO and PAS supporters dressed in white converged on the capital’s Merdeka Square for afternoon prayers, holding up placards demanding protection of their rights to chants of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and “Tolak ICERD” (“Reject ICERD”). Citing police estimates, media reported 55,000 participants attended the rally.

Other local media reports claimed a large segment of rally participants traveled by bus to Kuala Lumpur from PAS’ northeastern strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu. Ahead of the mass gathering, neighboring Singapore issued a rare travel advisory to its citizens citing a “possibility that limited and isolated skirmishes might take place.”

While the rally was peaceful from start to finish, racially charged riots broke out days earlier on November 26 over the planned relocation of a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for a property development, which saw vehicles torched and people injured in the ensuing fight. Dozens have been detained in connection with the riot.

Malaysiaís Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives a special lecture at the Diet Building in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. This is Mahathir Mohamadís first overseas visit after winning the 14th General Election as the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia.( The Yomiuri Shimbun )
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

Mahathir described the incident as “criminal” and having nothing to do with race or religion, while government ministers said exploiting the issue could incite further social unrest. With right-wing opposition parties fanning perceptions that the Malay Muslim community is under siege, race relations in the multi-ethnic nation are again on edge.

After deadly Chinese-Malay riots in 1969, race-based affirmative action policies, known as the New Economic Policy, were introduced that granted Malays preference over affordable housing, university scholarships and government contracts in a bid to eliminate poverty. Now, many in the Malay community apparently believe ICERD would imperil those decades-old Malay majority-favoring policies.

Dennis Ignatius, a veteran Malaysian diplomat, described ICERD in a recent article as “an aspirational convention rather than a binding treaty” in which signatories are given “wide leeway to carve out for themselves exceptions to satisfy their own local laws,” a reference to the constitutional special position enjoyed by Malays.

ICERD, in fact, allows race-based affirmative action, though the treaty stipulates that such measures “should not continue once the objective is achieved.” Countries are, however, allowed to ratify the treaty with reservations to ensure national laws are not superseded. Malaysia and Brunei are the only Muslim majority countries not to have ratified ICERD.

“ICERD has, undoubtedly, dealt a serious political blow to the [Harapan] government” and has also “allowed UMNO-PAS to burnish their credentials as the preeminent defender of all things Malay,” Ignatius wrote, adding that the government had “failed to agree on a game plan to manage the ratification process once it committed itself to doing so.”

Ignatius believes the issue has put Harapan on the defensive, giving UMNO and PAS an opportunity to “claw back some of the political power it lost at the ballot box.” As the two largest Malay parties collude to rebuild support and widen their political base, they could now “strongly influence national policies without even being in the Cabinet,” he argued.

Former prime minister of Malaysia Najib Razak(C) pictured during a rally organised by Muslim politicians against the signing of the UN anti-discrimination convention as know as ICERD, at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 8, 2018 (Photo by Chris Jung/NurPhoto)
Ex-prime minister Najib Razak (R) and his wife Rosmah Mansor (L) during the anti-ICRED rally at Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur, December 8, 2018. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Chris Jung

The December 8 rally proves Malaysia’s opposition can mobilize supporters in their tens of thousands, a show of force that could put Harapan on its heels even as it grants concessions like pulling back from ICERD ratification amid plans to retain affirmative policies that critics have consistently argued are overdue for reform.

UMNO and PAS “forced the government to back down on ICERD and seized control of the [Malay] rights narrative, yet at the same time, the question feels unsettled,” says Amrita Malhi, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “They achieved mixed results,” she believes.

Both parties have yet to formalize their alliance and aim to “demonstrate to the other that it is the stronger of the two,” she says of UMNO and PAS. “Malay Muslim sentiment remains divided and there is plainly still a fair amount of goodwill for the government, which I expect will begin investing in a counter-narrative to contest the way PAS and UMNO are framing the rights question.”

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) held a pro-ICERD event on December 9 attended by around 500 people. Mahathir was scheduled to attend but distanced himself from the event at a press conference a day earlier, explaining that his government chose to take a different stand on ratification.

While human rights activists surely regret the government changing course on racial discrimination, some see a silver lining in the anti-ICERD camp being able to exercise their right to freedom of assembly peacefully without harassment from police and authorities, proof that Mahathir’s “New Malaysia” is delivering the more open society it promised.